A Thank You to the PILF and Al Meyeroff Grantees

by ursavoice

Jennifer Chin

J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law


    Shortly before the Public Interest Law Fund (PILF) auction, I was outed as a donor to the Donate A Day’s Pay program by fliers posted around campus thanking the students who donated a portion of their summer pay to help fund summer stipends for students taking unpaid public interest positions. I, along with some of my fellow classmates, also received nice emails from Pro Bono Director Anna Davis, a shoutout in the PILF program, as well as lovely cards in our mailboxes from Dean Chemerinsky. All of these thanks were thoughtful, well-intentioned, and appreciated. In my opinion, however, the thanks were misplaced.

    I came to this school from a job at a domestic violence and sexual assault victim services nonprofit, and it is clear to me that, as a country, we woefully underfund the programs providing social and legal services to the poor. We rely on politically-volatile government funding, even more unreliable charitable giving, and the extraordinarily discounted labor of hardworking (over-worked), often highly-educated, well-trained service providers to assist the vast majority of people seeking help during what is often the lowest points of their lives.

    Regarding government funding, the CEO of our agency would often say that nobody in the country would or could run a for-profit corporation with the amount of uncertainty she deals with—balancing a budget every year that manages a revenue stream of over 40 different grants (all with different durations, restrictions, and funding disbursement cycles), as well as expenses that include the salaries of over a hundred employees working out of more than ten different locations. My last year at the nonprofit, in response to a California budget crisis, Governor Schwarzenegger exercised his “blue line” veto power (his legally challenged power to line-item veto select allocations in a legislature-approved budget package) to completely eliminate the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Domestic Violence Program. Overnight, our agency lost nearly $400,000 from an annual budget of just over four million—retroactive to the beginning of the fiscal year. The Office of AIDS Prevention and Treatment, the Department of Aging, the Department of Mental Health, and Medi-Cal also sustained dramatic, crippling cuts at the same time.

    Though the State of California later reinstated the CDPH funding due to political backlash, our agency had already begun the heart-wrenching process of eliminating an award-winning program originally created to engage Somali, Vietnamese, and Latino communities in the generation of collaborative community-driven solutions to family, domestic, and community violence.

    Regarding charitable donations, a significant amount of the time our CEO spent on a daily basis involved fundraising, in some capacity—cultivating donors, meeting with community groups, thanking volunteers and funders, and building relationships for the organization. I worked at the agency during the height of the current recession, when housing prices in California were plummeting, unemployment soared, and the State of California issued I.O.U’s worth over a billion dollars to cover cash flow problems. Despite the shriveling charitable giving climate, the agency I worked for had grown significantly (taking over a failing sister organization providing substantially similar services), and needed to develop a fundraising department to catch up to its size. It turns out, private donors and foundations do not want to pay for the salaries and infrastructure costs needed to build a development department—as if donations appeared magically on the doorstep of the agencies providing critical services to our communities.

    This brings me to the issue of who is doing this work that we so desperately need, but pay so little for. At the agency I worked for, many of the advocates, social workers, paralegals, attorneys, and therapists held Master’s degrees and dealt with vicarious trauma on a daily basis—yet received so little pay that many held part-time jobs on the side. Our entry level attorneys earned less than thirty percent of the annual starting salary of a first year associate at a large law firm. As an agency, this meant that we attracted bright, committed, passionate people – but had high turnover as they moved on to other professional development opportunities.

    I bring this story and my experiences into this law school bubble to say this: to those of you taking PILF or Al Meyerhoff funding this summer, last summer, or any summer, to do public interest work—thank you so much. I admire your dedication, appreciate the difficulty of your work, and am so grateful that you, and others, forego easier, more certain, more lucrative paths to provide legal services to those who need it most. As we grow as a community, I hope that we make and enjoy the time to really celebrate not just where PILF money comes from, but where the money goes – to you, and the work that you do for others.