By Jessica Hilburn-Holmes
Remember the bumper stickers and buttons from years ago that urged us to “think globally and act locally?” As I approach the one-year anniversary of my appointment at the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, I find myself reflecting on this adage. I left the Philadelphia area for college, law school, and eventually a life overseas. After a decade and a half of living in the Netherlands, and a career of diplomacy, war crimes prosecutions, and international tribunals, my world was a million miles (well 3,800 miles) away from Philadelphia. A few years ago, when the opportunity to return to the U.S. presented itself (my husband had a professional opportunity stateside and we were facing the parent and progeny realities of our demographic), it was only after a hefty amount of soul searching that we boarded a ship (yes, a ship) for “home.” What drove me to that decision and what sustains me today, is both the hope and the challenge presented by the City of Philadelphia.
First the challenge: there is no denying the aching need of a city of 1 million people, with a poverty rate of 28 percent – higher according to some measures than the nation of India. Among the most pressing needs to be met is the need to close the “justice gap.” State and national studies repeatedly show that 80 percent of serious legal needs of low-income people go unmet due to grossly insufficient funding. The recent national study commissioned by the Public Welfare Foundation and The Kresge Foundation “Expanding Civil and Legal Aid: Strategies for Branding and Communications,” found that 82 percent of voters support the idea of providing legal representation to low-income people fighting injustices involving basic human needs (e.g., matters involving personal, familial, and economic security that threaten the basic survival of too many of our citizens). In the minds of voters across the nation, this is a matter of fairness.
And that brings me to the hope: Philadelphia, as the cradle of our democracy and the historic heart of one of humanity’s greatest achievements – a carefully crafted system of self-government – of the people, by the people, and for the people – that balances liberty with equality and justice. A system that recognizes that these basic rights – dignity, freedom, equality and justice – are inherent, indivisible, inalienable and universal. A system that depends for its success on the notion that the promotion, protection and fulfillment of these rights is our shared responsibility. Therein lies the hope.
I am humbled and inspired every day by the work being done by the more than 30 nonprofit public interest legal aid agencies funded by the Bar Foundation. I am equally humbled and inspired by the leadership of our trustees, our non-trustee committee members, and the lawyers and business leaders across the region who support the Bar Foundation and make our grant-making possible.
This past year the Grants Committee of the Bar Foundation, which is composed of trustees and non-trustees, reviewed 37 applications and conducted site visits of one-third of those applicants. The total amount of funding requested was just more than $900,000. The Grants Committee review process is thorough, time consuming and includes, thanks especially to the services of committee member John Urofsky, an in-depth examination of each agency’s financial statements. For 2014, in addition to providing unrestricted operating grants to the many well-recognized agencies we traditionally fund, per the Grants Committee recommendation the trustees agreed to add two new grants: one to Ceasefire PA, for their Philadelphia Courtwatch activities designed to empower victimized communities to communicate to the court the community impact of gun crimes; and the second to an innovative, collaborative, and highly successful, court-based project, the Philadelphia Landlord/Tenant Legal Help Center, that assists unrepresented low-income tenants in Philadelphia facing eviction and navigation of the legal system. (see August article for more details). In all, the Foundation issued 35 grants for a total of $603,000 in funding.
This is the time of year for reflection and resolution. Moreover, it is an historic moment for the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, our 50th Anniversary. It is an opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished and to celebrate the leaders who made those achievements possible. It is also an opportunity to recognize the enormous amount of work yet to be done and to resolve – as lawyers and responsible citizens – to meet those challenges, to close the justice gap, and to do better at meeting the basic needs of everyone in our community. As we toast to the New Year, I would be remiss if I failed to raise my glass and offer my sincerest thanks to the Philadelphia legal community that has so warmly welcomed and embraced me in my new role. It is wonderful to be home again.