Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants Calls for Increased Civil Legal Aid at Walk to the Hill

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants joined hundreds of attorneys, law students and others last week in calling for increased state funding for civil legal aid to vulnerable low income Massachusetts residents in need at the annual Walk to the Hill at the Massachusetts State House.

“The good news is that the legislature in the past few years has been great to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation; between fiscal years 2018 and 2020 the legislature has substantially increased the amount appropriated to MLAC,” Chief Justice Gants said. “We are blessed with a legislature that knows the importance of civil legal aid to this Commonwealth and has acted on that knowledge. Our legislators ‘get it’…But that good news is also the bad news, because it means that legal services still turn away more than half of the eligible persons who come to them seeking legal assistance.”

Organized by the Equal Justice Coalition, the event called for increased funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the largest funding source for civil legal aid organizations in the state, by $5 million in the Fiscal Year 2021 state budget, for a total appropriation of $29 million… Read more in The Chelsea Record.

Chief Justice Gants, hundreds of attorneys call for increased civil legal aid funding at Walk to the Hill

Advocates request $29 million to expand access to representation in FY21

Kenda Cluff, a client of South Coastal Counties Legal Services, speaks at Walk to the Hill. Photo Credit: Elbert John

Tenants are fighting evictions in the midst of a housing crisis. Veterans are battling war-time injuries and legal issues. And a growing senior population is facing poverty and serious legal problems. Those are just some of the reasons the Commonwealth should provide more funding for civil legal aid, said Chief Justice Ralph Gants at the 21st annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid at the Massachusetts State House on January 30.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants

Chief Justice Ralph Gants speaks at Walk to the Hill. Photo credit: Jeffrey Thiebauth

Chief Justice Gants spoke in support of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation’s request of $29 million for civil legal aid in the Commonwealth’s FY21 budget—an increase of $5 million compared to current funding levels. The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation is the largest funder of civil legal aid organizations in Massachusetts.

Approximately 700 people—attorneys from nearly 40 firms and companies, law students (including 95 from the University of Massachusetts School of Law), legal aid staff, and advocates—gathered for the annual lobby day.

Kenda Cluff, a mother of four young children and a client of South Coastal Counties Legal Services, described how legal aid lawyers helped her end an abusive marriage, gain sole custody of her children, and prevail in a lawsuit filed by her former in-laws seeking her share of the divorce settlement.

Kenda Cluff

Kenda Cluff shares how civil legal aid helped her and her children. Photo credit: Elbert John

“I know there are many people out there who are desperate to get out of awful situations like mine,” Cluff said. “The work these legal aid lawyers do is so important. It has a generational effect. My children’s lives are completely changed because of the help we received from legal aid. Without legal aid, my three daughters would think abuse is acceptable. My son would think it is okay to be abandoned or to abandon. I’ve given them new opportunity to move into a different direction in life. These types of changes have a ripple effect in this world.”

Unfortunately, insufficient funding for legal aid organizations forces them to turn away the majority of eligible people who seek help, Chief Justice Gants said. He urged the attorneys and law students gathered in the Hall of Flags to advocate on their behalf: “You speak not for yourselves, but for all those who have neither money nor power, but who might have the law on their side, if only they knew how to use it.”

Gants also emphasized the economic benefits that civil legal aid brings to Massachusetts and its residents: “Remember that a dollar devoted to legal aid is not merely an investment in justice; it has also been proven to be a sound economic investment that returns roughly between two and five dollars to the Commonwealth for each dollar spent.”

Civil legal aid organizations have received funding increases from the legislature in recent years, and speakers noted the continued need for that support. “More money for legal aid means more qualified people who get a lawyer,” said Louis Tompros, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, a collaboration of MLAC, the Boston Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Bar Association.

UMass Law students

More than 90 students of the University of Massachusetts School of Law advocated for legal aid at the state house. Photo credit: Elbert John

Legal aid makes a “long-term difference in the lives of low-income residents in the Commonwealth,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. “One of the greatest strengths of legal aid advocates is their expertise, their capacity to confront and overcome the challenges that face our clients – life-threatening housing conditions, homelessness, domestic violence, deportation, loss of employment, elder abuse and neglect.”

Parker added, “Legal aid is vital to the health of our communities, the health of the judicial system, and the state’s commitment to access to justice.”

Christine Netski, president of the Boston Bar Association, said a growing number of immigrants are overwhelmed by the prospect of facing the court system alone. She recounted the story of Daniela, a young woman from Brazil who had become pregnant with twins as the result of a sexual assault. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began removal proceedings, but with the help of MetroWest Legal Services, she was able to avoid deportation and obtain a U visa. She now has steady employment and is working on her high school diploma.

“Immigration issues like those faced by Daniela are especially prevalent today,” said Netski, noting that the MLAC-funded Greater Boston Immigration Defense Fund is “one of the great legal services programs working to increase access to the justice system for members of our immigrant communities.”

Massachusetts Bar Association President John J. Morrissey lauded the pro bono efforts of lawyers across the state to provide free representation to unrepresented civil litigants. “But efforts of our volunteers alone cannot reach the goal of providing vital legal services to people in need,” he said. “We need more funding for civil legal aid programs so that legal aid attorneys don’t have to turn away more than half of the people that come to them.”

In closing, Cluff, the client of South Coastal Counties Legal Services, said, “I have no idea how much the help from the lawyers at South Coastal Counties would have cost. But it is priceless to me. It is my hope that sharing my story in front of so many unfamiliar faces will help a mother out there who is not willing to take another turn in an awful cycle of abuse.”

The Telephone Is A Lifeline For Prison Families. And Calls Are Outrageously Expensive

By Bonita Tenneriello and Elizabeth Matos, Prisoners’ Legal Services

Nehemie Sans-Souci, a mother of two, works at an assisted living facility 80 hours a week and also, somehow, manages to study for her nursing degree. Her husband William is incarcerated. While Nehemie visits him as often as she can, much of the time the telephone is their only connection — and the high cost of those calls means she loses that connection for a week or more at a time.

“Sometimes I get stressed because of school, work and kids, and I just want to talk to him, and I can’t,” she says. “It just gets me frustrated and I’m sad.” While the free world barely notices cheap, flat-rate phone calls, prison families pay sky-high rates. Nehemie and others who have incarcerated loved ones regularly have to ration their love, because they can’t afford not to.

In many Massachusetts counties, a 15-minute call can cost $5, $6 or more, plus outrageous administrative fees. How many of these calls a day does it take to help a child with homework, to reassure a spouse or a mother that their loved one is okay? Normal communication can cost thousands of dollars a year. This forces an agonizing choice when a loved one calls from prison — whether to accept the call or buy groceries… Read more from WBUR.

Leticia Medina-Richman: Local organization provides free legal services to immigrants, refugees

Leticia Medina-Richman, Central West Justice Center

I was pleased to read Razvan Sibbii’s Jan. 6 column (“The resistance, as organized by immigration lawyers”) calling attention to issues that immigrants are facing at the border, and highlighting what attorneys like Megan Kludt are doing to address this crisis.

I commend Kludt for her volunteer work and for her advocacy for immigrants and refugees. While the crisis at the border is understandably the focus of much press, I want to remind our community that the Central West Justice Center (CWJC), an affiliate of Community Legal Aid, Hampshire County’s legal aid organization, also provides critical free legal services to immigrants and refugees who are unable to afford a lawyer and would struggle to navigate the complex American legal system on their own… Read more in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Our View: When you need a lawyer

Nobody wants to think about lawyers amid their New Year’s revelry and resolutions, but odds are good you’ll need legal help at some point during 2020.

If you get arrested and hauled into court, you have the right to a lawyer even if you cannot pay for one. Clarence Earl Gideon’s handwritten appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the unanimous ruling that came in his case in 1963, assured us of that.

Not so much if you have to go to court to handle a civil matter, say, to ask for help collecting unpaid child support from your ex or to fend off creditors who want to dip into your paycheck. Those who can least afford a lawyer are the ones most disadvantaged. If not for the help of legal assistance programs, justice would only come to those who can most afford it.

All of which is something to bear in mind later this month when a group of legal professionals walk to the Statehouse to call attention to funding needs for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. The organization supports legal aid throughout the state, as well as specific programs aimed at helping people living with low incomes or who may have trouble finding a lawyer.

Last year, about 700 lawyers participated in the 20th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. This year’s walk is scheduled for Jan. 30… Read more in The Eagle Tribune, and learn more about Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid from the Equal Justice Coalition.

EJC presents Beacon of Justice Awards to 13 champions of legal aid

The Equal Justice Coalition honored nine legislators and four attorneys at the Massachusetts State House with Beacon of Justice Awards on Nov. 12. The honorees were selected for their significant support of state funding for civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid organizations in the Commonwealth, aiding nonprofits that provide critical legal assistance to low-income residents facing serious legal problems, such as foreclosure, eviction, and domestic violence. View photos from the event.

The Beacon of Justice award winners are:

– Rep. Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge)
– Sen. Vinny deMacedo (R-Plymouth)
– Sen. Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett)
– Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton)
– Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield)
– Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the Massachusetts ACLU and former chair of the MLAC Board of Directors
– Marty Healy, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Legal Officer, Massachusetts Bar Association
– Rep. Ronald Mariano (D-Quincy)
– Rep. Aaron Michlewitz (D-Boston)
– Lon Povich, Counsel at Anderson & Kreiger and former Chief Legal Counsel to Governor Charlie Baker
– Sen. Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport)
– J.D. Smeallie, Partner at Holland & Knight and former Boston Bar Association President
– Rep. Todd Smola (R-Palmer)

Gants, Parker, and Benner Browne

From left: Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, Lynne Parker, Marijane Benner Browne

“Through their efforts to increase funding for civil legal aid, these legislators and lawyers have shown tremendous leadership in their support for access to justice for all residents of the Commonwealth,” said Lynne Parker, MLAC executive director. “Legal aid can have profoundly positive effects on people facing eviction, domestic violence, lack of access to benefits, and other serious civil legal issues. We’re grateful to these award winners for their commitment to legal aid, which boosts not just individuals, but also their families and communities.”

Rep. Michlewitz and Monica Halas

House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz with Monica Halas of Greater Boston Legal Services

The Equal Justice Coalition also celebrated more than 100 legislators who were named Supporters of Justice. Each of those senators and representatives co-sponsored amendments to increase MLAC’s appropriation in the Massachusetts state budget for Fiscal Year 2020. Civil legal aid organizations and the people they serve rely on these legislators’ dedicated, bipartisan support.

Rep. Decker and Marty Healy

Awardees Rep. Marjorie Decker and Marty Healy

For the first time, the Equal Justice Coalition acknowledged past Beacon of Justice Award recipients who are longstanding champions of civil legal aid by naming them to the Beacon of Justice Hall of Fame. They are: Senate President Karen Spilka; Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem; Senate President Pro Tempore Will Brownsberger; Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler; Sen. Mark Montigny; Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr; House Speaker Robert DeLeo; Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad; House Assistant Majority Leader Paul Donato; Rep. Ruth Balser; Rep. Claire Cronin; Assistant House Minority Leader Brad Hill; Rep. John Rogers; Congresswoman Katherine Clark; Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey; and Justice Robert Cordy (retired). View photos from the event.

Rep. Smola and Lynne Parker

Lynne Parker presents a Beacon of Justice Award to Rep. Todd Smola (photo credit: Mary Ann Walsh)

The Equal Justice Coalition is a collaboration of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, Massachusetts Bar Association, and Boston Bar Association. It advocates for increased funding for civil legal aid, through the line item for MLAC. The largest funder of civil legal aid in Massachusetts, MLAC funds legal aid organizations across the state that provide advice and representation to low-income Massachusetts residents facing serious civil legal problems.

Photos: Elbert John

Summer Interns reflect on learning about legal aid

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation hosted four interns this past summer to provide area students with work experience supporting civil legal aid.

MLAC staff was sorry to say goodbye to this smart and dedicated group of interns as they prepared to return to school. Each left us with a reflection about their experiences interning at MLAC this summer.

Leah Grannum, Suffolk University student studying Government
This summer, I had the pleasure of interning with the Communications department and the Equal Justice Coalition. I wrote articles for the website, assisted with fact sheets/website layouts, and helped during the budget process for FY20 by delivering letters to state legislators, updating excel sheet information, and gathering information about legal aid partners. One article I wrote explored past and present Bart Gordon fellows. My role was to research fellows who have done and continue to do tremendous work within civil legal aid. This project particularly interested me because I was able to reach out to different Bart Gordon fellows who continue their work today. There was never been a moment where I did not enjoy a project or task given to me. I used the time I was given as a learning experience. I learned skills in word choice when writing different articles, how to navigate excel sheets, and how state legislators play a role in the budget process.

Leah Grannum

Leah Grannum

I had the opportunity to attend MLAC’s first statewide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion professional development conference: Disrupting Cycles of Inequity: Expanding Racial Equity in the Legal Profession. At this conference I was able to dive deeper into microaggressions, poverty law, race equity, among many other great sessions. This conference was a great way to meet others who are involved in legal aid and play an integral role in legal assistance.

There are no words to express how grateful I am to my supervisors, along with the other interns at MLAC. I am very happy to say that my supervisors and others within the office served as mentors to my experience. I always gained helpful feedback from all of them on the projects I was working on. I appreciate how MLAC made me feel safe in my working environment as well as included.

The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office was a great aspect of my experience. Knowing that the organization promotes diversity inclusion within a work space environment and within legal aid is amazing. Identifying as a Black woman in the Law & Public Policy field means that as I continue in my education to a job, I will be serving the needs of people who I racially identify with. This is important to me, because I want to be able to serve the needs of marginalized communities who face racial discrimination. I know that I have a connection to policy work that directly affects low-income people of color, therefore, I want to continue to advocate for people who are systematically profiled and targeted.


Julia Ganley, Yale University student studying Sociology
While taking time off from earning a B.A. in Sociology, I had the privilege of interning in MLAC’s Data department. My primary project was a demographic study of low-income Massachusetts residents. Over the course of the summer, I developed a tool for estimating the distribution of seven demographic characteristics, including race, sex, and disability status. This tool expands MLAC’s ability to understand Massachusetts communities and serve them equitably. In its role supporting local legal aid organizations, MLAC can use demographic statistics to answer questions such as: How large is the Latinx population in our region? Is it fairly represented in our clientele? What percentage of our clients have disabilities? Do folks with disabilities face barriers to receiving our services?

Every day, my research impressed on me the magnitude and multidimensionality of inequality in our state. Data analysis is a powerful tool for documenting this inequality, identifying underserved communities, and measuring the impact of policies and programs. My internship gave me a concrete understanding of how to apply my skills to the issues that matter to me. I gained confidence using Excel to clean, analyze, and display data from a variety of sources. I also learned to navigate the U.S. Census Bureau’s database. Census data is available to the public; nonprofit, for-profit, and government organizations make use of it. My experience at MLAC equipped me to utilize this resource, and I look forward to doing so in my career.

Julia Ganley and Kimberly Alexander

MLAC interns Kimberly Alexander (left) and Julia Ganley

My supervisors introduced me to best practices for analyzing data and writing reports in a nonprofit environment. I noticed how Michael Raabe’s experience as a legal aid lawyer informed the practices of MLAC’s data department. He guided me in writing reports that are readable and reproducible for MLAC employees, and directly useful to providers of legal services. In every step of my research, I was challenged to consider: Who will read this report? What will they use it for? What do they want to know?

The MLAC Data Summit put my research in context. Representatives of more than 10 LAOs met to discuss a new data collection initiative. This initiative, in conjunction with the tool I developed, will enable MLAC to perform important demographic comparisons. It will also present challenges for the client-facing organizations collecting the data. I listened as they brainstormed ways to streamline data collection and discussed the nuances of asking for personal information in the client-advocate relationship. Sometimes folks struggle to fit their identities into the categories offered in demographic surveys. Advocates and intake workers will need training in how to ask these questions effectively. Attending the Data Summit was a highlight of my summer. It gave me insight into the relationship between MLAC and the LAOs it funds, and it complicated my thinking about how human identities are represented by data points.

As the second intern to work on this project, it was clear to me that MLAC values the diverse perspectives of its interns. My supervisors, Michael Raabe and Martha Rogers, supported me in exploring multiple approaches and asking critical questions. Folks at MLAC expressed genuine interest in my input, as well as commitment to stewarding the next generation of public servants. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this project and the movement to make real justice accessible to all Massachusetts residents.


Bria Gambrel, Simmons University student pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy and Gender and Cultural Studies

Bria Gambrell

Interning at the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation has been incredibly rewarding. During my tenure as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Intern, I was able to co-create a conference highlighting racial inequities in the legal profession titled Disrupting Cycles of Inequity: Expanding Racial Equity in the Legal Profession, organize and plan professional development opportunities for both MLAC and grantee programs, and curate content and resources for MLAC and our grantee programs to continue using for years to come.

I came into this role having cursory knowledge about legal aid—like most interns I would assume!—but during my time I’ve learned about the process of receiving legal aid, as well as what it takes to keep the engine of the entire system running smoothly. My experience has shaped my understanding of legal services and has opened my eyes to the possibilities of access to justice for underrepresented people through legal aid.

With this knowledge, I intend to build on my experience and continue doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work in the legal profession, and possibly attend law school to receive my JD.


Kimberly Alexander, Boston high school student participating in the Boston Bar Association Summer Jobs Program
My experience at MLAC has been quite enjoyable. I have been working on various administrative projects around the office. I have also been able to speak with different departments that I’m interested in to get insight and gain more knowledge about what their department entails.

My internship has taught me about being in a workplace with adults, instead of being in a classroom with other students. It has given me a change of environment. I enjoyed being out of my comfort zone, learning new things about the work environment, and gaining more work experience.

A highlight of my experience was that I had the opportunity to visit four legal aid organizations that MLAC funds to gain more insight and knowledge about legal aid and advocacy work. I visited organizations such as Political Asylum/ Immigration Representation, Volunteer Lawyers Project, Massachusetts Advocates for Children, and Victim Rights Law Center.

This internship has affected my thinking about legal aid and my career plans. Since middle school, I have been passionate about history and civil rights. Legal Aid means more to me now and I truly have a better understanding of it. Regarding my career plans, I am interested in possibly having a career that focuses on advocating for those in need.

MLAC Announces $24M in state appropriation funding for FY20

BOSTON – After receiving $24 million in the Massachusetts budget for Fiscal Year 2020, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation has announced that it will award the funding in grants to 16 legal services organizations in FY20 – its largest-ever round of state appropriation funding for legal services organizations in Massachusetts.

“We are thrilled to provide greater financial support to the organizations providing civil legal aid to the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents in times of crisis,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “Legal assistance can have profoundly positive effects on people facing eviction, domestic violence, lack of access to benefits, and other serious legal issues. Increased funding means more people can receive help, which boosts individuals, families, and communities.”

The $24 million provided to MLAC in FY20 is an increase of $3 million over the previous year. MLAC is the largest funding source of civil legal in the Commonwealth.

The legal aid organizations that receive funding from MLAC provide critical civil legal aid to struggling people who otherwise would not have legal representation in serious civil legal matters. In most instances, people qualify for civil legal aid if their annual income is at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,188 for a family of four.

The legal aid organizations receiving MLAC funding in FY20 include regional legal aid organizations — which provide advice and representation to low-income people facing civil legal issues related to housing, health care, public benefits, immigration, domestic violence, and other serious legal issues — and statewide legal aid organizations that specialize in certain areas of law and serve clients statewide. The organizations receiving funding are:

Regional legal aid organizations:
Community Legal Aid, with offices in Fitchburg, Northampton, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester
De Novo Center for Justice and Healing, based in Cambridge
Greater Boston Legal Services, with offices in Boston and Cambridge
MetroWest Legal Services, based in Framingham
Northeast Legal Aid, with offices in Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn
South Coastal Counties Legal Services, with offices in Brockton, Fall River, Hyannis, and New Bedford

Statewide legal aid organizations:
Center for Law and Education, based in Boston
Center for Public Representation, based in Newton
Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, based in Lynn
Disability Law Center, based in Boston
Massachusetts Advocates for Children, based in Boston
Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, based in Boston
National Consumer Law Center, based in Boston
Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project (PAIR), based in Boston
Prisoners’ Legal Services, based in Boston
Veterans Legal Services, based in Boston

About MLAC
The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation is the largest funding source for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts. It was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low-income people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice and representation. For more information, please visit: www.mlac.org.

MLAC welcomes Jeffrey Catalano and April English to Board of Directors

BOSTON — The board of directors of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation is welcoming two new members: Jeffrey Catalano, partner at the Boston law firm Todd & Weld LLP, and April English, Chief of Organization Development & Diversity at the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General (“AGO”). Catalano and English were appointed to the MLAC board by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Jeff Catalano

Jeffrey Catalano

Catalano brings to the board a longstanding commitment to public interest law and the value of civil legal aid. He has served in numerous leadership positions at the Massachusetts Bar Association and as a pro bono attorney for Massachusetts Advocates for Children (an MLAC-funded organization), and currently he serves as a commissioner of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.

In addition to her record of public service at the AGO, English brings expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion to help advance MLAC’s leadership in promoting DEI in civil legal aid organizations across the Commonwealth.

April English

April English

“Jeffrey and April bring valuable experience and wisdom to the MLAC board – qualities that will benefit people in need of civil legal aid to address crises in housing, family, public benefits, and other urgent issues,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “I’m glad they are willing to be so generous with their time and expertise to help some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable people.”

Marijane Benner Browne, chair of the MLAC Board, said she was looking forward to working with Catalano and English. “Jeffrey and April will enable us to continue the important work of the Board, as they join us upon the retirement of two talented board members whose service to MLAC has come to a close. Guillermo Gonzalez and Rahsaan Hall have provided valuable guidance and knowledge to MLAC. I will miss them both and am profoundly grateful for their service to MLAC and to civil legal aid,” she said.

Gonzalez, a psychiatrist in private practice, who joined the board in 2014, served as medical director of the Center for Health and Human Services, Inc., in New Bedford. Hall is the director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. He has served on the MLAC board since 2009 and preceded Benner Browne as chair of the MLAC board.

About MLAC
The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation is the largest funding source for civil legal aid in Massachusetts, funding nonprofit legal aid organizations that help low-income people facing serious legal issues related to housing, domestic violence and family law, employment, disability, health care, public benefits, consumer protection, immigration, education, and elder law.

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.