Centering Race in Our Work: Stories from Racial Justice Institute Alumni

RJI alumni share their major takeaways from how the capacity building program has changed their advocacy for the better.

By Kimberly Jones Merchant

Poverty in America is created and perpetuated by laws and policies that are engrained in the institutions and structures of our nation’s systems, which have indisputably been informed by this country’s history of structural racism. Lawyers and other antipoverty advocates are uniquely positioned to address the diverse issues around poverty and race because they navigate those very legal systems and institutions regularly.  

But to advance systemic solutions that create real change in the lives of people and communities impacted by poverty, it is critical that advocates themselves understand how race informs these institutions and structures and are equipped with tools to affirmatively advance racial equity. 

That’s the mission of the Shriver Center’s Racial Justice Institute. Entering its seventh year, this groundbreaking national leadership program equips advocates and organizations across the country with the tools they need to advance economic and racial justice. Following completion of the program, Racial Justice Institute Fellows join a network of over 240 advocates working on race equity issues across the country. 

Below, three RJI alumni share how the capacity building program has changed their advocacy for the better: 

Veronica Cook, RJI 2015 

Senior Staff Attorney at Legal Services NYC 
Legal Services NYC is the largest civil legal services provider in the country. 

“Going to RJI was particularly helpful for me because it gave me some of the language to discuss and to advocate for racial justice, and also the permission and reminder that it’s really important to center race in our work when race is one of the factors that is working to oppress our clients and increase inequities and disparities.  

The network is also such a great resource. I learn about cases and projects across the country that I may not otherwise be following. If I had a question or thought of a new legal strategy or a case we’re trying to bring and I reached out and asked, I’d get a ton of answers very quickly which is really a great thing to have.” 

Karl Doss, RJI 2019 

Deputy Director of Legal Services Corporation of VirginiaThe Legal Services Corporation of Virginia funds Virginia’s nine legal aid programs. 

“One of the challenges over my career is seeing that a number of organizations and systems have been content with just addressing diversity as a value. But diversity is only part of the equation. It really comes down to looking at your system from the inside out and ensuring that there is access, not only externally when it comes to our clients but also internally when it comes to the folks who work for us. As you are trying to change things externally, you’ve got to change things internally.” 

Merf Ehman, RJI 2015  

Executive Director of Columbia Legal Services. Columbia Legal Services primarily represents low-income clients and groups with critical legal needs in cases involving severe and broad-scale problems, especially in the criminal justice system.  

“We took the learnings from RJI and created a race equity toolkit with other folks in our organization and asked that a race equity analysis be part of the work. It really helped us think about who is directing the work. Is it attorneys directing the work or is it communities directing the work? Were we just passing a law to say we made a change and not really understanding whether it had its intended impact? It helped us move our traditional legal aid work to be community directed and led. Now, race equity is a consideration in all of our work, and we continue to do internal work around race equity to ensure that we’re not being complicit in the system.”  

By providing anti-poverty advocates with racial justice tools and concepts, RJI is transforming legal aid and public interest advocacy.  

Only when advocates are equipped with a race equity vision can they begin to understand how their clients’ experiences connect to a system or practice that disproportionately harms people of color that can and should be dismantled.  

Applications are now open for the 2020 Racial Justice Institute. 

Applications are invited from racial equity teams that include at least one legal aid or public interest lawyer serving low-income people or communities of color.

Because organizational support of RJI Fellows is a critical component to the development of successful race equity initiatives, the Shriver Center will offer a special support to organizational leadership through the RJI program this year. The RJI Senior Management Track, available to senior leadership at programs employing selected 2020 Fellows, will position organizational leaders to support both internal culture change and innovative solutions to racial justice issues faced by the unique communities RJI Fellows and their programs serve.  

Learn more about the Racial Justice Institute. Applications for the 2020 program are due on February 28, 2020.  

About the Author

Kimberly Merchant
Kimberly Merchant
Kimberly Merchant

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