Advancing public interest law through innovation
In 1992, Equal Justice Works awarded its first postgraduate fellowships to seven recent law school graduates. To receive these fellowships, these entrepreneurial lawyers had to develop innovative solutions to the legal issues facing underserved populations. That first year we received more than 300applications for those few coveted spots.
Since then, the demand for these fellowships and the quality of the applications have gone up. Each year we receive hundreds of applications from eager young lawyers proposing innovative solutions to complex legal issues that plague underserved communities. I am always in awe at the range of issues the applicants propose to address and their practical ideas for using the law to solve problems.
The beauty of our program is that it allows young lawyers to propose projects on cutting edge legal issues, which can change year to year. Take for instance, Kevin Bankston. Kevin was a 2003 Fellow working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on post-9/11 anti-terrorism laws and surveillance initiatives for online privacy and free expression. When Kevin began his project, online privacy, particularly as it pertains to social media, was not a widely known issue. Today, Kevin is a leading expert and sought after commentator on online privacy and surveillance issues.
Equal Justice Works Fellows were the pioneers who helped establish medical/legal partnerships – innovative projects that improve medical outcomes for patients by resolving related legal issues, such as housing issues or access to medical benefits.
And we’ve had many Fellows who have understood the only way to improve access to legal assistance is to develop new programs that literally “drive it” into communities – to the homeless living on the street; the migrant workers in the fields; and the families living in rural areas – using buses, station wagons and their own two feet.
As I write this letter, we are in the midst of the 2012 Fellowship application process, which I always find invigorating. I am excited to meet this year'sapplicants and learn about their projects. Each year itfills me with new energy as we send another class of lawyers committed to equal justice into communities around the country to address the legal needs of vulnerable populations. Of course it pains me to turn away so many exceptional lawyers who are equally qualified to those who are awarded fellowships. That disappointment motivates me to recruit more sponsors and increase the number of fellowships we can offer each year.
In the last 18 years, we have supported more than 1,000 amazing lawyers, and more than 80 percent of them are still working in legal aid and other public interest organizations. They continue to use their talents to bring about a more just society. And seeing that impact and ripple effect is a primary source of inspiration for all of us at Equal Justice Works.
The intersection of economic development and environmental protection
Current Equal Justice Works Fellow, Mike Becher, found his love for the environment and activism as a Biology and Geology major in college. But, he did not imagine that his passions would lead him to become an attorney at the Appalachian Mountain Advocates. Before entering law school, Mike moved to West Virginia and became the Director of the Stream Partners Program where he worked to help improve the water quality for communities in West Virginia. During his time with the Stream Partners Program, Mike was introduced to habitat degradation and the negative effects of coal mining on poor communities. He knew that more needed to be done. Mike pursued law school. “I believed that law school would provide me with the tools I needed to more accurately address the problems I witnessed,” he said.
It was in Mike’s first year of law school at University of Cincinnati College of Law that he was introduced to the Appalachian Mountain Advocates (formerly the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment). With a local economy based heavily on the coal mining industry, it can be challenging to have citizen buy in when it comes to protecting natural resources. However, Mountain Advocates works to ensure that economic development and environmental protection can co-exist while improving the lives of Appalachian residents. This mission was in line with Mike’s passion and he knew that after graduating he would return to West Virginia to pursue environmental justice. Applying for and receiving an Equal Justice Works Fellowship gave him this opportunity.
Mike worked with the Mountain Advocates, based in Lewisburg, West Virginia, to develop his project, which focuses on elements of surface coal production that perpetuate poverty in the coalfields of Appalachia. “The effects on human health and safety make life difficult and dissuade alternative forms of [economic] development. Residents commonly endure fouled drinking water, property damage from blasting and a threat of coal dam failure,” said Mike. Through this project Mike represents environmental organizations to help sustain economic viability through state reclamation rules and guarantee that healthy communities can flourish in a healthy environment.
For Mike, this work is more than just about reciting rules and regulations. It’s about impact. By working with people in affected communities, Mike knows that change is possible. At one educational workshop he hosted, a citizen and activist became so inspired that he took what he learned back home to Fayette County, West Virginia – an area known as a national destination for whitewater rafting, rock climbing and biking. Using many of the skills Mike taught him, this citizen was able to rally hundreds of people to challenge a coal mine threatening their local recreation industry. But, for as many victories he witnesses, Mike knows there is still much work to be done. “This work can be emotionally and intellectually challenging yet rewarding at the same time,” Mike admits. “I’ve learned that when it comes to environmental law there are no simple cases and for that you have to be passionate about what you do.”
Coupling the pursuit for justice with the desire to protect the environment and those directly impacted by it, Mike has found his niche. As he prepares to wrap up his fellowship, he hopes to continue pursuing environmental law with the Appalachian Mountain Advocates as a staff attorney.
Equal Justice Works alum, Dave Palmer, helps New York go green
Dave Palmer, 2006 Equal Justice Works alumnus and Executive Director of the Center for Working Families (CWF), describes his organization as a “think and do tank.” That means CWF is engaged with policy development from initial research to final implementation. The steps in between include detailed analysis, grassroots organizing and coalition building.
Dave moved into this work because he saw an opportunity to create a scalable green and equitable economy in New York State. Specifically, Dave helped CWF lead the campaign to develop a program – Green Jobs/Green NY – that provides upfront capital to homeowners to pay for energy efficiency improvements (also known as retrofits). Enabling homeowners to cut energy use helps combat climate change, creates jobs and lowers energy costs. It also allows families to cut utility bills in hard economic times.
CWF aims to ensure that a reasonable percentage of the homes retrofitted and jobs created are in New York’s moderate -income and predominantly African-American and Latino communities. While “energy efficiency” has become a catchphrase in America, few organizations have focused on bringing the benefits to underserved communities.
Dave recognizes that his organization faces major obstacles. “Utility companies do not have incentive to promote energy efficiency,” said Dave, citing one challenge. Other goals of the Green Jobs/Green NY program, such as community-directed outreach efforts, have also required negotiation among the main stakeholders: community organizations, energy efficiency contractors and government officials.
But Dave’s work as an Equal Justice Works Fellow has taught him to find innovative solutions to challenges. In 2010, Dave and the CWF developed an “on-utility bill recovery” policy, a financing mechanism that finally allows moderate-income homeowners to secure retrofits at no upfront cost to them. If implemented correctly, it will be the first green financing program in New York to be broadly accessible to average families.
As Dave maps out CWF’s future initiatives, he recognizes that forward-thinking environmental bills are meeting an ugly fate in Congress. Creating impact, Dave says, will have to happen at the state level. He is confident that CWF has provided some great models for other states to follow.
To learn more about the green movement and Dave’s work, please visit www.cwfny.org.
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