September eNewsletter, ICJIA Grant, and Comprehensive Services

GPruz2When LAF secured a new $900,000 grant to fund comprehensive legal services for victims and survivors of abuse, there was a clear choice for who would lead the team: Gloria Pruzan. An attorney at LAF since 1979, she is now a Supervisory Attorney in LAF’s Public Benefits practice group.  Gloria will willingly explain, however, that the work she specializes in could just as easily fall into the Consumer practice group or the Children & Families group. Comprehensive services is what she’s been doing for years (proof: she is pictured here with the original sign from the southside neighborhood office from the ’70’s.).
This new Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) grant will enable LAF to assist victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, and financial exploitation, many of whom have multiple interconnected legal issues. For example, leaving an abuser means more than getting an order of protection – to truly begin a new life a woman often needs a divorce, child support, and/or immigration help. She may also need food stamps and health insurance and special education services for her children. “We’re sort of a one-stop shop because clients can have more than one type of legal problem, and just a family law attorney can’t get them the public benefits help they need. But this grant allows us to really embrace that comprehensive work,” Gloria explains. This new grant funds 19 different LAF staff members across every Practice Group, to work together to provide those comprehensive services. It also helps LAF connect with 8 other Domestic Violence agencies around the county, which refer victims and survivors to LAF for help with their legal issues.
In addition to the new ICJIA grant-funded programs, Gloria also supervises the City Enrollment Paralegal Project. LAF staffs four paralegal desks in the offices of the City Department of Family Support Services. They help enroll people in Department of Human Services programs, like Medicaid, food stamps, and temporary cash assistance.  The paralegals also help people with their regular redeterminations of eligibility – a complicated paperwork renewal process, which you can read about in James’ story at right.  “That’s what’s so great about the enrollment paralegals,” Gloria explained.  “If you get a form to redetermine your enrollment and you don’t understand it, there’s someone there to help you understand, interpret it, fill it out, and fax it in for you.  Sometimes just that last challenge is the hardest one.” And these paralegals are on the ground, LAF’s eyes and ears into systemic problems – often as simple as correcting listed office hours or clarifying sign-in sheets and forms.
“People living in poverty face challenges in everyday life and don’t have the financial cushion that helps the rest of us with facing those challenges,” Gloria points out.  “If we can help someone with a challenge that’s threatening their food, health, or income, that’s a good thing.  Living in poverty doesn’t enable you to easily handle challenges that arise.”  This new grant, along with Gloria’s expertise, will help more people to handle all their legal challenges.
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Racial Justice and August eNewsletter

In the wake of Ferguson and Flint, many people struggled with how to respond to systemic racial issues in our society.  At LAF, however, the Civil Rights task force had already begun those conversations. LAF has several task forces which bring together attorneys, paralegals, and other staff from across the organization to ensure that the work of LAF touches on issues wider than that of each practice group, and that discussions of issues that affect our clients are ongoing in all areas of our work.
$RWTSE7TThe Civil Rights task force focuses on many issues, including racial justice. “You can look at all our work as race equity work,” Alice Setrini explained.  “All poverty law is racial justice work.” Alice was a member of the second cohort of the Racial Justice Training Institute through the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. There, she learned from her peers about using civil legal aid to combat racism, and looking at poverty law through a lens of racial justice. From those trainings, she and the task force developed initiatives at LAF to train the rest of the staff on racial justice issues.
They worked to build a safe space group that looks internally at LAF and our organization culture, to build a space where people can be comfortable asking difficult questions, really connecting with people from different backgrounds, and grappling with their own internalized racism.  These issues come up all the time in the work of legal aid, and it’s important to Alice to know that the place she works is trying to combat racism. “It’s not enough to be just race-neutral. We have to be actively engaging with the struggle.”  They also developed a series of trainings for LAF’s staff, from attorneys and paralegals to computer specialists and accountants, on implicit bias and structural racism. They worked to educate everyone on staff about how their day-to-day work aligns with the organization’s mission and goals, and how that mission fits into a wider social context. The next training Alice and the task force hope to create will help LAF’s staff think critically about LAF’s intake and case acceptance process, how we interact with clients, and taking accountability for what we represent to the community.  Alice hopes it opens people up to the work they’re doing from a different perspective.
The Civil Rights Task Force doesn’t want all of their efforts to be internal, however, so they’ve also begun a recurring series on LAF’s blog, about systemic racism and its impact.  You can read their The Elephant in the Room series here.
Alice’s work with medical-legal partnerships, which you can learn more about in this month’s eNewsletter, is another tool in her arsenal to help her approach this work, and allows her to engage with the systems that keep people in poverty. “The way poverty has been so racialized in this country, it all becomes racial justice issue,” she explained. “I wish people would challenge that and think about the messages they hear and sometimes repeat.”

VISTA Attorney Raises the Bar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhether it’s living on food stamps while paying off law school debt, or expanding LAF’s Woodlawn Legal Clinic on Chicago’s south side, Regina Hernandez doesn’t shy away from a challenge.

When she first joined LAF through AmeriCorps VISTA–the domestic service program that connects idealists and change makers from all walks of life to nonprofits working to fight poverty–Woodlawn saw an average of 12-15 clients per clinic. Now one year later, the two-hour monthly clinic sees an average of almost 40 clients, largely thanks to Regina’s ingenuity.

“At first, I was a little nervous to change things. I was more concerned with making sure I was following everything the previous VISTA had set in place,” Regina says. But as she settled into her new role, she learned how to make it her own. “I stopped asking and started doing—and then asking, what do you think? How could it be improved? It just felt better to be proactive.”

And her enthusiasm paid off. For instance, one of LAF’s biggest struggles is its congested phone system, partly due to funding shortages that have cut the number of intake specialists by almost half. Help desks and clinics like Woodlawn help free up the phone lines, but the phone menu used vague language to describe them (something like, “If you’d like to hear about our community clinics, press 9”). Realizing many clients aren’t familiar with ‘clinics’ outside of a medical context, she worked to change the language to something more widely understood.

That small change led to an explosion of calls—from 10-15 a week to more than 200 in a month. “Always be respectful, always work within the parameters you’re given, but at the same time, if you think something could be improved and you’re willing to take that on, go for it,” she says.

She also changed a question about domestic violence on the clinic’s intake form. “We’d get a lot of clients at Woodlawn who’d come in for help with some other issue like help with their utilities. They may not be ready or able to address the domestic violence, but might want to address it in the future,” Regina explains. She added the definition of domestic violence in italics next to the question, along with a domestic violence hotline they could call in case they wanted to address the issue at another time or in a different setting.

Along with managing the Woodlawn clinic, she oversaw the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk, which has also seen considerable growth in recent months thanks to expanded hours, increased staffing, as well as Regina’s outreach efforts.

As her year of service came to a close last month, she accepted a permanent position as Staff Attorney in LAF’s Volunteer Services Unit. Thanks to Regina for her dedicated service as VISTA Attorney, and congratulations on her new position!

“Our children are watching.”

19665266_1357790557674960_8592314937459625458_n[1]Last month at our Annual Luncheon, LAF presented the Jerold S. Solovy Equal Justice Award to Dennericka Brooks, a dedicated Supervisory Attorney in our Housing Practice Group. This award is given annually to one attorney on LAF’s staff whose work embodies the work of Jerold Solovy, an attorney whose life’s work was given meaning by helping to change the legal system and improve the lives of people living in poverty. Dennericka lives up to that mission as well as anyone at LAF, and her speech at the Luncheon reminded all of us about the lifelong impact our work can have. We’ve highlighted a selection of it here.

Every once in a while, I wonder what you see when you look at me. Do you see someone that DCFS threatened to remove from her family after an accident because we were poor? Do you see the little girl that in second grade was told by an adult that she couldn’t be a doctor and she should try something else? What about the middle school girl who went downtown with her teacher to a science fair and had someone ask her white male teacher if he was okay? Do you see someone who because of the poverty sometimes didn’t have heat or hot water? Who, because of gang infestation, looked down the barrel of a gun and was caught in gang crossfire more than once? Do you see someone that was exposed to domestic violence?

If you don’t look at me and see those things, I want you to start. I want you to see them because despite those things, I am here now. I want you to see the child of former LAF clients that was provided a safety net and given a little more stability because of legal aid. Our clients face obstacles like mine every day. It is also the humanity and kindness of others, including the attorneys at LAF, that children see when they step in and help. It’s important to know and believe that through our work, we also lift families out of poverty. Our children are watching. I was watching. It is the humanity of others that made me always want to help others. So I’d ask that everyone in this room be a Jerold Solovy: considerate, generous, humble. Accept the privilege that we have, acknowledge the responsibility given us because of our positions, and hold each other accountable as stewards of justice with the ability to remove barriers and break the cycle of poverty for impoverished families.

We affect the lives of not only the adults that we help, but also of the children. Our children see us, they see our intervention and our work propels our children to seek better, to do better, to help others. When you look out at our clients, see me. See what is possible if we keep working together to provide equal access to justice.”

 

Executive Director Introductions and June eNewsletter

At LAF’s Annual Luncheon two weeks ago, over 500 people celebrated the impact of LAF’s work in our community. We honored Kelly McNamara Corley of Discover Financial Services for her dedication to pro bono services for people living in poverty, and Dennericka Brooks for her passion and commitment to our clients. We also heard from Lynkisza Sweezy, a former client whose housing is now stable and whose children are able to excel because of LAF’s help. Finally, we recognized Executive Director Diana White’s retirement, after 20 years of dedicated service to LAF and to our clients. If you would like to make a contribution in Diana’s honor, you can donate to LAF here.
And now we move on to the future of LAF. Diana officially retired at the end of June, and I am humbled and honored to take the reins of LAF as Acting Executive Director until John Gallo can take over full time by October. You can read more about Diana and John in this month’s eNewsletter. The face of LAF may change, but our work, providing the highest-quality civil legal services to people living in poverty across Chicagoland, will remain the same as ever.
Best,
Katherine W. Shank
LAF Director of Volunteer Services
and Interim Executive Director

Celebrating Diana White

d white

Ask Diana White about her career and leadership at LAF, and she’ll regale you with stories of strategic plans, office moves, the world’s slowest PhD, labor strikes, broken bones, inspiring clients, book recommendations, and at least as many questions about your life as you can ask about hers.

It was early 1997 when Diana, then a partner at Jenner & Block, had been thinking about a career change and talking to people in various nonprofits, when she came across an ad in the National Law Journal seeking a new Deputy Director at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago. She sent her application to Sheldon Roodman, LAF’s Executive Director at the time. “He called me the day it hit his desk,” she quips.

When Diana started that March, she understood the urgency. Federal funding for legal aid had been cut by more than 25% the previous year, and a number of experienced poverty lawyers had left LAF. Only three weeks into the job, negotiations between LAF union and LAF management broke down. Diana’s job was to make sure that all LAF’s cases got covered during what became LAF’s biggest and longest strike to date. “I knew nothing about poverty law,” she admits. “I could just about keep Medicare and Medicaid straight, if I was reminded.”

But with help from her seasoned colleagues, she was a quick study. Charged with overseeing LAF’s special projects — which at the time included Housing, Immigration, Children, Adult SSI, Public Benefits, and Migrant Workers — Diana had to learn about a wide range of poverty-law issues. But she did know about writing briefs, organizing trial teams, and conducting discovery. And she quickly developed a deeper understanding of poverty and the systemic injustices that foster it.

“I think most people have no real conception of what poverty does to people, or how completely constraining it is when you can’t see any way to improve your situation and there’s no one you can rely on to help you,” Diana says. She recalls a case she worked on with Rich Cozzola, now Director of the Children and Families Practice Group, during her first few years at LAF. Their client, who we’ll call ‘James,’ had a daughter with a woman who turned out to be a prostitute. The mother disappeared one day, having sold the baby to a crooked lawyer — now disbarred — who arranged her adoption by an affluent family in Florida. James was unemployed and living on the south side of Chicago, and the adoption had been done quickly and without his knowledge.  At trial, the judge concluded that James was a fine father, but that his child would have a much better life if she stayed with the family in Florida. LAF and James knew they had to appeal, but that process could take years — and James’ daughter might not even know him by the time the appeal was over.

“I remember thinking, how do we get him down there, so he can at least have visits? I didn’t know what to do,” Diana recounts. But James was determined to be with his daughter, and managed to save up enough money for a bus ticket to Florida where he stayed with his uncle and got a job working the night shift at a factory. They won the appeal, and James was able to be part of his daughter’s early childhood and eventually bring her home, thanks to his hard work and tenacity and Diana’s inexhaustible dedication to his case.

“Those are the sorts of things people don’t realize — the impossible choices people in poverty are faced with.  They’ll say, how could someone have made that decision which, in hindsight, looks like a mistake?  How could you have spent your rent money on textbooks for your oldest child, the first in the family to go to college? Well… how can you not?”

After ten years of working with remarkable clients like James, Diana began her decade-long tenure as LAF’s Executive Director in 2007. “There were so many things I wanted to do — not glamorous, but practical things. And this was my chance to do them,” she explains.

One of her first acts in her new role was to enlist a consultant to develop a strategic plan for LAF. At the time, LAF had a central office, but most staff worked in offices located in various neighborhoods throughout the city. After surveying staff from each of the neighborhood offices, it became clear that LAF needed to centralize its intake. “Because the neighborhood offices were so small, if someone wasn’t there, they just didn’t function. And staff from different offices weren’t communicating much with each other,” Diana explains. “So I thought, here’s a piece I can fix.”  At the end of 2011 LAF moved to a central office and restructured into the five practice groups we have today. “Once people got down here, they enjoyed the chance to brainstorm and collaborate. The quality of the practice improved a lot.” Under Diana’s leadership, LAF also formed the Community Engagement Unit, which helps LAF maintain its presence within various communities after the neighborhood offices closed.

Another challenge Diana faced head on was the changing nature of legal aid funding.  Because of recurrent cuts in government funding for legal aid — at the local, state and federal levels —LAF needed financial support from individuals, law firms, and corporations in order to keep its doors open. Thanks to Diana’s leadership, LAF has built a strong donor base, particularly in the Chicago legal community. “Chicago has this amazing civic pride,” she says. “I’ve lived in a lot of cities, but it’s really something here.” She sees LAF’s next big challenge as reaching people outside the legal community — helping them understand civil legal aid and its importance in fighting poverty and building stronger communities everywhere.

After 20 years of dedicated service at LAF, Diana looks forward to retirement with enthusiasm and welcomes incoming Executive Director John Gallo. Up next for Diana? Gardening, reading, volunteering at LAF’s Woodlawn Legal Clinic, traveling, and maybe even taking up the piano again. We are deeply grateful for Diana’s leadership and wish her a stress-free, well-deserved retirement.