Friday, June 15, 2007

A Wild Idea

Last Monday I finally made it to NYC to visit the Bronx Defenders office I had heard about in February. It was a six-hour trip from Harrisburg, involving a car, a boat, three subways, and a commuter train, and I doubt I'd have made it if Ryan had not taken the day off work to be my navigator.

When we got there the executive director Robin Steinberg (whom I had met at the Norman Amaker Public Interest Retreat in February) met us and showed us around the office. It is larger than I expected, especially given its unassuming store-front appearance from the outside. The design is open, with few walls, and low cubicle dividers. There are brightly-painted accent walls, artsy posters, and high ceilings. The waiting area has toys and books, and the receptionist frequently occupies children while their parents consult within. The cubicles are arranged in "teams." Each team has a few defense attorneys, a family law attorney, a case worker, etc. Clients are assigned to teams rather than individuals, so that their particular situation can be addressed holistically. Most people do not have a criminal defense problem; they have all kinds of interwoven problems.

Robin is energetic, and has the passion and sense of mission of an evangelist. She is proud of the fact that Bronx Defenders does not follow the usual model of legal aid, but she'd change it in an instant if she thought another model would benefit the community more. She takes her clients personally. I cannot imagine the emotional energy she must have to still be outraged each time one of her clients gets the short end of the stick.

So here's my crazy plan:
1. Work in legal aid, perhaps at the Bronx, for a while to get my hands dirty and learn where the unexpected difficulties are (not to mention how to handle the expected difficulties).
2. Start my own model somewhere else. I will need:
  • Funding. While I was in PA, Ryan took me to the Hershey factory museum (cool place, btw). As we drove around Hershey, he pointed out all the evidences of non-profit money from the Hershey foundation being slung around the community. Federal non-profit law requires that foundations spend at least 5% of their money every year to keep their tax-exempt status. For Hershey, this is a LOT of money, and they hardly know what to do with it. They are almost driven to tearing things down just so they can spend money rebuilding them in the most expensive way possible. I wonder if I couldn't write a proposal inviting them to spend some of that money in a more constructive manner.
  • Location. If I used Hershey money, it would need to stay in PA, preferably connected to the Hershey community or mission to make the project attractive to the funders. Hershey and the surrounding communities, however, are relatively well-off and may not really need legal aid. Probably I would need to go to Philly to find my clients. Robin confirmed that Philly would be a fantastic place for a legal aid clinic. There is currently a very traditional public defenders office, but little is being done in other areas of law, and the need there is great. How to pitch it to the good folks at Hershey? Hershey founded a boarding school for underprivileged, inner-city kids from Philly. The school is located in Hershey, but the kids' families are still in Philly. I can serve their families.
  • People. I can't run a clinic by myself. I need lawyers, social workers, folks with heads for business and people. A clinic like this would need talent, vision, and dedication. And organization like crazy. So if you like adventure, helping people, and low pay, keep the idea in your mind and make sure your phone number stays in my files. One day I may call you.


ryan said...

Clearly, I think it's a fantastic idea, but a few items for consideration:

1) The kids from the school come from all over the state, not just Philly. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have the highest number of underprivileged kids in the state, so a lot will come from there, but there will also be kids from Harrisburg, Lebanon, Lancaster, Scranton, etc. An attempt to serve those families might involve a good bit of driving.

2) The school currently directs parents to PA Legal Aid, which suggests that either they aren't interested in providing such services or that they can't get involved, one or the other. It's still worth the sales pitch though.

3) This is still an awesome idea.

Becca said...

1) I would have to check the charter and bylaws of the Hershey foundation to see whether spending money to benefit others outside Hershey or the students' families would be ultra vires. If not, I just have to make it sound politically expedient. If so, I actually have to make it legal, and that could be harder.

2) The school may direct them to PA Legal Aid simply because that is all that is available. That doesn't mean PA Legal Aid is adequate or that they can't do more. I think most states have a legal aid line, and that is just the standard answer to the "I'm poor and I need legal help" question. Could be wrong.

3) Thanks! Wanna donate? :-)

Stephen said...

I like the idea although I don't understand the full impact of it. I just think we need to move Hershey to Florida.

Do you need a programmer? Maybe if you can't move Hershey to Florida, can the programmer telecommute?

Becca said...

You bet! One thing working at the ND clinic has taught me is the importance of having a good database for client records. You could build one for us.