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 Celebrates Advocate and GBLS Board Member Rita Dixon

Friends, family, and colleagues gathered in West Roxbury July 28 to celebrate the 90th birthday of Rita Dixon, a member of the board of directors of Greater Boston Legal Services and a longtime community advocate.

Rita Dixon

Rita Dixon, center, is honored by Pat Swansey, right, and GBLS board member Catherine Harris.

In recognition of her work and years of service, Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation Program Director Pat Swansey presented Dixon with a certificate thanking her for “her tireless pursuit of justice for low-income people.”

Dixon has served on the GBLS board since 2002. Speakers noted that, as a board member who had been eligible to receive civil legal aid, Dixon had a vital perspective that helped guide the organization’s work and ensure that the needs of legal aid clients were understood.

Dixon worked as nurse in the late 1960s and early 1970s before going back to school to become a social worker. She later served as a mediator in Dorchester Municipal Court. Still advocating at age 90, Dixon remains involved in many organizations and advisory boards to assist people in the community.

“We can say that MLAC honors her with this recognition, but really it was an honor for me,” said Swansey. “She is an inspiring advocate.”

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.

New Report: “The Growing Wave of Federal Immigration Restrictions: What’s at Stake for Massachusetts?”

Report: Trump’s immigration policies a local threat

The Trump administration’s ever-tightening immigration rules are putting the lives and livelihoods of thousands of local residents in danger and threatening the social cohesion and economic well-being of local communities, according to a new report by the Boston Foundation and the Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund.

More than 12,000 Massachusetts residents with Temporary Protected Status could be forced to leave the country because of President Trump’s policies, breaking apart families and depriving towns of homeowners and taxpayers, said the 32-page report, “The Growing Wave of Federal Immigration Restrictions: What’s at Stake for Massachusetts?”

New restrictions have a “chilling effect” on many immigrants, instilling fears that can lead them to avoid seeking government benefits. “People are chilled out of accessing programs for the public good that really are essential for all the children in our communities,” said Iris Gomez, senior staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and co-editor of the report. Read more in the Boston Globe.

City allocates $50,000 towards Immigrant Defense Fund

By Mia Cathell and Joel Lau

Mayor Martin Walsh’s office announced Saturday that the proposed 2020 fiscal year budget will allocate $50,000 to support the Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund, which helps fund education and legal services for Boston’s immigrant communities.

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute launched a two-year pilot program of the defense fund in 2017, which was supposed to end in Dec. 2019, according to the press release. However, the $50,000 dollars allocated by Walsh would “jumpstart” the defense fund’s third year by paying for counsel for approximately 30 Boston immigration cases, according to the press release. Read more in The Daily Free Press.

Editorial: A long-awaited expansion for Boston’s immigrant defense fund

Tucked into Mayor Marty Walsh’s proposed budget for next year is a new pot of public money dedicated to help immigrants facing deportation pay for legal representation. While not a groundbreaking policy idea, it nonetheless represents a progressive step in the right direction. Read more in The Boston Globe.

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation distributes immigrant defense funds to legal aid organizations and community organizations that assist immigrants in the Greater Boston area.

New MLAC Leader Talks the Legal Aid ‘Walk’ – Podcast

For attorney Lynne Parker, the 20th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid on Jan. 24 at the Massachusetts State House will be her first as the new executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). But Parker is no stranger to the world of legal aid, having worked more than three decades advocating on behalf of low-income residents, most recently in New Hampshire. In this episode, Parker talks with host Jordan Rich about MLAC’s role as one of the primary funders of civil legal aid organizations in Massachusetts and why funding for legal aid — the drive behind the Walk to the Hill event — is so vital to low-income Massachusetts residents facing life-changing legal challenges. Listen to the podcast here…

Civil legal aid saves money and is right thing to do

By Justine A. Dunlap
Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) is seeking $26 million in fiscal year 2020 to provide legal services. Fully funding the MLAC request is more than an issue of justice—it is also a very cost-effective expenditure. Read more…