Mary McClymont’s Inspiring Clarion Call

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Earlier today Mary McClymont, President of the Public Welfare Foundation, received the Champions for Justice Award from the Alliance for Justice.

Here are her remarks.  I have bolded the first couple of paragraphs that focus on access to justice. 

Martin and Peter, thank you for those lovely introductions. It means a lot to me especially coming from each of you.

To Nan and the Alliance for Justice, thank you so much for this generous award. And to all present, thank you so much for coming and for supporting AFJ which safeguards our federal judiciary and teaches us all how to do truly bolder advocacy.

For me, this feels like old home week with many friends, co-workers and mentors from different parts of my career in and out of philanthropy. I’m also delighted to see many of the Public Welfare grantees and of course –a very big shout out to my own stellar board members and brilliant staff colleagues. I love our team and I’m so proud of the work they do at the Foundation with our grantees.

When Nan called and said I was to receive the “champion of justice” award,  I had two thoughts: First, to be recognized for my commitment to justice is very special to me personally since all I’ve ever wanted in my career was to contribute to human rights and social justice and to do that in the good company of fellow seekers of justice, whether with a team doing prison conditions cases, or conspiring with grantees on the best way to make real change through a set of grants. You see, for me, it’s that very collaboration that makes the work especially rewarding.

The second thought I had was how humbling it is to be singled out since I know well that so many others could be up here at the podium. All of us are champions of justice, whatever our particular issue, whether we work globally or here in the US. And I believe that what makes us effective champions, especially in these treacherous times, is bringing both passion and laser focus to our particular cause.

I started my career as a lawyer, and I was asked recently how I got into philanthropy. Well, I was recruited by my boss at the CRD of the Dept. of Justice, the brilliant lawyer Lynn Walker Huntley. She had left DOJ to go to the Ford Foundation.  Lynn showed me how philanthropy could also be a place where I, a lawyer, could in fact be a social change agent for what I care about in the world. My philanthropy work thus became intertwined with the social justice work I did on the frontlines. Having the “real world” experience as an advocate was what helped me understand how to do good philanthropy. I’ve been most privileged to pursue my career in both arenas.

A key lesson I learned at Ford was how important it is for philanthropy to be willing to take on and stick with and build advocacy infrastructure around unpopular, politically difficult and intractable social justice issues–such as the scourge of racism, attacks on immigrants or the issues we focus on and stick with at PWF—destructive incarceration of massive numbers of adults and children, who are largely people of color, or unaccountable employers ripping off hard earned wages or imposing unhealthy conditions on workers—such tenacious issues, which all call for transformative change.

So many important overlooked issues to highlight, but I wanted to raise up one about which I’m especially passionate. I have worked on this in philanthropy, earlier at Ford, and, as you heard from Peter, at PWF in recent years with our wonderful grantees. It is an issue that undergirds so much of what we all work on.

What I’m talking about is the complete failure to provide basic legal help to people as they navigate our complex civil justice system on common, yet critical life issues—eviction, debt collection, domestic abuse, child custody or wage theft. The consequences are profound: without legal help on such matters, people can lose their families, their homes, and their livelihoods, be pushed further into poverty, and even wind up incarcerated.

Why else should we care? 1) the problem is enormous: Because millions of people can’t afford an attorney and have no right to counsel , in a shocking 75 percent of civil cases today in our state courts , one or both parties are going it alone in court, completely unrepresented in a system designed for lawyers. 2) They are mostly poor and people of color, mainly women. 3) The issue is virtually invisible to the public, and largely overlooked by the media, philanthropy, and policy makers. 4) Surely we all agree that a functioning justice system that enables people to protect their essential life needs is absolutely foundational to achieving the rule of law, especially in our democracy.

I ask that we bring fresh eyes to this problem and to our state court access crisis where these high stakes problems of low income people arise.

After all, there is good news: the crisis has given rise in recent years to an array of innovations to help serve more people who cannot afford a lawyer—such as assisted self-help services, online information and forms, and non-lawyer specialists. When properly coordinated and resourced, these solutions can work together to serve millions more people and make possible a system that provides effective legal help to everyone—when they need it, and in a form they can use.

There is a movement for transformative change underway which includes more than the usual suspects: The highest level—chief justices of the state courts— have recently issued a clarion call for meaningful access to justice for all using a full spectrum of these services and innovations: they have asked leaders in each state to unite across organizational boundaries to make it happen.

The vanguard of this movement has issued a rallying cry of “justice for all” and not just for those who can afford it. I hope all you champions of justice in the room will hear and join in that cry and think how you can contribute to this critical need.

Thank you.

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Photos used with permission, copyright Noel St John, more at www.noelstjohn.com. (click on clients)

p.s.  Here is the story on the PWF site.

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About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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