Forbes interviewed social entrepreneur and HLS alum Lam Nguyen Ho ’08 on his work to get legal aid powered by the community through working with community-allied lawyers and community groups in Chicago. Ho is the executive director of the Community Activism Law Alliance (CALA), which he founded with an HLS Public Service Fund Venture Grant. CALA unites lawyers and activists to help their communities access justice and pursue social change. In 2017, Ho received the Gary Bellow Public Service Award for his efforts to improve the legal aid industry and he contributions of over 3000 pro-bono hours in service to clients.
Read a snapshot of the interview about his work with CALA below:
Q: In broad brush strokes, how does legal aid work now?
A: Legal Services Corporation, a federal government program set up in 1974, largely controls what we know as legal aid in this country and funds it about half a billion dollars every year. It serves a great good and reaches many low-income people and communities. I’ve worked as a legal aid lawyer for more than a decade and I’ve seen and done remarkable work with LSC support. But there are big and growing gaps. One is that overall funding has dropped 60 percent in the past decade, making the system and its lawyers completely overstretched and locking out many who urgently need legal help. Even beyond funding, though, there are real structural limitations in how legal aid operates.
Q: What are the limitations?
A: For one, legal aid lawyers and organizations funded through this system can take on only some cases. Over 20 case “types” are excluded, including people facing gross injustices and civil liberty infringements like undocumented immigrants, sex workers, anyone who’s in prison. Class action lawsuits and anything related to organizing are also excluded which basically limits lawyers to individual not systemic level legal work. Another excluded case type is school segregation — I mean, it’s 2018 and if a legal aid lawyer sees a case with school segregation issues, they can’t be involved in it.
Q: What’s the relationship of lawyer to community?
A: Lawyers and legal aid programs tend to work by themselves, in silos, not really connecting to the communities they support or the changemakers working on the bigger changes. What I saw in my time in traditional legal aid was basically this: we’d take on individual cases and we would “solve” somebody’s eviction, we would “solve” their domestic violence situation. But we would never connect with those groups working at the systemic level to correct, say, gentrification causing displacement and mass evictions of entire communities, or cultural currents that make violence at home more likely. So the relationship of lawyer and community is critical and we’re missing opportunities for impact. It’s where we see the biggest chance for change.
Q: So what you are proposing… how does Community Activism Law Alliance step in?
A: At CALA, we believe the law should be a vehicle of social change. In our model, legal aid is community located, community operated and, most importantly, community directed. This means that everything we do — deciding who gets legal services, what types of cases we handle, what hours, what location — is co-created with and ultimately directed by the community partner. Why? Because our partners are the ones connected to social movements. By letting them lead we end up leveraging the movement work and the movement priorities. This adds up to bigger impact, beyond what most individual cases can contribute. It also shifts the power of the law into the hands of communities and people most directly impacted.
Q: You started CALA in 2015 in one community, Little Village in Chicago. What’s your reach now?
A: We’re working in and with 16 community groups and 20 programs across Chicago and Lake County, and we have more demand than we can meet at current capacity. The work is philanthropically supported, giving us more freedom to do what we know is needed most. And because we’re embedded with communities, we are supported with office space, language and translation services, and administrative support, making this model cost effective, with greater potential to scale nationally. We’re starting to build our vision of an alternative network of legal programs that are powered by the people, by the community.