For the past 15 years, Emory University’s Break the Cycle of Health Disparities, Inc. has invited students from across the globe to submit research proposals that address the adverse environmental factors affecting children’s health and development. Students are encouraged to examine creative strategies to improve health and well-being of children and families.
This year, Georgia State Law students Hazel T. Rains (J.D. ’21) and Briana James (J.D. ’21) submitted a proposal assessing the impact of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s Standing with Our Neighbors program. Their proposal was accepted.
SWON is a collaboration among AVLF, Atlanta Public Schools and Purpose Built Schools Atlanta that seeks to improve health and educational outcomes by addressing housing instability in low-income neighborhoods through a “place-based” or “community” lawyering model.
“Substandard living conditions and evictions contribute to poor health, frequent school absences and school turnover,” said Rains. “Students may not achieve well in school or not graduate, leading to lower paying jobs. Thus, the cycle continues.”
Many low-income families encounter structural barriers when accessing traditional legal assistance. “Tenants may not be aware that they might be able to assert legal rights against their landlords, or they may not understand how to navigate the legal system,” said James. “Lawyers can be expensive, tenants may not have the luxury of taking time off work, and they may not have childcare or transportation.”
The community lawyering model seeks to build relationships and remove structural barriers. SWON provides free legal assistance to clients where they can more easily access it – at their children’s school. The attorneys work closely with school leadership to identify families who may benefit. They also collaborate with a SWON “community advocate” to connect families with other resources to address non-legal needs.
Over the course of the year, Rains and James researched SWON’s impact and presented their findings virtually at the 15th Annual Break the Cycle conference to more than 400 registrants. In a very short time, schools working with SWON have seen decreased absenteeism, fewer evictions and a 14% reduction in student turnover. In five years, the program has expanded to nine schools.
The law students’ project, “Standing with Our Neighbors: How Community Lawyering Can Break the Cycle of Children’s Health Disparities” was recognized with the “Break the Cycle” award.
“Hazel and Briana participated in our Alternative Spring Break and saw firsthand the difference SWON is making for families.” said Darcy Meals, assistant director of the Center for Access to Justice, who supervised the students’ research. “Their project shined a light on an innovative lawyering model that prioritizes being physically present in communities to build trust and make legal help more accessible. With SWON’s help, families stabilize and living conditions improve, so students can stay healthy and stay in school.”
Students interested in learning more about community lawyering are encouraged to volunteer with AVLF through the Center for Access to Justice’s Pro Bono Program or Alternative Spring Break.