Dear Friends: I’m writing today, nearing the one-year anniversary of Tzedek DC’s first day of full-time operations, with an overview of what we’ve accomplished this year. This comes with a heartfelt thanks for your support of our tikkun olam (repair the world) efforts. We hope that you will consider a generous year-end gift to carry forward the work of helping DC families with an array of debt-related problems. To donate, click here.
We’ve been inspired by the enthusiastic response to our arrival –- from the legal services community, attorneys and laws firms throughout the city, and above all the DC families seeking our help. We’re proud to have established a solid presence in the city through our free legal services, preventative education, and policy advocacy. For a deeper dive into these activities, just keep on reading – or scroll down here and click (on non-mobile devices) on the links to specific topics.
It is no cliché to say that we could never have come this far without the help of this generous community of supporters. Along with important support from local foundations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the DC Bar Foundation, your contributions of time, talent and money have enabled us to make meaningful strides already. In the coming year, we will continue to raise the profile of predatory lending and debt collection abuses as fundamental issues of civil rights, and to deepen the involvement of the Jewish, civil rights, legal, and civic and business communities in attacking this problem, and with a special focus on expanding our services to immigrant households. With the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under siege, our work takes on even more urgency than ever. Please help us level the playing field for some of our most vulnerable neighbors.
With great appreciation for your support, in all its forms,
Our Free Legal Services and Clients
We served over 160 clients, nearly 60 % of them women, including elderly widows, female heads of households, and survivors of intimate partner violence (financial abuse often accompanies emotional and physical abuse). They come to us from DC Superior Court Small Claims court each Wednesday, referrals from other legal service providers, word of mouth, and our online intake form.
Ms. J raised her hand for legal services on her first Wednesday appearance in court. She was apprehensive as she’d never worked with a lawyer before, but this time she decided to ask for help since she knew the debt that brought her to court didn’t belong to her. Ms. J was the victim of identity theft. The debt claimed against her originated in Florida, the monthly statements were sent to Florida, and all of the charges were made in Florida - even though Ms. J had never lived in Florida. Tzedek DC accompanied her to mediation, and she was able to secure a dismissal with judgement.
Mr. H is the single father of a 14 year old daughter. After a death in his family and his own medical issues, he became unable to pay his credit card bill. Once his health stabilized, he returned to work and was eager to right his credit situation. But, with a mortgage and dental bills for his daughter’s braces, he knew he couldn’t pay a lump sum. A Tzedek DC pro bono partner negotiated in mediation on his behalf. “Tzedek DC made a formidable difference to me,” he says. “I was hoping to get my total bill reduced by $200 at most, so I was amazed when they negotiated it down by almost 50%.” As an added bonus, he also got the start date postponed til January, after the holidays.
Esan F: “Earlier this year, I found myself expecting my first child after ending an abusive relationship, forced to quit my job due to health complications and very much in debt. I fell behind in my repayment plan with Capital One and went to my [Court] hearing with no clue what to expect next. [The Tzedek DC team] approached me in the courtroom asking if I needed legal counsel. The spark of hope I felt in that moment was fully realized as [the Tzedek DC team] handled my unique circumstances promptly and efficiently, while clearly explaining every potential option all with genuine warmth and kindness. I honestly felt as though a group of my own friends were giving me legal support. … they were able to get Capital One to [dismiss the suit for] the entire amount that I owed, which was well over $3,000…. Additionally, the team followed up with advice and referrals for the other issues I was facing. In my opinion, what the Tzedek team did was miraculous. They played a tremendous role in helping to ensure that my daughter and I got back on the right track.”
Short Documentary Film Featuring Our Clients
We are also grateful to the Stone Soup Docs in a Day film festival team, which selected Tzedek DC as one of five local nonprofits to be subject of a short documentary film and to Peter Edelman, Shelley Broderick and Rebecca Vallas, who, along with three of our clients -- Lauren, Cecille, and the Amaya Family – took time on a weekend to share their stories. See www.tzedekdc.org
Hear from Our Volunteers
With thanks to Venable and Steptoe & Johnson for generously providing space and sandwiches, we have trained over 35 attorneys to take on cases for us pro bono. Many are still practicing in private law firms and government agencies; others are retired. More training sessions are planned for 2018 (and thanks to Steptoe & Johnson, we now have a training by video option), so get in touch if you’d like to volunteer for an extremely rewarding experience.
Tzedek DC Volunteer Rachel Engle: “[W]hen I heard about Tzedek DC from the Jewish Community Relations Council, I just knew it was the right fit. I have been amazed by how much just having a lawyer in the room can dramatically change the outcome. It’s such a huge relief for our clients, who never expected to find legal help.”
Tzedek DC volunteer Lori Licata: “ …To have someone available to explain your rights – you can’t put a price on that. My client had old credit card debt that had doubled because of fines. …I was able to get her case dismissed on hardship grounds. Such a small thing for me made all the difference in the world for her.”
Preventative Education and Community Outreach
We have developed and begun distributing (and are continually tailoring) Know Your Rights and other educational materials for groups ranging from UDC Community College first-year students freshmen, to hundreds of United Planning Organization (UPO) clients seeking tax preparation help. We have begun co-teaching financial literacy classes, in conjunction with our community partner the United Planning Organization. And we have initiated a partnership with Little Lights Urban Ministries to provide community legal education and offer intake at Family Services Day in the Potomac Gardens housing project in Southeast DC; nearly all participants will be low-income women.
We are also excited about a partnership with the Hispanic Bar Association, under which we will distribute in 2018 a Spanish Language Know Your Rights video and radio PSA. Our goals are to ensure that our immigrant community members facing debt and debt collection crises know how to find timely help, and especially that they know they can be represented in court without having to physically appear and experience the anxiety of immigration enforcement-related concerns.
1. Reforming the suspension of drivers’ licenses for unpaid debt.
Following our testimony to the DC Council -- urging members to discontinue this unfair, counterproductive, and legally problematic policy that in effect punishes poor people for being poor --a bill developed by Councilmember Elissa Silverman and co-introduced or co-sponsored by six of the 13 Councilmembers was introduced on December 5. For more on this and the Washington Post’s coverage, click here.
We look forward to continuing our advocacy as the bill goes through the legislative process. In this work, we are fortunate to work with a terrific pro bono team from WilmerHale, led by Tzedek DC Advisory Council Member Danielle Conley.
2. Reforming the rules governing debt collection litigation.
In today’s marketplace, debt buyers purchase billions of dollars of debt and attempt to collect based on spreadsheets of summary information that are frequently inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated. We are working to have the Council require that debt collectors be compelled to substantiate the information needed before suing.
On September 25 more than 300 people gathered at UDC’s stunning new Student Center for Tzedek DC’s Eat Well, Do Justice! 2017 Celebrity Chef Kugel Cook-Off. We held this event, with the Washington Post’s Bonnie Benwick as Honorary Chair, to raise awareness about our work, and to raise money to support that work. This, our first annual Eat Well Do Justice event, exceeded anyone’s expectations, bringing in over $100,000 to support our work for low-income families.
On February 1, we had a staff of two: myself, and Rachel Gray, who during a one year fellowship was an integral part of the creation and success of Tzedek DC before leaving in August to begin law school. Rachel and I were soon joined by Janet Lowenthal, an experienced non-profit and development professional, writer and program evaluator. In June, we welcomed Associate Director Sarah Hollender, a lawyer with extensive experience in civil legal aid and consumer law in particular who, along with her legal and policy work, manages our growing team of pro bono volunteers. And in September, Elana Handelman joined the team as our Avodah Jewish Service Corps Fellow. Elana is often the first point of contact for our clients as our intake specialist. Full staff bios can be found at https://www.tzedekdc.org/staff/.