Next month – October 2012 – has two big celebrations on the calendar — California Campaign for Justice month and National Celebrate Pro Bono Week (October 21 to 27).
There will be all kinds of special trainings and events around the state for both celebrations – and as we gear up at OneJustice for these national and statewide initiatives, we’re asking the OneJustice network to tell us – WHO IS YOUR ACCESS TO JUSTICE HERO? Who would you recognize for her dedication to helping low-income communities resolve their pressing legal problems? Whom should we be honoring for his work to remove barriers to justice? Who are the heroes in the California legal services and pro bono delivery system – both the heralded and the unsung – who have inspired YOU to get or stay involved? Who should OneJustice include in our version of the justice league?
Definition: Heroine/Hero: a woman/man admired and emulated for her/his achievements and qualities; one who shows great courage.
So tell us – OneJustice network – send us in your access to justice hero stories by commenting on this blog, posting it on our facebook wall, emailing us – whatever works for you. Please share with us your stories about the women and men who are admired for their achievements, qualities and great courage – and we’ll repost them here throughout the October celebrations.
Over the weekend, I was reflecting on this question while skimming through the news online – and I stumbled across a powerful opinion piece “I Was a Welfare Mother” by Larkin Warren in the NY Times Sunday Review. As a single mom, with an ex-husband doing little to help, she decided to go to college and carve out a better life for her son. Her parents, ex-Marines, didn’t have the resources to pay for college – and so she had to rely on grants, Section 8 housing, and ultimately welfare – to barely make ends meet. She graduated from college – and 2 weeks later had a job and was off welfare. Reading her powerful testimonial, I realized the people who are my access to justice heroes – the people who keep me focused on the goal of expanding our legal safety net – who are the reason why I have dedicated my legal career to the work of nonprofit legal organizations – they are my clients.
I started my career with the incredible privilege of being a lawyer for families on welfare. As an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the exciting challenge of implementing my very own project, I graduated from law school at the time that welfare reform was being implemented. I thought that welfare-to-work programs offered some promise for families like the one described by the author – families who had hit hard times, single moms striving to get an education and move into the workforce, or parents out of work and facing barriers as they searched for the next job. But I was very worried about the families where the parent had a disability, or had responsibility for caring for a member of a family with a disability – and I wanted to make sure that welfare-to-work programs also could be made to work for a single-mom also caring for her aging mom with dementia. For the young dad with an undiagnosed learning disability. For the homeless family trying to care for their preschooler with autism while living in their car.
So I spent three years working with these families – serving as their lawyer – to make sure that their welfare-to-work plan truly met their needs, got them an education, and accommodated their disability. They included people like Mr. Nguyen, who was a brilliant computer science student at a community college while caring for his five children and his wife who had serious mobility and intellectual impairments after her stroke. We had to appeal the welfare department’s denial of his request to stay in school as his work plan – and won because of the written statements provided by all of his professors about his ability to transfer to a four-year college and add significantly to the work of Silicon Valley. And people like Mrs. Ramirez, who suffered an illegal eviction and ended up homeless – while working the night shift at a grocery store to care for her 5-year-old son with visual disabilities. Together, she and I fought for and won a grant of emergency housing so that the doctors could perform the surgery her son needed.
I learned so much from these families. I saw determination and hard work in action. I experienced humility and hope. And I learned a lot about focus, sacrifice, parenting, and courage. I am a better person for having the honor of working with them – and I will remember them for the rest of my life. They are the reason I go to work each day driven to bring more justice into the world, to engage more lawyers and law students in volunteer work, and to advocate for more funding for nonprofit legal organizations. I hold them all in my heart still today, and they are my heroes.
Because as Larkin Warren writes so powerfully – “Among those welfare moms were future teachers, nurses, scientists, business owners, health and safety advocates. We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?”
We should all be shocked that so many in our society must live – drowning – for years. And we should all be just a little more decent.