Four weeks ago, I started volunteering at Public Advocates, curious and eager to explore how this nonprofit law firm implements its multi-pronged approach to create systemic change for low-income students and students of color in California. Having worked as a law clerk in other offices, I was accustomed to typical legal work: researching legal issues, drafting memos, doing discovery work for my clients and fact-finding. I came to Public Advocates, however, to learn how this traditional legal work contributes to the organization’s community partnership model and fuels policy change. Fortunately, my first weeks included two powerful visits with Public Advocates partners in Mayfair (a neighborhood in San Jose) and in Richmond.
My first meeting on the ground was with Somos Mayfair,* a grassroots immigrant-led organization whose mission is to “cultivate the dreams and power of the people of Mayfair through cultural activism, social services and community organizing.” We met with passionate parents of English learners (ELs) from low-income backgrounds, who were committed to increasing academic outcomes for their children and making their district more inclusive. The parents voiced concerns about a lack of translation and interpretation services at their schools and the achievement gap between ELs and non-ELs. They questioned the impact of the district’s spending and its approach to engaging the community in the decision-making regarding these state dollars, which California’s Local Control Funding Formula requires. While at times it tested my Spanish comprehension, I got a true sense of this community’s needs, and I understood what they needed from us: answers, advocacy and ideas.
The following week, my supervisor Rigel Massaro and I met with a coalition of organizations devoted to educational reform in West Contra Costa Unified, in Richmond.** During the meeting, Public Advocates shared data regarding the achievement gap and issues to remedy as the community works with the district create its Local Control Accountability Plan for 2015-2016. Yuritzy, a community organizer with Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, led us in a “Movement Building” exercise, where she separated the floor into spaces labeled 1) systems change, 2) personal transformation, and 3) alternative institutions. Each label, she explained, was a crucial facet in any movement. Yuri asked us to stand in the space or spaces that represented each of our organization’s contributions to education advocacy in Richmond. Rigel and I stood in the “systems change” box, others stood across spaces, and one person even stood in all three. The goal was to understand what we each brought to the coalition, so we can delegate effectively and create longlasting individual and systemic change.
Yuri summarizes the categories
of the group’s educational goals
After the activity, each member of the group scribbled on post-it notes their goals for educational change in Richmond. After posting and categorizing our goals, everyone individually checked off a few goals that they felt were either high priority needs or highly achievable within the next year. This activity led the group to a much better sense of its priorities and how we would work together to effect change.
I have taken two important lessons from these meetings: 1) Legal advocacy requires a solid understanding of the community’s needs you are trying to impact; and 2) Advocacy is strongest when advocates are diverse and include all stakeholders (in the case of education: parents, students and community members). Public Advocates would not have its track record of success without input from involved parents, students and community groups — essentially, the “public.” (Hence the name.) I’m sitting in the office writing this blog post, but I would not be able to do so without going into the community. Now I know my research and analysis is directly fueling the advocacy of the parents, students and communities Public Advocates partners with. So far, volunteering at Public Advocates has been much more than a typical legal clerkship.
*“Somos Mayfair” translates to “We are Mayfair.” Visit their website
**Representatives from the following groups attended the meeting: Education Trust-West (ETW), Youth Enrichment Services (YES), RYSE Youth Center, The Latina Center, and CCISCO.