Lawyers serve many different purposes in our world today, from real estate transactions to business deals and divorce proceedings. However, one type of lawyer we often forget about is the one fighting for social justice. These are the lawyers that we might not need to hire for our personal matters, but one grantmaker hasn’t forgotten about the need for legal expertise in this field.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently awarded the University of New Mexico School of Law a $2.65 million grant to “attract, prepare and mobilize a diverse group of lawyers to pursue justice and racial equity, and to achieve improved health and well-being for New Mexico’s most vulnerable children and families – those marginalized by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic or other critical disparities.”
A driving force behind this grant is the unmet legal needs that affect families living in poverty in New Mexico. Kellogg worked with a number of partners in the state, including the university’s Health Sciences Center to focus this grant money in the right places. And this isn’t the first time that UNM Law School has received the Kellogg Foundation’s support either. In 2014, Kellogg awarded the law school a grant to kick off the planning stages of this initiative. Lots of groups have been involved in this effort since the beginning, as a statewide advisory committee was formed and focus groups have been organized all over the state.
During the planning stage, we learned that the justice gap for children in New Mexico is enormous. The study we commissioned shows that some of our communities have no lawyers serving low-income children at all. In others, more than half of the children and families seeking legal services were turned away. In Fiscal Year 2014, New Mexico’s civil legal services providers turned away 2,578 cases involving children and families, leaving 5,022 children without legal redress in that year alone.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is headquartered in Battle Creek, Michigan and pursues missions of civic and community engagement and racial equality in all three of its strategic goals: education, health, and helping families out of poverty. This particular effort aligns nicely with Kellogg’s racial equality goals.
On a related note, there so many opportunities for funders to get involved in social justice issues that affect children in New Mexico. The state ranks 49th in the nation for child well-being, which is certainly no position to brag about. Child well-being is a rather broad concept though, and statewide improvements could certainly stand to be made education, health, and other topics that affect children every day.
Senior Attorney Beth Gillia, who is co-leading the effort, said:
Well-trained lawyers who reflect the diversity of our state can bring lasting change to New Mexico’s children and families by using legal and policy advocacy to address the social and legal determinants of health, such as environmental conditions, family stability, immigration, economics, access to education and health and mental health services.
There’s a connection between legal services and health that hasn’t been highlighted too much in the past, but is now moving to the forefront. In addition to creating a few jobs and fellowships right now, this funding will also create a law student ambassadors program to reach out to high schools and colleges and create a pre-law social justice lawyering course to help young New Mexicans see this field as a viable career path.
The idea basically is to create a number of strategies that will affect our health and well-being across the state. If we create a pool of lawyers that can partner with community organizations that will better meet the needs of our low-income and people of color demographics' well-being — poverty, housing issues like asbestos in apartments that ultimately affect health and so forth — everyone will benefit. We call those health-harming legal needs and we'd like to partner lawyers with doctors, train those doctors to spot legal issues and then deploy those lawyers to solve those legal issues.
Without a doubt, the way that the Kellogg Foundation is approaching the issues of social justice and child well-being in New Mexico is an interesting one. The concept of funding lawyer training efforts to reach these children in ways that local nonprofits haven’t seemed to be able to stretches a bit into uncharted territory. But perhaps having more public interest lawyers on the ground in New Mexico can bring about health and povery improvements where other efforts have fallen short.