At RLS, we call our fundraiser events "fun" raisers. Our goal is to raise much needed cash to continue our mission, of course, but it is important to have a fun and enjoyable time, too. The work of poverty law can sometimes be a grim affair, with gut-wrenching client stories, not enough resources for too many in need, and seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against our clients as they struggle for equal access to the civil justice system. So when we do our fundraising, it helps to inject hope and joy and humor and whimsy into the mix. We are never far from the grim realities of everyday poverty law, but when we plan a fundraising event, we are looking for something that will engage our donors, attract new supporters, and offer a truly enjoyable experience in exchange for that support. If the event is fun, maybe the attendees will want to return the next time we throw a party.
So when you go to any event, fundraising or otherwise, what makes it fun? Good food? Music? Good company? Hanging out with people who share your passions? Learning something cool and interesting? When I think back on all the memorable parties I have enjoyed, the best ones have a combination of some or all of these factors. They may have taken place in spectacular venues or someone's modest living room; they could have involved 70,000 people (I'm talking about you, Austin City Limits Music Festival!) or just three close friends.
In the whole amazing history of RLS, over the course of forty challenging years, we have never quite come up with a signature fundraising event, one that occurs annually and that attracts a core group of donors as well as new recruits to our cause. We have tried yard sales, silent auctions, and other assorted events, but so far, we have not hit on the one event that will become that recurring fun raiser we are looking for. Over the last eighteen months, we did manage to have a lot of fun trying to find that event...In September of 2011, we enjoyed a mellow evening under the stars with all-you-can-eat crab and a groovin' blues band (the event had the groaner of a moniker: "Crabahannock Legal Aid!"). In December of 2011, we held a classical music pipe organ recital at the magnificent venue of St. George's Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg. Also in the classy zone was our wine tasting event at Prince Michel Winery called Raise A Glass For Justice.
And then there was the Smackdown. In May of 2012, we staged what might be the most unique idea for a fun raiser: a female attorney arm wrestling competition, held (where else?) at the local branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library! The Fredericksburg Chapter of the Virginia Women Attorneys group, with the indefatigable creative energy of attorney Edith Min, produced that event for our benefit, called the FWA Smackdown, and featured well-respected female attorneys who assumed hilarious fight personas (Allison Wonderslam, Florence Nightinjail, Ghengis Mom, etc.), complete with outrageous costumes, edgy behavior and even entourages of raucous supporters. The evening was so much fun that my face was sore from smiling and laughing so much! I reckon that after that, RLS was shown to be capable of just about anything in terms of fundraising formats.
Now, in 2013, RLS is fortunate to be celebrating our 40th Anniversary, and of course, we are throwing a party to mark the occasion. In keeping with our goal of raising fun and funds at the same event, we have settled on the theme of "Where Were You In 1973?" For those of us who recall 1973 and what the world was like back then, images of mimeograph machines, carbon paper and weirdly wide lapels come to mind. It was a regrettable period in the history of fashion, to be sure, but it was also a time when fax machines, computers, the Internet, and cell phones did not exist, which definitely made the practice of law a very different enterprise from what we know today. We are looking forward to celebrating how far we have come as a vital nonprofit in the Fredericksburg region, arriving at our 40th Anniversary with hope and determination for the future of RLS and our mission.
What will our party be like? Why don't you come and find out? It will be on a Saturday, May 4, from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM at the Fredericksburg Expo Center. We will offer a reception, sit-down dinner, the premier of a commemorative short film about RLS, and a great silent auction with intriguing and must-have items (what would you bid to receive a painting by local artist phenom, Brandon Newton?). The gorgeous quilt we have been raffling tickets for all year will finally be taken home by a lucky winner, too. The evening will be filled with friends new and old getting together to celebrate the extraordinary work of helping low-income folks find equal access to civil justice, including awards for pro bono work and a riveting client story told by a former client, to remind us about what this is all about. Those who attend will be moved, entertained, well-fed, and might even leave with a treasure or two from the silent auction. Vicious, cut-throat bidding against your friends for premium silent auction items is encouraged!
To make this party a success, we need you. Please check out our website at www.rapplegal.com and click on the fireworks image for more information and to find out the latest silent auction items we have procured. Buy some tickets for you and your posse; become a sponsor at any of the various levels; and bring your sense of fun and inner party animal. We would love to see you at our party as we celebrate 40 years of working for equal justice for all!
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, I was a seven-year-old whose parents permitted me to watch TV only under certain conditions (nightly newscasts, National Geographic specials, that sort of thing). I remember my parents being upset and letting us watch more TV than usual that week, so I saw a lot of coverage about MLK. Two months later, I had turned eight, and vividly remember my dad yelling from the other room for us to come and see the TV reports of Robert Kennedy's assassination. Both events are seared into my memory and helped to foster my lifelong interest in the career and writings of Reverend King.
When I became a legal aid lawyer fresh out of law school, I hung a quote by MLK on my office wall that at the time spoke to me as a stirring and eloquent statement against violence, as I worked to represent battered women. Over the years, that amazing quote also spoke to me as I formed my stance on the issue of the death penalty, and was a potent reminder of why I am a pacifist.
But now, here I am, as the executive director of a legal aid office, fighting against economic and social injustice, and Dr. King's legacy still has the power to inspire our work with the poverty community. The quote that was hanging on my legal aid office wall in the 1980's is from MLK's last published book, entitled "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" (1967). After the amazing achievements of his early career in civil rights, in 1967 MLK was beginning to focus more on the plight of the poor, realizing that all the Civil Rights laws in the world meant nothing if the structure that kept disadvantaged people poor was still in place. He spoke movingly in that final book about the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing and quality education to eradicate poverty and the crushing inequality that comes with it. He would have been 84 at the end of this month, and I often wonder if he were alive today, which causes would he champion? Surely, the call for economic and social justice, the crucial rights that poor people have to be treated with respect and afforded the same rights as rich people, would be foremost in his thoughts. Would he fight for civil legal aid to be properly supported? Would he stand up for the right of a poor person to be represented by counsel when faced with civil legal issues?
When I read the familiar yet ever challenging words of this quote, I am grateful for Dr. King's other dream, the dream of economic and social justice, and the inspiration it gives us forty-six years after those words were written.
From "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" (written in 1967 by Martin Luther King, Jr.):
"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence, you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, or establish the truth. Through violence, you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness - only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
Are you tough enough to be poor? At Rappahannock Legal Services, our clients, in order to be eligible for our services, must in most cases have income below 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Let's use a typical client family of a single parent and two kids. For a three-person household like that, the monthly income for that family would have to be at or below $1,900 or thereabouts to qualify for free legal services. Surviving on $1,900 is pretty easy, right? Or is it?
Do you think you could survive on, for example, $1,000 a month? To find out, check out an intriguing website called Playspent.org. On that site, you can play a game that will allow you to simulate the decisions that people living in poverty have to make every day. You start out with $1,000 and no job, and the simulator walks you through all the challenges, tough choices, and difficult scenarios faced by poor persons every day in the real world. Do you think you would survive the challenge of living in poverty? Would you choose to go to work while sick or lose valuable wages with unpaid sick leave? Would you take in a stranger as a boarder to afford your rent or struggle to make the rent payment on your own?
When I did the poverty simulator exercise on that website for the first time, I did manage to get through the month with some money left over, but it was at the price of alienating my children (I refused to pay for field trips, birthday parties, materials for a gifted child program), and ruining my health (going to work sick, skimping on food, not paying for health care). When you run through the simulator exercise, ask yourself whether you have ever judged people less fortunate than yourself when they did not react to a situation the same way you did. For example, a mom in poverty may not show up at her kids' school events because she will be fired if she takes off in the middle of the day.
I was impressed with this simulation of poverty because it was so realistic in describing the tough choices our incredibly resourceful clients face every day, but no matter how many times I played it and experimented with the results of many different choices, there was no scenario presented that described a poor person and their options when faced with a civil legal problem. Once that single parent with two kids and $1,900 per month gets done paying for extremely basic items (rent, utilities, food, clothes, transportation), there surely is nothing left over for a four or five-figure retainer for a private attorney. If faced with a domestic violence issue, custody, housing or consumer issue, what would that person do? Try to handle it herself? Some have described a person handling a legal matter on their own as like expecting a patient to perform her own surgery! Just how realistic is the promise of equal access to justice for all if not everyone can afford to hire a private attorney? Should justice be a luxury item?
What a great time of year to start a Director's Blog at RLS! I have so much to be thankful for! I want to use this blog to give you a sense of the struggles, joys and lessons learned in directing a nonprofit that does the vital work of helping poor people access free, high-quality legal services for civil legal problems. OK, so starting this job at a nonprofit in the middle of the Great Recession was maybe not the easiest thing I could have chosen, but I can't imagine a more rewarding way to use my law degree. Every day, I have a front row seat to the transformative power of the law, watching the hard-working, poorly compensated, yet dedicated staff in our three branch offices do their best to serve the legal needs of the poor in our community. On a good day, I see lives saved, homelessness prevented, families kept together, and legal rights vindicated. Even if our clients don't succeed (and circumstances can sometimes be stacked against you when you have few resources), they have at least been treated with respect and dignity by our staff. If you keep checking out this blog from time to time, you will find a surprisingly hopeful, sometimes amusing, always intriguing journey that this wonderful organization is on. Join us!
As we pause in our hard work to give thanks this week, I am reminded of my favorite quote from a 13th Century Dominican, Meister Eckhart: If your only prayer is "thank you", that will be sufficient. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is a good tool to use in tough times. And how about a version of the traditional table grace that has a social justice ring to it? "Give bread to those who hunger, and hunger for justice to us who have bread." When you sit down at your Thanksgiving meal this year, whether alone, or with friends; whether amid plenty or want; I hope you will engage in the inspiring exercise of listing your reasons to be thankful. What a positive, affirming holiday, and what a great practice to be always giving thanks!