I am often asked how do you change the culture of an organization? I do not know the answer. I have only my experience of being part of an organization that is committed to transforming from a traditional law firm model to one that is focused on anti-racism, community connection, and wholeness. As we moved our advocacy towards race equity, we also had to examine ourselves and make changes internally. We invested in equity and community work. Even on a tight budget, we prioritized this work in all aspects of our organization from Advocacy to Development to Operations and Accounting. Budgets are indeed moral documents.

We added four Advocacy and Community Engagement Specialist positions and an Equity and Community Engagement Director. We created a process and model for building longer term connections with the communities focused on and impacted by mass incarceration, the criminalization and exploitation of immigrant workers and communities. When taking on new work, we ask to what degree are we connected with the impacted community and consider the ways racism is at issue.

We recently ended our relationship with a national bank that had invested in for-profit prisons and conducted business in a way that did not align with our values – changing bank accounts has taken close to a year, but we have found a regional bank that better matches the work we are trying to do. We now have a process to vet most of our vendors for alignment with our values and work.

We are also starting to vet foundations and other funding groups to ensure value alignment. Although always difficult, CLS has a long history of giving up funding that left people out or limited access to justice by prohibiting the use of legal tools like class actions or policy advocacy. We are slowly moving to a community centric fundraising model that prioritizes collaboration to build community and connection rather than fracture it through competition and focusing our energy on people who already have the most money or the information.

We still have much to do to live up to our vision of justice, fairness, and equity. We are taking bold, yet simple steps to move toward that transformation. The journey is sometimes difficult and also joyful as we focus on connection and community in doing the important legal work to end injustice.

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Thank you for supporting justice,

Merf Ehman
Executive Director