Earlier this month, the DC Bar Foundation hosted its first in-person convening for the DC Legal Aid Transformations Network (DC LATN). As we celebrate two years of the network, I am proud of the diverse group of thought leaders in the room, including legal aid providers, social services providers, elected officials, and students. The depth and breadth of attendees let me know that DC LATN is moving in the right direction of building and fostering connections that reach beyond civil legal aid.
We know that clients face challenges and burdens as they navigate a system that, unfortunately, makes finding a civil legal aid provider harder than it needs to be. As their champions and advocates, however, we stand determined to design a legal aid system that is equitable and works for all who need legal help. DC LATN serves as a vehicle for us to reimagine the legal aid system in DC. As we celebrate DC LATN’s second anniversary, I am proud of our progress and those who continue working with us on this journey.
I have always known that making significant, transformative changes would take more than one organization or entity. Before our first convening on June 15, 2021, I wrote to the attendees and said, “By coming together to center people, justice, and equity, we can align our efforts, reimagine legal aid, find new solutions that improve the civil justice system, and experiment with creative strategies to enhance our work.” Two years later, I continue to be motivated by the progress we have made toward this vision.
With our partners at the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC), we have been able to grow from the initial 57 legal aid providers, funders, community activists, social service providers, and other stakeholders to more than 100 organizations with the collective mission of advancing a user-centered system grounded in well-being, anti-racism, and anti-poverty. Internally, DCBF’s Network Program Manager, Michanda Myles, has been instrumental in bringing network members together. Through Slack After 4, which was an ongoing virtual event held last summer for network members to connect and learn about the Slack platform, the Power Lunch Series held earlier this year to build relationships around learning, and her ongoing one-on-one meetings to get to know each of the network members, she has helped foster deeper, meaningful relationships.
While I celebrate the growth of DC LATN, I also recognize the challenges and tensions we face as we build this network from the ground up. However, through the convenings, we have created a space to discuss these issues, provided greater context around expectations, and discussed how we could better work together to move the needle on transforming the delivery of civil legal aid. And because of the unwavering commitment of many, DC LATN has progressed in several areas. Here are some of the network’s highlights:
The birth of subnetworks. During the June 2022 convening, we celebrated our first anniversary. We also launched subnetworks, which allow network members to gather and talk more specifically about a focus area, such as housing, public benefits, employment, and education.
The second Network Mapping survey shows growing connections and trust. Last fall, we conducted the network’s second mapping survey, which allowed us to gauge how the network has grown, what connections have been made, and how people work together. From the survey, we learned that:
Network members gained new perspectives. 44% of respondents said their organization gained new insight/perspective on the legal aid system in DC as a result of their participation in DC LATN.
Network members made valuable connections. 35% of respondents said they made valuable contacts with other stakeholders in the network.
DC LATN has been successful at knowledge sharing and collaboration. Respondents said that increased knowledge sharing and cross-sector collaboration had been the most successful aspects of the network.
Trust remains high within the network. Members placed a very high level of trust in their network relationships in 2021 and 2022. In particular, network partners were perceived as particularly reliable.
Coordinated Intake and Referral (CIR) moves forward. The first goal of the network is to create a user-centered coordinated intake and referral system grounded in well-being, anti-racism, and anti-poverty. In the last year, we have made significant progress toward this goal, including building the provider directory database that has more than 60 DC legal aid providers, completing user testing with community members for the intake portal, and holding focus groups with intake networks and clients from legal and social services organizations.
With all that we have done over the last two years, seeing more than 80 attendees at the University of the District of Columbia for our first in-person convening was a pleasure. It was a powerful and impactful day from start to finish.
One of the highlights from the day happened during our table conversations. We asked groups to talk about why they do this work and where we go from here. What was shared was not new, but it drove home the point that we have more work to do as we build and grow DC LATN. Some of the key highlights shared include:
Increase capacity. Organizations want and need to increase capacity so that every resident who needs assistance can get help.
Recruit different stakeholders to the network. Messaging was clear that network members want to see DC LATN include more people from social services, professionals from the arts, health providers, DC courts, the mayor’s office, and clients.
Hire and retain staff from diverse backgrounds. We heard that clients more easily connect when working with someone who looks like them, but the challenge is how to remove the barriers that prevent Black people and people of color from working in civil legal aid, such as salary.
For those of you who have been involved in/with the DC Legal Aid Transformations Network, in whatever small or large way, THANK YOU. And for those who have not, I welcome you and invite you to join in a commitment to building and strengthening a network to create a more equitable civil legal aid system for DC residents.
Kirra L. Jarratt, CEO