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Power Station


Mar 11, 2019

The path to legal services for the poor in the U.S. has a rich and complex history. It includes support from the Freedman’s Association post Civil War to philanthropic investment by the Ford Foundation in the 1960s and the adoption of federal funding in 1974. Although legal services programs have flourished since then, they remain a target for cutbacks in the federal budget process. 
 
A conversation with Maryland Legal Aid's Amy Petkovsek and Dimitri Degbeu, however, places us firmly in the present and demonstrates how innovative and life-changing a nonprofit law firm can be. It starts with 350 staff deployed to 12 offices throughout a demographically diverse state, from the mountains to the shore. In both rural communities and urban centers, MLA's  lawyers represent poor people who face eviction, predatory debt collection and foreclosure. They may be in in custody disputes, have wage claims, are struggling to gain veteran’s benefits and are tethered to criminal charges that deprive them of employment and housing rights. Amy, MLA’s Director of Advocacy, and Dimitri, a paralegal, talk about the Lawyer in the Library program, which provides counsel on these issues in a safe community space. Amy describes the transformation made possible by removing decades old charges from their records. MLA also provides assistance on the City's workforce development buses, sees public schools as their next frontier and educates state policy makers about the change that is needed. As Dimitri says, We need to recognize the humanity in folks that are often left out. The harm we cause to others is the harm we will eventually feel ourselves.