Something I have already quickly learned as a new attorney is how there can be a division between the more legalese intensive parts of the work (writing briefs, preparing legal documents, etc.) and connecting with those we are waging justice with. I’ve noticed that when there is too much time away from the community or people—I feel a growing sense of disconnect. And working alongside people in the movement is a fundamental component of this project—it’s why I gave everything away and am even doing this in the first place. So, wherever I am in this journey, I will be reaching out to learn as much as possible about the community I am lawyering in.
Comité Meetings in Delano and the Right to a Public Education
Last Thursday, I attended the monthly California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) Delano Comité meeting—a space where local residents meet with the lawyers in our office to talk about legal issues facing the community. The topic of last week’s Comité was about accessing rights to public education in Kern County. One of the attorneys gave a very thorough Know Your Rights presentation of student and parent rights in one of California’s most turbulent counties for public school education.
As of the 2009-10 school year, Kern High School District topped the state of California in expulsion rates—even when compared with much larger school districts—and it is an exceptionally high rate for minority students. Since then, the district has changed the way it reports expulsion and involuntary transfer data to the state, but still transfers disproportionate numbers of black and brown students to inferior alternative schools as compared to their white peers. A number of parents and their children were present at this meeting—asking thoughtful questions about ensuring a safe and just environment for their kids at school.
The Comité is an important space in the local legal aid office, as it allows the attorneys to hear more about what is really going on. Plus, as I mentioned last week—it is super important for attorneys to be able to be accessible and even receive advice from these Comité members so that the legal aid office is better able to serve, represent, and educate clients and the community at large. I watched parents passionately ask questions about their children’s schooling, as their kid(s) looked on—also wondering about their rights. I thought about each of those conversations blossoming further outside of the Comité meeting—and felt hopeful about the possibilities of more open space and dialogue being created.
I was also struck by how welcomed I was by the Comité members—feeling like a part of the group and not as an outside visitor. I always strive to be mindful and sensitive of the communities I am visiting—I am fully aware of my visitor status and want to strike a balance of respecting those who live in the community long-term and offering my legal assistance. One woman in particular really went out of her way to make me feel welcome and we chatted and joked around in Spanish. In that moment, I felt like I had been in Delano for much, much longer than 3 weeks. I felt at home.
It is in these moments—when I am sitting down with a client for a housing/employment law intake, for example—that I feel the most alignment with myself. I won’t lie: when I first got to Delano/Bakersfield, I felt overwhelmed with the enormity of what was ahead. That sense was only magnified by the feeling that I was worlds away from coastal California—away from anyone I knew. It was a lonely and isolating start. But something has been built here; something that has allowed me to peer into this world in the Central Valley and see what exists. More light is cast through conversations I’ve had with the two attorneys in the office who have become friends; during intakes with clients who have shared their struggles; and meeting other legal/community advocates who have shared their perspectives of working out here.
LGBT Issues in Rural California
Last week, CRLA’s awesome LGBT Program Director also came to the office to talk about how LGBT issues impact rural areas in the fight for justice. It was a very informative session—and the main takeaway was that there are not enough resources for our LGBT brothers and sisters in our rural areas. If there is a severance of familial/work-related ties, it can often be difficult to locate readily available support in the Central Valley. There was discussion about how to make our office more outwardly LGBT welcoming—such as placing rainbow stickers on the door to signal that this is a safe space for all clients to come to. We also discussed how during a client intake, it is very important to always ask how a client identifies—which can be a highly important initial signal that this is a safe space to share. Some claims that have walked through offices involved discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. It is arguable that it is even of more importance to create safe space in a rural environment that is more conservative and can be non-welcoming of our LGBT friends. We as attorneys must align ourselves with being allies in the interests of our diverse clientele and obtaining justice for them—and be deliberately intentional of creating that space.
Farmworkers and impact litigation
I also had the chance to meet with one of the former counsel for the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) last week. The UFW is still doing amazing work out here in California’s Central Valley. During the scope of our conversation, he estimated there were no more than a couple dozen progressive, social justice oriented attorneys in the entire Central Valley region fighting on behalf of farmworkers (!). We talked about the competitive legal markets in nearby Los Angeles and San Francisco and it seemed almost unbelievable that there was such a lack of attorneys here in the Central Valley. We also discussed how his independent firm separate of the UFW is the only group in the entire Central Valley that is exclusively dedicated to representing farmworkers in impact litigation cases. Note to attorneys: not only is there a market for jobs in our rural areas, but the need is absolutely critical, too.
I know that I am a visitor to Delano and am only here for a relatively short period time—but I truly feel as though I have learned so much from the attorneys here in the CRLA office, other advocates here, and the community itself. And throughout these conversations, I see hope for an even better future ahead. If I feel that I am in the zone with writing a memo or other legal brief—all I need to do is start a conversation and learn from those around me. And from that, usually profound things unfold—as well as the further motivation to get out there in an unknown land—and start to make it feel like another home.