The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
April 21, 2016

Community Listening Project

logoHere at The PBEye, we’re always on the lookout for innovative and replicable projects that promote access to justice. The D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers recently released a report on the personal and systemic challenges facing low-income D.C. residents and their areas of greatest need. The report contains the findings of a nearly three-and-a-half year “Community Listening Project” and aims to inform how legal and social services respond to the experiences of those living in poverty by asking them directly about their lives and attitudes.

The study is an exhaustive and qualitative analysis of focus group and survey responses collected from more than 700 low-income D.C. residents. In order to ensure that the findings aligned as closely as possible to the experiences of people living in poverty, they were involved throughout the entire process of developing and administering surveys and conducting focus groups. The five issues that survey participants identified as being most acute were housing, employment, neighborhood concerns, immigration, and debt. Other problems that emerged ranged from transportation to police to healthcare to debt and consumer issues to domestic violence.

Of particular interest to us was whether people with low-incomes are able to obtain legal help. Only 11.3 percent of participants said that they had ever even tried to find a lawyer for help with a problem over the past two years. (Of the small number who had tried, 59.6 percent were successful.) Even more troubling is that the issue of cost is tied to the perception of quality. Close to 60 percent of those who answered agreed or strongly agreed that “lawyers who will help you for free are not as good as lawyers who charge you.” Even among participants who had been assisted by a lawyer who did not charge them, the percentage was the same. The pro bono community must take these results to heart and come together to think creatively, strategically, sensitively, and inclusively about how to address these attitudes.

As legal services providers and pro bono leaders determine their representation and advocacy objectives and make decisions about how to allocate limited resources, it is important that we all have detailed and accurate information about the most pressing needs and viewpoints of low-income individuals in our communities. The Community Listening Project is an innovative initiative and could serve as a useful model for other communities around the country.

Know of any similar projects in your community? Leave a comment and let us know.

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