NLADA Conference 2022
Suzanne Small, Board Member of both Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) attended the conference in-person last October in Washington, DC.
Daphne Lopes, Board Member at VLP, attended the virtual conference in December.
Suzanne thought the conference was very good overall; she appreciated being back after such a long time and seeing all the people she knew.
Suzanne thought the workshops were excellent, and really enjoyed the pre-conference that was geared toward the client advocate, “Leadership is Everybody’s Business.” She shared that this workshop “encouraged us to have a clear space in our advocacy to work toward being the best leaders we can be; to work with NLADA, build our skills, learn how to have the qualities that a board would want from us to engage with our community to best serve the marginalized communities we have, and to use our own story as a motivating force.”
Suzanne had attended other NLADA conferences in the past and was familiar with other board members from around the country. It was good to catch up and network, and in the process learn how to support each other as board members. In addition, it was helpful to find out about what other boards are doing and how they are leading in their communities. For example, she learned that the board of a San Diego based organization is going out to festivals in the community and wearing t-shirts to advertise what they do so that they can have a better following/outreach.
Suzanne also found it valuable to be able to come back to GBLS and VLP and share what she learned.
Suzanne’s background is in advocacy for mental health and people in the disability communities—”or, as I like to call them, people with all abilities.” Her goal is to work toward equity and empowerment for people in these communities to get the legal support they need.
She said, “I try to use my own story as someone with lived experience in mental health to broaden people’s awareness and try to find out how we can get pro bono lawyers to help represent people when they are challenged by the system, and to help when people are discriminated against. That is my true story: to help educate and bring power to that community.”
Overall, Daphne said the sessions were very good and she truly enjoyed the experience. While she had some technology issues in the beginning (her screen kept glitching during the wellness session), she soon was back on track and could participate fully. Her favorite session was “Doing the Work: Creating and implementing a race equity plan in real life.” She appreciated the real talk and specificity of the presentation.
Her goal at these events is to know enough and be comfortable enough to one day become a client member of the NLADA Board.
“I am always a voice for the voiceless,” Daphne says. “That’s why I ask that every client Board Member at [Volunteer Lawyers Project] has a mentor. We need to acknowledge the imbalance of power.”
Daphne appreciated that at the NLADA conference, there is no hierarchy among attendees.
“Nobody is better than anyone else,” she says. “We’re all there at the table. It is a equal playing field and we are all there to learn. We are all empowering those less fortunate.
Key Takeaways/ Learnings
Suzanne was impressed by how much of a presence diversity, equity, and inclusion had in the workshops offered at the conference. She saw “the force behind trying to make an inclusive workspace for everyone, and how important it is to have equity and inclusion in the workplace and our general community.” It was powerful for her to see “the focus we need to have on that subject right now, to manage and advocate in that arena.”
Suzanne recalled one advocate who told her story about how she was impacted by legal aid when she was a client. At the time, this person didn’t have, the know-how or experience to represent herself. She described how she was supported by an attorney.
“It brought a whole new change for her,” Suzanne said. “It helped her in her legal battle, and she was able to give back to her community by becoming an advocate. She is one of our elders and mentors in the client advocacy community right now.”
The advocate’s story reminded Suzanne of her experience as a client of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) with a housing issue, and the role she plays now as an advocate who “supports clients in their housing battles including discrimination.”
“That was one thing that brought home for me what our work is all about,” she said.
Daphne learned about how other organizations use affinity groups in their DEI work internally and wondered if that model could be employed at Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP). She also liked the idea of “Wellness Wednesdays” to encourage staff to engage in self-care and take breaks to recharge.
Daphne also was interested in hearing about how some organizations are making the case to funders that their case numbers may be down because they have been focused on systemic issues, which can take attorney time away from individual client work. She applauded one organization’s allocation of 5 hours a month for each attorney to devote to systemic advocacy initiatives.Daphne related to a lot of the discussions around microaggressions and the experiences of Black attorneys and legal aid staff members who opened up about being marginalized and demeaned. She also shared her own experiences as a client board member and gave helpful advice about how to effectively include clients as valued members of the board.
Suzanne envisions using what she learned at the conference to “continue to gain progress in our advocacy.” Suzanne serves both on the board of GBLS and VLP, and is the assistant chairperson of the client caucus. This year, one of the client caucus’ goals is to educate housing advocates. They are planning a workshop to bring together resident coordinators in the community and educate them on legal topics, so they can in turn represent the people they support in their housing districts.
Specifically, Suzanne will use the knowledge and skills she developed to educate housing advocates about outreach and self-representation tools. “The legal community cannot serve everybody,” she recognized. She and her co-chairperson are planning this workshop for VLP. With GBLS, they are in the process of doing outreach as members of the client caucus, “to share our stories in the best way that we can, to tell how the legal community has impacted our lives and what we do in paying it forward, and help impact the lives of others.”
Suzanne also shared that her legal services board work is transferrable to her day job at Bay Cove Human Services and vice versa. At Bay Cove, she supports people with behavioral health conditions who are homeless or who do not have insurance. Some services the organization provides people with are therapy, psychiatry, homelessness advocacy, and helping connect clients with people who can support them in finding housing. Suzanne has coordinated with the director of Bay Cove to present to client caucus members.
After the conference, Daphne said she felt empowered, invigorated, and re-energized to take what she learned and bring it back to VLP. Specifically, she is going to talk about racial equity initiatives and opportunities to do more of this work.
While she missed going to the conference in-person and networking with other people in the legal aid community, Daphne was grateful for the opportunity to attend the conference virtually. She took pages and pages of notes! She said the other attendees and speakers felt like her “spirit brothers and sisters” and that the experience is powerful for client board members because it “makes us feel like we’re equal, and empowers us to give knowledge and receive knowledge.”
A Call to Engage More Client Board Members
Suzanne shared that “overall, it was an awesome conference, though I feel that we didn’t have the representation we usually did at previous conferences.” She looks forward to (after the pandemic) encouraging more people to “come out, learn, and engage in this wonderful effort of getting together with the legal community—like they say, ‘speaking truth to power.’”
Suzanne said that MLAC has been great in providing financial support for her to attend the conference, and she hopes it can continue to support more board members who want to attend the conference.
Suzanne also shared, “It would be great if client board members were offered training on how to enhance our public speaking skills and help us in our ability to present workshops. I have presented at two conferences with workshops, entitled Your Mental Health Matters and The Importance of Self-Advocacy. I am always looking for opportunities to hone and enhance my presentation skills.”