BY THE WSBA EQUITY AND JUSTICE TEAM
Five years ago, the first Powerful Communities Program grants were awarded. Since then, projects across the state have used these grants to provide crucial legal services to some of Washington’s most vulnerable communities. The program was created by the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) to help ensure that legal services are available to everyone who needs them, especially those who have been historically denied justice due to systemic oppression. It was also created in direct response to the State Plan for the Coordinated Delivery of Civil Legal Aid to Low Income People.11 www.wsba.org/docs/default-source/legal-community/committees/atj-board/guiding-docs/atj-state-plan-final.pdf?sfvrsn=b08d3ef1_6. While the Powerful Communities Program was conceived of and is managed by the WSBA, all grants are paid directly by the Washington State Bar Foundation (WSBF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that exists to raise funds to support important WSBA outreach programs like this one.
As reported in the October 2020 issue of Washington State Bar News,22 October 2020 Bar News, p. 34. “From the Ground Up: WSBA’s Powerful Communities Project—helping legal services providers meet their communities’ unique needs.” this program was designed to ensure that legal services providers could meet the unique needs of their communities, relying on their expertise and the relationships they have built to determine where legal services are most needed. According to Diana Singleton, WSBA chief equity & justice officer, “Powerful Communities was created to advance equity and justice where progress largely comes from centering and amplifying the voices and wisdom of communities who are impacted by systemic oppression and marginalization.”
To date, 59 grants totaling $184,000 have been awarded for legal aid and community outreach projects throughout Washington state. These projects have served 23 unique Washington counties, with many having a statewide reach. Powerful Communities grants can be used to jumpstart new community-based projects, expand existing programs, or provide organizations with general operating funds. In addition, many of these projects create pro bono opportunities for attorneys (another overarching goal of the program). “Through the Powerful Communities grants, we hope to uplift and advance the transformative work done by community-led organizations around the state,” said WSBA Executive Director Terra Nevitt.
In 2023, 10 grants of $5,000 were awarded to programs across Washington. Since the program’s inception, grants have been awarded to address a broad range of legal needs, including relief from legal financial obligations, assistance with citizenship and immigration, workshops for Native communities, advocacy and policy reform for transgender people who have been incarcerated, “Know Your Rights clinics,” and more. Grantees are selected by a panel comprised of WSBA staff, WSBF trustees, and community members with lived experience.
A few examples of the amazing work done recently by Powerful Communities grant recipients follows here:
- Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program
- Cowlitz Wahkiakum Legal Aid
- Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center
- La Casa Hogar
- Lavender Rights Project
- Living with Conviction
- Skagit Legal Aid
- The Way to Justice
- Wenatchee for Immigrant Justice
- West African Community Council
More information about all of the grantees and brief summaries of their projects can be found online at www.wsba.org/connect-serve/pro-bono-public-service/powerful-communities.
The Washington State Bar Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity, created for the purpose of supporting WSBA programs that promote diversity and enhance the public’s access to, and understanding of, the legal system. The Foundation depends on the generosity of WSBA members and other members of the legal community to help ensure that grant funds are available to continue funding this crucial project. Donations are tax-deductible and can be made online here.
Help on the Path to Citizenship
Thanks to the services offered by La Casa Hogar (La Casa), Pablo became a citizen of the United States. Pablo studied English and civics with La Casa’s civics classes and in 2023 successfully naturalized. La Casa offers culturally competent, bilingual, trauma-informed, and free or low-cost citizenship education and legal services to eligible Lawful Permanent Residents who live in and around the Yakima Valley (La Casa is accredited to practice naturalization law with the Department of Justice). Since 2014, more than 1,850
adults have become U.S. citizens through La Casa’s citizenship program. Volunteers are always needed at their legal clinics, and training is provided.
MORE ONLINE: Check out their website for details on how to get involved: https://www.lacasahogar.org/.
Increasing Access to Legal Services for Tribal Members
Skagit Legal Aid (SLA) used its 2022 grant to help ensure access to civil legal services for local tribal members. SLA achieved this by leveraging pro bono service from attorneys practicing in the Skagit Valley, who in turn mentored and supervised law student volunteers. A secondary outcome was encouraging law students to practice in tribal communities and tribal courts by providing direct experience early in their legal careers. This project worked toward a more effective and accessible legal system specifically for tribal members who often need to navigate a confusing and cross-jurisdictional labyrinth without the assistance of counsel. SLA’s Tribal Law Continuing Legal Education Training was held in 2022 with nearly 75 attorneys, law students, and community members in attendance, culminating in 24 local attorneys being sworn into the Swinomish Tribal Bar by Chief Judge Pouley.
With its 2023 grant, SLA is directly investing in indigenous immigrant farmworker communities impacted by transnational structural racism and working to enhance the collaborative client-centered partnership between SLA and the Catholic Community Services Farmworker Center. Specifically, the project is developing a driver’s license education pilot program to help indigenous immigrants from southern Mexico have access to safe and legal transportation.
MORE ONLINE: Learn more about this organization and its impactful programs at www.skagitlegalaid.org/.
Taking Justice on the Road
The Way to Justice helps clients and their loved ones who have been unjustly impacted by the legal system. With its Powerful Communities grant in 2022, this Spokane organization created the Justice on the Road clinic—a first of its kind in the Tri-Cities area, done in collaboration with Northwest Justice Project’s Tri-Cities office. This is part of an important, long-term strategy to increase access to legal aid for Tri-Cities residents and ensure that individuals impacted by the state’s unconstitutional drug possession law are able to access relief available to them under the State v. Blake decision.33 www.opd.wa.gov/program/state-v-blake. The Way to Justice also held a Justice on the Road clinic with the Carl Maxey Center, which focused for the first time on serving Spokane’s African American community.
The Way to Justice’s 2023 project will increase free or affordable legal assistance and services for low-income Spokane County residents through pilot programs that will create Self-Help Centers in superior courts, to be staffed and operated by local community-based organizations (including Latinos En Spokane and the Carl Maxey Center). It will also create a culturally relevant and inclusive informational video (to be available online, and at the self-help center) that explains GR 4044 www.courts.wa.gov/court_rules/pdf/GR/GA_GR_40_00_00.pdf. and how to request informal family law trials in appropriate cases, in order to reduce barriers and promote access to justice.
MORE ONLINE: Learn more about the work of The Way to Justice at www.thewaytojustice.com/.
Providing Relief from Legal Financial Obligations
Living with Conviction is a collaboration between formerly incarcerated individuals and their legal allies, working together to help people advocate for relief from both court-imposed debt (known as legal financial obligations, or LFOs), and unconstitutional drug possession convictions. To help provide LFO relief, Living With Conviction’s team of formerly incarcerated individuals helps their peers navigate the online Justice in Motion web app to determine their eligibility for LFO relief, assists with filling out court forms, and even delivers their petitions to the courts in some counties. According to Living with Conviction storyteller, Breon, “These LFOs stop people from succeeding. Your whole objective is to keep people [and] the community safe. But you’re trying to keep the community safe from people that you’re forcing to be failures.”
Using the 2022 grant funds to address LFO relief at the individual and systemic level, Living with Conviction launched a new partnership with reentry and Department of Corrections (DOC) education navigators at Washington’s community and technical colleges, increasing awareness of their services. Deborah Espinosa, executive director of Living with Conviction, explains, “This grant has had an enormous impact on our organization by raising awareness among key service providers for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals statewide about rights to post-conviction LFO relief.”
In 2023, along with additional funding from the Legal Foundation of Washington, Living with Conviction is able to continue its partnership with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, enabling it to expand the partnership with DOC Education Reentry Program navigators who are working with students both inside and outside of prisons to reduce their LFO debt.
MORE ONLINE: You can read more about Living with Conviction’s work on the website: https://livingwithconviction.org/.
As the WSBA prepares to launch the 2024 Powerful Communities Project grant cycle, the goal is to increase opportunities for our state’s legal services providers to continue doing their important work throughout Washington.
2. October 2020 Bar News, p. 34. “From the Ground Up: WSBA’s Powerful Communities Project—helping legal services providers meet their communities’ unique needs.”