Living and working in the Bronx
Time is flying here in the Big Apple -- I'm here for less than 2 weeks before moving on a 'lil further south to Philly. It's been busy here in NYC; Thursdays I am still running the free immigration services clinic at the Mercy Center and Fridays I am at St. Luke's. Wednesdays I am working over in Jackson Heights in Queens. This past week, there were a handful of different stories which really landed on my heart in a powerful way.
One of the things that I have been very fortunate in being able to do over these past 15+ months is for the most part, work in the community that I am temporarily living in.
Right now, I am living with my 4 other housemates here on E 138th Street in the South Bronx. I walk to both of my clinics on Thursdays and Fridays.
There is something about just being a 15 minute or so walk away -- and knowing that the majority of your clients are neighbors -- this is highly important to me. Nearly everywhere I have been, there is this mystification of the law. And I think a role of the community lawyer is to help demystify it -- to make it more lateral and accessible.
Lately, I've been feeling a sense of recognizable connection with the East Coast -- I grew up here (in Lowell, MA). My extended family here in the states is out in Cleveland, OH, relatively close by. Now that it's almost mid-October, the seasons are changing and there is a brisk feeling to the air. The leaves are changing colors. It reminds me unmistakably of something that I think I've been longing to rediscover -- that sense of a base, a home. The feeling alone is a welcome one for a traveling lawyer who has been on the road for nearly a year and a half.
NYC will be a place I will be continuing to give much thought to in terms of a place for longer-term anchoring one day. Like every other place, it has its pros and cons.
But yesterday, while walking around in the West Bronx, I came across this intersection that very eerily reminded me of an intersection in my hometown of Lowell, MA. It was this visceral feeling of familiarity -- something that has only happened to me a handful of times on this journey and it was something for me to take note of.
My client is my neighbor
Last Thursday, I walked the 11 or so blocks to E 149th to the Mercy Center clinic. That day, I saw a handful of clients with different claims.
The way I've chosen to run the immigration-based clinics is based on limited scope representation. Mainly, if I can help them represent themselves (pro se) -- that is the main goal in this particular clinic. I advise them on their claim as much as possible without directly representing them -- and they aren't paying a penny for counsel in the process. I also have been very happy to answer general immigration questions for folks in the neighborhood, which happens rather frequently.
That day, a woman from Guinea and her son who already had asylum here in the United States were applying for green cards. I sat with them and answered questions -- and told them I'd do a final check of their application before they send it in to USCIS. The mother told me that money was a big concern for her and when someone else had told her about the Thursday clinic I was running -- she wanted to be sure to take advantage of it.
I was happy to not be able to charge her for legal help -- and again, thank you for all your support which absolutely enabled this to happen.
That afternoon, another woman came in with her elderly Ecuadorean auntie. Her auntie was born during World War II and just became a naturalized citizen recently -- and unfortunately, lost her naturalization certificate. When I had asked to see the woman's ID, I noticed that she lived on the same street as me, about 4 buildings down.
"We're neighbors!" I exclaimed when I checked out her ID. I told her I lived down the street. We all kind of threw our hands up in the air as in discovering some sort of truly happy news -- which it was.
We talked about the senior citizens home across the street from us. The police station a couple blocks down. How the neighborhood was doing overall. I thought about how I walk down the street and frequently see some of my neighbors playing dominoes -- and I estimated that it happens right in front of my client's home.
What I want lawyering to look like
When I think about the longer-term, the model of community I want to be building for myself and living in -- it looks a lot like this.
One of the things I am passionate about the most is a lateral form of lawyering. In this past week alone, I've had a handful of clients tell me that they have been intimidated by lawyers they have worked with in the past. They didn't feel comfortable asking them questions about their case. They felt the lawyer/client power dynamic at work. It saddens me and frustrates me to hear that about my profession.
But I want to see a form of lawyering where after a confidential attorney/client meeting at a clinic, I can see them outside on the street and ask them about how their day is going. Ask them about what's new in the community and how their family is doing. I want my work to feel like more than just a job -- but rather a contribution and investment in my community's well-being.
One of the things I enjoy doing wherever I am currently living is researching the hell outta the history there -- statistics -- whatever I can learn and get my hands on. Where I am currently living in the 15th congressional district -- is statistically the poorest and most Democratic district in the US. As a result of families living here for generations (versus other parts of NYC where there is a lot of transience), there is active community organizing in this part of the city. This is a part of New York City that is very community focused.
All the places I have been have been so largely formative and impactful on me, but I think when it is time to plant down some roots (still a 'lil ways off, but on the horizon) -- this experience here in the Bronx will be highly illustrative to how I will make those choices.
As for my neighbor and client -- she and her auntie are coming back to the clinic this Thursday where I will help them complete their application to send off, and hopefully they will have one less thing to worry about. In the meantime, I hope I run into them on our street sometime -- I hear those dudes out in the front play a mean game of dominoes.