The Westside Justice Center—Legal Aid & Community Outreach

Community justice generally refers to various crime prevention techniques that explicitly include the community. The idea behind community justice initiatives lies in restorative community goals –creating a “grass roots” path to neighborhood inclusion by active involvement. Recently these initiatives have included community: crime prevention, courts, policing, prosecution, etc…. Access to the legal system, or the lack thereof, plays a large role in whether the community has faith in its lawmakers and the justice system as a whole.

The Westside Justice Center (WJC) works to fill that void; providing Chicago citizens with legal services in immigration, family law, real estate, estates and trusts, etc. The Westside Justice Center is comprised of two law firms, a real estate business, several solo practitioners, and two non-profits, including the WJC. Today, Ms. JD is sitting down with Whitney Williams, Executive Director of the WJC to learn more about the benefits of community justice centers like the WJC and how people can get involved.

1.    Tell us a little bit about the Westside Justice Center. What do you guys do?

Whitney Williams:

            What the WJC provides is two fold: The actual entity, and the building with the anchor law firms. The firms run their business as if they hadn’t teamed up [with us]. We started when those firms noticed that they had a lot of people coming in from the community who had legal, or quasi-legal, issues that wouldn’t necessarily warrant hiring an attorney, but they still needed help. So the attorneys, their staff, and myself, decided to create an organization where we would have an on-staff legal attorney to do intake and help with those issues. In the eight months since incorporation, the WJC has hosted several Renters’ Rights Forums, a “Know Your Rights During Police Interactions” workshop, a  Film Screening for a local high school’s Annual Peace March, and a community block party, to try and get a sense of the community –building a relationship with the community.

2.     Aside from the fact that there is a significant gap in the access to legal services for those in low, and even middle, income communities, how do you pinpoint Chicago’s need for legal services?

Whitney Williams:

            Just by taking anyone who walks through the door, and asking, “what do you need?” We saw a lot of landlord/tenant issues, and mortgage foreclosures that had been in and out of court. We saw a lot of credit issues, or driver’s license issues (with people continuing to drive because they had to get to work, but did not know the proper procedures of getting permission to drive for that purpose). These were the three major areas that we saw when we first started.

            As we grew, we were able to push [some cases] out to member firms that would take them pro bono. If we couldn’t find anyone in the building, we would attempt to get their cases out to other legal aid services. We also saw a lot of people who had contract issues. For example, if someone rented a car for a friend who didn’t return it, and now owes the rental company, but they can’t get the money from the friend; we would help them deal with the company, and the friend.

            Recently, we did a reach-out campaign where we went door-to-door –we canvassed ten (10) blocks, knocked on doors, and asked the community questions: what would they like to see from the Community Center, or we asked what kind of legal issues they had. Surprisingly, we found that there are a lot of immigration issues. We hadn’t noticed that before, but that’s the benefit of canvassing. Brendan Shiller, of Shiller-Preyar, had the idea that we should go out in the community and canvas. It was really great to see all of the attorneys, interns, and support staff take time out to participate –it was great to see that kind of coalition of attorneys.

3.     Going from that, how does access to legal services aid in restorative justice goals.

Whitney Williams:

            Our next big project is trying to find the best way to assist in restorative justice. There are a lot of people in the community who are coming off of time in Cook County Jail or Illinois correctional facilities who need help re-acclimating to the community. The WJC is looking into working with the Secretary of State to get state I.Ds, driver’s licenses, and professional licenses restored, and appealing those issues.

            We are also looking into partnering with local re-entry programs that deal with those on the sex offender registry. Under Illinois Sexually Violent Persons (SVP) law, once you’re registered as a sex offender, you can’t really live anywhere in the City unless it houses persons designated for sex offenders or “SVPs.” The mile radius limit restricts where you can live. The WJC is working with A Safe Haven, a local homeless shelter dedicated to transitioning people from homelessness to self-sufficiency in Chicago, in an attempt to ease people back into the community a little better. The WJC plans to work with them to find [SVPs] jobs, and to get licenses.

4.     In what other ways do you think the legal community, as a whole, could aid in closing the gap in access to legal services?

Whitney Williams:

           What the legal community can do is two fold: partnership or become an ally. One of the biggest allies is the Public Defender herself –Amy Campanelli. A die-hard activist, she wants to help the community so much! She knows that public defenders are limited, and can only do so much. So, she’s doing things like, creating community courthouses that deal with specialty issues like drug addiction. She wants to light a fire under her staff to create a more effective and all encompassing support system, and then she wants to push others to the WJC, and similar organizations, to help. Building off of her goals, the WJC has reached out to other attorneys in the community who volunteer, maybe two hours a week, for intake.

            For example, April Preyar, of Shiller Preyar Law Office, has a strong relationship with several civil rights attorneys in the community. Reaching out to organizations such as the Justice Entrepreneurs, with the Chicago Bar Foundation, to collaborate. It starts with individuals making the decision that they to want to do more for their communities, and realizing that there is a gap [in legal services].

            [Collaboration has] always been really obvious to me. There are a lot of legal aid organizations in Chicago, but they don’t communicate, and it can be really difficult to collaborate and be cohesive. [T]he more legal organizations there are, and the more the legal realm realizes that holistic legal service represent the future of [filling the gap in providing] access to legal services, the more we will realize that this is how we can really close that gap –this is how you really change someone’s life for the better. [If you really want to help], you help with all of their issues, not just the legal ones. Once holistic services becomes a household name, we can fill the gap in the access to legal services.

5.     Does the Westside Justice Center have any upcoming programs that the Chicago community should be looking forward to?

Whitney Williams:

           We are revamping our website to include information about our upcoming programs, but for now we have a lot coming up. We do have a monthly Renter’s Right Forum. We work with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization to provide tenants with information, or answer questions about their leases or landlord/tenant issues.

           Also, be on the look out because on September 15, 2016 is the one year anniversary of the Westside Justice Center building. Will be hosting a barbeque, and there will be a back-to-school drive for Hope Elementary school. The WJC is looking into adopting that school (it’s located near the WJC).

            In addition, there are three vacant lots surrounding the WJC, so the attorneys will be walking through the lots and cleaning them up. It will be a great way to reintroduce ourselves to the community and build outreach.

6.     What would you say are some of the most effective community outreach strategies?

Whitney Williams:

            Canvassing was probably the best thing that we could have done. When we went door-to-door and asked people how they got their information [about legal services] –most of the people found out about legal services through referrals. We expected people to find [information] on social media websites like Facebook or Twitter. What we’ve [actually] found is that the residents in our community aren’t as affected by social media, as much as they are [affected] by the people that they trust.

            So, Jason Ervin, our local Alderman, has reached out to the Boys and Girl’s clubs and similar organizations to build community outreach. April Preyar, in conjunction with the WJC, is putting on an event called “I’m Not A hashtag.” The purpose of this event is to go around to local high schools and discuss police brutality, and how to interact with police.  

            [We’ve found that you] build the best connections when you go to where the [people are]. The WJC is planning to go to local churches and let them know who we are, and what we can do to help, [should they need legal assistance]. It’s really about going back to grass roots community outreach.

7.     How do the legal practitioners work on issues with the other businesses in the Center? Is it a collaborative effort, or is work individualized by practice?

Whitney Williams:

      If we have someone come in who has an issue, we sit down and talk to them, and we realize it’s a landlord tenant issue [for example], we’ll ask Susan Ritacca, a solo practitioner, if she can help. If she can, she’ll talk to the client about the extent of her services. If she can’t, then she’ll refer it out. But if there is an issue [better suited] for Taylor Realty, for example, (a realty group located in the WJC building), we send them to Taylor. When people come in and say that they’re having trouble finding housing, for example, Taylor will help them. It becomes a collaborative effort in that we communicate a lot with one another to see whose services are better suited to help each individual. We exhaust all of the resources in the WJC before we send clients to different justice centers. You never want to make clients to have to keep telling their story. Another really good thing that the attorneys will do is cover one another’s court dates –when you have this kind of working relationship it’s a collaboration. It has become a WJC Family.

     There’s also the First Defense Legal Aid, another legal aid in our building. They only do post-arrest services. So, if we get someone who comes in that says, “my brother has been arrested,” First Defense Legal Aid will go in and advise them not to speak to anyone, and help them assert their rights. Then, the client will likely be referred to the WJC for the rest of the case.

8.     What kinds of educational clinics and workshops does the Westside Justice Center put on?

Whitney Williams:

     “I’m Not a hashtag,” WJC BBQ, “Know Your Rights,” workshop, etc….(see above).

9.     Are there any cross town, or even cross state, collaborative efforts with other Justice Centers? Is that something you all would be interested in working on?

Whitney Williams:

            We would definitely work with other justice centers. The goal is to reach out to other centers to provide a focus that the WJC may not offer. What we would love to do is work with Andrew Hemmer, who recently started working with Cabrini Green Legal Aid as an Equal Justice Works Fellow; he does civil forfeiture for free. We want to do a workshop or clinic [on civil forfeiture] in the WJC because we’ve had [multiple] civil forfeiture cases that we’ve had to turn away because not one legal aid organization in the City is doing that type of work. 

            We would love to get involved with CARPLS –they provide civil legal aid services for plaintiffs regarding issues that are small claims or have a lower controversy amount. The WJC would love to be able to partner with them to maintain a consistent collaborative relationship. We would especially like an opportunity to build a consistent referral system, so that we know what they could and couldn’t take, and to better understand their limits.

10.     How can Ms. J.D.’s readers get involved?

Whitney Williams:

            If the Ms. J.D. readers are attorneys or law students, we would be more than happy for them to volunteer to do intakes. We always need people to filter in client calls, take notes, and organize clients and their needs.

            Really just getting involved in the community and recognizing that there’s so much work that attorneys can do; from being legal observers at protests, or hanging out at courthouses, and giving advice where they can. I love to see attorneys taking initiatives to reach out to the communities that they live in. There is a lot of division between lawyers and nonlawyers, and if we work together we can better close the gap in the access to legal services.  

            If you’re interested in volunteering you can e-mail me at Whitney@westsidejusticecenter.com You can also donate: the Facebook page has a direct paypal and the Westside Justice Center has 501(c)(3) status so everything donated will be tax-exempt.

Sources: https://www.ncjrs.gov/criminal_justice2000/vol_2/02i2.pdf

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