Dozens of ALAA members announced the formation of the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid (BALA) Caucus in a letter to ALAA President, Deborah Wright. This caucus will amplify the voice and particular issues faced by Black attorneys working at the Legal Aid Society. BALA will join the LGBTQ Caucus and the Attorneys of Color at Legal Aid as ALAA’s third union caucus. To announce its formation to the larger membership, the BALA Caucus issued the following statement:
The Black Attorneys of Legal Aid (BALA) are pleased to announce our formation and existence as an official faction of attorneys at the Legal Aid Society. Black lawyers have played an integral role in Legal Aid’s pursuit of its mission to provide quality representation to low-income and underrepresented individuals in New York City. We have been staunch advocates for just outcomes for our clients, which has required that we battle against the social injustices and institutionalized racism that have an overarching dictate on the lives and trajectories of our clients. Simultaneously, black attorneys have had to engage in an ongoing effort to ensure that we are being equally recognized at Legal Aid, valued in the same way as our colleagues and not targeted or treated in a disparate manner. Moreover, black attorneys have had to take up the responsibility of making sure that we and attorneys of color at large are recruited and retained by Legal Aid.
An examination of United States history makes it clear why it is necessary that groups exist to protect and advance the interests of black people. Throughout the centuries of slavery in America, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement; evolving and perpetual systems were put in place to oppress black people. These systems continuously facilitate many of the existing obstacles that impact our lives and the lives of our clients, from pervasive poverty and disenfranchisement to mass incarceration. It is not happenstance that the majority of Legal Aid’s clients are black. As a result of the documented lineage of American anti-black racism, many educational institutions; corporations, including a number of law firms; social organizations and even the U.S. Congress have seen the necessity of establishing groups to address issues pertinent to its black population. Similarly, it is essential that Legal Aid has BALA.
As Black people, in general, we often have to strive to make sure that we are being heard and that our individual and collective concerns are not buried or ignored. Black caucuses within various organizations offer a space for black people to address issues relevant to the black population within its ranks. Black attorneys here at Legal Aid need an official space to address concerns that are specific to us; a space where black attorneys can dissect nuanced issues that intersect with race, identity and our profession, as well as how those issues reach our clients.
The fact that black attorneys are an invaluable asset to the Legal Aid Society, cannot be reiterated enough. In many instances, we mirror the faces and backgrounds of our clients: This is a reality that makes us indispensable. It is vital that Legal Aid makes a priority out of maintaining a thriving population of black lawyers. Recent social trends demonstrate the importance of having black attorneys occupy a space within Legal Aid. We lend a resonant voice to the experiences of so many of our clients in an era that is rapidly returning to conservatism. We are living through a period in which black men and women make up the highest number of individuals killed by police; where corporately sponsored gentrification is displacing large numbers of residents in historically black neighborhoods from their homes in the city; where right-wing policies deny poor black people access to healthcare and proper education; where undocumented black immigrants are among those most heavily targeted by the government; where black LGBTQIA individuals are besieged by police, discriminated against, and experience violence at alarming rates; where black transgender individuals are murdered at rates higher than that of any of their counterparts; and where black neighborhoods are over-policed, serving as a pipeline into the prison system. All of these issues highlight the need for our clients to see scores of black attorneys advocating on their behalf. The current incidents of black attorneys departing in droves from Legal Aid must be addressed in a way that is direct and effective. Although black attorneys have traditionally fought for the rights of attorneys of color, other marginalized groups, as well as the larger union and will continue to do the same; black attorneys come up against challenges at the organization that are germane to being black and a lawyer at Legal Aid. There are issues that particularly affect the well-being of black attorneys at Legal Aid that require the singular focus that the black caucus would provide.
In our practice, we continuously balance the stress of our daily work against the insidious influence of anti-blackness; this process intensifies the vicarious trauma we endure in our profession. Black lawyers at Legal Aid have had to discreetly discuss the ways in which race impacts our experience, which includes our intersectional identities, such as being black and part of the LGBTQIA spectrum or being black and an immigrant or being black and from a historically under-resourced but over-policed neighborhood. Such informal conversations often go unacknowledged because black professionals frequently navigate the very real fear of being seen as agitators in environments where we are the minority; history has shown us that resultant repercussions can occur. Nonetheless, we understand that our quiet summits actually serve as a place to strategize against oppression and focus on our issues. At Legal Aid, black lawyers consistently battle against erasure as well as struggle to be included. The Legal Aid Society is not a Utopia, but rather a microcosm of the world that surrounds us, with all of its flaws and shortcomings. Within this microcosm, we the black attorneys at the Legal Aid Society intend to carve out a space for our voices, by us and for us, to address issues we face. Black attorneys have fought and will continue to fight for the rights of all marginalized people and stand beside our union brothers and sisters in solidarity on issues that affect us all. We know that our efforts will advance racial and social equity, not just forblack attorneys, but our clients and the Legal Aid Society at large.
The Black Attorneys of Legal Aid”