As 2018 draws to a close, we send heartfelt thanks for your ongoing support of Tzedek DC’s mission and work. It’s also a good time to reflect on why Tzedek DC was launched in the first place, less than two years ago, and to catch you up on our past few months.
Tzedek DC was established because a high percentage of low-income DC residents, notably in our communities of color, experience formidable problems with debt and debt collectors. However these residents neither get nor in many cases are given a meaningful opportunity to seek the legal help that could resolve or mitigate those problems. Tzedek DC opened our doors in February 2017 as the first and only organization to focus principally on this issue, with a three-part game plan to prevent debt, court judgments and credit report harms from setting off catastrophic financial, housing, employment and family crises for some of our most vulnerable neighbors.
First, we provide free legal services. And as the number of debt collection suits against low-income DC residents has continued to rise, we have seen more and more people in need of our direct legal services. In 2018, now with an in-house staff of four attorneys and a robust cadre of 60+ pro bono lawyers, we have helped approximately 450 DC families with their debt-related legal problems. A substantial increase from 2017! To hear the perspective of our client Esan on the impact of that work, go to https://www.tzedekdc.org/mission/
Second, through our partnerships for community education and outreach, we co-lead preventative and practical education regarding debt, credit, economic fraud and consumers’ rights. This year, we added several new partners – Little Lights Urban Ministries, the DC Metropolitan Police Department’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, the Victim Legal Network of DC, and East of the River Casehandlers among others – to provide their clients and staff with help on debt management, credit repair and reporting, and pre-bankruptcy issues.
Third, we engage in policy and systems reform work to make existing DC laws and practices fairer. Our advocacy, in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and a strong coalition of anti-poverty groups, paid off spectacularly in 2018. First, the DC Council ended the automatic suspension of drivers licenses for those unable to pay their traffic debt. Second, the Council voted to end drivers license suspensions for unpaid court debts. Third, and just this week, on December 18, the DC Council passed the wage garnishment reforms that our coalition has been pushing for the past year: making the garnishment rules much less onerous for the city’s lowest income earners, protecting earnings up to DC’s minimum wage from garnishment, and for the first time requiring notice before a person’s wages can be garnished.
We're especially proud that the wage garnishment reform results in part from testimony delivered by our client Cecile, who powerfully shared her story in the Council’s Judiciary Committee proceedings on the bill. Here is a picture taken just after her testimony (Cecile is second from the left):
I'm pleased to report that we have exceeded the goals we set for ourselves a year ago in relation to number of clients served, volunteer attorneys and interns trained, partnerships and presentations made, advocacy goals won or advanced, and new staff hired. We were named by the Catalogue for Philanthropy as “One of the Best” charities for 2018-2019 in the DC region. We also exceeded our financial goals, thanks to generous foundation and individual gifts, and our hugely successful (and by all accounts just plain fun!) second annual Eat Well Do Justice event with celebrity chefs. Join us for the third annual Eat Well Do Justice in September 2019. Knishes anyone?...
In January, we’ll be moving into renovated offices at UDC’s David A. Clarke Law School, where we are proudly headquartered, from where we will aim to serve more clients, grow our roster of community partners, and further pursue systemic reforms. It will be a lively space and we welcome visitors and volunteers.
Unfortunately, the needs that Tzedek DC was originally created to address show no signs of abating and, in fact, are continuing to increase. We seek your continued support, to enable still more progress on our mandate of helping low-income families facing debt and debt collection abuses. Please make as generous a year-end gift as you can – click on https://www.tzedekdc.org/donate-now/ – share our work with others in your circle, follow us on social media, and help us continue to send the message that we are all in this together.
With gratitude, and wishes for a good holiday season.