“If Not Now, When?”

February 25, 2021

by Tanya Pietrkowski, CARPLS Director of Development

I recently heard a friend make this quote in the news about an ambitious endeavor. And, I thought—I remember this quote as a kid from Rabbi Hillel, an ancient Talmudic scholar:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

Or you might attribute a version of this quote to the late Congressman John Lewis:“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

The quote implies the Golden Rule that is a part of every culture in creating a sense of humanity and empathy for others. In my mind, it’s one of the highest attributes of the ideal of service in the legal community.

Service connects all of us to each other, especially in this dynamic time where we have lost too many and confronted overwhelming challenges. One of the silver linings is to bear witness to the many people working together in the legal community and beyond to reach the greatest amount of people possible. They have done this by working to overcome racial and socio-economic barriers and to increase access to viable legal options. Often, we don’t hear about all that is accomplished, but every small act of service that can impact one person and their family is extremely meaningful.

Of course, I wouldn’t be a CARPLS ambassador if I didn’t talk about the pride I see in our work. We do help thousands of families each year individually over the hotlines and advice desks, and we also contribute to making systemic changes that include connecting people to our legal partners around the state more easily when special legal assistance is required. We are legal connectors, and that has such an important value when people are facing eviction, unemployment, and the stress of day-to-day living when you don’t know where to turn.

When the courts closed in person last year, CARPLS attorneys were able to troubleshoot how self-representing litigants would be adversely affected without legal recourse. Their advisement helped prevent some greater financial harms, while the courts navigated the “new normal” of pandemic operations.

The pandemic pushed the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois to expand its online legal resources to increase accessibility across the state based on the successful pilot of Rentervention developed with the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing. CARPLS then worked with the Lawyers Trust Fund and our partners to develop Benny, the Unemployment Virtual Assistant.

After Benny, the project expanded to a group of legal virtual assistants that cover general legal issues, wills and guardianships, housing law, business, money and debt. The virtual assistants interact with users on a wide range of legal issues from car repossession to late house payments. And, most importantly the virtual assistants lead users to other resources—breaking down geographic legal deserts across more rural and economically depressed communities around the state. They are under the program umbrella called COVID H.E.L.P. Illinois (Housing & Economic Loss Prevention) at covidhelpillinois.org. It was recently nominated for ABA’s Lewis M. Brown Award for Legal Access. (Please vote for this project here)

CARPLS is also a major partner in the Cook County Legal Aid for Housing & Debt Program, a project to help people facing evictions, foreclosures, debt and tax deed issues through means other than court. We take the calls for the program and get people to the right legal partners. Without legal representation, it’s often a total losing battle in court, at a time when we also anticipate the courts being overrun with eviction and foreclosure cases.

And, while we are self-reflecting for a moment, the State of Illinois has tried to respond to the needs of our residents with the cannabis expungement program, no cash bail and additional legislation to begin to right the wrongs in racial inequities. When looking at the challenges in other states, I think it’s worth noting that Illinois is really working towards redefining equity, and the legal aid community is a part of the rebuilding process.

As if we weren’t doing enough, CARPLS is also a partner on the New Leaf program. When someone registers online at NewLeafIllinois.org for an expungement review, it’s CARPLS attorneys at the front door of the program who assess and identify the legal assistance needed. Often, the expungement process shows other issues to be addressed as well. CARPLS attorneys take a careful, holistic look, offering as much legal help as possible.

It’s the stick-to-it-ness of the legal community that I admire so much. We have learned valuable lessons on resources needed in a crisis and humbleness to understand that the legal system has to change for equality and access to happen.

There is also a marketing and branding challenge. All the legal aid acronyms and (in Chicago, at least) the variety of organizations are very hard for people in and out of the legal community to distinguish. I worry that if people lack an understanding of the everyday legal problems people face—in addition to criminal legal issues—they are missing the great value of service that we bring and the human impact of those services. I work to share the CARPLS story in so many ways, and I try to show why one phone call that changes someone’s life is the ultimate good.

Getting back to the quote, “If not now, when?”

I am very proud of CARPLS and our community’s response to save lives and make law fair. It’s the things that we are doing now, that will make a better future for our community no matter what we face. Rabbi Hillel and Congressman Lewis had the right ideas in thinking about their roles in changing the world. Reflection also needs to be an important part of our service delivery. Thank you.

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