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.”
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‘Back to School’ at the Ed Law Pro Bono Clinic

As students across Chicago return to school amid uncertain funding and political turmoil, LAF’s Education Law Pro Bono Project continues to offer unwavering support for low-income students and their families. In fact, thanks to the Project’s new “clinical model” launched earlier this year, the team of 40 pro bono attorneys is a stronger force than ever before.

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Originally designed as an email panel, LAF attorneys used to vet and interview potential clients, send out anonymous case summaries via email, and hope to get a response from volunteers that could take on cases that LAF’s limited staff couldn’t handle. The Project’s new model, launched earlier this year, replaced the email blast with an in-person, bi-monthly clinic that puts volunteer attorneys to work, and in touch with potential clients from the very beginning of each case.

“Meeting clients face-to-face and building a rapport with them upfront, volunteers are more likely to be willing to take on their case than they would reading a case summary over email,” says Calli Burnett, VISTA Attorney tasked with coordinating the Project and overseeing its transition.

The small but mighty team of volunteer attorneys are from private firms and solo practices throughout the city, and the cases they take on at the clinic range from discipline and expulsion to residency challenges, bullying, special education services, and even Title IX claims stemming from sexual assaults. “They come from all different types of practices but they all have this innate commitment to education or have personal experience dealing with education issues themselves,” Calli says.

Without legal representation, there are a number of barriers that tend to dissuade parents from demanding the services their children need, Calli explains. “If parents don’t know they can ask for certain services or don’t know the specific procedures in place they need to follow in order to get those services, then you end up with one more child not getting the services they need.”

And while they can’t take on every case that comes to the clinic, a large part of their work is simply educating parents on the rights associated with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP—a legally binding document that spells out the specific services an individual child needs. Getting a child an IEP, or making changes to an existing one, is by far the most common problem they see at the clinic.

Thanks to the Project’s new clinical model and its pro bono attorneys committed to helping parents get the services their children need, more Chicago students can reach their full potential than LAF ever could have handled alone. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback—volunteers like being face-to-face with clients and other attorneys, and they feel more supported by LAF. And that’s our goal.”

If you’re interested in volunteering at the Ed Law Pro Bono Clinic, please email Calli Burnett at cburnett@lafchicago.org.

May eNewsletter and LAF Awards

President Trump’s 2018 proposed budget, published last week, again proposes to defund the Legal Services Corporation, the source of 45% of LAF’s annual funding. While this would have a devastating impact on LAF, we’ve doubled down on proving how important LAF is by working harder than ever at making sure that people living in poverty have a fair shot at justice. And people seem to have noticed! Just this month, our own Dolores Cole and the Community Engagement Unit were surprised with a Program Champion award from the Rush Generations program, for their work educating older adults on their rights. Volunteer John Held received the Federal Bar Association and the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois’ Excellence in Pro Bono and Public Interest Service Award. And Executive Director Diana White was honored by the Rotary Club of Chicago among their outstanding Women of the Year.
You can read about these awards, and much more, in LAF’s May eNewsletter, out now.
On behalf of everyone at LAF, as well as our and clients and communities, thank you for your continued support. Your gifts of time and money are our most steadfast and reliable source of income and they ensure that LAF will remain strong even as political winds blow.

Home Away from Home: Inside Katten De Diego Legal Clinic

fileIt’s 4 PM, and the students at Jose De Diego Community Academy have gone home for the day. LAF staff and pro bono volunteers gather in a small cluster of rooms in the school’s basement, in what used to be the nurses office. On the third Wednesday of each month, this tight space serves as headquarters for the Katten De Diego Legal Clinic, a partnership between Katten Muchin Rosenman and LAF that provides free legal services to low-income residents of surrounding west Wicker Park (or east Humboldt Park, depending on who you ask).

But tonight is particularly special, as the clinic will be closing its doors for the summer months and reopening in September. The hearty team of volunteers from Katten include two new faces, but most are the usual suspects—like Alyse Sagalchik, an Associate at Katten and a winner of LAF’s 2017 volunteer of the year award. “It’s a unique opportunity to do what I see as a moral obligation as lawyers—to dedicate our time and resources to help people who otherwise wouldn’t have legal representation,” she says. “It’s doing good for other people, but I also feel good doing it.”

The thermostat reads 83° and with only eight chairs, the waiting room is full before the clinic officially opens at 4:30. Keith Forrest, Litigation Paralegal Supervisor at Katten and one of the volunteers who helped open the clinic in April 2013, assigns volunteers to each of the four small offices (formerly examination rooms) where they meet one-on-one with clients. “The volume of clients we’re seeing has gone up. But we’ve learned to be more efficient, and gotten better at knowing what questions to ask,” says Jonathan Baum, Katten’s Director of Pro Bono Services and long-time volunteer at the clinic. “It’s my home away from home—I love this place.”

In another small room just off the waiting room area, volunteers process intake forms and consult with each other on cases. “It’s neat to see attorneys from the private sector come out to do this kind of work—not because they have to, but because they want to,” says Dana Harbaugh, AmeriCorps VISTA Attorney in charge of coordinating LAF’s legal clinics. Jared Heck, a Partner at Katten who specializes in healthcare litigation and a longtime member of LAF’s Young Professionals Board, is a prime example. “You can actually see and feel the difference that you’re making,” he says.

By 7 PM, the flurry of activity has slowed and the group prepares to close up shop for the season. The steadfast team of volunteers saw 16 clients in total. Katten will be taking on a number of their cases pro bono, even as the clinic is dark over the summer. With Katten’s pro bono volunteers and financial support, LAF will continue to provide the families of the Jose De Diego Academy and their neighbors with legal solutions to their civil problems.

 

Get Ready for #GivingTuesday!

After Black Friday and Cyber Monday, this year November 29th is #GivingTuesday, a national day of giving to celebrate the impact of philanthropy through raising funds and raising awareness. Join us again this year across social media to celebrate 50 amazing years of LAF’s important work and kick off the end-of-year giving season with another rousing day of #GTatLAF.  We’ve set a goal to raise $50,000 to celebrate LAF’s 50th Anniversary, and we need your help!

To get ready, be sure to like LAF on Facebook, and follow @ChicagoLAF on Twitter and @LAFChicago on Instagram.  You can keep up with the national campaign by following along at #GivingTuesday, statewide at #ILGive, and LAF’s own campaign at #GTatLAF and #LAF50for50.  Keep an eye out for brand new stories and never-before-seen videos across LAF’s social media!

On Giving Tuesday, make a donation at www.lafchicago.org/Giving-Tuesday-at-LAF and we’ll send you an email with a sign to share and language you can copy onto facebook, twitter, Instagram, linkedin, and personal emails.  Then post your selfie or a video with your sign to share the impact LAF has had over the last half century and raise awareness about the importance of standing up for people who live in poverty.

We’ll be liking, sharing, thanking, and celebrating our work and our supporters all day, and we encourage you to get in on the fun!

 

Pro Bono Victory: Rahul’s Story

Roughly 21 million people are currently forced into labor worldwide. While official estimates are difficult to make as to how many of these people are within the United States, reports from social service agencies across the country agree that victims likely number in the tens of thousands. Labor trafficking is widespread and pervasive, but the stories of those individuals trapped in forced labor situations are often untold. Some of these stories end badly and others drag cruelly onwards with no end in sight. There are stories that end with freedom, and hope, but a positive ending often depends on the involvement of legal aid organizations like LAF and its partners.

This particular story begins in 2009, when Rahul fled political persecution in India. Arriving in Chicago, and taking a job at an Indian grocery store, he was taken advantage of, his passport and immigration documents held hostage, and he was forced to work long hours with little pay. Rahul was at the mercy of his trafficker in all things: housing, wages, work hours, and, effectively, his life and well-being. The living conditions provided him were squalid, crowded, and dangerous. For over three years he was forced to work 6 days a week for shifts of 12 to 17 hours, through illness and severe back pain. He was paid well below minimum wage and, for a few months, paid nothing at all. Any attempt at liberating himself was actively attacked by his trafficker, who obstructed Rahul’s immigration case and threatened him with handguns.

Fortunately, Rahul found LAF. With an attorney’s representation, he applied for a visa, but the attorney understood that they would face a severe hurdle due to the fact that Rahul’s passport did not list his surname. This would both complicate his immigration case and subsequently be an impediment to getting him an Illinois driver’s license and social security card.

In October of 2015, Daniel Cotter, a partner at law firm Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP as well as member of LAF’s Pro Bono Panel, volunteered to help Rahul obtain a name change to help move his immigration case forward smoothly. He prepared the necessary petitions and accompanied Rahul to court; Daniel’s representation led to a successful name change that may have been delayed otherwise. The judge even told Rahul and Daniel that he could sympathize with the situation, having been born abroad during WWII without a birth certificate. In an additional act of incredible generosity and human kindness, Butler Rubin paid for the cost of the case’s publication and three certified copies of Rahul’s name change.

Since his name change, Rahul’s immigration case has progressed without complication and, with LAF’s help, he has applied for both a social security card and an Illinois driver’s license. He is slowly but surely getting his life back.

There are an estimated 5.2 million people living in Cook County, and about 1.5 million of those people qualify for free legal aid. However, there are limited agencies with limited resources available to service those living in unlivable circumstances. LAF is the largest in the area, but even  LAF was only able to serve about 15-20% of the people who reached out to the organization for assistance in 2015 – a rate mirrored by legal aid service providers throughout the United States. Pro Bono volunteers like Daniel help fill in that gap. The road to Rahul’s freedom from forced labor would have been very different if not for the dedication of Butler Rubin and the time, expertise, and support of Daniel.  Their shared belief in law as a resource that should be available to all has unquestionably altered Rahul’s life for the better.

You can read more about Daniel’s victory for Rahul on Butler Rubin’s blog here.  If you’re interested in volunteering with LAF to help clients like Rahul make better lives, you can sign up for our Pro Bono Panel here.