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Fran Fajana

Fran Fajana

Fran Fajana is a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute where her primary areas of focus are education, civil consequences of criminal records, and race and poverty intersectionality. Over her 20-year career in legal services, Fran has deployed litigation, community engagement, coalition building, research, opportunity mapping, media strategy, and legislative, administrative, and municipal advocacy to advance systemic change and individual rights. For example, in 2010, following a seven-year legislative campaign she spearheaded in collaboration with many grassroots groups, Massachusetts passed one of the first laws in the nation comprehensively overhauling the use of criminal records, including banning criminal-history questions on job applications. Also in furtherance of criminal-records reform, Fran brought a federal lawsuit against a multinational corporation and a class action in state court and coordinated media stories. Fran has published leading articles in Clearinghouse Review, participated in national and state conferences, and collaborated with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity to examine the spatial mismatch of opportunity in Massachusetts. Fran has litigated housing discrimination cases in federal and state courts and successfully argued before the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Fran holds an LL.M. from Boston College Law School and a J.D. from Suffolk University Law School.

What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?

I actually have four cases that have given me enormous personal satisfaction, but since I have to choose one, I'll pick Salaam v. Commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance. I was a relatively rookie lawyer in 1995 when the case was assigned to me. It was an appeal of a fair hearing decision denying Ms. Salaam and her niece welfare benefits because she purportedly failed to prove her identity. More than a decade before Ms. Salaam applied for the benefits at issue, she converted to Islam and changed her name in a public religious ceremony. At that time, she petitioned the Probate and Family Court to officially recognize her name change but was told it was unnecessary. She secured a new Social Security card in her new name, but her original birth certificate remained, as it should, in her birth name. When she gained legal guardianship of her niece and applied for benefits, she gave the aforementioned documents to the social worker, provided a letter from her brother, whose child was now her ward, and a notarized affidavit from her parents attesting that she was their daughter and verifying the reason for her name change. Yet, DTA denied her application, claiming that the name on her birth certificate did not match her religious name.

If I was in charge of legal aid, public interest work would have an affirmative focus on advancing racial equity (just outcomes), moving children and able-bodied people out of poverty, and building the capacity of community groups to address community issues.

I argued the case before our state's Appeals Court and won. I'm particularly fond of this case for several reasons. Ms. Salaam and her niece received years of retroactive benefits they were unjustly denied; at oral argument, my client came to the Court in her hijab affirming and embracing her identity and made me proud to stand with her; and the Court made clear that DTA may not erect unnecessary obstacles, especially where it has an affirmative duty to aid applicants in the eligibility verification process.

It's been almost two decades since the case was decided. I sometimes wonder how Ms. Salaam and her niece, who is now in her late twenties, might be faring.

What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as causing you particular anxiety? Why?

I, along with many grassroots groups, embarked on an ultimately successful 7-year campaign to change our state's criminal offender record information statute. African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately arrested, charged, prosecuted, and imprisoned by our criminal justice system and simultaneously are disparately excluded from employment, housing, and other mainstream opportunities. While legislative advocacy on this issue was of paramount importance to me as a racial justice advocate, I worried about reinforcing negative stereotypes about people of color through media stories that sought to humanize those impacted by our criminal records system.

I also worried about how victims of crime and their advocates, including my legal services colleagues, may perceive our advocacy to curb over-reliance on and proliferation of criminal histories. Because over many years we had garnered support from our governor, legislature, and the media and had strategically chosen the stories we profiled, my negative stereotyping concern was allayed. Unfortunately, my fears of push-back from victims of crime did not fare so well. But I learned that the legislative process is about compromise, that principled legitimate opposing views will clash, and that I may not lose sight of the reality that victims and perpetrators alike are from the same community and that their interests are not mutually exclusive.

If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?

If I was in charge of legal aid, public interest work would have an affirmative focus on advancing racial equity (just outcomes), moving children and able-bodied people out of poverty, and building the capacity of community groups to address community issues.

What’s one of your guilty pleasures?

I have to have one banana walnut bread from Starbucks every day. I'm trying very hard to cut back to every other day!

Fran Fajana has published several articles for The Clearinghouse Review.

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