Eliminating poverty begins at the source--economic disadvantage.
Anneliese Gryta, a lawyer who has dedicated her work to helping low-income workers gain access to the legal aid they need to help their businesses function, wants to tackle poverty at the root, rather than simply treating its symptoms.
As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, she has set up the Microenterprise Legal Assistance Project with Advocates for Basic Equality in Toledo, Ohio, helping provide legal advice and access to capital for entrepreneurs interested in starting their own small business.
Anneliese, 28, who grew up in a family of musicians in Buffalo, New York, and was a classical violinist throughout college, didn't always plan to become a lawyer. It wasn't until she was exposed to the conditions in inner-city schools as a music teacher while still in college that her focus changed.
"I could never surmount those obstacles with a violin alone," she remembers thinking. "I became so angry that I couldn't provide more help to the kids and families I was working with, and felt like I was going to become very burnt out, very fast, if I didn't acquire some sharper tools to help fight poverty."
A class she took called "Urban Geography" cemented her belief that she could effect change through working in law, and made her understand the "connection between law and legislation and all the social ills that are plaguing our cities."
"That made me really aggressively go on this track of, I just want to learn as much as I can," she said. "A seed implanted by that one professor has impacted the rest of my life."
After graduating from law school in 2008, Anneliese immediately set out to help. With the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship, she began her work helping small businesses with legal aid and clinics. For those untrained in the legal intricacies of starting a business, help from seasoned attorneys can be invaluable.
"Sometimes when people go into business and they're looking into getting a commercial lease,
a few people haven't read the contracts at all, and negotiated for themselves," she said of one instance where legal misunderstanding can harm the budding entrepreneur. "They just sign on the dotted line and the contract will be completely written in favor of the property owner."
This isn't the only hurdle that businesses might face. Liability, contract drafting, and the administrative tangles of setting up a non-profit are just a few of the difficulties that may daunt people who are trying to start a business.
The attorneys love to volunteer and the entrepreneurs really love the help," she said. "It's a win-win."
In her second fellowship with Equal Justice Works, Anneliese is aiming even higher--helping businesses acquire the loans they need to get off the ground, with a focus on the economically disadvantaged.
"In this economy, in a place like Toledo with such a high unemployment rate you may have to create your own job," she said. "I wanted to do something that treated the cause of poverty--lack of resources, lack of finances, lack of credit, lack of education in how to handle money."
Her newest project involves founding two microloans funds for Toledo-based businesses. Assets Toledo helps with very small loans up to $5,000 for graduates of the business training program they also run, with a special focus on those with little credit history.
The Toledo CDC Alliance revives an older, defunct program by partnering with local banks to make loans available to established businesses that want to set up shop in the ailing commercial corridors of the city, so that they can build tangible assets in communities that need them.
Right now, Anneliese is helping save an 80-year-old community arts center, where the economy and other local closures have made it impossible to continue paying the bills, from foreclosure. She is defending the foreclosure and looking for another community group to step up and buy the property before it goes to auction.
"I wanted to expand the capacity of a legal services organization," she said. "To develop a project and respond to a need that I identified and do it in a completely new way."
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