Saturday, 27 February 2021 13:09

Community Legal Services levels the playing field for Philadelphians




Chris McPherson

The Eagles continue to support nonprofits that work to reduce barriers to opportunity and end racism. In support of Black History Month, the Eagles are proud to recognize the work of one of these nonprofits each day.

Kee Tobar is just one in a long line of shining examples of Community Legal Services’ commitment to fighting for social equality. She is the organization’s first race, equity, and inclusion director, helping to keep Community Legal Services accountable both internally and externally. Not many legal entities in Philadelphia have someone with that title.

It’s extremely important for an organization like Community Legal Services to have someone in that role because it is the largest legal services group in the city and the overwhelming majority of its clients are minorities — 70 percent are Black — who are unable to navigate the justice system in the same manner as people from wealthier backgrounds.

Yes, Community Legal Services does what its name implies by providing legal services, but it’s just one of a three-pronged approach to impacting the underserved communities. Community Legal Services also advocates for policy and systemic change based on what its team sees around the city. And it works with the community to educate the residents on the pertinent issues so that they are invested in the fight.

Community Legal Services actively engages with Philadelphians by meeting them where they are, whether it’s community centers, schools, or shelters. Of course, the pandemic has shifted most of the clinic work to a virtual manner, but the need significantly increased. People lost jobs and needed assistance filing the paperwork to get benefits. Community Legal Services also increased the fight against environmental racism as Black and Brown neighborhoods around the city can be as much as 20 degrees hotter in the summertime. There is an increased need for power to cool these residences, but the lack of income pushed families to the brink of losing their utilities. Community Legal Services stepped in as local cooling centers were also removed as an option due to the pandemic.

The pandemic also brought the social justice movement to the forefront and Community Legal Services is capitalizing on the momentum. Its extensive network of successful lawyers is more direct and deliberate in its policy aims, "screaming it out," Tobar says — specifically the Child Abuse Registry’s impact on Black mothers, the disproportionate amount of Black and Brown children involved in parental custody battles, and the fact that 70 percent of evictions are against Black women.

"I think the naming and explicitly attacking institutional and systemic oppression and discrimination in our work is a new frontier for CLS," Tobar says. "I think that the newness is that we’re actually explicitly saying that and creating legal arguments to fight the foundational discriminatory purposes."

"These issues have always been issues, but what happened was kind of disinvestment. There weren’t necessarily enough resources to put these issues to the forefront. They were fringe issues to the majority of Americans," she adds.

While helping adults survive, Community Legal Services champions the youth in an effort to dismantle the cycle of systemic racism. Community Legal Services secured nearly $500,000 in benefits for young people during the pandemic. Community Legal Services was an integral proponent of the Clean Slate Law, which allows for the permanent sealing of certain misdemeanors.

Staff attorney Tracie Johnson is heavily involved in crafting legislation that will prevent Pennsylvania state-run colleges from asking about a criminal record on enrollment applications, as studies show that there is no correlation between a prior record and campus safety.

"The burden on young people in communities of color is due to overpolicing and the school-to-prison pipeline," Johnson says.

People with money are able to get their records cleared. Aspiring students who want to fill out college applications simply choose not to, which limits earning potential, or those who do apply are weighed down by the minefield they must navigate to get in.

Community Legal Services seeks to help people who want to be helped through its cutting-edge advocacy and exceptional legal representation. The organization wants to make sure the spark ignited in the quest for equality over the summer doesn’t die out.

"It’s going to be impossible to go back to the exact place we were before the pandemic," Tobar says. "We can’t unsee what we’ve already seen."

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