Change: “to make or become different.” When we contemplate the meaning of change within a context of social justice, it broadens not only to making something different, but ideally improving or enhancing. However, change–the results of compounded efforts over time–does not imply universal progress; just as it can build, it can equally oppress and recede. Nevertheless, with an intention of betterment, change can be a sequence of positive events that occur as the result of structured and defined goals. Embodying this at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, our ultimate goal is to provide free representation to low income and marginalized communities in the greater Boston area, responding in a way that addresses the poverty-inducing sins of systemic racial, social and economic inequalities.
I can recall a conversation I had the other day with clinical instructor and director at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Esme Caramello. We discussed her experiences working at HLAB, and some of the most significant injustices she’s witnessed at the courts during her time. One issue that stood out over others was the disparity of representation among tenants and landlords in the housing courts. While ninety-three percent of tenants are unrepresented during trials at the housing court, seventy percent of landlords are represented.
The other week, I was able to witness this great discrepancy firsthand. Assisting counsel members at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse for an event known as “Attorney for the Day,” I helped direct and prepare unrepresented tenants for their court cases. In supplement to the assistance I was able to provide, I had the opportunity to sit in and observe ongoing cases in the courtrooms. The number of tenants who were unrepresented in court was overwhelming. As I sat on the bench in courtroom 12, alongside individuals who faced the very real possibility of being evicted or losing their homes, I could only imagine how daunting it would be to partake in a court case without legal guidance and representation. In observing these cases, the advantages that represented landlords had over their unrepresented tenants was extremely evident. Without proper legal guidance or representation in court, the justice system will always be skewed to favor the party who has the privilege of legal representation. In this, the systemic racial, social, and economic inequalities that poverty is the result of will only be preserved.
The nonprofit legal work that the Bureau and other organizations do is integral to activating and sustaining social change. Targeting our social justice issues at the roots of the problem, from a systemic legal standpoint, is crucial for change to occur. But how can we measure and quantify change? How can we be certain that the work we are doing is making an impact? At the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, a multitude of clients have walked through our doors in search of legal aid. While the outcomes of these cases differ notably from each other, if HLAB is able to provide representation, guidance or even support, I believe we are making progress towards change and a justice system that provides equal opportunities for all. Quality legal representation should not be a luxury afforded by only the privileged, but a service accessible to everyone. By exerting the mission of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, we will influence positive change and create a ripple effect; influencing continued efforts for change and ultimately a justice system that works equally for the justice of all.