An Evolving Partnership to Advance Civil Rights

Kayla, a mother of three holding Housing Choice Vouchers, sought to move her family into a safer neighborhood. Although she was initially welcomed by a landlord to visit the unit, once he discovered that she held federal housing vouchers, he was no longer interested. The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, one of the many great organizations you support through the Investing in Justice Campaign, has observed many similar instances of housing discrimination. An attorney with its Fair Housing & Lending Project helped this mother and others in her position to file source of income discrimination complaints at the Chicago Commission of Human Relations. Because Chicago Lawyers’ Committee helped Kayla assert her rights, she is now living in a new neighborhood and hopeful for the future of her family.

Founded in 1969, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee has always had a strong relationship with the private bar to provide pro bono services to advance civil rights, economic opportunity and racial equity. The organization has evolved greatly since its inception, redesigning and adding new projects as different civil rights needs emerge. Often, it gauges the need for services through discussion and collaboration with other civil rights leaders and community groups. Its staff also observes patterns in issues encountered by existing clients in order to identify both new project areas and potential impact litigation.

Recently, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee has developed a new mission statement that addresses both racial equity and economic opportunity, issues which Executive Director Bonnie Allen states are completely intertwined. The organization seeks to maintain its strong connections with the private bar while also enhancing existing and developing new community relationships. Chicago Lawyers’ Committee aims to be more focused, strategic, and community based.

To advance these goals, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee manages a variety of civil rights projects. Recently, it relaunched the Project to Combat Bias Violence in response to an uptick in hate crimes since the November election. The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee had a hate crimes project for 25 years, but ended it due to a drop in demand. However, after meeting with representatives from communities affected by anti-immigrant rhetoric and Islamophobia, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee decided to restart this project in November. It has also collaborated with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and its community-based member organizations on Know Your Rights campaigns regarding hate crimes and broader issues facing marginalized communities.

The Voting Rights Project also addresses important and timely issues. For the November election, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee partnered with DLA Piper and Kirkland & Ellis, bringing over 300 lawyers into the project. The project runs a hotline that people can call to report polling place problems and staffs polls on Election Day with people trained to watch for barriers to voting. When there is no upcoming major election, the project provides protection for municipal elections and monitors bills related to voter rights.

One of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee’s newer programs is the Educational Equity Project, which promotes access to education and combats the school-to-prison pipeline. Acknowledging that there is a huge racial disparity in school discipline matters, this project provides representation to students in discipline hearings. Often, representation ensures that students can stay in school, which can be the determining factor in a student’s future path and employment. The Educational Equity Project also supported the passage of Illinois Senate Bill 100, which promotes less punitive discipline in school. In addition to representing students in disciplinary hearings, staff members are also training teachers in strategies to implement this bill.

Other Chicago Lawyers’ Committee projects include The Law Project and the Fair Housing & Lending Project mentioned earlier. The Law Project provides legal assistance to small businesses, nonprofits, community groups, and first-time homeowners. The Fair Housing & Lending Project educates people about fair lending laws, provides legal representation in housing rights cases, and conducts fair housing tests. The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee is also a member of the Police Accountability Collaborative along with other civil rights and policy groups. This collaborative was formed in response to the Department of Justice report on civil rights violations within the Chicago Police Department and seeks community-based police accountability.

Bonnie Allen believes that the clients her organization and other public interest law groups in Chicago serve are up against threats that [they] haven’t seen in decades. This is one of the reasons why the organization’s new mission with emphasis on community collaboration is so important. Despite pressing challenges, Bonnie sees promising opportunities for Chicago Lawyers’ Committee and other public interest organizations to work more collaboratively to advance civil rights and economic opportunity.