The Power of Service to Heal
Intro by John Ahmann, Westside Future Fund: Thanks to Michael Lucas, Deputy Director, Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF), for this weeks’ Historic Westside column. In the spirit of the “more we the more I can get done,” AVLF has built a community-based collaborative model to provide top tier pro-bono legal services to Westside residents facing illegal evictions, unsafe living conditions and other manifestations of malignant greed preying upon the disenfranchised. In his column’s call to “healing,” Michael reminds us of Dr. King’s quote that to create the beloved community “…will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” ( This quote is from Dr. King’s essay: “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom.” Originally published by Ebony Magazine, October 1966.)
By Michael Lucas
Dr. King’s beloved community is often invoked when speaking of the work being done on the Westside. To be sure, the invocation of that dream in relation to our work in the Westside is tempting; King moved his young family into the modest brick home at 234 Sunset Ave. in Vine City in 1965, a year after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and during a time when he continued to speak often of the beloved community. But if we are truly to attain the community he described, it is going to take more than more affordable housing, more than better parks, and more than the services we provide at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF). In addition to all of those things – and all the work of the many other amazing partners working on the Westside – it is going to require healing.
Through AVLF’s Standing with Our Neighbors program, which embeds teams of AVLF staff attorneys, community advocates, and volunteer attorneys inside neighborhood schools – including Vine City’s Michael R. Hollis Innovation Academy – to combat displacement and help stabilize communities, I have come to appreciate a powerful potential impact of true place-based work: you can be part of someone’s healing process. And with this potential comes serious responsibility. Let me explain.
Many of the clients served by AVLF and our amazing sister organizations in the pro bono legal community have a healthy sense of distrust of not just legal institutions, but institutions in general. The same could be said for residents of the Westside. And they have come by this distrust honestly.
Specifically, many are living with the long-lasting effects of pain and trauma. In far too many cases, institutions have failed to protect or help them or have been directly involved in inflicting the harm. Organizations or agencies charged with assisting them may not have kept their word or had enough resources to follow through. Reflecting on my own profession, the judicial system may have played a role, real or perceived, in what they experienced as an injustice in their lives.
At AVLF, we might see this in the children who are living in trauma because the conditions of their rental housing are akin to a third-world slum, despite years of efforts by their mom to get any institution to intervene. For the clients of our friends at organizations like the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN), it could mean that after the institutions in their home country failed to protect them from violence, the legal institutions here are deaf to their pleas and working to send them back. In either case, the therapeutic community and common sense tells us that those clients will develop a well-founded sense of distrust. And that distrust, while understandable, often impedes their ability to move forward, to accept help, to thrive. What might be perceived as counterproductive behavior – e.g., not returning a call from legal services, not showing up for an appointment, arguing with and turning away those trying to help – is really just a manifestation of their trauma.
Turning back to the issue of healing, the key innovation in AVLF’s Standing with Our Neighbors program is that AVLF staff have their full-time offices inside public schools in neighborhoods that are fighting for stability. In a few of our now eight partner schools, we work closely with one of Atlanta’s best non-profits, Chris180, an amazing partner that provides trauma-informed counseling and services for students inside the schools. On the Westside, they also run the @Promise Center, already an important community institution in its own right.
At a recent forum, I had the benefit of listening to one of Chris180’s lead counselors who explained that a central component of the healing process for people who are living with trauma is rebuilding trust. Specifically, she spoke of the importance of routine and consistency and commitment from service providers, or anyone else for that matter. She drew on AVLF’s neighborhood-based tenant advocacy work as an example, explaining that for many of the elementary school children we serve, the living conditions are so unpredictable and unstable – another eviction notice or a falling ceiling or more rats could befall them at any time – that they don’t fully develop the psychological ability to trust. She stressed that what our volunteer attorneys achieve – finally causing critical repairs to be expedited, stopping repeated abusive eviction filings once and for all – greatly compliments their therapeutic work.
She went further, stressing that our presence there and the way we went about our work – separate from the outcomes of our advocacy – were critical to the healing process as well. She explained that every time our staff or volunteer attorneys actually do what they say they will do, it helps that individual trust again. Every time that a volunteer attorney says they will come and see the conditions, and then actually shows up, that person begins to believe again. When they see us respect their dignity enough to come to their homes and be comfortable there – and when they see us come back every day, week, and year – that consistency and reliability starts to chip away at that distrust that could hold them back. And every school year that our staff and attorneys return to the neighborhood, the residents begin to have faith again in people and institutions that are trying to help.
That consistency and reliability matters. In our first 300 days on the Westside, AVLF staff and volunteers have provided legal assistance to 51 families, fought off displacement for over 30 families, restored water service for 11 families on an emergency basis, and provided free health and safety housing-related products, transportation assistance, or other related emergency assistance to 58 families. On the way to that impact, Westside residents have interacted extensively with our team of staff and volunteers. That experience with our team, wholly aside from the housing benefits we might achieve, is actually part of their process of recovering from and breaking through the trauma.
Our team, this counselor explained, was furthering Chris180’s work and playing an important role in helping people heal – so that they could thrive. That insight has stayed with me and now informs the way we approach our work at AVLF. We now have a greater appreciation for the importance of consistency and long-term commitments to the neighborhoods we serve. We are thinking about how to integrate these lessons about healing into our volunteer trainings. We are working to make sure our approach takes into account the trauma our clients have experienced.
And let’s be honest: the legal community should be working to build trust with the public, particularly with those who may not have had the best experience with lawyers and the courts. It does not take a lot of imagination to see all the ways that lower-income individuals – those who cannot afford representation – may have had less-than-positive experiences with the legal system. Doing meaningful pro bono work is an important way for an individual lawyer to do her part to help restore faith in our system. And the same applies to all the organizations, professionals, and volunteers working on the Westside, across multiple sectors and addressing myriad issues. There are enough broken promises to go around; the need to rebuild trust is a responsibility we all share.
So as you consider whether and how to contribute to the ongoing efforts on the Westside, never underestimate the impact you can have, not just on the individual or around one issue, but on the faith in our institutions, on a community’s ability to heal and trust. And as you do that work – as you make your contribution – never lose sight of the fact that how you do that work may matter as much or more than what you do. Service, it turns out, and how you go about it, has the power to heal. It is an important way to help someone trust again, and that trust may be exactly what is needed to help that person move forward, to heal, to thrive. It is also an important step toward truly achieving the beloved community.