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Maria is an all-too-typical client of the WATCH Housing Advocacy Clinic, a free drop-in service in a storefront along the busy downtown of Waltham, MA. The Advocacy Clinic assists clients with fair and safe housing issues, including addressing lead, asbestos and other environmental exposure risks often present in low-income housing, and preventing evictions and homelessness. A wide variety of clients seek help at the clinic; advocates assist single mothers and fathers, teenagers, the elderly, the mentally and physically disabled.
The Housing Advocacy Clinic also often provides the first critical point of contact for many in the low-income, often immigrant community for referral to other needed services such as food and fuel assistance, medical care, domestic abuse prevention and job training. In addition, the clinic serves as a link for clients to become involved with WATCH's advocacy and organizing efforts for affordable housing, and connect them to weatherization programs, English and financial literacy classes, and free vouchers for the local community farms organic outreach market.
The clinic began in 2007 with Laura Goldin's Brandeis University undergraduate Environmental Law class as a novel partnership with WATCH, the local affordable housing and community development organization, in collaboration with the Boston College Law School Legal Assistance Bureau. The goal was to meet a real community need for tenant advocacy by leveraging the learning and energy of college students. The clinic has operated continuously since that time, with 250+ students assisting at least twice that number of individuals and families in the local area.
The "staff": trained students and student leaders from Goldin's further community-engaged learning classes, along with assistance from the undergraduate Martin Luther King Scholars and Friends club and others who assist as translators for the many Hispanic, Haitian-Creole, and other non-English speakers.
Dr. Goldin is committed to this type of teaching because, "This is how I think students can learn in perhaps one of the best ways possible: tackling real-word, complex, multidisciplinary issues directly. They also can contribute significantly as they learn, building relationships and working together with the individuals and communities affected. This is the kind of learning that affects them deeply, requires development of understanding and skills to meet the real challenges, and remains with them as they continue to learn, graduate, pursue careers, and participate in their own communities as caring citizens."
She is personally inspired "...to see students benefit from what I hope will be a profoundly meaningful and transformative experience, and overjoyed as they go on to contribute in their own right. If designed properly, it is also a wonderfully effective way to help local organizations meet identified, sometimes critical, needs of the community by leveraging the talents, creativity, and energy of students."
Each semester and summer, two or three experienced student leaders serve as directed interns to supervise, organize, train, and direct the clinic's day-to-day
Goldin (center in white t-shirt) and her students
operation. These leaders are key to the Advocacy Clinic's successful and sustaining operation. Some have initiated significant improvements and additions, including creating and raising money for an emergency fund to provide small amounts of financial aid to clients at imminent risk of homelessness or other dire needs. Other students have helped to target issues of concern brought to light by the clinic, including patterns of discrimination in rentals and multifamily buildings with lead contamination. The Boston College Legal Assistance Bureau has been an essential partner for referral of cases requiring legal assistance beyond the Clinic's purview.
The Advocacy Clinic has become a bustling place in serving community needs in its 4½ years of operation. On any night it's not uncommon for both narrow Clinic rooms to be overflowing into even narrower hallways with a procession of 6-8 families. This need is no surprise; the densely-populated South Side of Waltham bordered by Brandeis and WATCH is home to more than half the city's population and the majority of the city's low-income immigrant families. According to the 2000 Census, nearly a third of those earn less than $25,000 per year (most who come to the clinic earn far less) and nearly 23% of South Side adults do not have high school diplomas. Twenty-five percent of South Side households with children are headed by single women, who historically face the highest levels of poverty.
The free clinic offers to that population and others a welcoming environment with caring student staff eager to educate and assist. To the students, it offers an opportunity to apply their learning and develop hands-on skills in housing law and legal research, interviewing and counseling, advocacy and more. It also enables them to become deeply engaged in the array of environmental and social justice issues faced by the richly diverse community surrounding the campus, and challenge themselves, often beyond their usual "comfort zone" to learn and grow as individuals.
Maria walks out of the Advocacy Clinic office after her hour-long visit with the students, knowing much more and feeling hopeful. She has learned that she has real rights as a tenant despite her lack of documentation, and avenues for immediate assistance to fix the critical problems in her apartment. She also has begun the application process for food stamps to ease her strained budget, connected with the utility company to restore the heat at reduced rates, applied for English classes, and learned about the many other resources available to her in the area. Most importantly perhaps, she has learned that she can solve many of her problems by asserting her rights, and that she herself can play an active role in joining with others to create a more just and empowered community.
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