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« June Nineteenth Eighteen Hundred and Sixty Five | Main | Recipe for Peace »

Something more about me

By John Atlas
June 19, 2007

I have helped organize a variety of groups, including New Jersey Tenants Organization (NJTO), New Jersey Citizen Action (NJCA), and Passaic County Legal Aid Society (PCLAS).

I have shared some of these experiences through a bi-weekly radio program on WBAI, coauthored a book (Saving Affordable Housing), and written dozens of articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Nation, American Prospect, Star-Ledger, Social Policy, Herald News, and elsewhere. The thread connecting my activities is an empowerment philosophy that includes linking people, ideas, and organizations and building new leadership.

At PCLAS, which served Paterson, the third largest city in New Jersey and one of the nation's poorest cities, I recruited a top-flight multiracial, multilingual staff of 37, promoted minorities to leadership positions, and built connections with local community groups, churches, schools, and other sectors.

With a budget of over $2.6 million, I developed new legal strategies to tackle the problems of inner city poverty. In addition to carrying out the traditional mission - free legal services to poor individuals -- PCLAS brought class actions suits and created programs to help the homeless, enforce the rights of the elderly, tenants and consumers, victims of domestic violence, and those affected or infected with Aids/HIV.

In 1996, Congress passed a bill prohibiting federally funded legal aid services from filing class-action lawsuits, a tactic we used to change public policy. Stripped of this tool, we needed to find ways to go beyond helping the poor individually and encourage collective self-help organizations to rebuild communities as more livable places.

PCLAS reached out to the growing number of community groups and churches that work with poor, helping them strengthen their capacity to gain resources in the wider region. Rather than simply represent individuals in emergency cases (such as tenant eviction), PCLAS shifted to an empowerment strategy of community and economic development. This would bring in funds and technical assistance so that low-income communities could use their indigenous capacity to improve their neighborhoods and get government to be more responsive to their needs.

This new approach took legal services out of the traditional litigation and purely adversarial mode and used it to build a community effectiveness and power. Thanks in part to this strategy, non-profit churches and community organizations -- Head Start programs, churches, tenant groups, and community development groups -- became more competent and efficient in building affordable housing, advocating for education and health care reform, and creating jobs.

Much of the credit went to a newly created Community and Economic Development Unit (CED) that became our trademark. I recruited attorneys from the top law schools with 10 to 25 years of transactional legal experience. The first head of the unit was Maxim Thorne, an African-American Yale law school graduate. He focused on services to the non-profit community based organizations, creating self-help clinics and implementing community education programs.

PCLAS helped create the Paterson Alliance, a diverse group of non-profits that would enhance the "social capital" that creates the conditions for community and economic advancement. The Alliance helped PCLAS strengthen a public housing resident council to improve the housing opportunities for 410 families.

Our education advocacy with Head Start and other groups enabled them to provide more services to families and children to get a leg up on their academic readiness and free mothers to get jobs. In 1998 and again in 2001, PCLAS worked on behalf of head start programs to sue the state to demand that Head Start and other non profit preschool programs receive state money for traditionally low-performing urban school districts. This advocacy work dramatically increased funding for community based pre-K programs. We also helped the Head Start program apply for a government loan to buy a new building and guided it through the design and construction process.

We organized most community stakeholders into an early childhood education coalition to improve pre-k education for all low-income children in Paterson.

PCLAS assisted community groups that received grants to establish Individual Development Accounts, an initiative that matches $2-to-$1 so a family can save for a down payment on a home. Another innovation was a tax information clinic that included a focus on the Earned Income Tax Credit and a legal rights program for the poor on cable television. We developed booklets with tips on negotiating with landlords and dealing with lawyers. We set up clinics to educate battered women about their legal rights and the working poor on the earned income tax credit.

PCLAS was recognized for our innovation at the first annual Lawyer as Problem Solver Award of the American Bar Association.

Among the dozens of community based nonprofit groups we worked with was ACORN. In anticipation of jobs that would be created by $750 million in state funding slated for school construction in Paterson, PCLAS worked with ACORN and other community groups, religious organizations, and unions to draft an ordinance to require contractors working on publicly funded projects to hire 25 percent of their laborers from local apprenticeship programs. It would provide local residents with improved career opportunities and change public policy in order to avoid a deal-by-deal approach to job opportunities for the poor.

The story has an unhappy ending. The Federal and state bureaucrats forced our program to merge with 2 other programs. We knew the new entity would go back to the old model of individual service and dependency creating services. The leaders of PCLAS, including myself, decided to leave.

After a year on a fellowship at Columbia University, I decided to write book about poverty and politics in America, partly to determine if those of us involved in activism over the last 35 or so years made any difference.

So you'll be reading about what I discovered.

Comments (2)

John, I'm so glad to meet you here and look forward to reading your posts. Your many years of working with social justice issues in many capacities - very impressive. Your experience and insights are sure to be interesting and thought provoking. I'm glad you joined us! Nora T.

John Atlas,

Thanks for the added info about you and your work. I hope you will blog here often. I can't wait to read your blogs!

Lucy Belnora

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