The Lawyers’ Committee Promises to be the Community’s Legal Protectors (Bay State Banner)
Following the election of Donald Trump, phone calls poured into the offices of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. The dominant theme: The climate at school and work had turned overtly hostile, as if many had taken the election as a cue to express any prejudices they had been holding back. Children had to endure racially derogatory slurs and were told by kids at school that they would be deported. One Muslim woman said her boss informed her she could no longer wear a hijab at work. Many callers feared that their rights would evaporate overnight.
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, had one message for those fearful of being treated as second-class citizens: “Not on our watch.”
“We’ve had your backs in everything from housing to employment to policing,” Espinoza-Madrigal said, during a Banner interview at the nonprofit’s new offices. “We will keep you safe.”
Legacy of protection
The Lawyers’ Committee has a long history of defending civil rights, with the national organization forming in 1963 and the Boston affiliate five years after. The Boston group has provided its services pro bono since 1973. Recently, the local team has tackled issues such as disparate out-of-school suspension rates, charges of discriminatory practices at the Boston Police Department and business conduct at e-commerce firms resulting in inequitable treatment.
In recent years, the Lawyers’ Committee work has grown, with intake numbers more than doubling between 2014 and fall 2016, from 285 to 601 — not including the post-election uptick.
With President-elect Trump’s ascension into office looming, the Lawyers’ Committee’s agenda has shifted to address emerging concerns at home and in the workplace. Upcoming actions include a series of training sessions for students, parents, employers and employees. They include curricula designed to remind students and parents of their legal recourse and options in the face of identity-based bullying, employees of their rights in the workplace and employers of the liabilities they incur for any harassment they perpetuate or fail to address. Should the government violate any protections, the Lawyers’ Committee will be there to step in, Espinoza-Madrigal said.
The group’s purview encompasses any identity-based harassment or discrimination — be it based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, English-language learner status or other conditions. Main focus areas include voting rights, health disparities, economic justice, education, housing, education and employment.
The Lawyers’ Committee’s repertoire of responses includes producing reports and advisory toolkits on matters such as school discipline, advocating for policy improvements, providing free legal services and technical assistances to small businesses and bringing lawsuits on issues such as contestations of police use of alleged racially-discriminatory drug-screening procedures.
“We are the legal guardians for communities of color and immigrant communities in Boston,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
Even if the Lawyers’ Committee is unable to take up a particular case, the organization’s team connects individuals to support systems that include self-advocacy or legal aid.
One rule of the Lawyers’ Committee: “Anyone who approaches us has to leave better off,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
Cases come to the Committee through walk-ins, phone calls and alerts from community partners — such as the NAACP and Urban League — about problematic patterns, as well as incidents reported in the news or known to staff through their community ties. For example, the school discipline toolkit arose, in part, from Education Project Director Matt Cregor’s discussions with student members of Boston Student Advisory Council, Espinoza-Madrigal said.
“People know when they’ve been wronged and they come to the Lawyers’ Committee because they know we have cultural competency to handle their case,” Espinoza-Madrigal added.
Michael Curry, outgoing president of the Boston Branch of the NAACP, said the Lawyers’ Committee has been a vital partner in civil rights work. In recent years, the organization has provided critical legal advocacy for improving hiring, promotion and retention of officers of color at the Boston Police Department as well as helping to change disparate discipline practices, Curry said.
“I would dare to say they’re our most important partner,” Curry told the Banner. “They’ve really been on the front lines of the battle to get equity in the Boston Police Department … and any change that eventually comes will be a result of their legal activism, in conjunction with MAMLEO [Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers].”
Espinoza-Madrigal is known for the passion and energy he brings to his role, although he and Curry are quick to say it is a whole team’s hard work that drives the Lawyers’ Committee efforts.
Assembling a docket
As a small nonprofit, the Lawyers’ Committee has limited capacity. The organization selects cases in which members believe they can be most successful and bring results with broad impact. Part of this includes consciously creating an agenda that reflects a diverse spread of issues affecting their target population, such as housing discrimination, education practices and workplace harassment.
As of mid-November, the organization had a docket of 30 cases. The majority seek to address severe instances of discrimination, hold major public and private institutions to higher standards of conduct and hold accountable key players industries where people of color are a significant working presence, Espinoza-Madrigal said.
Along with Espinoza-Madrigal, the Lawyers’ Committee staff includes two attorneys, three directors on focus areas and an equal justice works fellow. The organization also has support of interns, volunteers, board of directors and member law firms and organizations.
Espinoza-Madrigal joined the Lawyers’ Committee after serving as legal director for the Center for HIV Law and Policy. Since graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania and earning a law degree at New York University, he has worked defending the rights of immigrants, the LGBT community and people of color. In prior attorney roles he fought against the dismantling of New Haven, Connecticut’s municipal identification card program, advocated for immigrant rights and voting rights in the Southwest and promoted marriage equality and other LGBT concerns on federal and state levels.
In 2016, Espinoza-Madrigal was named one of Boston’s 100 Most Influential People of Color, and among other honors, recognized as one of the Best LGBT Lawyers Under 40 by the National LGBT Bar Association in 2012.
Speaking in the Lawyers’ Committee offices, Espinoza-Madrigal said each case is personal. When he was 9, his family immigrated from Costa Rica to Chelsea before settling in New Jersey. He was raised by a hard-working single mother who struggled to make ends meet. Espinoza-Madrigal recalled that even as a child he wanted to become a lawyer so he could keep his family safe from threats affecting basic needs, such as a landlord who may take advantage of them.
“I feel our mission very personally,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “Each case I file reminds me of my family. Of my mom.”
This article was published by the Bay State Banner.