OneJustice Blog

Bring life-changing legal help to Californians in need.

My love affair with the law

And other geeky thoughts to share with you on National Law Day.

Last month I was invited to give the keynote at a Nonprofit Law Conference in order to explain to non-legal nonprofits why they should care about – and proactively address – their organization’s legal issues.  (Yikes. Fun topic, right?)

So I showed up and talked about why I love the law, why I love nonprofits, and how the two sectors fit together.  My husband told me I couldn’t actually stand up in front of a group of non-lawyers and say that I love the law.  He warned that no one would take me seriously after that.  Since today is National Law Day, I figured I would share my remarks with the OneJustice network, and you all can tell me if it works – or not. Do you agree that lawyers can be heroes? Is it okay to proclaim my love for the legal profession? Tell me what you think!  Happy Law Day, all!

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Julia Wilson is Executive Director of OneJustice (and self-proclaimed fan of lawyers and nonprofits)

Julia Wilson is Executive Director of OneJustice (and self-proclaimed fan of anything to do with lawyers and nonprofits).

OneJustice as an organization stands at the intersection between the legal profession and the nonprofit sector. The social problem we exist to remedy is the fact that millions of low-income and other under-served Californians suffer needlessly from solvable legal problems, simply because they do not have access to or cannot afford an attorney.  For OneJustice and our statewide network of the 100+ nonprofit legal organizations that we support – lawyers are a fundamental component of our solution.

In other words,  we LOVE lawyers.  (I will agree for the record that might have something to do with the fact that most of us ARE lawyers.)  But we believe that lawyers can be heroes.  From our statewide vantage point, we see hundreds of thousands of volunteer attorneys who use their expertise and skills to change the lives of — and empower — Californians in need.

I have four basic proposals I want to make to you today:

  1. The law is an amazing social contract that we all sign onto,
  2. Nonprofits are – at the core – creatures of the law,
  3. Legal problems are truly the pits, and
  4. In order to fully capitalize on the nonprofit sector’s capacity to solve societal problems and change the world – we must deal proactively and sensibly with the legal issues facing our organizations.

THE LAW IS AN AMAZING SOCIAL CONTRACT

I love the law.  What I love is the fact that it is, at its heart, basically just an agreement between you and me and all of us that we will trust in a set of rules and remedies – and a system of courts and judges that we basically created – to resolve our disputes.  For me, our social agreement that the law should exist – and that it works – is an amazing social miracle and a wonderful system for conflict resolution.

Yep, at OneJustice we actually LOVE lawyers.

Yep, at OneJustice we actually LOVE lawyers.

Now I’m not saying that it is perfect.  And I’m definitely not saying that we all agree on exactly what the laws should be or say or require or do. But I do love that fundamentally, as a core element of our society, we have agreed that there should be laws.

This is not true in all countries.  I have been fascinated to hear stories from colleagues who are working on developing the rule of law in other parts of the world where that social contract does not exist or exists only in very limited functionalities.  And frequently in the absence of the rule of law, people resort to their own ideas of enforcement and appropriate restitution for alleged harms or to managing their conflict through violence.  So, I believe that our legal system – although imperfect and sometimes even disappointing – is overall a beautiful thing.

NONPROFITS ARE INHERENTLY CREATURES OF LAW

Another reason I love the law is that it makes possible another thing I love: the nonprofit sector.  Our organizations are absolutely creatures of law.

Laws create all corporations – including nonprofit corporations – kind-of out of thin air.  Statutes and regulations allow corporations to exist and set up the choices we make in terms of organizational structure.  Tax law permits a large chunk of the nonprofit sector’s very economic engine; tax-exempt status is a critically important thing for many of us, who have charitable giving as a major component of our revenue model.  Law creates our boards of directors and charges them with responsibilities that are derived from old English common law – concepts that are hundreds of years in the making and still hold true for us today.  Law structures my employment relationship with my board, and in turn, it is the connective tissue between me and my staff – and then between those staff members to each other.

scales of justice

Nonprofits are inherently creatures of law – and that is a good thing!

So as creatures of law at our core, our organizations exist within an unavoidable and intricate network of rules, regulations, regulatory bodies and legal relationships. I see the law as this invisible, webby netting that supports our very existence and work. I love that there are rules and systems and structure and guidance for how this all should work.  (Can you tell why I became a lawyer in the first place?) We take this supportive structure for granted WHEN IT IS WORKING.  But that brings me to my third point . . .

AND THE TRUTH IS, LEGAL PROBLEMS ARE THE  PITS

I started my legal career as a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo county providing free legal assistance and representation to low-income residents of this county.  And I saw this reality every day. Legal problems come up with no warning, and they can throw your life into crisis mode.

This is definitely true for the low-income clients of nonprofit legal organizations – the grandmother who had to file for legal guardianship when her daughter passed away unexpectedly.   The  grassroots group of moms in Kern County who cannot access clean water for their community garden.  The family whose landlord files to evict them after they complain about the raw sewage and mold in their apartment.

If law provides the infrastructure for our organizational home, let's not wait until the pipes are leaking to deal with legal issues!

If law provides the infrastructure for our organizational home, let’s not wait until the pipes are leaking to deal with legal issues!

And the same is true for nonprofits.

OneJustice provides coaching, training and support for our network of the executives and boards of nonprofit legal organizations around the state.  The vast majority of these folks are attorneys, and they also end up facing unexpected legal problems. We work on human resources management, and they express concerns about whether they are handling their exempt and non-exempt classifications properly.  They move into new office space, and have immediate problems with the new landlord that force them to try to parse out the terms of their lease.  Or a collaboration with other nonprofits on a joint project funded by the county goes sideways – with no contract and lots of funding in the balance.

If the reality is that the law functions as the beams and supports that hold up our organizational house, when the pipes start leaking or the roof needs to be replaced it can throw us completely off our strategic road map – and have substantial financial impact as well.

THE NONPROFIT SECTOR – LIKE THE LAW – IS AN AMAZING SOCIAL UNDERTAKING

I believe that nonprofits are one of the major sources of innovation and change in our country.  And I believe we have the capacity to offer even more. Our sector is full of creative ideas and new ways of doing things.  We have truly breathtaking potential to effect fundamental positive change – and yet sometimes we aren’t able to fully capitalize on that potential – as organizations and as a sector.

And why?

Well, there has been a windstorm of reaction to Dan Pallota’s recent TED talk arguing that society places limitations on nonprofits capacity for innovation by expecting us to underinvest in our very economic model (fundraising) and marketing. And the Stanford Social Innovation Review has written wonderfully about what they call the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle, arguing that funder’s off-target expectations about what it costs to actually run a nonprofit has created a vicious cycle that forces nonprofits to underinvest in core operations and infrastructure – such that we hit points where we can barely function as organizations, let alone serve our clients and communities.

And I would add to this growing list of underinvestment a failure in – or at least a severe discomfort with – proactively dealing with the legal issues that our organizations face and assessing what legal issues we might face in the future. I can tell you from my own experience that I have taken the “ostrich-head-in-sand” approach to legal issues in running OneJustice.  I don’t create a formal contract relationship with a partner nonprofit until there are potential disagreements on the horizon.  I feel the temptation to just sign the stupid lease for our new office – even though some of the language is opaque and makes my head spin.  It feels important but not urgent to file for the trademark on our innovative new project name.

Do you agree that lawyers can be heroes?

Do you agree that lawyers can be heroes?

But giving in to those very natural tendencies creates risks.  Risks that I cannot see in the moment – but risks that feel completely unacceptable if I take the time to really look at them – and risks that would have significant negative impact on the organization and our programs if they came to fruition.

OK, SO THEN WHAT SHOULD WE DO?

I propose that as leaders of nonprofits, it is incumbent on us to embrace the fact that we lead highly regulated and complicated organizations. That means dealing (in advance) with legal topics. It means we must identify legal issues (and risks) as opportunities to continually improve and strengthen our organizations – as well as challenges. We have to keep learning, and finally (and perhaps counter-culturally…..) we have to agree that lawyers can be heroes – and use them as skilled supporters who are capable of guarding and growing the very heart of our work.

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On May 1 the United States officially recognizes Law Day to reflect on the role of law in the foundation of the country and to recognize its importance for society.  More information about Law Day is available at the American Bar Association’s website.  The theme of 2013 Law Day is “Realizing the Dream: Equality for All,” celebrating the movement for civil and human rights in America and the impact it has had in promoting the ideal of equality under the law. Law Day 2013 provides an opportunity to reflect on the work that remains to be done in rectifying injustice, eliminating all forms of discrimination, and putting an end to human trafficking and other violations of basic human rights.

Clarabelle lived all alone – and they knew it

My great-aunt Clarabelle was a firecracker of a person. 

Until Alzheimers made her dependent on our family – and vulnerable to a group of slick salesmen.

Clarabelle Henson (1905 - 1996) was a force of nature.  Here she is shown sitting with family on the steps of her family home in Tuscola, IL.

Clarabelle Henson (1905 – 1996) was a force of nature. Here she is shown sitting with family on the steps of her family home in Tuscola, IL.

My great-aunt Clarabelle was truly a force of nature in my life.  She was independent, opinionated, and had a firm and unwavering sense of self.  During my childhood, she split her time between an apartment in a suburb of Chicago and the very small town of Tuscola, Illinois (population of around 4,000) in the house where she lived since she was a child.  She was an incredible role model.  A professional woman in a time when such things were not as common, she worked as a much-loved teacher and then principal of a Chicago school for over 24 years while also managing the rental and eventually the sale of our family’s farm in Hindsboro, IL. Having never married, she was fiercely self-sufficient – until she starting suffering the dramatic effects of Alzheimers.

I was reminded of Clarabelle last weekend, during a long but beautiful drive from my home in the Bay Area to a soccer tournament in Redding.  At one point, about two hours into the drive, my husband chuckled and pointed out that the GPS map in the car’s dashboard showed just one long straight line of highway.  No intersecting roads.  No airports.  No towns.  There was hardly anyone else on the road – just miles and miles of open country, farmland, and an expansive horizon overhead.   There was literally nothing around us – it felt restful, almost serene.

It was completely reminiscent of the landscape of my childhood, growing up in Champaign-Urbana, IL almost smack dab in the middle of the state.  Although Urbana is home to the University of Illinois, we lived on the outskirts of Champaign, and it felt very connected to the farms around it.  Although my kids roll their eyes when I talk about it, my elementary school was bordered on three sides by corn fields, and the school shut down on days when the snow prevented the school buses from picking up the children living on farms just outside of town.  When I’m out in rural areas of California, I feel – in some way deeply imprinted from my childhood – like it’s home.

There are so  many wonderful things about small rural towns – whether in Illinois or California.  When we visited Clarabelle in Tuscola and took her out to dinner (at the truck stop no less!), almost everyone knew each other.  She was close to her neighbors on her small street.  We ate homemade apple pie from fruit we picked in her backyard.  Many older Californians leave urban areas and move out to smaller towns in their retirement for exactly these kinds of benefits.  They seek a slower pace, more tightly-knit community, and a more affordable cost of living when they start having to manage on a fixed income.

The GPS map in the car dashboard shows one straight line of Highway 505 heading north - and nothing else around.

The GPS map in the car dashboard shows one straight line of Highway 505 heading north – and nothing else around.

But seniors living in small, rural towns can also be uniquely vulnerable.  In the last decade or so of her life, Clarabelle struggled with the impact of Alzheimers and dementia.  At the beginning, she still lived alone in her family home, and our family – my dad in particular – helped her manage the impact of short-term memory loss and moments of confusion.  But then she got on the list of a team of salesmen from a near-by town.  They figured out that she lived all alone – and that she was completely unconcerned about inviting them into her house.  She called them “the nice young men who come to visit.”  They tried to sell her all kinds of insurance that she clearly didn’t need – and they would stop by her house in cycles, each of them trying to make the sale.   Sometimes they succeeded, and she paid them thousands of dollars. Luckily, the neighbors would call my dad to let him know that it was happening.  He would call Clarabelle, demand that she put these “nice young men” on the phone with him, and berate them until they left.  Eventually it got so bad that my dad went to their office, told them that he knew exactly what they were doing, and that our family wouldn’t stand for it any longer.  Finally, the visits stopped.

Clarabelle was lucky.  She had family relatively close-by, neighbors who were part of the solution, and family members fully capable of handling the problem.  But many seniors do not.  They move to rural areas and no longer have familiar support systems.  Their families members live too far away to monitor what is happening.  Neighbors don’t make those phone calls.  And seniors fall victim to all kinds of abuse – both financial, emotional, and even physical.

Some seniors can turn to their local nonprofit legal organization that provides free legal help to older Californians for help.  But some live hundreds of miles from the nearest legal services nonprofit – and cannot travel to get there.  And that is why the Justice Bus Project is focused on bringing free legal assistance to exactly those seniors living in rural and isolated areas of the state.  One of OneJustice’s key initiatives in 2013 is to expand the services available for older Californians – both through increased Justice Bus Trips to bring free legal help right to rural senior centers and senior housing facilities, and by expanding the capacity of nonprofit legal organizations serving seniors through training, coaching and support on nonprofit management.

I was reminded on the drive to Redding of exactly why the Justice Bus Project is so important to those seniors – and the rurally based nonprofit legal organizations trying to reach and serve them.  Because while that long stretch of highway with nothing around felt serene and beautiful as we were driving through, it also means that the seniors living in those areas can feel inescapably alone – and vulnerable to those who are looking for victims. Just like my great-aunt Clarabelle.

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Julia Wilson is honored to serve as the executive director of OneJusticeJulia R. Wilson is the executive director of OneJustice, where she is responsible for leading statewide advocacy efforts on behalf of the legal services delivery system, undertaking multiple statewide strategic planning initiatives, and serving as the legal services community’s liaison to key access to justice partners. At heart she is still a small town mid-western girl, who loves the urban energy of downtown San Francisco but craves the wide open horizon of big sky country.  Read more about Julia on our website.

We make a life by what we give…….Happy #GivingTuesday!

A creative way we can all take a little U-turn back to giving thanks…..and giving…..in the middle of these days so focused on getting.

With two teenaged daughters in my house, the last several days were pretty focused on getting things!  Black Friday and Cyber Monday fascinated my daughters, who were appalled that our family didn’t have big plans for tracking down the deals.  Instead, we focused on shopping small on Small Business Saturday (see OneJustice’s last blog post), and today — Tuesday November 27 — we are fired up for #GivingTuesday, a creative new way to remind us all to give back in this season of giving thanks.

OneJustice is a proud partner in the first annual #GivingTuesday, the day that also marks the official opening day of the giving season.  We’re joining almost 2,000 nonprofits and corporations around the country to celebrate the work of nonprofits in our society – with the goal of driving donations of time, money, or services to charities with the same enthusiasm that shoppers have on Black Friday.

It is a beautifully simple idea, and one that calls on ideals and values that are at the core of American society.  First, find a way to give back – through your local school, faith-based organization, charity – maybe even through OneJustice!  Then tell others in your network about what you did – and why it matters.  #GivingTuesday is about reminding all of us that we are a generous people – with our time, our energy, and with our financial support.

How are you called to participate in acts of giving today, the first-ever #GivingTNovember 27, #GivingTuesdayuesday?

One way to celebrate #GivingTuesday is to Give the Gift of Justice to veterans facing legal barriers to benefits and medical care, vulnerable seniors living in rural and isolated areas of the state, and low-income children who need legal help to access new immigration programs or educational services.  Donate today to our Veterans, Seniors, or Children’s Legal Aid Funds, and your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar by a generous group of donors who are also exercising their generosity today as part of #GivingTuesday!

And then let’s all help spread the word!  Then take a picture of yourself with a piece of paper proudly saying that you “Gave the Gift of Justice” on “#GivingTuesday” and post it to the #GivingTuesday facebook page and also the OneJustice facebook page.

However you decide to give back to your community, we thank you! The world is a better place because of your generosity.  We look forward to celebrating #GivingTuesday with you every year.

How will you honor those who served our country? How about giving the gift of justice?

I was shocked to learn recently that there are 400 rural veterans facing legal barriers to benefits and medical care they need – and that they are over 300 miles from the closest nonprofit legal organization that can help!

To be honest, I was always a little bit vague about what exactly we’reHow do we celebrate Veterans Day? supposed to do on Veterans Day.  I know it is a day to honor all the brave women and men who have served our country in the armed services – but it was never more specific than that for me.  Until now.

Several weeks ago, the OneJustice Pro Bono Team received a call from Chief Judge Abby Abinanti of the Yurok Tribal Court – with some shocking news and a request for help.  She was calling because there are around 400 members of the tribe who are also U.S. veterans who are facing legal barriers to critically important benefits and medical care.  And they are over 300 miles – 7 hours by car – from the closest legal nonprofit organization that can help them.

So – clearly thaOneJustice expands legal help for veteranst calls for a Justice Bus response!  Of course there were some possible obstacles – but we quickly solved them.   Yes, it will be the farthest we’ve ever taken the Justice Bus Project- but University of San Francisco Law School readily agreed to have their students travel the distance to help.  Never mind that we need a new nonprofit partner – we had already been talking to Swords to Plowshares about working together to do Justice Bus trips to serve veterans in rural and isolated parts of Northern California.

Now the only remaining barrier to getting on the road should also be easy to overcome – the funding to cover the costs of the long bus ride and accommodations for the student volunteers willing to donate their time and energy to deliver free legal clinics in three locations – Eureka, Klamath, and Hoopa – over two days.

The trip will take $10,000.  Two generous donors each already donated $2,500 because they were so moved by the story of these veterans.  This means we have just $5,000 to go and we will be able to gear up some mobile justice.

So, we need YOUR HELP.  If 500 people in the OneJustice network each give just $10 on Veterans Day, we’ll be able to get the bus on the road.  We can do this through collective action – we can stretch the legal safety net in our state to include these veterans who have asked for our help.

It’s easy to give online (just click HERE).  Just make your donation and designate the Veterans Legal Aid Fund.  Or download a donation form HERE and send in a check.  Literally every dollar gets us closer to making this trip a reality.  If you give in honor of a veteran or service member in your life, we will list their name on our Wall of Honor for one year and read their name aloud as the Justice Bus starts its trip north in early January 2013.

So – this Veterans Day I will be carrying the knowledge of these 400 Yurok veterans in need in my heart.  It is an incredible honor to be invited into their lives to provide access to the legal help they need – and with that honor comes the responsibility to respond.  They already served for us.  Now the time has come when we can serve them.

My grandfather served 5 years in the army, including 26 months in New Guinea during WWII

My grandfather, Charles Ward Henson II, with his children, my father and aunt.

My grandfather, who passed away before I was born, served for 5 years in the army – including 26 months in New Guinea during World War II.  This Sunday, at 11am, I will proudly make my own personal donation in his name to make this trip possible.  I hope you will join me in giving the gift of justice to these veterans!

Thank you for your support – we are honored by your charitable investment in our work!

Meet Ana de Alba: She broke our hearts in 3 minutes flat

Ana de Alba receiving the Opening Doors to Justice Award

And today’s guest blog from this award-winning champion for justice will break yours, too.

Introduction by Julia Wilson, Executive Director:  Just about one year ago, the OneJustice network gathered at our annual Opening Doors to Justice event to celebrate the accomplishments of our community.  A young woman took to the stage – and broke the hearts of the audience in just about 3 minutes flat.

That woman was Ana de Alba, and later this week she will receive the prestigious Jack Berman Award of Achievement for Distinguished Service to the Profession and the Public from the California Young Lawyer’s Association.  And boy, does she deserve it.  We are so proud that she is part of the OneJustice network, and I will be in the audience next Friday night, cheering with all my heart and soul as she again takes the stage. Ana graciously agreed to provide a guest blog this week, revisiting her remarks from our stage one year ago.  I know they will inspire you as they have inspired us!

Guest Blog: Ana de Alba, Lang Richert & Patch, Fresno

Ana de Alba resolved she would return to the Central Valley as an attorney and to make the legal system accessible to all.

I am honored to stand before you tonight as a recipient of an “Opening Doors to Justice” award. What this award means to me can be best explained by sharing a story about a field worker from the Central Valley who was in desperate need of legal services.

This particular individual lived in one of the small communities that dot highway 99. She and a crew of about 5 other women spent an entire summer working on a cucumber farm without getting paid. Although this woman, who was a bit braver and more outgoing than the others, demanded payment on their behalf, she was always told that they would get paid “next week.” “Next week” never came.

They were upset, and rightfully so, each of them had young children to support and not only had they provided free labor for an entire summer, they had also paid for childcare, paid for a ride to and from the farm which was located 45 miles from their home, and in the end, they came home with nothing. They were ashamed and felt that they had let their families down.

Ana, shown here at 3 years old, grew up in a small town in the Central Valley.

Encouraged by her children to “fight this,” this woman called an attorney she randomly selected from the yellow pages who was kind enough to tell her that to seek redress she need only go to the Labor Commissioner. When she discovered, however, that the Labor Commissioner was located in Fresno, she was absolutely devastated. Fresno was over 60 miles from her home and filled with freeways and highways that she felt unable to drive on. Worse still, there was no way to get there using public transportation. In the end, none of these women sought out justice because it was simply too inaccessible to them.

This woman was my mother and events like these were all too common in my life. On the day I left Dos Palos to attend UC Berkeley I promised that little girl who heard her mother crying inconsolably in the bathroom that I would return to the Valley as an attorney. I would find a way to make the legal system more accessible so that justice would really be “a right for all.”

Thank you OneJustice for recognizing my efforts and for the great work you do throughout the state, thank you to my firm Lang, Richert & Patch for supporting me and allowing me to use their goodwill in our local legal community to promote pro bono, thank you Central California Legal Services and California Rural Legal Assistance for being at the front lines of these struggles, and thank you to my husband, daughter, parents, and siblings for giving me strength and always reminding me that the law really is a powerful tool for social change.

Tell us – who are your access to justice heroes?

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 Image of the justice league showing 5 super heroes, including superman and wonder womanOneJustice 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.

Joseph Campbell quote "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."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 Maya Angelou quote "I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people."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.

Happy Grandparents Day – and let’s not forget older Californians in need

Justice bus volunteer with senior client

OneJustice volunteers travel hours by bus to meet the legal needs of rural senior citizens.

Today on National Grandparents Day I count myself lucky to be able to celebrate my amazing grandmother, who – at 101 years old – has seen tremendous changes in our society and world.  I also count myself lucky to live close enough to be able to spend time with her – as do my teenaged daughters.

The origins of National Grandparents Day started in 1970 with Marian McQuade, a housewife in West Virginia.  She hoped to persuade grandchildren to tap the wisdom and heritage their grandparents could provide.  She also championed the cause of the lonely elderly living in nursing homes.  After years of advocacy, in 1978 a congressional resolution declaring National Grandparents Day as the first Sunday after Labor Day was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.  Today, while I honor the many ways that my grandmother has influenced my life, I will also be thinking about the many older Californians who have not been as fortunate.

Over 390,000 Californians over the age of 65 live below the federal poverty levelMany of these seniors face a barrage of legal issues relating to access to health care, economic assistance benefits, housing, and food.  They also have legal needs relating to consumer debt issues, advanced planning and wills, residential and nursing home care, and caregivers issues – whether they are raising grandchildren or caring for an aging partner or spouse. In fact, more than 116,000 people over 60 in California have primary responsibility for the care of their minor grandchildren.  So on grandparents day, these older Californians are actually still handling the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting.

Volunteer helping a senior client

Justice Bus Trips bring volunteers to help seniors living in rural areas.

A 2011 study by the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) found that county agencies serving seniors reported that the most serious challenges to the safety and well-being of seniors are primarily legal issues, including: elder abuse (including consumer fraud targeting seniors), housing issues (including discrimination, home repair, affordable housing), and bankruptcy/debt.  Elders who are LGBTQ, have limited English proficiency (LEP), or are low-income are particularly vulnerable and in need of legal assistance.  Sadly, the LAAC study also reported that older Californians frequently are not aware that free legal help may be available to them and may wait to consult an attorney until their situation has become a crisis.  OneJustice supports a statewide network of nonprofit legal organizations that provide critically important legal help to more than 35,000 low-income and vulnerable seniors each year.  

Older Californians living in rural areas face unique barriers to accessing the legal help they need.  “Growing old has never been easy.  The difficulties are especially pronounced in rural America because, census data shows, the country’s most rapidly aging places are not the ones that people flock to in retirement, but rather the withering, remote places many of them flee.  The elderly who remain — increasingly isolated and stranded — face an existence that is distinctively harder by virtue, or curse, of geography than life in cities and suburbs.” (The New York Times, For Elderly in Rural Areas, Times are distinctly Harder, December 10, 2009.) Despite the significant need, rural seniors have unique difficulties in finding help due to a lack of access to transportation, computer or internet access, language barriers, and geographic isolation.   In addition, due to limited resources, the few legal services organizations that exist to serve rural parts of the state are responsible for large geographic regions without sufficient staff.

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Check out our Pinterest page for boards with resources on topics like guardianships, elder abuse, and simple estate planning.

This is why so many of our Justice Bus trips focus on meeting the legal needs of older Californians living in rural and isolated areas.  Our volunteer attorneys and law students travel hours by bus to set up traveling free legal clinics at senior centers, near medical clinics, in libraries and churches, and at senior assisted living facilities.  These volunteers work with local nonprofits in our network to bring life-saving legal help directly to seniors in need.  In isolated areas of counties like Napa, Tulare, and Mariposa, these Justice Bus clinics are often the only way older residents will have any access to legal assistance.  This is also why we created the website LawHelpCalifornia.org and our Pinterest page to post free downloadable resources on legal topics like guardianship, advanced health care directives and simple wills, and elder abuse.

The official flower of Grandparents Day is forget-me-not. On this day when we celebrate the heritage and wisdom of our grandparents, let us also remember the hundreds of thousands of older Californians who are alone today – alone facing pressing legal problems relating to basic life necessities.  By continuing to work together, we can build the resources needed to help them solve their legal problems.

What is YOUR favorite memory of time spent with a grandparent, or the most rewarding experience you have had helping a senior citizen?

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