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Equal Justice at Work: June 2011

Fellows on the Front

Helping the Transgender Community Overcome Obstacles of Discrimination

Chase Strangio knew that there was more that needed to be done for the low-income transgender community in New York.  As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, Chase's project with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project allows her to address the criminalization of the transgender community in New York who are facing poverty, incarceration and living with mental illnesses.

In her work, Chase has found that this criminalization leads to a cycle of individual and systematic discrimination. In broader terms, society has made it seemingly difficult for the transgender community to function. She shared that the increased need for identification after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 have created even more barriers for those who are transgender.  The process of acquiring identification for a transgender individual is arduous, requiring name and gender changes to affirm an individual's identity and protect him or her from being outed. As a result, many transgender individuals are left without affirming ID documentation, which creates a barrier to shelter access, housing, public assistance and employment. On a more individual basis, the transgender community faces higher rates of employer and housing discrimination.  Many of Chase's clients have been denied entry into homeless shelters because of their gender identities or have been mistreated in shelters and decided that it is both physically and emotionally safer to live on the streets.

Chase's work at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project occurs on several levels. On one level she provides direct legal services to her clients. At another level, Chase's work includes advocating with institutions that deny transgender individuals access to care and social services.  For example, she works with the New York State Department of Correctional Services to transfer clients into safer placements. Additionally, she works with local and national coalitions of lawyers and advocates working to negotiate new policies regarding transgender health care for individuals in prison, particularly those who are denied their hormone treatments.

Chase also uses coalition building as a method to help fight against the hardships the transgender community face. She hosts workshops with local community organizations to help them recognize the intersection of abuse and discrimination transgender individuals encounter and how it impacts their quality of life. Through her coalition building, she is able to create movement and bring more awareness to these issues.

"The discrimination the transgender community face is such a huge issue, our legal services act as small interventions to help our clients survive," said Chase.

Chase has worked with her client "Lisa", an incarcerated transgender woman, since August of 2010. Chase helped Lisa receive her hormone treatments while she was in prison and also provided assistance for her to receive access to other benefits. On May 3, Lisa was released from prison and Chase continued to work with her, aiding her in her transition from prison by helping with access to housing and employment. Lisa is now an active participant with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and works as an advocate for transgender rights.

Chase's work serves as a model for not just providing legal services, but using those services as a tool to eliminate obstacles, hinder discrimination and provide equal justice for all communities.


AnchorFinancing the Future

Law Students Can Find Ways to Pay Off Student Debt

Despite the fact that student loan debt will outpace credit card debt for the second year in a row and is likely to exceed $1 trillion this year, nobody is offering an educational debt bailout. Until then, all of us burdened with educational debt need to get creative and look every place we can for assistance.

From our weekly Student Loan Ranger blog at US News & World Report

›› Read More

AnchorAlumni News

Turning Small Ideas into Public Interest Legacies

Equal Justice Works alumnae, Laurie Parise, started her journey towards public interest law working with a human rights organization where she saw firsthand how the law could effectuate positive and systemic changes, particularly for those who are disenfranchised. After law school, Laurie applied for an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. The focus of her project was on the criminalization of youth.  New York is one of only two states where young people the age of 15 are automatically charged as adults in the criminal justice system. Her project focused on employment discrimination of youth with criminal records, which at the time of Laurie’s fellowship, was not a well-known issue. Laurie shared that her fellowship allowed her to spend two years really focusing on the legal barriers that negatively affected court-involved youth, and she began to be seen as an authority in what was a narrow field of law.    

“We’ve all made mistakes at 16, and no one should have to suffer for the rest of their lives as a result of those mistakes,” she said. 

Laurie learned quickly that her young clients’ problems stemmed far beyond employment discrimination. Many of them were being evicted from public housing, suspended from school or were unable to access higher education. Many felt harassed by the over-policing occurring in their communities. They were often rearrested for low-level offenses such as trespassing or jumping the subway turnstile. Laurie’s only solution at the time was to refer her clients to other organizations. She felt she needed to do more to really be an effective advocate for these young people.

After her fellowship with Equal Justice Works, Laurie applied for an Echoing Green fellowship to start her own nonprofit organization, Youth Represent (YR), whose motto is “Justice from Courtroom to Community.” YR is the only youth defense and advocacy nonprofit organization in New York City. Youth Represent has a unique model that allows lawyers to represent clients not only in their criminal legal issues but also on any of the legal collateral consequences that stem from those issues, such as obtaining and maintaining employment, access to public housing, and secondary and higher education. 

 Although Laurie believed she had developed an effective model to support youth in the criminal justice system, she found that clients often did not have the money or the desire to travel to yet another legal organization for the help they needed.  She needed a new approach to ensure that youth in all boroughs could benefit from the services of YR. Going back to where it all began, Youth Represent, together with Michael Pope, developed an Equal Justice Works proposal called the Community Youth Reentry Project.  Michael was awarded the Equal Justice Works Fellowship this past September. Through this project, Michael partners with community based organizations throughout the five boroughs to provide an array of onsite legal services focusing on reentry legal representation. His project has enabled Youth Represent to almost triple its client base. 

“Equal Justice Works has allowed me to expand the reach of Youth Represent’s services to some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in New York City where our work is most needed,” said Laurie.

Today, Youth Represent has three full-time paid lawyers, two law school interns and one student intern who was formerly involved in the justice system.  In the fall, Laurie will be starting a Youth Defense and Reentry Clinic at Brooklyn Law School to not only help get more students involved in public interest law, but also to bring more passionate lawyers to Youth Represent without having to expand their budget.

 “Because of Equal Justice Works, I was able to take a small idea and turn it into an organization that helps hundred of vulnerable teenagers every day. I could not be more appreciative for the support of such an amazing organization,” professed Laurie.

Laurie Parise and Michael Pope will speak at the Equal Justice Works reception in New York City on June 16.


AnchorExecutive Director’s Corner

Summer Public Interest Internships -- Law Students Answer the Call to Service

Since our founding 25 years ago, this organization has always celebrated summer.  This is the time of year when thousands of eager law students fan out across the country to work on behalf of under-served communities.   These summer experiences often ignite a passion for public service in these students that remains with them throughout their careers.

What many of you don't know is how many more opportunities exist today than 25 years ago.  When we were founded, the total amount of money raised by student groups for summer public interest internships (e.g., PILF, Equal Justice Foundation, Student Funded Fellowships, PIC, etc.) was around $300,000, which enabled roughly 450 students to receive funding.  We published "how to" guides to enable student groups to raise much more money, and they did!  Today, law student groups raise millions of dollars, including generous contributions from law school deans, enabling thousands of law students to receive modest stipends to do public interest work over the summer.

We supplement this funding through our Summer Corps program.  This year, Summer Corps will place 658 students from 63 law schools at 400 civil legal services and public defender offices, in 44 states.  Summer Corps members will provide more than 200,000 hours worth of pro bono legal aid to underserved and low-income populations in just one summer!  That is just incredible.

We are all aware of the recent natural disasters that have devastated the lives of many, and our Summer Corps members will be on the front lines providing services in some of the hardest hit areas, including Semoune Ellis and Kimberely McCray who are serving at the Mississippi Center for Justice where they will be working with victims of the recent floods and tornadoes.

It gives all of us at Equal Justice Works such joy to enable law students to use their skills (and gain new skills) while helping needy communities.  We are thrilled to be a part their legal education, and we are very appreciative of their hard work and commitment to providing equal justice for all.