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January 29, 2019

Public interest law experts present opportunities for action

“Laws keep changing, but you can’t legislate change in people’s hearts and minds,” said Ainka Jackson, executive director of the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth and Reconciliation and member of the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. Jackson was referring to her journey on the commission and pursuing its mission in underserved communities during her presentation as part of “10 Ways to Change the World,” sponsored by the newly formed ABA Center for Public Interest Law, held Jan. 25 at the Midyear Meeting in Las Vegas.


“I did not think the ABA did much,” Jackson said of her impressions before becoming more involved with the commission. “I was wrong.”

With the commission’s help making “things happen,” Jackson volunteers in her hometown of Selma, Ala., to address homelessness and poverty in underserved and forgotten communities.

Nationally recognized experts on a variety of other advocacy issues, including civil rights, human rights, immigration and more also shared how lawyers can leverage their passion for making a difference to affect change and inform the national discourse.

Wendy Wayne, chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration, said if there is one thing she would like members and volunteers to do on behalf of immigration it would be to, “advocate for due process and fairness in our immigration system.”

Wayne said the commission provides 4,000 beds for unaccompanied minors who are served by the ABA’s South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR), which empowers detained immigrants through high-quality legal education and representation. Located in Harlingen, Texas, ProBAR serves adults and unaccompanied children in immigration detention in the Rio Grande Valley. 

The ABA Center for Public Interest Law officially began in July 2018 and launched its campaign at Midyear to inspire ABA members, volunteers and the community to become more involved in the advocacy work of various entities.

“It’s a unique opportunity to make a difference in the lives of aging persons, particularly low-income persons,” said retired judge Louraine Arkfeld, chair of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging, of the avenues of involvement available through the association.

Another of those opportunities involves work around capital punishment. Emily Olson-Gault, director of the ABA Death Representation Project, said 99 percent of death row prisoners cannot afford legal representation. She showed a video in which death row inmate Anthony Graves was awarded his freedom after serving more than a dozen years thanks to the support of volunteer attorneys who served as pro bono counsel.

Since 1998, 332 inmates have been assisted by the Death Penalty Representation Project and 88 individuals have been released from prison or resentenced to shorter sentences, thanks to the help of project volunteers.

The ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence also has many unique opportunities for volunteerism. “Domestic and sexual violence is in every community. It’s everywhere. Creating an atmosphere where victims can come forward can go a long way,” said Commission Chair Mark Schickman of the difference made by involved members.

As far as the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and its advocacy work, entity chair, Wilson Schooley, said: “We are the section in the ABA that inspires you to be a lawyer and wants to see the rule of law enforced.”

In addition to Arkfeld, Karen Buck, executive director of the Senior Law Center in Philadelphia, also represented the Law and Aging commission. Speaking on the legal needs of seniors, she said that “10,000 people turn age 65 every day in the U.S. and one in 10 older persons is abused or exploited. Join us in the work for justice for older people – because one day it will be us.”

Additional association entities that seek volunteers include the ABA Office of Governmental Affairs, ABA Center on Children and the LawCommission on Youth at RiskStanding Committee on Election LawStanding Committee on Gun ViolenceStanding Committee on Law Library of CongressDisaster Legal ServicesStanding Committee on Disaster Response and PreparednessMilitary and Veterans Legal CenterFund for Justice and EducationDivision of Public EducationStanding Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent DefendantsCriminal Justice SectionSenior Lawyers Division and Young Lawyers Division.