Nina Harrison awarded MLAC’s Racial Justice Fellowship

Fellow will help formerly incarcerated individuals in Central, Western Mass., reenter society

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation has awarded its prestigious Racial Justice Fellowship to Nina Harrison. The two-year fellowship will support Harrison’s work assisting people in Central and Western Massachusetts who have been released from incarceration and are working to become reintegrated into society.

Harrison will be based at Community Legal Aid in Worcester starting in August. A 2013 graduate of Boston College Law School, she has worked as a staff attorney at the Responsible Parent Project of Rhode Island Legal Services and a legislative assistant to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. She was also an administrative law clerk for the Hon. O. Rogeriee Thompson on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. She will focus her work at Community Legal Aid on helping ex-offenders seal their criminal records and overcome barriers to housing, employment, and family stability.

“Nina’s work exemplifies the spirit of the Racial Justice Fellowship, which seeks to reduce obstacles to justice for the most marginalized people,” said Lynne M. Parker, executive director of MLAC. “Helping formerly incarcerated people reenter society and attain steady work and safe housing is an essential first step in their ability to live lawfully and with dignity. I admire Nina’s commitment to working with this underserved population, and I’m gratified that MLAC can fund this important work through the Racial Justice Fellowship.”

Jonathan Mannina, Executive Director of Community Legal Aid, said, “This Fellowship will enable us to help formerly incarcerated residents of Central and Western Massachusetts lead safe, stable, and productive lives. Re-entering society after being away for years is daunting. Recently released ex-offenders face a number of civil legal problems, many of which are linked directly to their criminal records. Our ability to effectively address these problems goes to the very core of the American belief in offering second chances. We are thrilled that Nina is joining us to do this critically important work.”

MLAC created the Racial Justice Fellowship in 2006 to expand the reach of legal aid to communities that have difficulty gaining equal access to the justice system due to linguistic or cultural barriers. The goal of the fellowship is to use systemic advocacy and other strategies to address pervasive problems of racial injustice, given the disproportionately high rate of poverty among communities of color and the unmet legal needs of these communities. The Racial Justice Fellowship is a two-year position and is available to MLAC-funded and Legal Services Corporation-funded legal aid programs in Massachusetts.

MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid in Massachusetts. It was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice, and representation.

MLAC conference explores expanding racial equity in legal aid

Nearly 200 legal aid lawyers and staff gathered in Boston to learn and share strategies for increasing racial equality in legal aid organizations and the communities they serve. The day-long conference, “Disrupting Cycles of Inequity,” included national experts on implicit bias and racial equity and advocates for immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.

“These topics are challenging, but essential to the work we do in civil legal aid,” said Tonysha Taylor, director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Taylor, who created the July conference, invited people to “lean into the discomfort” of these difficult conversations to learn ways to increase equity in their workplaces and in society as a whole.

Rachel Godsil

Keynote speaker Rachel Godsil: “Peer-to-peer contact is the only way to reduce implicit bias.”

Rachel Godsil, director of research and cofounder of the Perception Institute and a professor at Rutgers Law School, delivered the day’s keynote address on implicit bias – unconscious judgments an individual makes that are linked to each person’s upbringing and social environment. These background thoughts, she said, affect people’s decision-making and day-to-day interactions in ways that may be at odds with their conscious values. She offered strategies people can use to begin to override their subconscious thoughts to create better relationships and to promote excellence in legal offices and representation.

“Peer-to-peer contact is the only way to reduce implicit bias,” Godsil said. However, people can also work to reduce and override their biases to break the links between unconscious thoughts and behavior, she said.

Building on Godsil’s presentation, New York civil rights lawyer Milo Primeaux led a workshop on how to build workplaces that welcome people’s many identities into the office. A white, transgender man, Primeaux spoke of the different treatment he has received when people perceive him as “a white dude with a beard and a law degree” compared to when he is introduced as a queer transgender person. When people – and whole organizations – work to challenge their implicit biases and their beliefs, they can begin to create change, embrace diversity, and move toward inclusion, he said. “Inclusion is activated diversity. It puts diversity to work in a way that is innovative and beautiful.”

Tonysha Taylor, Bria Gambrell, Lynne Parker

Tonysha Taylor, director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Bria Gambrell, DEI intern, and Lynne Parker, executive director, all of MLAC

The conference took place on the campus of Simmons University in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. Two Simmons administrators led a workshop about how people can be allies and accomplices in creating diverse and inclusive organizations. Sasha Goodfriend is Simmons’ Assistant Director of Communications & Public Affairs, as well as president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization of Women and Chair of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ youth. She shared the story of Mass NOW’s decision to recreate its board of directors to replace what had been an overwhelming white board of older women with a mixed race, multi-age board that also included representatives from the LGBTQ community.

Debra Pérez, Senior Vice President of Organizational Culture, Inclusion & Equity at Simmons, recounted how Simmons has changed its hiring practices to attract and retain more staff and faculty of color. She advised that employees at every level of an organization can seek to have an impact on an organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts, recommending people ask themselves, “What is within my authority to change?”

Sarang Sekhavat, federal policy director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, led a discussion about advocating for immigrant communities and navigating changing federal immigration policy. Sekhavat highlighted the growing challenges that low-income immigrants face—including threats of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests, misconceptions surrounding public benefits, and the potential loss of housing because of new Department of Housing and Urban Development policy. Additionally, Sekhavat said that because the Trump Administration has deemed all undocumented immigrants “removable” by ICE, people who apply for legal permanent resident status run the risk of deportation if they are denied. One silver lining for these communities is that the administration has not provided guidance to local agents on how to proceed with new policies, which has limited their impact, Sekhavat said.

Kimberly Merchant

Kimberly Merchant: “Everyone has some leadership within them.”

The Shriver Center on Poverty Law’s workshop, Internal Organizational Alignment for Race Equity, focused on creating racial justice within organizations that promote it externally. Kimberly Merchant, the Center’s Racial Justice Institute director, challenged people to do more than just be aware of diversity issues. Instead, they should be competent in discussing racial justice and bold enough to advocate for equity—especially when it’s difficult. “Everyone has some leadership within them,” said Merchant.

Ellen Hemley, the Center’s vice president of advocate resources and training, shared the experience of the Shriver Center staff; their history of overlooking racial inequity within the organization; and their long, intentional process of creating change. She detailed a number of strategies and tools for addressing internal issues, including a frank self-assessment of an organization’s racial equity.

Cheryl Sharp of the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and Robyn Gibson of YW Boston each led workshops on the challenges of pursuing equity in the workplace—specifically the legal profession. Sharp’s workshop addressed the unique challenges that intersectionality poses for women of color as they face prejudice in the courtroom and navigate relationships with co-workers and supervisors in white, male-dominated workplaces. Gibson focused on racial bias, and identified different ways race affects a work environment. By asking participants to reflect on their own identities and positions of privilege, Gibson illustrated that everyone has a stake in pursuing racial equity. We are “doing the work for our own liberation,” said Gibson.

Top photo: Joanna Allison, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers Project, and Jacquelynne Bowman, executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services.

Photos by Elbert John.

At the Forefront of Social Justice

Current and former Bart Gordon Fellows reflect on how the program shaped their careers and helped deliver civil legal aid to marginalized Massachusetts communities.

In 1991, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation created a fellowship program to increase legal assistance in communities where linguistic and cultural backgrounds have been barriers to the delivery of legal aid. The fellowship was renamed in 1995 to honor Bart J. Gordon, a Springfield attorney and founding member of the MLAC Board of Directors who passed away that year. The fellowship, which rotates among the Massachusetts legal aid organizations that receive funding from MLAC, provides financial support to new attorneys who seek to address these barriers to civil legal aid. One new Gordon Fellow is funded each year for a one-year term with an option to renew for a second year.

Leah Grannum reached out to current and former fellows to learn about their experiences in the fellowship, their careers since, and their advice for young lawyers.

“The fellowship was instrumental in my discovering a passion for community lawyering and public interest work.”

Sherley Cruz

Then: Bart Gordon Fellow at Greater Boston Legal Services and Massachusetts Advocates for Children, 2005-2007
Now: Assistant Professor, Advocacy Clinic, University of Tennessee College of Law

I had two fellowships. Originally, I worked at Massachusetts Advocates for Children on a community education project for Latino parents with special needs children. We created an eight-week bilingual educational program for parents to learn how the special education system in Boston works and how to advocate for their children. I finished my Bart Gordon Fellowship at Greater Boston Legal Services with the Employment Law Unit, where I focused on racial justice and community lawyering with low-wage immigrant workers.

The fellowship was instrumental in my discovering a passion for community lawyering and public interest work. It allowed me the opportunity to work with elite legal services programs to conduct racial justice work on behalf of marginalized and exploited communities.

Although my career has taken many different paths, I have continued my commitment to racial justice lawyering. I was fortunate to be able to continue working at GBLS for several years, where I gained an expertise in working with low-wage immigrant workers and community/grassroots organizations. I then worked with the Massachusetts Attorney General Office’s Wage and Hour Division. Eventually, I transitioned to clinical teaching, where I have supervised students on wage theft, housing discrimination, employment discrimination, unemployment, and other issues related to wage gaps and racial disparities.

Sherley Cruz

Sherley Cruz, Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee College of Law

My public interest work has been recognized by being awarded the Lawyers Weekly Up and Coming Lawyer Award and the National Law Journal Boston Rising Star. I am most proud of my reputation in the legal community as a community lawyer who is dedicated to racial and social justice issues and working with the low-wage immigrant community. I never imagined becoming a clinical law professor. The Bart Gordon Fellowship paved the way for the experiences and opportunities that have allowed me to become a clinical law professor.

The fellowship work at MAC was critically important. There are very few bilingual resources for parents of children with special needs to navigate the Boston Public School system. The program empowered and educated parents to fight for their children’s educational needs and allowed them to gain a voice in the process. Similarly, the low-wage immigrant worker work successfully provided services to communities that are routinely exploited and underserved. Due to funding restrictions and lack of resources, I provided greatly needed legal services to immigrant workers, worker centers, and other community grassroots agencies. We built networks and collaborations that continue to thrive and grow on the foundation of the work established through my Bart Gordon Fellowship.

I am most passionate about supporting and empowering low-wage immigrant workers, particularly undocumented workers. As an immigrant myself, I understand and have seen firsthand the struggles that my family members have faced due to limited English proficiency, lack of knowledge, and bad employers. Protecting, preserving, and creating fair, respectful, and well-paying workplaces is fundamental to an individual’s wellbeing, health, and family. When the workplace is troublesome, it negatively impacts all aspects of a worker’s life. The clients that I serve are hard-working, innovative, compassionate individuals who are often repeatedly exploited, harassed, injured, and mistreated at work. It is an honor to be able to add dignity and respect to their workplace and work experiences.

During my fellowship I was able to grow and vastly improve my skills in the areas like community lawyering, community organizing, project development, and public relations. Working with worker centers and other community groups allowed me to develop many “non-traditional” lawyering skills. I learned how to lead from behind the stage to support organizing and outreach campaign efforts. I also learned how to be client centered and find solutions that meet community needs, which often times did not involve traditional litigation. Instead, I worked with community groups to develop media campaigns, statewide coalitions, legislative campaigns, and other community-organizing tools.

“The fellowship set me on a career path within Legal Services that continues today.”

Lyonel Jean-Pierre Jr.

Then: Bart Gordon Fellow at Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services (now Prisoners’ Legal Services), 2005-2007
Now: Clinical Instructor, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Harvard Law School

For a few years I entered private practice only to realize that my passion for legal services work could not be ignored. The fellowship allowed me to work for an organization–Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services–that was truly client-centered and modeled how I imagine lawyering should work. The primary challenge with any fellowship is uncertainty. When the fellowship ended there was no guarantee that the legal services career trajectory would continue. For me, I feel that I was lucky when a position opened up with the Legal Assistance Corporation of Central Massachusetts’s Family Law Unit at the end of my fellowship.

Another obstacle was–and still is–facing the lack of diversity within the legal profession throughout Massachusetts. The courthouses and court rooms (specifically as it applies to the management, operation, and judiciary components of the court) are mostly staffed by white men and women. For young, less experienced attorneys the visual is jarring and can be an uncomfortable reality. Overcoming fear and doubt, caused by external pressures and perception, can take time and add obstacles towards becoming a successful advocate.

Lyonel Jean-Pierre Jr.

Lyonel Jean-Pierre Jr., Clinical Instructor at Harvard Law School

During my fellowship, every day was a fight with the department of corrections for access to our clients. For the most part, we were able to gain the space and time needed to assess our client’s needs and advocate for them. On occasion, we faced stiff resistance and had to threaten or use legal action, but ultimately we were successful.

I am most passionate about accessibility to the court and creating an equal playing field. Litigants with disposable funds or who are accused of committing a serious crime should not be the only ones afforded access to counsel. The legal system is complicated, statutes and case law are undecipherable to individuals with no legal training, and the consequences for losing a case can be high and in some cases irreparable. Access to an attorney is critical.

The fellowship helped me to develop better interviewing skills as well as a greater tolerance for zealously advocating for clients whose viewpoints and experiences do not align with mine. In several cases I had to put my personal insights and beliefs aside while fighting for better medical care, better confinement conditions, and for fairer disciplinary hearings for individuals who freely admitted to the terrible things that lead to their confinement. I also credit the fellowship with helping me pass the bar. Not only was I allowed the time to study and take the exam but I learned litigation skills and theory in a practical setting that helped me better understand and answer several questions on the bar exam, specifically, questions regarding civil procedure, evidence, and sanctions for noncompliance.

“Poverty law is my passion.”

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies

Then: Bart Gordon Fellow at South Coastal Counties Legal Services, 2008-2010
Now: Managing Attorney of Community Legal Aid’s Worcester and Fitchburg Offices

Through the fellowship I was able to develop the expertise and passion to address the work of legal services in a holistic way and through a racial equity lens. It set the foundation for how I have approached every case, project, and activity as an advocate and now as a manager. I developed a strategic focus on the effects of structural racism (racialization) on our clients and our work, provided leadership on diversity issues and advocated for racial equity. Legal areas of practice included fair housing rights, landlord/tenant law, post-foreclosure evictions, homelessness prevention and domestic relations issues.

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies, Managing Attorney, Community Legal Aid, Worcester and Fitchburg Offices

Some challenges have been tackling racial equity issues in the midst of dealing with overall poverty issues and grant deliverables. Some areas of success have been: the opportunity to learn multiple legal areas; to make an impact system-wide; to experience great professional growth from the Bart Gordon Fellowship; and to lead staff attorneys through medical-legal partnerships and as a managing attorney. My work as a fellow allowed my organization to consider and explore systemic and structural barriers our clients faced. Some of the conversations were challenging and not always easy, but I think our client communities have benefitted from the courage to explore those issues even when they were hard.

The ability to be a part of the lives of the most vulnerable people, holding power players accountable, and advocating for access to justice for all is a dream come true. Right out of law school, I was tasked with tackling structural racism and diversity issues and put in the position to facilitate trainings, conversations and policy changes.

“I believe that we need to welcome immigrants into our communities.”

Mario N. Paredes

Now: Bart Gordon Fellow at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Prisoners’ Legal Services
Start Date: September 2019

The project I will undertake will aim to improve conditions in detention facilities and address multiple issues faced by detained immigrants, including discrimination, placement in solitary confinement, language access needs, medical and mental health care, food and sanitation, and access to programming and services. The ultimate goal is to break down some of the barriers faced by immigrant detainees in accessing services that they desperately need. This will be done using various strategies: 1) An investigatory phase to assess the conditions of detention in our commonwealth’s immigrant detention units in Bristol, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Franklin Counties; 2) Developing advocacy materials and self-help materials so that immigrant detainees can be empowered to advocate on their own behalf to improve conditions; and 3) engaging in various forms of advocacy, including systemic and administrative advocacy, legislative advocacy and litigation to address issues faced by immigrant detainees. This detention condition work will also be complemented by work focusing on detainee re-detention prevention and post-release support.

Although I have not officially begun the fellowship, I have already received plenty of phone calls and emails from advocates who are fighting to support immigrants who are detained in Massachusetts. There is a lot of interest in collaborating and making sure that the immigrant detainee population is not forgotten or neglected. I look forward to continuing those conversations and building strength within the legal advocacy community.

Mario N. Paredes

Mario N. Paredes, 2019 Bart Gordon Fellow

I am extremely passionate about fighting to support and empower marginalized communities that often get neglected because of the stigma that society attaches to them. I have many family members and friends who have been both directly and indirectly impacted by the immigration system. In a country that depends so much on the contribution of immigrants, I strongly believe that we need to welcome them into our communities rather than locking them up and making them out to be our enemies.

I am grateful that the fellowship will give me an opportunity to work with, learn from, and contribute to two very well-respected organizations that are at the forefront of the fight for social justice in Massachusetts. I will also get the rare opportunity to be supervised and mentored by two amazing leaders, both of whom are Latina lawyers, as I engage in this work. The Director of PLS, Elizabeth Matos, and Iris Gomez, a nationally renowned immigration attorney at MLRI, will be supervising my work.

Have an ‘open heart and open mind’

The Bart Gordon fellows shared a range of advice for law students and new lawyers.

“Be open to possibilities,” Sherley Cruz said. “You may gain the most from opportunities that may not have been part of your plan. The skills you learn will be transferable in almost any environment. The communities you will work with are dynamic, resilient, and powerful. Do not underestimate the power of a community united for the common good. Make connections, and build networks that will support you throughout your legal career.”

“My advice is to be your best self and to become the best lawyer possible,” said Lyonel Jean-Pierre Jr. “When you step into the courtroom you are a lawyer regardless of who your client is or how much money they have. Don’t be defined by ‘legal aid,’ ‘age,’ or ‘skin color,’ but rather by the quality of your work and your passion for achieving justice for your client. The rules and expectations of the legal profession are the same for you as they are for any other lawyer.”

“My advice to potential Bart Gordon Fellows (and to myself) is to engage in the work with an open heart and an open mind,” said Mario Paredes. “We are living in tough times, and it is important that we are doing this work for the right reasons and with the right intentions. I want to learn as much as I can during the Fellowship and make immediate contributions to the legal aid community.”

“I am forever grateful to have been a Bart Gordon Fellow,” Cruz said. “As a new attorney, it gave me the opportunity to work on critical racial and social justice skills. It sparked a desire to continue to fight for access to justice and provided me with skills and a network of legal colleagues that have been invaluable. I would not have been where I am without the support and guidance of Patricia Swansey, who was managing the Bart Gordon Fellow at the time. “Pat” has become a life-long mentor and champion of my work and career. I cannot thank her enough for the sincere care and support that she provided to me from day one and continues to provide to me as I grow and develop my career path.”

NCLC Attorney and Former MLAC Racial Justice Fellow Joanna Darcus Testifies before Congress

On June 11, Joanna Darcus, Staff Attorney at the National Consumer Law Center and a former MLAC Racial Justice Fellow, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. She discussed student loan debt and the racial disparities in student loan outcomes.

“Fairness and justice require that borrowers have the ability to enforce their rights when breached by servicers,” said Darcus. “Yet few student loan borrowers have the ability to seek redress when servicers violate their rights.” Read her complete written testimony.