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Equal Justice at Work: November 2011

AnchorAnchorExecutive Director’s Corner

‘Thank You’ From David Stern

On October 20, Equal Justice Works celebrated our 25th Anniversary with a Gala in Washington, D.C.  The event brought together some of the country’s top legal professionals, as well as past and present Equal Justice Works honorees, board members, Fellows and staff to recognize all that we have accomplished in our first 25 years.  And we raised a record $2.7 million!

It was a star-studded event with David Gregory as the emcee, and the U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. 

Governor Patrick kicked off the night recounting the year he was honored by Equal Justice Works when he was general counsel of Coca-Cola.  He recalled the Equal Justice Works Fellow who spoke at the dinner and complained about Coca-Cola's human rights practices in Colombia.  Governor Patrick detailed how those remarks made him and the audience uncomfortable. 

"Yet [that Fellow] was doing exactly what Equal Justice Works expected of him – and what we more and more ought to start expecting of each other.  And that is insisting that justice not be just a part of what we say we believe, but also what we do, how we live – even if that makes us a little uncomfortable." 

Later, the Attorney General delivered an inspired speech reminding “lawyers across the county of the sacred responsibilities that we share:  not only to help strengthen our nation’s legal system, but to use our skills and training to help fulfill this country’s founding promise of equal justice under law.”  He talked about the meeting he attended where the idea about the Public Defender Corps was hatched, and how proud he was to see the 18 Fellows at the dinner.

We also highlighted the stories of our Fellows who are working every day, in communities across the country, to right injustices.  They are part of the growing “army of public interest lawyers” that were the inspiration of the founders of Equal Justice Works, and they are working to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable among us receive the same access to justice and quality legal representation as more fortunate citizens.

As wonderful as all of this was, the highlight of the night for me was the success of our text to give campaign that allowed attendees to make a contribution if they saw something that inspired them.  In the end, I was the one inspired -- dinner guests contributed $45,000, which was matched, and will enable us to fund another fellowship.

All in all, a very successful evening!  I want to express my gratitude to all those who contributed to this effort, especially our exceptional steering committee members, board members and sponsors.  Their passion and support for Equal Justice Works will allow us to fund additional fellowships that will help: families who are in jeopardy of losing their homes; veterans who are struggling to gain health benefits; and victims of human trafficking escape their abusers.

Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, Equal Justice Works has placed thousands of law students and lawyers in communities across the country and, with your continued support we look forward to growing these efforts over the next 25 years.


AnchorFellows on the Front

From apathy to empathy: an Equal Justice Works Fellow gives thanks

“A person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” Those words, spoken by Professor Bryan Stephenson at New York University, served as the inspiration for Equal Justice Works Fellow Daniel Bowes to pursue a public interest law career.  From his classroom discussions to his clinical work focusing on the collateral consequences of criminal convictions, he found himself filled with compassion and determination to bridge the justice gap for individuals saddled with a criminal history. Daniel had not always felt as sympathetic toward this community, however.  “For a long period in my life, I viewed people with criminal convictions as permanently soiled.  I viewed a criminal conviction not as a singular incident but as evidence of someone’s hidden, corrupted self,” he said.

For Daniel, his views were shaped by personal experience. For the first few years of Daniel’s life, his father was incarcerated.  While he doesn’t remember his father’s incarceration, he does remember his regret and the family’s struggle to survive.  He also recalls hiding his parents away; not inviting them to school functions and award ceremonies because of the shame he felt. Daniel wasn’t aware that criminal convictions trigger civil disabilities that have deeper and longer lasting impact on individuals rather than their actual sentence. At reentry, individuals with a criminal history are severely limited in housing and employment opportunities, undermining the ability to support their families and themselves. “Looking back at that time with a more mature perspective, I recognize now how hard my father worked to persevere in the face of constant barriers,” said Daniel.

Attending law school and volunteering in the legal clinic at NYU was Daniel’s first step in understanding the barriers former inmates face to reentry.  As he continued speaking with prison inmates, Daniel learned that many of them were genuinely dedicated to rehabilitating their lives and starting anew.

Coupling his personal experience with his clinical work in law school, Daniel developed a project with the North Carolina Justice Center that focuses on providing legal services to individuals with criminal convictions who are denied employment and housing solely based on their criminal history.  As an attorney with the Justice Center, Daniel host forums to educate individuals with criminal convictions on their rights.  He also works on appeals for denials of occupational licenses based on unrelated criminal histories.

In reflecting on the opportunity his Fellowship has given him, Daniel feels a sense of gratitude for the chance not only to help a population of people who desperately need it, but also for giving him a chance to come to terms with his own past. “I am thankful for the support of Equal Justice Works and my sponsor, ALM, in helping me create the Collateral Consequences Project, which has helped me to serve individuals who possess the same strength of character and dedication as my father,” Daniel shared. 

Learn more about the work of Equal Justice Works Fellows like Daniel Bowes.


AnchorAnchorAlumni News

Equal Justice Works alumnae comes back to give back

Like many new graduates, Kerry O’Brien (Equal Justice Works class of 1998), found herself thinking about her next move after law school and what it would mean for her career trajectory. While attending a seminar at Georgetown University Law School, Kerry learned about the Equal Justice Works Fellowship program. She remembers the charge of the seminar director, who said, “Get out there and find a need! They are everywhere.” With that, Kerry was compelled to find ways to help the community.

That summer, while working in a legal clinic, Kerry met a woman who recently had been fired from her job of 12 years and was unable to receive food stamps and unemployment benefits. Kerry thought that the firing was in violation of the newly-enacted Family and Medical Leave Act and set out to find her client some legal help on that issue.  The whole summer went by and she was unable to find any help.  Kerry had found her “need”.   As a result of working with this client, she began developing her fellowship project that focused on employment laws.  Her fellowship allowed her to assist low-wage employees who were dismissed from their jobs or injured employees who could not navigate through the complex system of obtaining Worker’s Compensation insurance, and gain access to the benefits they were entitled to.

After finding her niche in public interest law, Kerry recalled the panic she felt when her fellowship was nearing its end. “I wasn’t sure what would be next. I didn’t have a plan,” Kerry said. But, with the skills she acquired as an Equal Justice Works Fellow and with the direction and assistance from staff, she set out to learn how to raise money, enabling her to expand her  projectafter her fellowship ended. “The Fellowship program helped me to tackle many issues, both legal and structural. I learned how to raise money to extend my project work,” Kerry shared.  From there Kerry went on to co-found the D.C. Employment Justice Center (DCEJC), which promotes and protects the legal rights of low-wage workers in the D.C. metro area.

Eventually after leaving DCEJC, which still exists, Kerry joined the staff of Equal Justice Works as the Director of Federal Programs and Strategic Initiatives.  Since day one, Kerry has made it her personal mission to expand Equal Justice Works fellowship programs allowing more attorneys to pursue public interest law.  Her second priority is to help Fellows find innovative ways to raise funds to continue their projects after their fellowships end.  Because she understands the importance of fostering support for Fellows, Kerry feels encouraged by the work she is able to do as an Equal Justice Work employee. She can relate to the sense of urgency Fellows feel when their projects are nearing their end.  “I have the benefit of understanding where the Fellows are. I want to encourage them to stay focused and help to direct them to further opportunities that will allow for them to continue to do the work they are passionate about,” said Kerry.

Today, Kerry oversees the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship and Public Defender Corps Programs and works directly with Fellows to develop funding opportunities for their projects. She is also developing strategic plans for creating new program initiatives for Equal Justice Works to serve underserved communities across the nation.

“Coming to work at Equal Justice Works is like coming home,” said Kerry.


AnchorAnchorStudent Debt Tip of the Month

Get the scoop on changes that can ease the burden on borrowers repaying federal student loans

President Obama’s recent executive order announced important changes to federal loan programs. First, a temporary loan consolidation initiative, available from January 1, 2012 through June 30, 2012, provides interest rate reductions for borrowers who consolidate their FFEL loans with their Federal Direct loans in a Special Direct Consolidation Loan. Second, the “Pay As You Earn” proposal accelerates improvements to Income-Based Repayment (IBR) that cap monthly payments at 10 percent of discretionary income and provide forgiveness after 20 years. These are limited to “new borrowers,” who took out their first loans in 2008 or later and who will take out at least one loan in 2012 or later. Third, “Know Before You Owe,” a model financial aid disclosure form that schools can use to help students compare the real costs of different college options is in the works and a “Student Debt Repayment Assistant” is available to help give borrowers guidance in dealing with their student loans. Check them both out.

Get all the details in our Student Loan Ranger blog. For more student debt news and tips, follow us on Twitter @EJW_org  #studentdebthelp on Twitter.