Magazine article Poverty & Race

Justice in Our Community: Helping People Access Legal Infomation and Services

Magazine article Poverty & Race

Justice in Our Community: Helping People Access Legal Infomation and Services

Article excerpt

How can law students, legal aid, and willing donors best serve impoverished communities? UConn Law and Connecticut's Greater Hartford Legal Aid (GHLA) have been working together to answer that question.

The result of their efforts? The new "Justice in Our Community" Fellowship program. Law student fellows- with external support from legal aid lawyers-worked on-site in the heavily trafficked waiting room of a health center located in a high-poverty area. The results were fantastic: Fellows engaged with clients who otherwise would not have had access to lawyers, triaged intervention as needed, and provided direct assistance to people who were struggling to communicate through language and other bureaucratic barriers. The program provided donors with a direct way to invest in future legal aid attorneys and to assist an ailing community. Most importantly, the program conveyed to that community a presence that both honored them and afforded them the dignity of communication in a setting of their choosing.

In the hope that others will replicate the program, this article describes the Justice in Our Community Fellowship-a joint effort to assist and empower people living in Connecticut's lowest-income neighborhood, Hartford's North End.

Vision

In early 2015, the Auerbach Schiro Foundation approached UConn Law with a goal in mind: they wanted to provide economically disadvantaged people in Hartford's North End with easy access to legal information and assistance. GHLA had an idea that could further this goal: with the donors' contribution, GHLA would provide stipends for three law-student fellows to run a legal information and outreach table on the organization's behalf. GHLA would place the Fellows at Community Health Services (CHS), a federally-qualified health center located in the heart of the community the donors wanted to reach. For a client community with limited access to reliable transportation, this location was key.

Structure

UConn Law helped develop the project, and students, especially those interested in public interest work, jumped at the chance to apply for paid legal experience.

Each Fellow would spend six hours per week conducting outreach at CHS, and six hours per week at the GHLA office, helping with research projects and following up with people they met in the community. The students were first trained in substantive law, legal ethics, confidentiality, and identifying issues the Fellows might encounter. As the year progressed, Fellows received additional substantive trainings in legal issues that commonly were mentioned at CHS. Their knowledge grew as the term progressed, but they also worked in connection with a reliable support network: when they needed to, they would send an email to GHLS staff and get an almost-immediate response. The key was that the Fellows were never left on their own: they were serving as the face of GHLA in the community, and they had GHLA's entire staff behind them.

At first, "outreach" was ambiguous: having a regular arm in the community was new to everyone involved, and it was hard to know if the goals would match the reality at CHS. Over time, however, "outreach" developed into a well-established system for reaching potential clients and community members. Equipped with a GHLA poster and legal-information pamphlets, the Fellows worked in pairs at a table in the highly-trafficked CHS lobby every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon. A GHLA attorney supervised and assisted once a week. The consistency of this approach proved to be extremely valuable in forming relationships with members of the community.

Interaction with Client Community

Profile of Client Community and Scope of Services

Clients ranged in age from early twenties to late sixties. The majority of the community members were Latino or African-American, and most interactions were in English or a combination of Spanish and English. Fellows spoke to more female identified community members than male identified members. …

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