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Judith Sandalow

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Toward One City: Getting to Know Each Other

Posted: 10/25/2012 7:30 pm

Although we may aspire to it, D.C. is not yet one city. While a lot of attention this election season has been given to rifts between right- and left-leaning neighbors, men vs. women, and black vs. white, the most profound and troubling divide in the District is between rich and poor. We are a city divided by one of the widest income inequality gaps in the nation, where the incomes of those at the top of the economic ladder are 29 times higher than the incomes of the people on the bottom rungs.

District residents at the top and bottom rarely interact. They seldom attend the same schools or places of worship; they don't get their food from the same grocery stores or eat at the same restaurants. They even use different modes of transportation when traveling around the city.

One of the few times when rich meets poor is when an attorney from a prestigious firm takes on a case pro bono for an indigent client. Children's Law Center facilitates this pro bono work; in fact, highly paid attorneys from more than 70 local law firms represented about 400 low-income residents last year through our pro bono program.

As we celebrate National Pro Bono Week, and the D.C. legal community's vibrant pro bono culture, I've been thinking not only about the way this work helps our clients, but also the benefits it brings to the pro bono lawyers. Often these attorneys, like many of the District's more privileged residents, moved to town for a job. With so much focus on D.C. as a place of national and international consequence, new residents often don't find time to learn about the District's local affairs. Being the federal city prevents us from being one city. But pro bono work offers an opportunity to learn about -- and help -- neighbors in need.

I spoke with Melissa Galetto, a senior associate at Skadden, who has worked on many pro bono cases. She reflected that representing several very low income children in complex custody cases has changed her view on what it takes to raise a happy child. Although her friends often focus on making sure their children have the complete collection of LeapFrog products or a closet full of babyGap, she's learned that's not necessary for happiness. "When you meet a child who's loved, you know it," she told me.

Erin Palmer of Clifford Chance described her many clients as "incredible people" who showed great strength and resilience. She currently represents parents trying to obtain special education services for their 5-year-old son who is autistic. Erin met the father and son met one weekend at a park. Erin brought her husband and 2-year-old son. As the boys played together -- "there was lots of throwing cars down the slide," Erin admits -- she felt a sense of one playground, if not one city.

But both lawyers have also learned how devastating poverty can be. Melissa said her clients' parents worry constantly about providing basic necessities. More than one parent has shared the fear that the family would lose their apartment and end up in a homeless shelter. Erin was struck by how different her daily existence is from her clients' -- even though their 5-year-old son attends school only five blocks from her house. A vivid example for her was the change in the school's response to her clients once she got involved. At first, the parents' requests for help were ignored. But once Erin sent a letter on her firm's letterhead, the school was much nicer and more responsive to her clients. It seemed to be "almost a status thing," Erin said.

Having run an organization that helps 2,000 low income children a year, I can tell you it was a status thing. It's the shameful reality that income gaps lead to education gaps and that childhood poverty results in a lifetime of lower wages, health problems and shorter life spans. Children's Law Center's part in making D.C. truly one city is working to give all the city's children a solid foundation of family, health, and education. Poverty is the greatest barrier to that. And we won't overcome poverty until all of us -- rich and poor alike -- overcome our fears and work together. Pro bono is a good place to start.

 
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