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CCJFG Member Spotlight: California ChangeLawyers

Friday, August 14, 2020

California ChangeLawyers 2019 1L (first year) Scholar Class. Courtesy of California ChangeLawyers.

Interview with Jasjit Singh, Program Officer

Tell us about the priorities of ChangeLawyers. 

California ChangeLawyers is a public foundation whose mission is to build a better justice system for all Californians. I have been with the organization as the Program Officer for almost 3 years during which I have helped to lead our work on 3 primary programmatic functions to achieve our goals: grants, scholarships, and policy. 

Grants: Our grants program has 3 components: Legal Fellowships, Diversity Pipeline, and Supporting Legal Aid. Annually, our grantmaking totals $750,000.  

Through the Legal Fellowship Grants, California ChangeLawyers provides diverse law students and recent law graduates with opportunities to work at legal organizations committed to providing services to the most vulnerable communities in California. Historically, our efforts have funded fellows within Criminal Justice, Immigration, and Civil Rights, specifically providing resources to communities most impacted by the criminal justice system and federal immigration policies - all while working in some of the most underserved parts of the state.

Our Diversity Pipeline Grants fund non-profit organizations that are committed to building the pipeline of the next generation of legal changemakers. Attorneys are the least diverse profession of any in the country. Even in California, only 1 in 5 attorneys are BIPOC, even though the general population is 3 in 5 BIPOC. Our grants fund a range of organizations focused on inspiring, nurturing, supporting, and developing young diverse changemakers at the high school, college, and law school levels.

Our newest Grants program, Supporting Legal Aid, reaches nearly 100 organizations throughout the state who serve indigent Californians living at 125% or less of the federal poverty threshold. In California, there is only 1 legal aid lawyer per 7,000 indigent Californians. These vital legal nonprofits help fill a tremendous need and ensure that poor Californians have greater access to equal justice under the law. 

Scholarships: Our scholarships program prioritizes first-generation law students who hail from historically neglected, underrepresented, and underinvested communities. The cost of legal education in California is staggering, and many law graduates easily accrue $250,000 in educational debt, often on top of undergraduate debt. We provide financial support to students to defray these costs. We also work in partnership with law firms, bar organizations of color groups, and other donors to annually provide almost $500,000 in support to law school students. In addition, our scholars receive leadership training and are connected with ChangeLawyer mentors to help set them on the path to powerful positions in law so they can be agents of change from within some of society’s most powerful institutions. 

Policy: This is a new focus area for ChangeLawyers over the past two years. We are a 501(c)(3) public charity, a tax structure that gives us much greater flexibility to advocate compared to private foundations. We recently created two new frameworks on immigrants’ rights and criminal justice reform to help guide our policy work. The process has created internal clarity for our staff and board about what we stand for. Adopting policy had been part of a gradual shift from a “charity” framework to a “justice” framework. We now see ourselves more aligned than ever with our grantee partners because we are often advocating for the exact same things. One recent success we had was successfully advocating to the California Supreme Court to lower systemic barriers to entry for communities of color, namely the professional licensing exam. Our successful effort means that hundreds of more attorneys of color will be able to become lawyers, which will in turn have reverberations years down the line as attorneys of color are more likely than white attorneys to practice public interest law or enter public service.  

How are you responding to the current demands to fund and center Black-led organizing in the midst of the pandemic? 

Through intention. California ChangeLawyers was founded in 1989 by the State Bar of California as California Bar Foundation. In 2015, California Bar Foundation became an independent organization and in 2018, it changed names to California ChangeLawyers. Through the organization's history, its mission has never changed: build a better justice system for all Californians. The organization’s board is Black-led with Board President, Eric Casher. The ChangeLawyers’ board is over 20% Black. 

In December of 2019, ChangeLawyers provided $270,000 in Legal Fellowship Grants. 33% ($90,000) of this was awarded to Black-led organizations, UnCommon Law and For the People. 

UnCommon Law provides trauma-informed, healing-centered mental health and legal counseling to help provide a safe pathway home for people currently serving lengthy prison terms in California prisons. UCL represents people in their parole hearings and habeas petitions, and engages in litigation and policy advocacy to address systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system. 

Furthermore, UCL provides training for people in prison, attorneys, family members, and law students in order to improve the overall quality of preparation for and representation in parole hearings. UCL helps clients show the parole board they can safely rejoin their communities and demonstrate the healing they’ve achieved through counseling and other training programs. 

For the People is re-examining aspects of criminal justice, safety, health, and healing in our communities. FTP helps prosecutors understand their power, and crafts new policies and guidelines in response to a changing world. FTP is committed to giving prosecutors the tools they need to remedy unjust confinement and restore families and communities. Our funding is allowing two fellows to work directly on work on the Sentence Review Project. This project is born from the passage of AB 2942 - the landmark legislation gave prosecutors the ability to re-evaluate past sentences and seek sentence reductions. 

While our work has become even more intentional since the murder of George Floyd, our funding for these organizations was finalized before these current events unfolded. I credit this to our organization’s commitment to representation, listen, and respond to the community. Both individually and as an organization, we are committed to preserving and uplifting Black Lives.

ChangeLawyers invested $120,000 into the 3L scholarships program, 29% ($35,000) of which was invested directly towards Black students. ChangeLawyers also invested $310,000 into the 1L scholarships program and 20% (80,000) was invested directly towards Black students. 

California ChangeLawyers Scholars at annual Leaders Summit event. Courtesy of California ChangeLawyers. 

What values/principles ground the work of ChangeLawyers?

We believe that a state as diverse as California should have a justice system led by advocates of all ethnicities and races. We work to ensure that we continue to invest in bright, diverse scholars so they have the opportunity to become tomorrow's legal changemakers. We work to ensure that we support our legal organizations that uplift, engage, and strengthen our communities. We work to ensure that we leverage our position as philanthropic leaders to provide a collective voice for law school students, legal aid organizations, and all those who have had access denied for far too long. 

What movement partners do you take inspiration/leadership from? 

I am so inspired by the Founder and Executive Director of UnCommon Law, Keith Wattley, Esq. He has been advocating for the rights of people in prison for over 20 years. In 2018, Keith was selected as one of the Obama Foundation’s inaugural Fellows, recognizing his unique legal model and vision, and in 2020, he was awarded the James Irvine Foundation's Leadership Award. We are so honored to be funding UnCommon Law with an $80,000 grant that they’ve used to hire Maddie Flood, Esq. We are looking forward to the impactful work that both of these powerful Black attorneys will make for our communities.

I am equally inspired by the Founder and Executive Director of For the People, Hillary Blout, Esq. Hillary spent six years as a prosecutor for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, and three years leading criminal justice reform efforts with Californians for Safety and Justice, where she ran the statewide implementation of Proposition 47. Her work promoted second chances for thousands of individuals previously convicted of lower-level felonies. Hillary is also a legislative consultant and drafted and secured the passage of AB 1115 and AB 2942. We are honored to be funding For the People with a $10,000 grant that they’ve used to hire two amazing law students of color: Gladys Hernandez (a UC Davis Law 2L & ChangeLawyers scholarship alum) and Victoria Carter (currently in her final year of law school at UC Hastings).

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