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from Crain’s Cleveland Business: Cleveland Legal Aid’s new mandate: the pursuit of racial justice and equity

Posted March 13, 2023
9:00 am

By Jeremy Nobile

Whether through initiatives like its medical-legal partnerships, fulfilling a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction or even efforts to address debt-related driver's license suspensions in Ohio, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland has secured itself as a leader in promoting access to justice.

And while much of the organization's work since its founding in 1905 has supported racial justice, the nonprofit's strategic plan for 2023 to 2026 charges it with tackling systemic racism in an especially deliberate fashion.

Legal Aid will continue to focus on providing access to justice for low-income people but with a heightened focus on the pursuit of racial justice and equity as a topline, core value.

"The intersection between poverty and racism is undeniable in our country," said Colleen Cotter, executive director for Cleveland Legal Aid. "The causes of poverty for so many people are rooted in racism, so we have to be addressing both if we want to change circumstances for our individual clients and then change systems."

It's a broad mandate, but one that nonetheless will shape Legal Aid's priorities over the coming years.

While undoing systemic racism has been an intrinsic element of much of what Legal Aid has already been doing, it was never a value outlined for the organization in a fulsome way, notes Cleveland Legal Aid president Jonathan Leiken.

Changing that, he said, felt necessary to the Legal Aid board in the wake of the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the rise of COVID-1 9 in the same year, both of which highlighted systemic racial injustices in America.

"Poverty falls disproportionately on people of color, and that's been true for as long as there's been Legal Aid," said Ron Flagg, president of the Legal Services Corp. (LSC), which channels federal dollars to Legal Aid groups.

About half of Cleveland Legal Aid's annual budget of $18.7 million comes from LSC grants and the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation. The rest comes from other grants and donations.

"I do think that in the last three years, the combination of the pandemic — which has heightened economic disparities evidenced in poverty and disparities in which poverty falls on Blacks and other people of color — coupled with the murder of George Floyd and other events have really caused an increased and more explicit focus on racial equity and racial injustice," Flagg said. "And because of that, a number of Legal Aid programs are identifying that more explicitly as a core part of their work."

For Cleveland's Legal Aid organization, focusing on this guiding star of its strategic plan is further validated by a community needs assessment completed by the Center for Community Solutions.

That assessment, which included surveys and interviews with Legal Aid clients and community stakeholders, found that Legal Aid should continue focusing on the same key issues that it has been: improving safety and health; promoting economic security and education; securing stable and decent housing; and improving accountability and accessibility of the justice system.

But Cotter said that refining and focusing Legal Aid's work in those areas could lead to even better outcomes for people and amplify the impact the organization can have, which in turn benefits the region at large.

And it all begins with recognizing that minorities are typically disparately impacted by the myriad issues that challenge low-income Americans.

In the five-county region Cleveland's Legal Aid group serves, Black residents account for about 21% of the population but about 42% of all people living in poverty, according to the community needs assessment.

In one example, Emily Campbell, Community Solutions' chief operating officer, notes how the region's infant mortality rates skews heavily toward Black families. Therefore, effectively addressing the infant mortality rate means targeting the surrounding issues faced by those families.

"Legal Aid explicitly committing to addressing racial inequality issues can be very powerful," Campbell said. "Legal Aid is an organization that not only works to help individuals and improve individuals' lives, but also an organization that works on systemic changes. And it is that kind of system-wide change that we need in Cleveland and across the country to see some of our intractable community problems improve."

So what does all this mean in terms of systemic issues Legal Aid intends to address?

That remains a work in progress.

But the organization's existing initiatives suggest that systemic issues deserving of focus will be determined over time as Legal Aid leaders partner with other groups and as their attorneys work with clients, all with an eye toward addressing the underlying problems of the legal issues low-income citizens face.

A related endeavor in motion is an anti-racist practice within Legal Aid. That is envisioned to help develop the skills and knowledge for attorneys in the nonprofit's existing practice areas that will enable them to identify where racism may be part of someone's issues.

Think of it as an overlay for practice specialties and a method for connecting the dots between goals of the strategic plan.

"Because we are as focused now on systems change as we are on individual cases, if someone on staff working on individual cases sees something that appears to have a process or system or way of doing things that appears to have a disparate impact on people of color, we will see if there is something built into that system that we can step back and address," Leiken said.

He highlighted Legal Aid's work with right to counsel as an example. Legal Aid attorneys noticed that a majority of clients coming to them for help in eviction cases were minorities. And that led to the organization approaching local government about implementing a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction who are low income and unable to afford a lawyer on their own.

According to a review by advisory firm Stout, that right to counsel in Cleveland has resulted in an eight-fold increase in the number of tenants facing eviction who have secured legal representation since 2020.

The group found that the program "creates economic and fiscal benefits that likely significantly exceed the estimated cost of providing the services," according to its March report. Stout estimates the total economic and fiscal benefits of the program to be $11.8 million to $14 million from July 1, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2022, while the total investment in the program over the same period was $4.5 million.

Focusing on racial justice simply makes too much sense for Legal Aid as it looks to achieve the greatest outcomes possible, Campbell said.

"What we find at Community Solutions is that problems just aren't spread evenly across our community," she said. "So the smart money is often in trying to find the root causes and then going where those problems really exist."

"I feel like in our community and the country at large, we have normalized poverty. We have normalized racism like it's OK. But it's not OK," Cotter said. "We need to change how we think about it and say it is not normal to have 30% of the people in Cleveland living in poverty. It is not normal for people to live in neighborhoods totally uninvested in. It is normal to have the opposite. So we need to figure out how to get there instead of just accepting who we are."

Source: Crain's Cleveland Business - The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland pins racial justice, equity as its guiding star 

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