Executive Director’s Blog, March 2021

Categories: Advocacy, eNewsletter Story, Executive Director blog, Homepage, News

Genevieve Richardson, Executive DirectorDear friends of Bay Area Legal Aid,

The lives taken from us over a full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the hugely disproportionate share of trauma and loss that has fallen to low-income families, Black families, Indigenous families, other families of color, and immigrant families—these demand that we enter the second year of the pandemic open in our grief, unapologetic in our outrage, and committed to address failed systems and build a better future for all of us. As I write this note on March 8, 2021, we are approaching one full year since the first regional and statewide shelter-in-place orders that marked the beginning of a public response to the pandemic. In that year, we have lost more than a half million lives in this country—more than 50,000 of them in California. We have seen how the long, disappointing history of neglecting and undermining our social safety net has hampered effective public health responses and exacerbated the impacts of the pandemic on financial stability, housing, personal and family safety, and access to public goods. And we have seen with more clarity than ever how a long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism and white supremacy stands behind the deep inequities in who is most harmed by the public health emergency.

Our losses and experiences demand that we are unstinting in our gratitude for those who have fought and continue to fight to turn this tide. I am thankful to the healthcare workers, the social workers, the housing and homelessness support workers, the youth workers, the workers who keep our food system running, and so many others.

I am just as deeply grateful to all of the staff at BayLegal, with whom it is my great privilege and pride to work. During the past year BayLegal staff pivoted on a moment’s notice to remote work to ensure we could keep serving our clients. They moved in-person walk-in legal clinics online, created a large set of self-help materials in areas including housing, youth justice and education, consumer rights, public benefits access, and reentry, working with community partners to develop new ways to get the word out broadly online to ensure that these materials are accessible to those who need them and are used. They have worked under difficult and unpredictable circumstances to keep clients housed, safe from violence, and connected to healthcare and safety net programs. In addition to continuing to work with their individual clients, they focused on the most pressing legal aspects of the pandemic’s disparate impacts, advocating for large-scale changes to protect consumers, tenants, LGBTQ healthcare users, immigrants, and youth in the foster care system. An overview of our systems advocacy work over the past year can be found here.

Throughout the pandemic, our advocacy has also focused on the fundamental issue of safe and equal access to civil court system. Just as COVID-19 has further exposed great disparities throughout our society, it also further exposed the inequities of access to our courts and the unique COVID health dangers presented by court operations. BayLegal together with our partners across the state identified the vast disparities in access to remote appearances, fees that make access inequitable for low-income litigants, and unsafe courtroom practices – all varying by courtroom, department and county and most often disproportionately impacting low-income litigants and litigants who are Black and brown. BayLegal has advocated for consistent equal access to remote appearance options and for in-person court safety protocols based on clear, scientific standards. We have addressed our concerns and recommendations to our local courts and the Judicial Council. Recently this advocacy has included testimony before the Committees on Judiciary of both houses of the California Legislature, advocating for statewide standards for access and safety for all litigants in California.

Our work is only possible because of your partnership and support. Thank you to our pro bono partners who have supported our online clinics, and to firms like Keker, Van Nest & Peters LLP, who have provided invaluable support as co-counsel in our San Francisco housing court advocacy. Thank you to our public and private partners that recognize the importance of civil legal aid, our donor law firms, and all of the individual and corporate donors who continue to make our advocacy possible. It is worth noting that, during a year in which reliable sources warned us to expect a 20-30% decrease in donations, we closed our 2020 Annual Fund campaign just shy of our 2019 campaign total. We were fortunate that more individual donors joined as Partners in Justice despite a tremendously precarious economic year for most families. And we have started our 2021 campaign with our largest-ever gift from cornerstone donor firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati.

Each of you has helped to make our advocacy and impact possible—whether as a donor, a community partner, a volunteer, and/or an individual who makes time and holds space to share the importance of civil legal aid and social justice during “normal” times and times of crisis alike. We rely on your attention and your advocacy for our work as much as we rely on the financial generosity of those of you who donate. Thank you!

As we begin to escape the daily dangers of the pandemic, the urgent work remains to protect and reduce the economic harm to low-income individuals, families and communities, to address the lessons of the pandemic to strengthen our safety net, and to ensure full and equal access to our courts, and a better future for all of us. I look forward to working together towards these goals!

Yours in partnership.
Happy International Women’s Day!

Genevieve Richardson