I doubt you’ve ever been in the Massachusetts statehouse. If you had, you would (I think) agree with me that it is one of the most confusingly designed buildings that ever existed. Gorgeous, don’t misunderstand me, but the floor plan is absolutely perplexing. And there’s a place there called the “bullpen.” I’m still not entirely sure where that is, but people kept talking about it while I was there.
I was in the state house for the first time on Jan. 24th, as a – don’t judge me – lobbyist. Or really more accurately, lobbyists’ tour guide. But for a really good cause, I promise.
Last summer, I was introduced to Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) a bit when I interned in their Elder, Health, and Disability Unit. This year, I’ve been continuing doing this kind of work with BU’s Civil Clinic, which is run out of GLBS. (Speaking of, remember this case? We won!) GBLS provides civil legal aid to low-income folks in the Boston metro area. Civil legal aid means all legal services people might need that aren’t criminal, so that includes: housing (evictions, bad conditions, subsidized housing denials), food stamps denials, Medicaid/Medicare denials and/or reductions, employment discrimination, Social Security denials, domestic violence, immigration, etc. GBLS does phenomenal, important work.
That work (like practically everything else) costs money. Lawyers have to be paid, subscriptions to WestLaw/Lexis purchased, rent checks written, lights kept on, internet working, etc. And this money can’t come from clients, because the entire point of GBLS is that it’s there for folks who don’t have money to pay for private attorneys. That means money comes from state and federal grants. And in this current economy, the government is not so much in a granting mood.
However, Governor Patrick did indeed meet the civil legal aid groups’ budget request, which is a huge relief. It’s not enough to rehire the dozen plus attorneys GBLS laid off in 2007/2008, but it is desperately needed. Generally, in this kind of situation, GBLS staff would go to the state house and lobby legislators to vote for Governor Patrick’s budget, and they do a bit of that. But the thing is, GBLS staff aren’t really the beneficiaries of that money. It’s the clients, not the staff, who should be talking to the legislators. So GBLS contacts former clients, finds out who wants to tell their stories to legislators, and arranges for them to come to the state house.
On Jan. 24th ( a day with a negative wind chill at 11:00 a.m., the kind of cold that involved ribbed tights, two pairs of socks, boots, pants, tank top, shirt, sweater, parka with fake-fur-lined hood, earmuffs, all-you-can-see-is-my-nose bundling up), 86 former GBLS clients showed up at the state house, and I was one of the volunteers who showed them around. Each volunteer (all former/current GBLS staff) had a handful of volunteers to take around to their state representatives and senators. I had three people to show around, people who were former clients of other GBLS attorneys.
Listening to them talk to legislators was awesome. I should be clear: GBLS is limited by funds and personnel, and so its results are limited. Moreover, GBLS, and legal aid attorneys generally, function in what is ultimately a relatively unjust and impoverished system – so, again, limited.
But even within those limitations, GBLS lawyers have done incredible work to support incredible people as they try to get courts to recognize their rights. Because the law does provide that even the most impoverished among us have rights, but those rights only matter if there are lawyers to convince courts to respect them. And the lawyers will only be there if the lights at GBLS are kept on.