The Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) is in solidarity with the protests, uprisings, and rebellions against the police killings of Black people and all forms of violence against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and trans communities.
We condemn state-sanctioned violence, white supremacist vigilantism, the continued murders of Black trans women, and all forms of systemic violence enacted against BIPOC communities. We support the call for fundamental, deep change of systems of policing and criminal justice that involve the surveillance and over-policing, incarceration, and unnecessary use of force in communities of color and specifically in the Black community. We support the demand for the abolition of police and the call to build community-based responses to violence, structures that prevent the loss of BIPOC lives, undermine mass-incarceration, and actually provide safety, reconciliation, and justice for our communities.
Our intention is to share a piece of the conversations we’ve been having internally, about the ways racial justice intersects with our work, and how we can better center racial justice in our own organization and in the work we do as part of our larger communities. We are still learning. We know that many members of our community have been doing this work for a long time. We share this because we believe it is important to be transparent about our internal process with our broader community, to foster conversation, and to keep ourselves accountable in the work ahead.
We recognize that:
- Civil legal aid does not exist outside of the prison industrial complex and legal system as a whole. Racialized police violence is inseparable from the overarching “justice” system. The civil justice system overlaps with the criminal justice system to disproportionately target and incarcerate people of color. BIPOC, particularly Black communities, regularly experience disparate outcomes and are further exposed to police violence through many civil legal processes, such as evictions, immigration, domestic violence responses, and during reentry.
- The civil legal system is not designed for low-income people. Like the criminal system, the civil justice system features structural disadvantages based on income. Legal aid organizations in California provide legal services to low-income Californans every day to increase access to justice and level the legal playing field, but the need is massive. There is just one legal aid attorney for approximately every 5,500 eligible Californians. Around 85 percent of low-income Californians cannot get legal help when they need it, an issue that disproportionately affects BIPOC communities and further perpetuates the disparities inherent to our legal system..
- Systemic racism is embedded in all aspects of the civil system, just like the criminal system. Housing advocacy is one crucial example. The eviction and foreclosure defense work done by legal aid organizations is situated within, and often working to counteract, a history of racist housing and economic policies like redlining and restrictive covenants. Evictions are disproportionately experienced by Black people, especially Black women. Nationally, Black families are 26 percent of all extremely low-income renters, and Black people are 40 percent of those experiencing homelessness and more than 50 percent of homeless families with children.
LAAC’s mission is to support the legal aid community by, in part, advocating for laws and policies that support legal aid and low-income Californians. This mission cannot be achieved without attention to racial justice, in law and policy towards a goal of transformative structural change.
- Externally, we must uplift law and policy that supports racial justice. Civil justice is racial justice. We should be striving to work ourselves out of a job by abolishing the systemic issues rooted in white supremacy that create these circumstances in the first place. Law school graduates and current attorneys working in legal aid at member organizations are passionate about helping their clients immediately—to keep them housed, to get a temporary restraining order, to challenge a public benefits denial—but they also want structural change. From the Judicial Council and State Bar to state government, as part of our mission to increase access to justice, we must center an intersectional racial justice approach to guide necessary, transformative changes. Solidarity with and accountability to local non-institutionalized organizing and activism is critical as well.
- Internally, we must promote racial justice and equity at legal aid organizations, including LAAC. The legal aid community, particularly its leadership, is predominately white, while the communities we serve are mostly low-income communities of color, due to the inequitable distribution of educational access and debt. As a non-profit organization, we are part of the non-profit industrial complex, and participate in and perpetuate systems rooted in white supremacy, which implicates issues like board composition, and our ability to do work in a way that is truly accountable to our communities. Recruitment and retention and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) must go beyond optical allyship and empty policies toward a true pursuit of racial justice. While all attorneys deal with vicarious and secondary trauma and burnout, attorneys of color may experience these issues differently or more acutely. Rather than just creating more diverse organizations, we must engage with structural changes to make sure that BIPOC employees are valued and supported in our organizations, and grapple with the deep considerations of how to ensure our organizations are truly accountable to the communities we purport to serve. We recognize that these, and many other changes are necessary, in our own organization and the broader legal aid community.
From our internal conversations over the last few weeks, we are committed to better centering racial justice in the work that LAAC does, and engaging fully in the possibilities of how we can use our position to further racial justice.
As an organization, LAAC does three things:
- Advocates for more money for legal services in the state budget, better laws for legal services organizations and their clients, and for more effective policies and procedures through both the State Bar and the Judicial Council.
- Trains legal aid providers in-person and online.
- Creates community for our member organizations, helping colleagues from around the state to share best practices, resources, and litigation strategies. LAAC also offers benefits to our members to help them operate more efficiently so they are able to better serve their clients.
We are committed to intentionally incorporating racial justice, anti-racism, and social justice into these program areas and LAAC’s mission. Here are the specific steps we commit to taking within these three main pillars of our work. This will be a living document as we continue these discussions:
- Lifting up and supporting legislation that engages issues of systemic racial injustice, especially legislation involving legal aid and civil justice issues affecting low-income Californians, such as Dr. Weber’s current bill to form a task force to study reparations.
- Highlighting issues of recruitment and retention in relation to race and racial justice, including advocating for increased salaries for legal aid workers (attorneys and other advocates).
- Engage with our advocacy and coordination work to mobilize our community in support of racial justice law and policy, including supporting abolitionist alternatives to police such as transformative/restorative justice responses to DV/IPV .
- Advocating around educational justice and issues of public interest drift, debt, and bar passage in relation to racial justice.
- Engaging and adequately compensating BIPOC trainers to do trainings and lead discussions for the legal aid community, including around vicarious trauma and mental health, whiteness, the role of violence in movements, and more.
- Increasing our offerings of racial justice, implicit bias, and anti-racism focused trainings for the legal aid community.
- Creating specific training and educational resources around racial justice and anti-racism for the legal aid community.
Coordination, Communications, and Member-Benefits:
- On our social media and various platforms, we commit to lifting up Black voices, legal advocates, organizers, and initiatives. Additionally, we commit to platforming important critiques of civil legal aid and the justice system coming from BIPOC communities to foster important conversations in how the legal aid system might better serve justice and transformative change.
- We are committed to creating member benefits specifically for Black and POC attorneys and advocates.
- We are committed to lifting up wellness and mental health resources for activists and organizers working to fight for racial justice. As we continue to do wellness events, we commit to create dedicated spaces for racial justice conversations.
- We commit to utilizing LawHelpCA.org, California’s statewide legal information and referral directory website, as an additional platform to share legal resources for activists and organizers working towards racial justice in their communities, and to fully engage with the many possible ways that a legal information website can further racial justice.
While we feel strongly that legal aid can play an important role in supporting organizing for racial and social justice, we need to be fostering relationships with community based groups. We know that legal aid organizations do not always show up for their larger communities, and that there is a legitimate distrust of nonprofits and our ability to enact meaningful social change. We recognize the ways in which nonprofits can diffuse and redirect the momentum of social movements. We do not shy away from this. And while there are no easy answers we are committed to leveraging our position to enact meaningful social change while being accountable to the larger community. In that spirit, we want to center and uplift the organizers and organizations on the ground who are already doing racial justice work on a local level, and encourage the broader legal aid community to continue strengthening their relationships with the organizations in their communities working towards justice. Locally, here are a few suggestions and resources of Bay Area local groups that LAAC staff has compiled:
Local Organizations + Chapters
The Legal Aid Association of California