Community Activism Law Alliance (CALA)
Interview with Lam Nguyen Ho, Community Activism Law Alliance (CALA) Founder & Executive Director
Organization Mission: CALA unites lawyers and activists in a collaborative pursuit for justice by leveraging legal services to benefit the most marginalized communities and individuals, empowering them to achieve social, economic, and political justice.
Population Served: Low-Income communities who are ineligible for, or struggle to access, legal aid: particularly undocumented immigrants, laborers, sex workers, and grassroots activists.
Founding Year: 2014
Organization Website: www.calachicago.org
Please provide a brief overview of the organization’s work.
CALA stands in contrast to most legal assistance organizations, which have consolidated into centralized offices downtown, away from the communities they serve. Instead, collaboration is at the core of CALA and its vision to change legal aid. The premise is straightforward: lawyers need to be embedded with the activists, organizers, and changemakers pushing for structural-level reform in society because this will advance the cause of social justice more quickly and effectively. CALA’s strategy is to design and test a new model of community lawyering based on the principles of community-location, community-operation and community-direction, and then spread the model widely until it becomes the new normal.
At a fundamental level, the CALA model is a shift from a transactional relationship that tends to be more reactive and focused on individual crises to a transformative partnership model that is proactive and pushes for systems change. Plus by uniting lawyers with activists, CALA leverages the combined resources of each to operate more cost-effectively while achieving greater impact than what lawyers or activists working alone could achieve.
In a few sentences, please describe the problem you are working to solve and your approach to solving this problem.
For families living in poverty, access to legal aid can be critical to basic survival (from avoiding homelessness, escaping violence, and fighting deportation), but the current legal aid system struggles to help “clients” combat injustice: its transactional, hierarchical structure does not empower. CALA is seeking to change that system: to transform legal services from a transactional process between lawyer and “client” to a transformative partnership between lawyer and community members that will change both the lawyer and the member, and ultimately the community. Through 19 “community activism-law programs,” which are community-located, community-operated, and community-directed, CALA works with the most disadvantaged communities by uniting lawyers and activists in a pursuit for social change, simultaneously addressing the justice gap, operating more cost-effectively, and creating greater impact than what lawyers or activists working alone could achieve. Our vision is to change legal aid by redistributing the power of the legal process to communities for which justice is inaccessible. Through this process, we shift power away from lawyers, and the government that restricts access to justice, and put it in the hands of low-income communities: to empower their members to lead their own fights for justice and social change.
How and why did you first start working for this organization?
I am the founder of the organization, which was inspired by my time working as a community lawyer on the west side of Chicago, operating 10 community-based clinics providing free legal services to youth and their families. I experienced firsthand the challenges of community lawyering and our current legal aid system, and was inspired to innovatively confront these challenges through the creation of CALA.
What current trends are you seeing in your field of work?
More lawyers are recognizing that the legal system is often an ineffective tool for social change. Lawyers who are committed to systemic change cannot work only within the law.
What do you think will change most about your work over the next 5 years?
We hope for our work, and our model, will operate on a national level, as we seek to create an alternative legal aid system in the US: not controlled by the government and lawyers, but by people and their communities.
What are the three most important skills you value in your staff members? Why?
Humility, empathy, and patience. Working at CALA often means unlearning many lessons we’re taught in law school; the most important one being that lawyers should be in charge. Our model requires lawyers who are willing to be transformed: to learn from and be changed by the communities and community members with which they work.
How has technology influenced your field and/or the way your organization works?
We rely heavily on technology since all of our legal work is done in our partner communities—often in the evenings and weekends, when community members are available. We have 18 different programs across Chicago, and one in Lake County. That means our attorneys need to be able to access information efficiently wherever we go.
What are some key achievements your organization has accomplished over the last year and how were you able to attain this success?
As an organization, we’ve seen significant growth. In the past year, we’ve launched three community activism-law programs for neighborhoods on the westside of Chicago, immigrants and refugees on the northside of Chicago, and domestic workers to protect their rights under the new Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. That means we now have 19 total programs that serve over 4000 people annually. But the victories that are most important to us are the moments of transformation: an undocumented victim of domestic violence speaking to almost a hundred people about her survival, and urging them to join her fight; working with grassroots activists to stop a deportation already under way and could not be stopped using the law—convincing ICE to land a plane in Texas and return a father to his family; and sex workers “coming out of the shadows” at a demonstration, declaring and claiming their human rights and their worker rights.
Have there been any recent obstacles? If so, how were you and your staff able to overcome them?
Recent decisions by the government have ravaged our communities: ripping families apart, causing widespread fear, and forcing workers to work in harmful conditions. We have victims of violence and persecution too afraid to apply for remedies to which they are rightfully entitled; young children (under 13 years old), whose parents are in the US, facing separate deportation actions; and severely-ill legal permanent residents afraid to get medical help because they are too afraid of potential immigration consequences. We’re working with our community partner organizations to provide as much accurate information and address community fears as possible. We have also had conversations with our partners to help them make adjustments to our programs to respond to the changing needs of their communities.
What’s next for your organization? What are you looking forward to?
We’re taking our community-activism-lawyering model national to change our country’s approach to legal aid, but we’re doing it in a way that is true to our grassroots, community-driven values. In the words of a mentor, “we are not trying to become the [queen] of the mountain, we’re trying to change the mountain.”
What do you wish others knew about the organization or the populations you serve?
The majority of the community members with which we work are either ineligible for, or struggle to access, assistance from other legal aid organizations: including undocumented immigrants, day laborers, sex workers, and activists.
Selected Media Mentions:
Chicago Tonight, WTTW “Demand Fuels Creation of Immigrant Hotline, Crisis Planning Workshops”
Chicago Tonight, WTTW “Cook County Sheriff: ICE Agents Shouldn’t Identify as Police”
Features on Lam Nguyen Ho:
Harvard Law Today Lam Nguyen Ho named 2017 Gary Bellow Award Winner
The Harvard Law Record “The HLS 300 Project: Inspiring Careers”