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Encouraged to Change, Determined to Serve


Encouraged to Change, Determined to Serve

CLS Intern Yvelisse Pelotte's reflections on race, poverty, and the need to serve.

I was educated at inner city public schools and received my bachelor’s degree from a Pennsylvania state school. I am an obvious racial minority in my classes at Temple Law School and I am an obvious racial minority at any event hosted for attorneys, the exception being those hosted by the Black Law Student Association. I do not have any attorneys in my family and I am not “connected”, like many of my colleagues. Despite these “challenges” I consider myself lucky because I am a first generation college graduate and I have had the privilege of participating in things my parents and grandparents did not. I am articulate and hard working and have done well for myself. I am respected by my peers and the professionals that I encounter. I have one year of law school left; however, based on the precedent within my family, I have ostensibly made it. And therein lays the conflict.

When I meet people they assume, based on the way I speak, dress, and carry myself, that I must be the daughter of upper middle-class parents. They assume that I was raised in a suburban neighborhood and likely have rode through life feeding from a silver spoon. When I tell people I was born in the South Bronx and raised in Harlem they do not believe me. While I accept these as compliments that speak to the way I carry myself, I am often offended by the implication that people from a certain place must look, act, or speak a certain way. Based on the way I present myself and my academic success no one understands why I would be dedicated to public interest.

I am encouraged to get a job at a big law firm so that I can make a lot of money. I am encouraged to change my path and mold myself to fit into the box others have painted for me. I have been told, as recently as yesterday, that dedicating my life to public interest is a waste and I should be determined to serve -- myself. These people are who I believe Dr. King was referring to in his Drum Major speech when he spoke of those who do not “harness” their drum major instinct. They become self absorbed and engage in snobbish exclusivism. They “become forces of classism”. I have seen first hand the effects of exclusivism and classism and I am determined to avoid perpetuating it.  It is not until I divulge the “secret” about my upbringing that people slightly begin to understand my passion for serving inner city and impoverished individuals. It is only when I explain my upbringing that people begin to understand my disdain to be painted into their box of the type of attorney I should become.

I have not traveled through life feeding on a silver spoon but I have fed on the sadness I experienced growing up in poverty and being faced with a lack of food, sub par education, violence, addiction, and homelessness. Having experienced the effects of poverty drove me to endeavor to lift myself, and my progeny, out of it. Additionally, it drove me to strive to lift others out of it, too. When people encourage me to change my rebuttal is: I am encouraged to change! I am encouraged to change the way people view those who were born into and live in poverty. I am encouraged to change the way the system treats low income citizens. I am encouraged to change the status quo. I am determined to serve my community and the poor because I realize that while making a lot of money is nice, when I die God is not going to ask “how much did you make this year?” I recognize that neither my education nor salary make me better than any client that walks through CLS’ doors. I recognize that through serving the poor and underprivileged I am serving myself because at any moment I could be where they are.

I am blessed to be finishing up my second summer as a Martin Luther King, Jr. Intern. This summer I had the privilege of working in the landlord tenant (private housing) unit of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. The advocates are extremely intelligent and knowledgeable in the area. Despite their having worked in the field for decades, they are extremely optimistic and high spirited. The landlord tenant practitioners embody a sense of hope that I envy. They have spent years hearing stories that would rob even the most optimistic person of the belief that they can change things, yet they still believe that they can make a difference. George Gould, Linda Ware Johnson, Mike Carroll, Noe Hernandez, and Leandre Jackson still become impassioned and outraged when they hear what clients face and then allow those feelings to translate into zealous advocacy. Years of seeing how flawed the system is has not deprived them of the belief that it can be changed but encourages them to work harder towards effecting permanent change.

The stories I heard this summer were absolutely awful. The people I counseled lived in conditions most people would not believe possible, let alone legal. The people I advised faced treatment by other individuals and governmental agencies that people with money never would. I sought to assist where possible and was able to provide varying levels of help, ranging from referring clients to privately run tenant organizations to representing clients in court. Unfortunately, there were times when I was unable to assist because a client had no legal defense to the claim raised by their landlord. Unfortunately, there were times when I was unable to assist because a landlord’s behavior was criminal and not within our jurisdiction. Unfortunately, there were times when I had to give a client bad news and explain that there was no way to avoid, or prolong, their imminent eviction. I suppose for every positive outcome we obtain for clients there is a negative outcome for another. In those situations I sought to be a listening ear, often the first non-judgmental ear a client has had regarding their legal issues. In those situations my role as an advocate morphed into the role of an empathetic person who provided empowerment and advice on how to proceed in the wake of imminent transition.

This summer in Philadelphia has magnified my desire to serve because, unlike the struggling private sector, there are masses of clients in the public sector seeking to be helped. Whereas private attorneys are creating crafty ways to attract new clients, Community Legal Services turns dozens of clients away on any given day. The need to serve is greater now than ever before because there are so many people counting on our services and if we do not do it, it will not get done. This summer in Philadelphia has given me a greater sense of hope and has reminded me of why I have chosen to harness my drum major instinct and am encouraged to change and determined to serve.

Yvelisse Pelotte is an intern in CLS's Housing Unit and a Martin Luther King, Jr. Intern.