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Supporting those on the front lines of civil justice is both a moral imperative and a pragmatic necessity for Kresge

Human Services

Thank you, Jo-Ann (Wallace, president and CEO), and thank you to the entire board and staff of NLADA.

I want to express the gratitude of my colleagues and the trustees of The Kresge Foundation. We’re moved by this recognition – but are also sufficiently self-aware to know that we’re not the ones here who deserve recognition. We’re proud partners, supporters, funders and advocates of NLADA and peer organizations and projects tackling the access to justice crisis. But we’re not on the front lines. We’re not the ones facing wrenching choices daily, in a barren funding environment, in the face of justice gaps that are horrifying in scale and wrenching on a human level, at a political moment that creates every disadvantage for the least well-off. We rarely directly see the challenges clients face, the trade-offs they have to make, the many ways in which both the criminal and civil justice systems impact their life trajectories and those of their families. You, the folks in this room, are the ones succeeding in spite of those odds. So we’re honored, and also a bit red in the face. As funders, we’re only as relevant as the good work of our grantees and their allies, so we’d like to accept this award on behalf of all of those partners.

I will, in a moment, describe some of the courageous civil legal visionaries and practitioners that Kresge supports – many of whom are here today. But first, a story and confession: about how my eyes were opened to the civil legal justice crisis, and how Kresge came to the issue as a national foundation.

Civil justice was a blind spot for me until law school. As for so many of us, it was a client’s circumstance that opened my eyes. He was a refugee facing deportation, living in poverty in one of America’s wealthiest counties. His dire legal prospects were only one ingredient in a stew of toxic stress faced by his family: mold their landlord refused to address; an addiction crisis they couldn’t afford to treat; employers that took every advantage of their mixed immigration status; financial debts that were debilitating to even begin thinking about. Each of those circumstances threatened to upend their lives. His story, their story, has stayed with me since. They were the family that came into my life, but their circumstances were depressingly emblematic of how, for low-income Americans, problems – particularly legal ones – aren’t discrete and tidy, but come in overwhelming, interconnected waves. And of the reality that the folks who most need legal support are the ones least likely to find it or afford it.

The importance of civil legal aid for low-income Americans is what brought Kresge to this work. We are a national foundation dedicated to expanding opportunities for low-income Americans in cities, and we apply a racial equity lens in doing so. We support, among other things, the upstream determinants of health, comprehensive community development, and post-secondary access and success throughout the United States. But those disciplinary silos break down as soon as we intersect with the work of practitioners and the lives of real people. We have always found that some of the most profound barriers to success are cross-cutting, such as asset development and food and housing security. And, present throughout, are legal complications that engulf low-income Americans. In short, it became clear to us at Kresge several years ago that we could not hope to expand opportunities if we weren’t willing to directly talk about and apply our resources to address the justice gap.

I know that sounds blindingly obvious to everyone here, but it couldn’t be less so for many, many folks outside of this room. My favorite party trick these days is to ask folks at Kresge and other foundations when they think people have a right to a lawyer. Eviction? Child custody? Domestic violence? Bankruptcy? Deportation? The answer always stuns people, it never fails. And these are folks who have dedicated their careers to poverty and justice issues. That, to me, suggests two things:

  1. Given what I just admitted about my behavior at parties, I’ll understand if you steer clear at the reception later today.
  2. Civil legal aid is a blind spot for national foundations. And it’s an odd one at that. It’s something nearly every major foundation funds in one way or another – in tackling housing, health, education or social services challenges – without really realizing that they’re doing it, and without focusing on it as an issue in its own right.

Beyond the obvious communications challenges, I think what’s happening is that the line between things that do and don’t affect liberty – Gideon’s line of demarcation – doesn’t really translate well when we’re talking about losing one’s home, job, security, or family. For non-lawyers, it boggles the mind that, in the face of those life-altering circumstances, the least well-off among us often have to fend for themselves. It doesn’t seem like what America is about, or what it should be about.

So, in our small way, Kresge has been beating the drum – with a handful of peers like the Public Welfare Foundation, the JPB Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts – to make civil legal justice a more central priority for national and local philanthropy. Our view is that it is and must be seen as part of an essential continuum of services that can help people find their way to the economic mainstream. Sandy Ambrozy, who is here today, has led much of that work – she makes herding cats look easy. I urge you to talk to either of us if you would like to get a better understanding of what national foundations are up to and where those efforts stand. But suffice it to say, the scale of resources pales against the scale of the challenge.

That makes it all the more remarkable to reflect on our brave and courageous partners who are succeeding and innovating in spite of all the challenges I mentioned earlier – and despite our collective philanthropic abdication. There are so many I could call out, but they include:

  • Voices for Civil Justice, a national communications hub that is raising awareness about the role and value of civil legal aid.
  • The Self-Represented Litigation Network’s work in spearheading a culture shift toward consumer-oriented practices so that people can get the information they need, when they need it, and in a format they can use to help solve their legal issues.
  • NLADA’s efforts to integrate civil legal aid into federal programs, significantly increasing funding flows and advancing more integrated and effective assistance to clients.
  • The Justice for All Project, which is spurring innovations and building powerful coalitions at the state level, to help create a more holistic, effective and fair civil legal system from the bottom up.
  • Rhode Island Legal Service‘s Holistic Legal Network, which has become a model for developing a continuum of supports for low-income people, in deep partnership with the human services field; and
  • The National Center on Medical Legal Partnerships, which has highlighted the degree to which civil legal aid both helps address the social determinants of health – and is one in its own right.

There are so many other partners I could and should name – from the Shriver Center to Mary McClymont’s work at Georgetown to LSC and on. But the essential point is, to the extent Kresge deserves any sort of shout-out, it’s because we’ve been lucky enough to be connected to those partners. They have also helped sharpen our thinking, raising up questions like:

  • How can we better integrate the justice and social services systems to better support people and prevent issues from becoming legal matters in the first place?
  • How can we better elevate and scale local innovations that are making headway on the justice gap from the bottom up?
  • How can we “flip the script” by expanding the power and agency of low-income clients – to make the legal system less a source of toxic stress and more a problem-solving infrastructure for them?
  • What might a system look like that is user-centered, rather than being designed for and by lawyers and courts? What policy and regulatory assumptions should we test given persistent gaps in access to justice?

Those are big questions, and I don’t pretend to have the answers to them. But they define the next generation of Kresge’s work – and are increasingly, finally, on the minds of major national funders. We at Kresge see the justice gap as one of the great challenges to the American dream and to our identity as a nation that aspires to justice and fairness. We see it as both a moral imperative and a pragmatic necessity to support this work, and it’s a privilege to be doing so with such remarkable, innovative partners.

Thank you.