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Equal Justice at Work: May 2012

Executive Director’s Corner

Equal Justice Works Fellows as First Responders

When natural disasters or crises arise, people are often quick to respond.  In the direct aftermath of an emergency, first responders are vital to helping people get on the track to recovery.  But after the visible damage from a crisis has been cleared away, the public’s attention and resources move on.  But it’s at that point that some of the more insidious challenges arise:  scammers take advantage of vulnerable people, victims face confusing paperwork sometimes not in their native language, and people have lost vital paperwork essential for making claims just to name a few.  Our Equal Justice Works Fellows are often the first responders of the legal community, quickly getting on location in disaster areas to help with these less visible wounds.

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, we were the first to put lawyers into the affected regions to help victims access FEMA benefits, promote the construction of affordable housing and encourage economic development. In the first year of our Katrina Initiative, we placed 19 lawyers in the Gulf.  Nine of those lawyers were Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows who, along with their volunteers, assisted 7,425 hurricane survivors.  They also held 133 legal clinics, offered 153 presentations, and recruited 780 law students and lawyers to provide pro bono legal assistance.  Watch our video Survivors of the Storm to see some of the incredible work our Fellows did in the aftermath of Katrina.  In the Alumni section of this newsletter, you can read an update from one Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps alumnus who is still practicing in the Gulf region.

When the foreclosure crisis hit in 2009, Equal Justice Works placed 30 AmeriCorps Legal Fellows across the country to provide legal assistance to those facing financial challenges due to the recession.  During their year of service, these lawyers and their volunteers provided 2,565 individuals with home foreclosure defense and prevented 1,084 foreclosures. In the year and a half since, our AmeriCorps Legal Fellows have successfully prevented an additional 398 foreclosures in hard-hit areas such as Phoenix, Arizona and Cincinnati, Ohio. There are currently 17 Fellows continuing the work of these first responders in 8 states. Our video Rising to the Challenge provides a glimpse at the impact our Fellows had on families across the country.   

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the devastating tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri.  In the immediate aftermath of the storm, President Obama said that even though it’s tempting to ask why, natural disasters are “beyond our control. But that does not mean we are powerless in the face of adversity.  How we respond when the storm strikes is up to us.  How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache, that’s within our control.  And it’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place.”  We have two AmeriCorps Legal Fellows working in Joplin, and they both have been working tirelessly to rebuild their hometown.   You can read about their work in the “Fellows on the Front” section of this newsletter.   

While there’s no way to prevent crises from happening, lawyers are an important part of recovery.  Equal Justice Works is uniquely able to be agile and responsive to these emergencies.  I am proud that our Fellows have been on the front contributing their talents to help communities rebound.




AnchorFellows on the Front

Working with victims of the Joplin Tornado

May 22, 2011, was a day that divided Jamie Rodriguez’s life into two parts: before and after.  On that day, one of the most destructive tornadoes in US history touched down on her hometown of Joplin, Missouri, destroying 25% of the town.  A week after the tornado, Jamie came back home for one week to help with the recovery effort. She volunteered at Legal Aid of Western Missouri’s booth at a community-wide resources fair, lending her legal training to the recovery effort.  In October she moved home full time and started working as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

Jamie works alongside Zachary Tusinger, another Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, on a wide range of legal issues to help the recovery effort in Joplin. Their case loads range from landlord-tenant disputes and FEMA claims, to domestic violence, contractor disputes and other outstanding issues that are a result of the disaster.

One thing is very clear in the work that Zach and Jamie have been doing in Joplin: the importance of community.  Lawyers are a vital piece of the puzzle in helping a whole city recover from a disaster, but they would not be as effective if not for the help of healthcare providers, volunteers, charities and other community organizations. 

“A couple of organizations were created literally in the days and weeks after the tornado,” says Zach.  “One of them was the Joplin Long-term Recovery Committee. It’s made up of dozens of organizations, and we’re talking everything from Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Area Agency on Aging, Legal Aid… The list goes on and on and on.”

Jamie and Zach meet with these community organizers on a regular basis, giving and receiving referrals, to get the best possible help to the citizens of Joplin as quickly as possible. One result of these meetings has been a series of survivor workshops that Jamie and Zach have helped plan.

“With other community organizations, we decided to plan a series of survivor workshops that were geared towards what we thought tornado survivors were dealing with right now,” says Jamie.  

The workshops cover a variety of topics including financial information, advice on disaster kits and home buying advice.  They are held at the Human Services Campus (HSC), a facility that is administered by the Joplin Family YMCA in conjunction with a number of other organizations including Legal Aid of Western Missouri.  The HSC is on location at FEMA temporary housing sites so that all these resources can be available to displaced residents who don’t have access to transportation.

“The idea was to put a facility out there where different programming can be held and different resources are available,” Zach says. “So instead of having people come to the different agencies, the agencies could come to them. And that’s where we’ve made ourselves available to meet with clients.”

Jamie and Zach have had some big victories in Joplin such as getting people insurance and FEMA benefits and getting people back in their homes. These victories are exciting and inspire hopefulness and optimism for the future of Joplin. The smaller victories are just as inspiring. They had one elderly client whose apartment was destroyed in the tornado. In all the chaos, she forgot to apply for hearing aids from FEMA and her insurance didn’t cover them, so she didn’t have hearing aids.

“From a legal standpoint we did all we could with FEMA to try to help get her money, but at the end of the day we had to just start making phone calls to charities and we wound up getting her hearing aids. It was just a little victory, but it made this woman’s life a lot better,” says Zach. “And that was something that nobody else was going to be able to do.”

The big picture of a disaster like the Joplin tornado is one of devastation and loss, but from a different angle it’s a picture of thousands of people coming together to help. Volunteers, healthcare professionals, community organizations, and lawyers like Jamie and Zach have all risen to the occasion to get Joplin back on its feet. Not all the progress is glamorous, but it all matters.

As Zach says, “at the end of the day we’re here just to give someone advice. If we can help somebody, great, if we can’t, we can refer them on to somebody else who’s more appropriate to help them—that’s a victory too.” 


AnchorAnchorAlumni News

The Gulf Coast continues to recover from Hurricane Katrina

Reilly Morse was already working as a private attorney in the Mississippi Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. After the storm, all that was left of his practice was his shingle, a single piece of wood that read: Reilly Morse, Attorney. As soon as he could, Reilly went back to work helping to rebuild his town by assisting survivors with FEMA benefits claims, evictions, and restoring affordable housing. As an Equal Justice Works Katrina Fellow, he was able to make an impact on the lives of many Katrina survivors through his work with the Mississippi Center for Justice. (Watch “Survivors of the Storm,” an Equal Justice Works video about Katrina Fellows, here.)

Today, Reilly continues to work on cases related to the Hurricane, working tirelessly to meet the high demand for affordable housing in Biloxi, Mississippi. “Rollout of repairs is taking longer than expected.” said Reilly. "But there have been many success stories in the last seven years."

Some of those success stories include an increase in the cap on benefit awards to low-income residents, and a $132 M settlement for lower-income, disabled and elderly Katrina victims still suffering with unmet housing needs five years after the storm. To win the settlement, Reilly and the Mississippi Center for Justice filed suit on behalf of the Gulf Coast Fair Housing CenterMississippi Conference NAACP and the Steps Coalition working with a litigation team of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky & Popeo. These groups came together to advocate for housing repair and recovery for the citizens of Southern Mississippi, and it was their combined efforts that brought the situation to the attention of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Shaun Donovan, and that eventually won the settlement. (Watch a video produced by the Mississippi Center for Justice about this settlement here.)

Throughout his seven years working on Katrina-related cases, Reilly has partnered with countless organizations like the ones listed above, as well as social service providers and local and national aid providers in Mississippi. Like Zach and Jamie in Joplin, the work that Reilly does in the Gulf Coast would not be as successful without the help of community organizers and charities.

“The advice I would give to lawyers responding to disasters would be: organize residents and find every chance to enlist pro bono aid to get recovery efforts off the ground,” said Reilly. "Long lasting results come when the legal system becomes a tool for change, so lawyers need to come with a spirit of service to organized communities."

Reilly’s experience in post-Katrina Mississippi is a great example for any lawyer working on disaster rehabilitation, and Equal Justice Works is proud to have such a knowledgeable alumnus working in the field today. 



Michael Rothenberg:  A visionary public interest leader
By David Stern, Executive Director, Equal Justice Works

About three months ago, we lost Michael Rothenberg, executive director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), and a champion for justice. 

I met Michael 20 years ago when he was the student president of Equal Justice Works (then known as NAPIL).  I had just been hired to create a postgraduate fellowship program and was making my first presentation to the board of directors about the program.  Michael salivated -- he loved launching new innovative programs and he loved this one.  He had a million ideas and so did I.  We bonded immediately.

Over the years, and especially once Michael became executive director of NYLPI, he and I developed a tight friendship that was both collaborative and competitive.  We shared so much with one another, from organizational design to working with our boards, from financial management to increasing diversity of our staff.  We competed with one another to bump up our fundraising totals at our events, and we cheered each other on.

We both gained so much for that sharing.  So about nine years ago, Michael, Howard Learner, who runs the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, and I created an executive director retreat -- a two and a half day event where executive directors of large law-related nonprofits from across the country could come together and share effective practices, develop relationships and solve problems.  In a few years, attendance grew from the initial six to 18.  Michael just loved it -- he enjoyed solving problems, learning from colleagues and asking great questions.  

Michael had a particular passion about developing the pipeline of talented new lawyers.  He had the personal experience of becoming an executive director of a prominent nonprofit organization when he was in his mid-30's -- a super accomplishment -- and felt that too many organizations were not making room for new leadership, particularly diverse leadership.  He recruited and hired top talent, developed them, promoted them within NYLPI, and supported them when they went off to senior leadership positions elsewhere.

In terms of his effectiveness in building an organization, Michael was best in class.  He quadrupled NYLPI's budget from $1 million to $4 million, and increased the staff and the organization's effectiveness.  Just two years ago, NYLPI was one of three organizations to receive the New York Times Nonprofit Excellence Awards Winner. 

Michael Rothenberg passed away on February 23, 2012, at the age of 47.  He made huge contributions to social justice during his life and is an inspiration to so many of us.


AnchorAnchorEducational Debt Tip of the Month

What does the upcoming interest rate increase on Stafford loans mean for you?

The interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans is scheduled to increase from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1. Here are a few things you should know:

The increase would only affect interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduate students issued after July 1, 2012. The rates on existing loans won’t change and the rate on Stafford loans for graduate students is already at 6.8 percent.

While around seven million undergraduates will be affected, the administration estimates that the increase would raise the cost of repayment by an average of only $1,000 per loan and there is a good chance Congress will act to prevent the increase. No matter what happens, though, federal loans will remain the best choice for borrowers because they have protections like fixed interest rates, income-driven repayment plans and the opportunity to earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

It is important to keep student loan interest rates low, but there are also broader systemic problems that must be addressed. For example, as we wrote recently in our Student Loan Ranger blog, disclosure and reporting requirements can have a much broader impact on student borrowing, but only if they work as intended to provide prospective students and parents with the ability to make informed choices about the types of loans they borrow. These much-needed improvements aren’t receiving the attention they deserve. We continue to support all aspects of educational debt relief, from keeping interest rates low to ensuring borrowers receive the information they need to make informed choices and take advantage of available debt relief options.