Fellow: Kwaku Boafoh Agyeman
Host Organization: The Legal Aid Society
Location of Host Organization: New York
Brief History of Organization:
Legal Aid was founded in 1876, 125 years ago, to defend the individual rights of German immigrants who could not afford to hire a lawyer. The massive influx of poor immigrants into New York City in the years following the Civil War bred resentment and immigrants often became the targets of hostility. The German Society incorporated The German Legal Aid Society on March 8, 1976. In 1890, the society underwent great changes under the leadership of respected New York lawyer, Arthur von Briesen, its president. The organization was reincorporated under a new name, The Legal Aid Society. Its amended mission statement declared that, “[The Society’s] object and purpose shall be, to render legal aid, gratuitously if necessary, to all who may appear worthy thereof and who, from poverty, are unable to procure it.”
Today, The Legal Aid Society of New York provides legal services for low-income people throughout the boroughs of New York. The Society has Criminal and Civil Divisions. The Civil Division has neighborhood offices in all five boroughs of New York City. In addition, Legal Aid is involved in special projects for specific populations. The Civil Practice of Legal Aid involves areas like Housing, Immigration, Welfare and Benefits, Employment, Family, Health Law, and others.
Responsibilities of Fellow:
My responsibility as a legal intern was to assist attorneys in the Welfare Law and Disability Practice Division of the Legal Aid Society. My duties involved client intake, research, memo writing, client and witness follow-ups, preparation of evidence and accompanying my supervising attorney to administrative hearings.
I assisted clients to establish eligibility for benefits from the Social Security Administration. I mediated for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to be reinstated to a senior citizen who had been denied payments. I prepared a memorandum of law (memo) for an Administrative Law Judge who required the memo for further insight into the subject matter. The memo was an advocacy tool we used to support our client’s claim for social security benefits.
To understand how the underprivileged that are denied Welfare benefits are expected to make ends meet in a tough economy.
Other projects/works started or completed:
Some of the cases I worked on are still pending. Generally, it takes several months, sometimes years, for welfare cases to be completed.
How has this fellowship changed the ideas and expectations you had before leaving?
I went to New York primarily to intern with the Housing Unit of Legal Aid Society in The Bronx Neighborhood Office. Upon arrival, the office determined that it had a need for a legal intern in its Welfare Law and Disability Practice Division. I ended up working for the Welfare Division. I knew The Bronx had a concentration of underprivileged people prior to my internship; nonetheless I was surprised at the traffic of underprivileged people with legal problems. It appeared from our orientation training that the current economic crunch had a correlation with rising numbers of legal problems of the underprivileged. The various service areas attorneys handled in that civil division of The Legal Aid Society were interrelated. I was surprised at how the many areas of law work to bring relief to clients who may initially have perceived their problems to be in a specific area of the law. I realized first-hand, the enormity of problems a harsh economy can unleash on the citizenry. I gained some insight into New York City’s struggle to manage scarce resources effectively among its needy. It appeared that welfare provisions were not adequate to accommodate the growing number of unemployed, disadvantaged people.
Has your motivation for human rights work changed/altered or remained the same?
Yes. My motivation for human rights work has increased because my commitment and resolve to work in human rights was strengthened. Although I have always wanted to work in some capacity in public service and human rights, my summer internship confirmed to me that much remains to be done to achieve equal distribution of wealth on the global circuit. Working with Legal Aid put me in touch with my primary motivation for attending law school: to help others in whatever way or form I can. The compassion and drive with which attorneys of Legal Aid worked to ensure their clients got justice was remarkable. Many people who need legal advocacy are still unable to access such services. I was reminded that more lawyers ought to practice public service law to counter the imbalance. Unlike criminal cases, in civil cases like welfare, housing, family and others, an applicant is not constitutionally entitled to a lawyer. State and Federal agencies continue to deny social services to eligible people because they do not have lawyers advocating for them. In those cases that clients bring to The Legal Aid Society after denial, the attorneys will advocate for them to receive their due. An occupation fighting for people to receive their due is incredibly rewarding.
Who had the greatest effect on you during your fellowship experience and why?
1) The entire group of attorneys at The Legal Aid Society who dedicate their lives to advocating for those who need legal services but cannot afford to pay for them, and
2) A divorced welfare benefits applicant who is a senior citizen, suffers from a recurrent mental condition, and whose only two children had died.
1) Legal Aid Attorneys
I was impressed by the passion that motivates these attorneys to continue the difficult task of speaking for the voiceless in New York City. Even though the job appeared thankless, it was interesting to note they often achieve great success in landmark class actions that help the needy.
2) Senior Citizen
Regarding the senior citizen, I advocated for her to receive benefits at the Social Security Administration Office (SSA) in The Bronx in my final days at The Legal Aid Society. We spent most of the day at the SSA office to ensure the client’s payments were reinstated. The client had gone there a couple of times by herself but had not had the best experience. This time round, the officer who handled her case was very polite, professional and helpful. It was my impression that even the presence of an intern from The Legal Aid Society could ensure respect and courtesy to a senior citizen. I inferred that an attorney will obviously be more successful advocating for clients in similar circumstances. Above all, the client got what she was eligible to receive, her Supplementary Security Income. As the client thanked me for mediating and advocating on her behalf, seeing her broad, genuine smile was extremely fulfilling for me.
How did your perspectives on the world change from interning at a local/national/international
human rights organization?
Working at The Legal Aid Society’s Bronx Neighborhood Office taught me that even in the world’s richest country, the United States, many people are deprived of basic human needs. I also learnt that the social safety net designed to provide a cushion for the underprivileged is either never enough for all, or fails to meet the entire needs of all in the society. On an international level, my outlook is that much remains to be done to help the poor. On the brighter side, I understood how legal advocacy could make life better for others.
What quote would captivate “a moment” that you had during your
“Seeing my client’s broad, genuine smile when I advocated for her Supplemental Security Income to be reinstated was extremely fulfilling for me.”
How do you anticipate bringing your fellowship experience back home to your
A tough economy affects people adversely everywhere. I believe that South Dakota has its fair share of increases in welfare benefits applications. I am willing to contribute to the dialogue on welfare and social services on my University campus, particularly at the law school. I will be interested in contributing articles in the local media on the subject. The alarming number of people who have had to enroll in unemployment benefits as a result of losing their jobs recently points to the fact that social services are not only for the poor but also for the middle class when times change. I will also conduct small group sessions to sensitize political and interest groups to the plight of the underprivileged here in South Dakota, and how social services can be a lifesaver for many people. I plan on working with the pro bono legal group on campus to advocate for social services for the underprivileged.
Full Name of Organization: The Legal Aid Society
Abbreviation and initials commonly used: LAS
Organizational Addresses: 953 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, NY, 10459
Telephone number: (718) 991-4758
Fax number: (718) 842-2867
Email address: JAoyama-Martin@legal-aid.org (Supervising Attorney)
Website Information: http://www.legal-aid.org
Names of Executive Director and Senior Staff: Marshall Green - Attorney-in-Charge, Ian F.
Feldman - Asst.-Attorney-in-Charge, Jane Aoyama-Martin - Supervising Attorney, Howard Baum - Supervising Attorney
Number of Employed Staff (full-time______; part-time ______):
Number of Volunteers: 4 Law Students
Objectives of the Organization:
To provide legal services to residents of New York who need such services but cannot afford them.
Legal Services in Criminal Cases including Death Penalty
Civil cases including Welfare Law and Disability Practice, Housing, Family, Immigration, Juvenile, Homeless Rights, Employment/Unemployment, Health Law, etc.
Date of Information: September 17, 2004
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