By Miguel Keberlein
Guest Columnist
Chicago, IL, USA

Joe was getting his life back on track.

A young dad working toward getting on his feet and earning more visitation with his kids, he did everything he could. He worked to find an apartment and a job, buy a car, and support his children financially and emotionally. He was using his every last dollar
Miguel Keberlein
just to live, so when his car’s taillight broke – it was hit by another car while parked on the street – he couldn’t afford to get it fixed. The tickets accumulated, and his car was booted, and the cycle started again. When he couldn’t get to work, he lost his job, then his ability to pay his rent, then his opportunities to see his kids. Because he didn’t see a way out, Joe turned back to a life he’d worked hard to leave behind.

There are so many ways Joe’s story could have gone differently. He had choices, but he didn’t know about them because of a key barrier: access to legal help in his community.

While we can’t always know why a particular individual might be a participant in or a victim of gun violence, we do know that gun violence is happening in certain areas of Chicago because of that barrier to accessing information and resources that can help people make more meaningful choices.

The intersection of violence interruption and legal aid cannot be overlooked, and that’s why the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services is partnering with Communities Partnering 4 Peace (CP4P), a Metropolitan-convened violence prevention initiative, to establish our new CP4P Justice Corps.

Over the next year, we’ll bring legal services directly to justice-involved adults and those at risk of committing crimes in our communities through collaboration with our CP4P community partners operating in community areas most affected by gun violence.

There’s an important value in understanding that communities work best when they’re deciding what they need. We want to be in those communities, listening to the needs they identify.

The CP4P Justice Corps will enhance our relationships with our partners to empower Chicago’s most disadvantaged residents, many of whom are unaware of their legal rights in employment, housing, public benefits, crime victim services, human trafficking, elder law and domestic violence or how to access services that are not available locally.

From listening to our people entrenched in these communities, and from comprehensive needs assessments with our partner organizations, we’ve seen the opportunity inherent in providing more immediate access to an attorney who can offer support in these critical areas. We’ve seen how issues like wage theft can hold someone back from sustaining employment, how ensuring a student receives an IEP can support them in staying in school, how an expungement can help a returning citizen move on from their past – how legal services can create transformational change.

With the CP4P Justice Corps, the Legal Aid Society’s services can now adopt CP4P’s hyperlocal approach to meet individuals where they are. Speaking with an attorney doesn’t have to mean traveling downtown to an unfamiliar 10th story office, it can mean stopping by to see a trusted friend in the community.

CP4P Justice Corp Goals

Our CP4P partners can offer the individualized, responsive focus that brings LAS’s services beyond access to justice. To make justice a reality for everyone, we need to look at it through the lens of the individual first: this is what justice means to me.

Take Joe. With an attorney’s support, Joe could address his employment issue with his landlord to work out a rent payment plan. Together, they could talk with his employer to help resolve his ability to get to work. They could track down who smashed his taillight or reach out to the City about his car. An attorney could help Joe see the way out he was working so hard to achieve.

Legal services provide a buffer between someone like Joe and the life they want to leave behind, so that one particular incident – like a broken taillight – isn’t going to cause them to lose their job or their home or their family.

People living in poverty always have to walk a line of survival. As a legal professional, I see legal aid as a duty and a responsibility of those in my field to be purveyors of the information that can help people not just survive … but thrive.

We’re the holders of the rules of the game, and we have a duty to help people understand those rules. When we show people that they have someone who will stand by and fight with them, we give them a sense of ownership in their community: I can do this.

As a legal community, in complement to the critical work being done by our fellow legal aid organizations in the areas, we are creating more hopeful avenues for people by addressing some of the structural issues they face. The Justice Corps initiative aims to collaborate on the ground to help fill gaps that exist in our communities based on our CP4P partner organizations’ self-identified needs. We aim to be reflective in our work; our communities’ needs will change over time, and we will evolve to meet them.

For Chicago to be the best Chicago it can be, everybody has to be invested in resolving the issue of gun violence.

Is legal aid going to be the one thing that resolves gun violence? Absolutely not. But communities need access to all the available tools and resources in order to create lasting change. To create choices: Do I go one route I know already? Or, can I follow some of these avenues of promise that might lead me to more stability and peace in my community?

Let’s choose peace.



Miguel Keberlein is the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of 
Chicago’s Metropolitan Family Services.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.