Power to the People! [fifth daily dose of How I Came to be a Lawyer]

One of the great things about the Legal Aid office I worked at in South Jersey was that the Managing Attorney of the office had even a sharper sense for injustice than I did and even a bigger picture of the world than I did.  She was the first Puerto Rican woman to graduate from the Univ. of Pennsylvania Law School.  As Managing Attorney she quickly noticed that while all the other lawyers in the office were white males, most of the clients were Black or Puerto Rican, and all of the secretarial and paralegal staff were Black or Puerto Rican, but it was the lawyers who decided which cases to take and which cases had to be turned down because there were more potential clients than the office could handle.  So she formed a steering committee to decide office priorities reasoning that the secretaries and paralegals (who actually had grown up in the community, unlike the lawyers) should have some input on which clients got our services for what kind of cases. Black power rt side up

Here’s what the steering committee decided:  If you didn’t belong to the Welfare Rights Organization, you didn’t get us to come to your welfare fair hearing.  If you didn’t join the Tenants Union, we wouldn’t represent you in your eviction case.  Etc.  Eventually all the white lawyers left for other jobs because they didn’t like not having final say, and I was the first white male that got hired after the re-structuring.  It worked great!  All the community organizing that ensued led to the election of the first Black ever to the local school board.  No longer would it just be the Whites (the merchants, the judges, etc.) who were the decision-makers for the Poor (the factory workers, the farmworkers).  And I totally understood that to just do one Fabio-type case at a time really didn’t change anything, albeit some justice is achieved.

Only in the end the Powers-That-Be regained the upper hand.  When Ronald Reagan got elected President in 1980 our tiny Legal Aid office in South Jersey became Exhibit A for why Congress needed to pass a law curtailing legal services for the poor from doing political organizing.  Although I had left the office already (read “Florida Rescue Mission”), the managing attorney left shortly after passage of the new law and became a renowned community organizer in Philadelphia.  I still to this day hold the belief that the most important political work is to empower folks to believe that they have control over their destiny.  Even when it seems that we’re losing, keep in mind what Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Though the arc of history is long, and bends slowly, it bends towards justice.” 




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