Vol. 41, No. 4

NCBF panel: Bar foundations can play a key part in addressing community issues

by Marilyn Cavicchia

In an uncertain time that continues to test the legal profession, the justice system, and the rule of law, could bar foundations find themselves playing a more visible role in bringing together stakeholders from different walks of life?

That was the subject of a plenary program at the National Conference of Bar Foundations 2017 Midyear Meeting in Miami. Discussing their foundations’ current efforts and what they might do next were: Bob Glaves (moderator), executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation; Mary Groth, director of development and community programs at the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Foundation/Association; and Terri Bryant, executive director of the Atlanta Bar Association and Foundation.

(Note: This program was a follow-up to a similar plenary at NCBP’s meeting. Make sure to read “NCBP panel discusses role of the bar association in issues of community concern,” also in this issue.)

Build relationships before a crisis

“People are not brought together by happenstance,” Bryant said, “but because of relationships.” And those positive relationships that you’ve built up over time, through many interactions, can put you in a better position when you have to address a tough topic—such as, in the case of the Atlanta Bar Association and Foundation, police shootings and use of excessive force.

When the bar launched its Equal Justice in Law Enforcement Initiative to discuss these incidents and help build bridges between law enforcement and the community, it did not occur out of nowhere or from an organization that was known to be against the police. In 1980, the bar erected a monument to slain police officers in a local park, and the foundation has long supported the children of fallen officers via scholarships.

Because of those prior relationships, Bryant said, a community forum that was part of the EJLEI was seen as “a very neutral, safe space for conversation,” including on tough topics such as police shootings that often occur because someone is mentally ill and the responding officer has inadequate training in this area. In fact, she added, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police used the forum as a training event for its members.

An ongoing focus for the EJLEI is educating community members, particularly young people of color, with an eye toward preventing potentially deadly interactions with law enforcement. “Education is prevention, in many instances,” Bryant noted.

Bryant shared a tip that her bar learned after seeing too many printed handouts dropped on gym floors: Information on such topics as what to do if you’re pulled over should be delivered via links that can be accessed by smartphone—not on paper.

If there’s an issue that could potentially shake up your community, Bryant recommended doing some groundwork now rather than waiting for things to reach a boiling point. “You can’t deal with a crisis and learn what you need to know,” she said, “while you’re in a crisis.”

Combine forces and win

A strong relationship between the bar foundation and association matters, too, Groth said. That's one key reason she gave for the success of her bar’s 3Rs program, which is aimed at increasing the passage rate among students in a total of 19 high schools (in Cleveland and a low-income suburb) on the social studies portion of a test required for graduation.

For example, she said, the president of each bar organization is an ex officio member of the other’s board, and the two names and logos appear together on communications.

Shared strength and an 11-year track record—during which time the social studies test passage rate in the participating schools has increased from less than 30 percent to about 70 percent—help bring in a diverse crew of volunteers, including lawyers in all different practice settings, judges, and law students, Groth said. Over the years, the program has drawn a total of 2,000 volunteers.

The program is interactive, Groth said; for example, there’s role playing (some of which involves students playing the role of a police officer in a tense situation) and games such as “Juvenile Justice Jeopardy.” Another important component, Groth said, is the deep, interpersonal relationships that develop between volunteers and participants, and that often last well beyond the end of the program.

Besides helping students pass the social studies test, other goals for the program are to encourage its participants—the majority of whom are people of color—to enroll in college and to help nurture the “pipeline” by introducing them to the legal profession as a career.

The 3Rs program is updated annually to keep up with changes in the graduation requirements, Groth said, and its oversight committee meets once a month, which gives it a nimbleness that helps it stay relevant to students.

Within three weeks of the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice (a 13-year-old who was playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park) in November 2014 by a police officer, Groth noted, 3Rs volunteers were trained and ready to discuss the troubling event with participants.

The Cleveland Division of Police is required to work with the bar association and foundation and other organizations in the community, Groth noted, because of a 2015 consent decree aimed at addressing a troubling pattern of excessive force. Other key stakeholders include teachers and leaders within the two participating school systems, Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, and an organization called Strategies for Youth.

What happens when you set the table for everyone?

The bar foundation can be a powerful convener, Glaves said—but be aware that when you invite different individuals and organizations to collaborate with you, you’re also inviting their divergent viewpoints.

That was the case during the recession that began in 2008, when the courts were overwhelmed with foreclosures, Glaves recalled. More than 90 percent of the foreclosed homeowners at that time lost their cases by default because, lacking representation and facing other obstacles, they didn’t appear in court.

Several community organizations got involved, he said, as did the Chicago Bar Foundation, and the court received $3 million in 2009 for a mediation program for foreclosure cases. The CBF had never worked with the community organizations before, Glaves said—and at first, things didn’t go smoothly. Some of the groups were “aggressive” at the start, and Glaves admitted that he’s not always very easygoing, either. In fact, he said, a mediator had to help the various organizations get their project back on track.

But the varying points of view came with a significant upside, Glaves said: “We got a whole new perspective on the court system.” Furthermore, he added, the community groups added “credibility” to the project among people who were familiar with those organizations and not with the foundation.

Now, he said, about 90 percent of foreclosed homeowners do go to court. While most of them are still unable to keep their homes, he added, it’s still “a much better process” than losing by default.

A newer effort, and one that is similar in that it involves groups that are relatively unfamiliar to the foundation, involves providing legal information and assistance for people facing deportation even though they’re covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

These two very community-focused efforts (about 25 percent of Chicago’s population is made up of first-generation immigrants, Glaves noted) have resulted in “a lot more funding from people who don’t ordinarily give to legal services.”

As far as what’s next for his foundation, Glaves said he and others are starting to reconsider the previously “bright line” that’s always been drawn between civil and criminal issues, with the foundation focusing only on the former because there’s a public defender system in place for the latter. There are many “crossover issues,” he noted, and it may be that the bar foundation is well positioned to address some of those.

Where to start?

What if you see the need for a program like this in your community, but you’re not sure where or how to start? Realize that it’s OK to start small, Bryant said, and focus on making connections.

“Go out, take one step at a time, connect one dot to another,” she advised, “and see the great thing that results.”