The Florida Bar Foundation is using $1.5 million from a national settlement with Bank of America to fund seven legal aid projects around Florida, as well as four Equal Justice Works fellowships focused on community economic development.
The funds are the first to be allocated from Florida’s $23 million share of the $490 million settlement between Bank of America and the U.S. Department of Justice and six states.
“We felt it was important for the Foundation to distribute some portion of the BOA funds while we were developing and implementing a strategy for funding the lion’s share of the monies over the next few years,” said Matthew G. Brenner, immediate past president. “We focused on projects that are in line with the strategic reset the Foundation is undertaking and that were in keeping with the terms of the settlement.”
For the first round of grants, the Foundation identified projects that involve collaboration among legal aid and other providers who are together addressing targeted social justice and community economic development issues. The seven projects — each of which received about $143,000, for a total of $1 million — are in the areas of affordable housing, legislative advocacy, medical-legal partnerships, expungements, identity documentation, LGBTQ inclusion, and the legal needs of migrant and agricultural workers.
The lead agencies include longtime Foundation grantees Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida (medical-legal partnerships), Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (expungements), Legal Aid Service of Broward County (LGBTQ inclusion), and Florida Legal Services (legislative advocacy and migrant projects).
Two of the grants went to organizations not previously funded by the Foundation, but whose work fit within the Foundation’s goals for the Bank of America funding. Orlando-based IDignity helps disadvantaged Central Floridians obtain the legal documentation required to get a state ID or driver’s license so they can apply for employment or school, obtain access to shelters, vote, seek help from social service programs, open a bank account or cash a check, secure housing, or overcome other obstacles to self-sufficiency. It hosts monthly events where governmental partners and more than 120 volunteers serve more than 200 clients in need.
The Miami-based Community Justice Project is staffed by three experienced public interest attorneys who collaborate closely with community organizers and grassroots groups in low-income communities of color to work toward a more just and more equal society. Their project will connect isolated communities in order to arrive at innovative community-based solutions to housing and economic justice challenges. It will engage the HUD Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing process in Miami-Dade to create “neighborhoods of opportunity.” This includes preserving and encouraging the development of affordable housing for low- income clients; encouraging more dignified employment opportunities; and creating practical and replicable solutions to attaining social and economic justice.
The other $500,000 in Bank of America funding recently approved by the Foundation’s board will support four Equal Justice Works fellows. Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Works is a nonprofit organization committed to mobilizing the next generation of public interest attorneys. These four fellows, along with the nonprofit legal organizations that will host them, will focus on housing access and community economic development.
These fellows will focus on direct representation and advocacy work during a two-year term from September 2017 through August 2019. The four fellows are:
Sesilia Valdez Diaz, who will serve low-wage Latina workers in the hospitality industry experiencing wage theft, discrimination, harassment, and other employment issues in Central Florida. A graduate of Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University College of Law, Diaz will be hosted by LatinoJustice PRLDEF.
Krystin Montersil, who will mitigate the effects of detention on children and families by helping parents prepare and appoint guardians. A graduate of Florida International University College of Law, Montersil will be hosted by Catholic Legal Services, Archdiocese of Miami.
Reina Saco, who will help migrant and seasonal farmworker communities across Florida gain access to affordable, safe, and sanitary housing. Saco graduated from the University of Florida Levin College of Law and will be hosted by Florida Legal Services in Alachua County.
Kristin Tellis, who will provide legal services and advocacy in the “Little Haiti” neighborhood of Miami for residents, businesses, and other stakeholders to effectively participate and protect their interests in the gentrification of their community. Tellis is a graduate of Florida State University College of Law and will be hosted by Legal Services of Greater Miami.
“In Florida, many low-income individuals and families face great injustices without access to any legal advocacy,” said Jewel White, president of The Florida Bar Foundation. “These Equal Justice Works Fellows will provide greater access to legal counsel, which is key to ensuring more stable and productive lives for all Floridians.”