The following post was written by Kee Tobar, Director of Race Equity & Inclusion at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
Not too long ago I was asked for an elevator pitch concerning what Community Legal Services does within a racial justice context. At first it was hard to condense the many things we do into an elevator pitch. After all, we help Black mothers clear their names from child abuse registries that judge a Black mother’s care for her child by her race, zip code, and financial status. We help Black people keep their homes in a city where “we buy homes” signs are as prevalent in Black communities as Eagles fans. We help clear employment obstacles such as minor records, so that disproportionately impacted Black people have a fair shot at securing employment. We do so many things, but by the end of the conversation, it dawned on me that the core of what we do is help the most marginalized Black and Brown people survive. We help people live to fight for another possibility to thrive. This has been especially true during this pandemic. Public benefits tenants’ rights, disability justice, helping with unemployment compensation and wage theft, family law, the medical legal partnership, it is all about helping the most vulnerable people within the Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) community survive, and survive with some semblance of dignity.
Often it is only us and our legal arguments that stand between swaths of the most vulnerable people of color and our carnivorous institutions and systems that feast on Black bodies. In a country where Black people feel hunted and unsafe, we fight tooth and nail for our clients’ access to safety net programs. These programs often provide the most basic protection from the potential social catastrophes that stem from being Black, hungry, and houseless during a pandemic, amid feverous social unrest.
At our best and most opportune moments, we help Black people thrive. We create policies that may change employment opportunities for generations of Black people, including policies like Clean Slate. We protect Black wealth by protecting disproportionately affected Black homeowners from exorbitant property taxes, tangled titles, and tax liens. We help Black entrepreneurs and trade employees obtain licenses in higher earning trade jobs by disrupting unnecessary obstacles to licensure through policy change. In those moments, we are able to go beyond survival, but a hard truth is that many of our clients come to us when they can no longer breathe. Our day-to-day work consists of helping Black people stand up to systems that have had their proverbial knee on their neck for lifetimes. Often, we must play the role not of the vanguard, but of the last line of defense for many Black Philadelphians.
To be clear, this essay is not written to say that the lawyers, paralegals, social workers, and administrative staff at Community Legal Services are Black people’s saviors. Black people have an enduring legacy of saving themselves in this country since 1619. Black Philadelphians follow in that legacy. Also, the white supremacy structures within the legal practice would never allow us to be a savior. However, we are the partners at the end of the road, that stand beside them and uplift their voices as they make one of the most remarkable Black histories, which is their survival story. This is who we are as Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. This is our promise to you; to keep fighting alongside you, to keep uplifting your voice, to continue being your partner in our combined pursuit for justice, fairness, and equity for all. Happy Black History Month.