Seeking Justice through Advocacy and Community Organizing
The U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection under the laws and the right to change the laws when they fall short in protecting individuals or groups. Victims of injustice, however, can lack the resources to successfully navigate the legal system or advocate for legislative change. Community organizing and advocacy organizations step in to fill these gaps. From advocating for policy changes to representing disadvantaged individuals to marshaling collective action on issues, many Greater New Haven organizations work to advance the ideals of social justice.
•Seventy-one percent of low-income households in Connecticut experienced at least one legal problem during the past year in a survey of low-income households.1
• Legal problems related to basic needs and one's livelihood are most commonly experienced by low-income households. Almost half of these households (49%) report legal housing problems (e.g., utilities shut off, landlord neglecting repairs), and 29% had employment problems (e.g., pay/benefits, being fired, discrimination).2
• Seventy-eight percent of low-income residents in Greater New Haven feel their neighbors could work together to solve a problem.3
Issue Oriented Advocacy
Greater New Haven is home to many issue-specific advocacy groups that work to defend the rights and opportunities of specific underrepresented populations. Such groups work both on behalf of individuals and to advance larger systemic change.
The Center for Children's Advocacy, for example, has staff attorneys who represent abused or neglected children in the state child welfare system. The organization also works with officials responsible for children to uncover unjust policies and improve outcomes.
The Center created the Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee, which works to reduce the suspension, expulsion, and arrest rates of Black and Latino students in Greater New Haven. The collaboration brings together school officials, parents, Department of Children and Families workers, juvenile probation officers, and youth-serving nonprofits to keep at-risk youth out of the criminal justice system.
The Center also helped spearhead the successful campaign to raise the age for criminally prosecuting individuals as adults from 16 to 18 years old. The "Raise the Age" campaign brought together a collaboration of partners and used a combination of data and storytelling to make its case.
"We presented the evidence about adolescent brain development that was neutral scientific evidence. It was hard to argue with that," says Center for Children's Advocacy Executive Director Martha Stone.
Fighting for Social Justice from the Ground Up
New-Haven-based Mothers for Justice begins its campaigns for change with the experiences of the members themselves. A program of the anti-poverty agency Christian Community Action, the group holds meetings to identify the most pressing issues faced by its members and builds alliances with legislators who can help them.
"We are best known for the personal experiences of group members organizing and mobilizing for change," says Merryl Eaton, advocacy and education director for Christian Community Action. "Mothers for Justice is about coming up with solutions. There are enough people pointing out the problems."
Such was the case with their successful campaign to change state policies restricting access to higher education for individuals on welfare.
The 1996 "Welfare to Work" legislation that led to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program has a provision requiring recipients of cash assistance to either find work or participate in one of a variety of approved activities designed to lead to employment and financial security. Pursuing a post-secondary degree, however, was not an approved activity.
Mothers for Justice saw the restriction was preventing TANF recipients from pursuing degrees that would qualify them for better-paying jobs help them and rise out of poverty. So they set to work on a campaign to change state policies.
The multi-year effort included repeated visits to the state general assembly where the women testified and presented evidence in support of reform. They educated their local legislative delegation and found allies. They created a video that they showed at the state capital.
The victory came in 2014 when they saw the passage of legislation that included post-secondary education as an allowable activity for people on welfare. It was just one of many examples of successful organizing in the three-decade-long history of the organization. But their work doesn't begin and end with policy advocacy.
"We hope that once people become empowered they will spread out in the New Haven community as they sit on school councils or work in their neighborhoods," says Eaton.
Local Change through Relationship Building
Relationship building is at the heart of Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut (CONECT). The interfaith group mobilized for the passage of legislation that allows undocumented immigrants to receive driver's licenses and for its advocacy to reduce health insurance premiums. Members in the group use collective action to address local and neighborhood problems. CONECT members recently challenged the renewal of a liquor license for a pizza place that was the site of several shootings.
Some of the biggest impacts of the organization's work come when members from different faith communities get together for a meeting.
"There aren't too many places where mixed groups of folks are in the same place together and have the level of trust and rapport to talk directly and honestly about hard topics," says Matt McDermott, a lead organizer. "Sitting around the table to get to know people different from you is energizing and educational for a lot of our folks. As much as folks might like to say they're people of the world when you get down to it, there are a lot of Christians who have never gone to a Synagogue, or Mosque or black church."
Empowerment through Education
The Connecticut Women's and Education Legal Fund advances women's rights through policy advocacy, research, and legal education. The organization provides hundreds of New Haven area individuals with free legal information on a variety of issues including custody, immigration, and domestic violence.
"These cases can be extremely confusing and stressful," says Executive Director Kate Farrar. "Our volunteers and staff are making sure the women we serve are aware of their rights."
Women who need legal representation are referred by CWEALF to a network of attorneys who provide pro-bono services or adjust their fees based on the income of the client. CWEALF also provides bilingual services in the offices of Junta for Progressive Action.
What the Community Foundation is Doing
Organizations providing services in the social justice space that have received grants include:Center for Children's Advocacy – to support the development of a policy agenda of systemic reforms to improve re-entry services and remove barriers to successful re-entry and advocacy for 18-21-year-olds, and advocacy for the implementation of these systemic reforms.
Children's Law Center of Connecticut - to support the Legal Representation program in New Haven Family Court which provides court-appointed legal advocates to children living in poverty who are affected by high-conflict custody and visitation cases.
Christian Community Action – received a grant from The Community Fund for Women and Girls to provide advocacy training and mentoring for young women poised to take on the leadership of the Mothers For Justice program advocating for low-income women and their families.
Connecticut Voices for Children - to provide general operating support to promote the well-being of all of Connecticut's children and families by identifying and advocating for strategic public investments and wise public policies.
Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund - to support the Legal Education Program which addresses the lack of legal representation and information for low-income individuals in Greater New Haven. CWELF also received a grant from The Community Fund for Women and Girls to support the Bilingual Community Advocacy program in Greater New Haven.
Junta for Progressive Action - to support services, programs, and advocacy that improve the social, political, and economic conditions of the Latino community in Greater New Haven.
Unidad Latina en Accion - to support immigrants who face workplace abuse violations such as being paid below the minimum wage and denied overtime pay, and to empower immigrants who are facing discrimination in the immigration or criminal legal justice systems.
Works Cited1,2 Civil Legal Needs among Low-Income Households in Connecticut. Report. Center for Survey and Research Analysis, University of Connecticut. Storrs, CT, 2008. 3.
3 Abraham, Mark, and Mary Buchanan. (2016). Greater New haven Community Wellbeing Index. New Haven, CT: DataHaven.
© The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven