February 22, 2019 Pro Bono Matters

A Retrospective Interview with 2011-2013 Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellow Anna Tavis

In 2011, Anna Tavis began a two-year commitment with South Brooklyn Legal Services in Brooklyn, NY, through the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship. In a previous interview, Anna described how her advocacy began at home when she would fight on behalf of her Russian-speaking grandmother to receive essential government benefits. This experience inspired her to pursue a career in public service and law, eventually becoming a legal advocate for low-income immigrant communities. Through the Fellowship, Anna provided tax assistance to Brooklyn’s struggling families who were experiencing the effects of an economic recession. Today, Anna continues her mission as a Staff Attorney in the Worker’s Rights & Benefits Unit of Brooklyn Legal Services.

ABA Tax Times (ATT) recently contacted Anna (AT) to discuss her experience at South Brooklyn Legal Services and the Fellowship.

ATT: Could you tell us about the work you did at South Brooklyn Legal Services/Immigrant Workers’ Tax Advocacy Project in New York?

AT:     I began my fellowship in the summer of 2011, during a protracted recession that inflicted substantial economic pain throughout the country. Many low-and middle-income families grappled with major life crises, increasing the demand for legal services. At a time when our Brooklyn communities were struggling, our organization confronted diminished funding and resources, freezing hiring and forcing layoffs. Then Hurricane Sandy battered New York City’s shorefront communities in 2012, compounding existing hardship throughout the City. For many clients, securing a substantial tax credit or obtaining relief from collection was one of the fastest ways to help in a crisis.

My fellowship allowed the tax project to expand its existing work in Brooklyn’s low-income and immigrant communities to include education and outreach on taxpayer rights.  I focused on Spanish-and Russian-speaking communities, and developed materials that addressed the most common challenges to tax compliance, including worker misclassification, ITIN filing, identity theft, and the complex rules of  refundable credits. Concurrently, we increased our controversy work to reach more individuals and their families. I partnered with community-based organizations and traveled throughout the City to conduct taxpayer rights workshops and train service providers on tax issues affecting immigrant workers, domestic violence survivors, seniors, and low-income entrepreneurs. I provided technical assistance to advocates at community-based organizations, and trained practitioners in our offices on common tax issues. In my two years as a Fellow, I advised, trained or represented at least one thousand individuals and their families.

ATT: What was your biggest challenge there?

AT: The requirements set forth in the Code are often ill-suited to the realities of individuals and families in poverty. Taxpayers who are limited English proficient (LEP), homeless, and/or living in nontraditional family arrangements may struggle to obtain the credits to which they are entitled. Securing the copious records required in an examination of the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, can be impossible for an LEP client who fled domestic violence with her children and worked odd jobs for cash, moved from friend to friend for her safety, and closed her bank accounts out of fear of abuse-related identity theft. That refundable credit, however, is her ticket to safety and independence.  Our work demanded creative approaches to an often inflexible process.

Our project also struggled to reconcile the seemingly unlimited need for our services with our limited capacity as a legal services provider. The Brunswick Fellowship provided critical funding to help address this imbalance. It allowed me to focus on education and community outreach alongside traditional controversy work as a way to counter misinformation in the communities we serve. Our goal was to prevent tax controversies by equipping taxpayers with linguistic and culturally appropriate information, thereby reducing the need for representation.

ATT: What was the most rewarding part of your Fellowship?

AT: Our clients, without a doubt, both during and after the Fellowship. On an individual level, I am honored to work alongside individuals and families from myriad backgrounds and life circumstances. The resilience of our clients in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges never ceases to amaze me. Often, I meet with clients for whom a tax matter surfaces after a major life crisis: domestic violence, a disabling illness, the loss of their home in a natural disaster, or exploitation by an unscrupulous employer. Helping a client close that chapter is immensely satisfying. For other clients, their annual tax refund is the only remaining safety net in our post welfare reform era. Assisting clients in securing the credits to which they are entitled can often prevent a major life crisis before it starts; by paying rent arrears to stop an eviction, or giving a client the resources to leave her abuser, or allowing a gifted student to continue his course of study. And finally, equipping taxpayers with accurate and understandable information enables them to comply with tax laws going forward. I’ve had the satisfaction of checking in with community members who attended my workshops in prior years who subsequently obtained a tax ID number and began filing annual returns. 

ATT: Tell us about your career since the Fellowship ended: Where have you worked? What issues and client populations have you focused on?

AT: I have been extremely fortunate to continue the work that began with the Brunswick Public Service Fellowship and have practiced tax at Brooklyn Legal Services for more than seven years. The focus of our work has shifted slightly over time in response to community need. Currently, we work closely with our immigration unit in representing clients on tax matters who are in immigration proceedings. I continue my outreach and community education work with its focus on immigrant workers, and its importance is particularly acute at this time. The PATH and Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts contain significant changes to the ITIN program and to immigrants’ eligibility for certain credits. Moreover, tax compliance plays an important role in granting clients relief in immigration proceedings. Our goal is to expand our community partnerships and increase our outreach around these topics in 2019.

ATT: How did the Fellowship impact your career trajectory?

AT: Were it not for the Fellowship, I would not be a low-income tax practitioner today. I learned about the Fellowship as a second-year law intern at Brooklyn Legal Services, and discovered, to my surprise, that low-income taxpayer representation was integral to anti-poverty work. The Fellowship enabled me to craft a project that was tailored to my specific interests and skills, and that fostered lasting connections with the communities that we serve. Moreover, my organization committed to expanding tax work at a time when our staffing was diminished, and therefore we were able to continue our work when our other funding sources stabilized in recent years. All of this was possible as a result of the Fellowship. The Section has encouraged and supported my work since 2011.

ATT: How have you been involved in the Tax Section or with Tax Section members during and after the Fellowship?

AT: Throughout my term as a Fellow, I was mentored and supported by many Section members, including academic clinicians, private practitioners who were active in pro bono work, government attorneys, and alumni of the Fellowship. The Section funded my participation in conferences, where I received invaluable training and opportunities to network and discuss emerging issues among low-income taxpayers. Our organization developed pro bono partnerships with law firms as a result of my participation in the Section. After my Fellowship ended in 2013, the Section continued to support and mentor me. I have had the opportunity to participate in countless panels at ABA conferences and CLE webinars, and edit ABA publications for low-income tax practitioners, acquiring new knowledge and skills along the way. The Section sponsored me as a John S. Nolan Fellow from 2016-2017. Earlier this month, I participated in panels at the midyear meeting in New Orleans. In short, the Tax Section makes a commitment to support each fellow throughout her career as a tax practitioner, and I have benefitted immensely from that mentorship and support.

ATT: What advice would you give those considering an application for the Fellowship?

AT: I encourage prospective fellows to reach out to Brunswick alumni. I am always happy to discuss a potential fellow’s project proposal and offer my perspective. Applicants should have an interest in both tax and public service work, and their projects should combine their unique backgrounds and skill sets with an issue area or population that is acutely underserved. I cannot recommend the Fellowship enough!

Donations to the Tax Assistance Public Service (TAPS) endowment fund support the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship program, which provides two-year fellowships for recent law school graduates working with nonprofit organizations providing tax-related legal assistance to underserved communities. Learn more at www.abatapsendowment.org.


Section of Taxation members can discuss this article in the ABA Tax Times Community. ➔