This spring, the team at Legal Aid Works, a Virginia-based non-profit that levels the playing field in our civil justice system by offering legal services to low-income individuals, found itself out of its comfort zone. The time had come to plan its seventh annual Jazz4Justice™ fundraiser featuring an evening of live performances from the University of Mary Washington’s jazz ensemble. But as it has done to so many 2020 plans, COVID-19 ensured that this year’s event would not be business as usual.
For Legal Aid Works, the stakes were high. Jazz4Justice™ is their largest annual fundraiser. Legal Aid Works is forced to turn away two out of every three eligible clients due to a lack of resources. Losing the annual funding that Jazz4Justice™ provides, particularly in a year when so many people are struggling, would be devastating. Nevertheless, citing the health and safety of the community, Legal Aid Works cancelled the in-person event. “We were so disappointed,” said Katerina Vollten, Director of Development at Legal Aid Works. “We really didn’t know what to do.”
What came next is a testament to the determination and adaptability of Legal Aid Works. It’s a model for other organizations to replicate. And it’s an example of the commitment to making an impact that Remote Learner is proud to champion.
The Legal Aid Works Vision: A Just Society Where Barriers to Justice are Eliminated
The reading of Miranda Rights on cop and court shows is so ubiquitous that it might be easy to take “you have the right to an attorney” for granted. But while there is a constitutional guarantee for legal representation in criminal cases, the same is not true of civil cases. Civil cases are more than just corporate lawsuits. They include cases such as the victim of domestic abuse seeking a protective order or a veteran trying to secure their benefits. They include the eviction of a family facing homelessness or a parent fighting for custody of their child. Without legal representation, poor and otherwise disenfranchised individuals find themselves at a disadvantage in navigating the civil justice system, particularly if the other side of their suit does have representation. This justice gap is significant: there is one private attorney for every 346 Virginians and only one Legal Aid attorney for every 7,000 poor Virginians.
Legal Aid Works is a non-profit that provides free, high-quality civil legal assistance to low income individuals and families across 17 of the most vulnerable counties in the state of Virginia. They have been working to give everyone a fair shake in the civil justice system since 1973. And they are making an impact: They handle roughly 1,100 cases each year. Additionally, they work closely with food banks, homeless shelters, safe houses, clinics, and other local organizations to provide a host of education services. Discussing Legal Aid Works’ educational programming, Ms. Vollten says, simply, “We help people to know their rights.”
This work is not inexpensive. Demand far exceeds supply. But Legal Aid Work is committed to growing its impact. So once the decision to cancel the in-person Jazz4Justice™ event was made, Ms. Vollten and the Legal Aid Work team began the work of taking Jazz4Justice™ online.
Bringing Jazz4Justice™ Online
“I’ll say this: it was humbling,” said Ms. Vollten as she reflected on the beginning of the journey to make Jazz4Justice™ virtual. “But we found that, once everyone committed to chipping in and sacrificing where they could, the cumulative effect was quickly felt.”
Legal Aid Works wanted to bring as much of the in-person experience to the online event as possible, particularly the wide variety of masterful performances by University of Mary Washington’s jazz ensemble. So a video was assembled that mixed new performances (when masked and socially distant playing was feasible), highlight performances from previous years, and special messages from students, sponsors, and supporters. The video was streamed for a live audience on November 14th, 2020, and then preserved for future viewing.
Watch the 2020 Jazz4Justice™ here: https://www.legalaidworks.org/jazz4justice/
Legal Aid Works is still tallying the outcome of the event but they do know that their hard work has paid off. Ms. Vollten felt particularly heartened by the way in which the circumstances brought people together. “It was beautiful to see the support we received. Early on, we couldn’t tell our sponsors what this event was going to be and they still showed up for us.”
Ms. Vollten was also quick to point out an unexpected benefit of going virtual. “It showcased contributors to this event, particularly the technical team, who otherwise might not have gotten the attention they deserved.”
Looking To The Future
With this year’s Jazz4Justice™ behind her, Ms. Vollten hopes the event can return to its in-person format in 2021. In the meantime, the experience of working on launching an online event has motivated her to continue to focus on building relationships. “In the face of really challenging circumstances, I’ve been amazed by the community’s passion to help their neighbors this year. The collective power of people coming together in support of good and to confront bad is inspiring.”
The work for a more fair civil justice system continues. If you are interested in learning more about how you can help, Legal Aid Works accepts donations and is always looking for skilled volunteers in the community. Remote Learner encourages you to learn more.
Remote Learner is a proud sponsor of Jazz4Justice™ 2020. On behalf of the company’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, the RL Giving Program, and the Remote Learner Social Impact Initiative, we congratulate the Legal Aid Works team on a successful event and thank them for their critical work in a more just and equitable future for all.