Writing To Help Others: A Companis Worker Gets the Word Out

Jan 31, 2022

“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” That statement stems from the 6th Amendment in the Bill of Rights which codifies the right to a public trial, the right to a lawyer, and the right to an impartial jury. But as Snohomish County Legal Services’ website points out, this only guarantees the rights of criminal defendants. If it’s a civil case, you are responsible for retaining and paying for an attorney on your own. Many low- and moderate-income people cannot afford an attorney and may not be aware they have the right to defend themselves.

That is where Volunteer Lawyer Programs (VLP’s) like Snohomish County Legal Services (SCLS), a nonprofit organization in Everett, can help. SCLS and other organizations in Washington provide free civil legal education, advice and representation to the marginalized and under served members of the community. The recent Right to Counsel (RTC) program (SB 5160), signed in April 2021 by Governor Jay Inslee, makes Washington state the first to guarantee counsel for indigent tenants in eviction cases which helps to further bridge the gap in service for those in need.

We spoke with Carrie Johnson who is SCLS’ Development Director/Grants Administrator. She offered more insight into the services that SCLS provides.  Since the early 1980s, SCLS has provided civil legal assistance amongst the poorest population in Snohomish County. “Most people don’t understand the legal system. And they think, well, everybody has the right to an attorney. You do, if you can pay for it. We work with people who can’t afford a lawyer for civil legal cases.” 

She says that educating people about their rights is a huge part of their mission. “We don’t just represent people. We also run workshops and clinics and make presentations and hand out materials in an effort to educate them about their civil legal rights to empower them in self-sufficiency. And we are unique in that we can help undocumented residents.”  

While the need for legal aid is high among those living below the poverty line, the pandemic has brought even more need to the forefront. “During the pandemic, domestic violence has skyrocketed. Our Family Law Clinic is in high demand. People lost their jobs, they can’t provide shelter, they can’t provide food, basic human needs…and they are stuck together at home.” 

She says SCLS uses “equitable recovery” as a lens to view assistance through. “Pre-pandemic, if you had a house, if you had a job, you could provide for your family. Then during the pandemic, all those aspects were significantly reduced. As the pandemic continued, more and more people needed help but were unaware of the services available to them. SCLS worked with many community partners to get the word out about not only our services but others through other agencies, such as rental assistance. All of these efforts are aimed at an equitable recovery to provide at least the same level of services, or even enhanced levels, as they were pre-pandemic.”

Another change brought on by the pandemic was the way SCLS reached out to those in need of their services. “In the past, the majority of where we got our clients was by literally sitting at a courthouse and approaching them as they walked through the door. So when we had to work from home, we had to figure out other ways to reach out,” says Carrie. That led to more partnerships with other nonprofits, including their connection with Companis. 

Carrie asked Companis whether SCLS could get matched with a volunteer professional to help them with social media posts about their Housing Justice Project and Family Law Clinic, as well as share client stories for donors and potential volunteers to see. After talking over their needs, Companis Associate Executive Director of Programs Jennifer Wing matched SCLS up with Companis applicant Andrew Hackett, a volunteer with a passion for writing. 

Andrew, who prefers the pronouns they/them, is a fiction writer with a special interest in film. A writer and musician who managed a bar in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood for five years, their work life came to a screeching halt in March 2020 when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state’s first stay-home order to curb the spread of COVID-19. Only essential businesses remained open to the public, including grocery stories, pharmacies, gas stations and restaurants offering take-out. “So when that happened,” says Andrew, “I was exhausted and needed a break. I wished it weren’t under these circumstances but I realized it was time to make some changes.” So Andrew left that job and made a personal schedule for themself. And a big part of it included time for writing. In addition to setting aside time for their vocation – a passion that is growing into podcasts and screenplays – they also built a schedule on values, including their desire to give back to their community. Through a pastor Andrew admires, the Rev. Katie Ladd of Queen Anne United Methodist Church suggested Andrew check out Companis to see if there was a nonprofit that could benefit from their writing skills. Katie herself is a former Companis Worker and longtime advocate. 

Andrew’s life story could be its own movie. They grew up in Christian communes in Tacoma, Oahu, Hawaii, the San Fernando Valley – a region of Los Angeles County, Mazatlan, Mexico and Seattle where they lived with their grandmother during high school. According to Andrew, they attended school all over the place. Along the way, they became a reader, a lover of movies and music, grew fluent in Spanish, and delved deep into philosophy. “I have an unconventional resume. And for some people they look at it and say, ‘I don’t understand this. This is weird.’ But Jennifer didn’t do that. She saw value in my experience and my unconventional education and asked me all the right questions to get clarity on what I wanted and didn’t want in a volunteer position. Then after about a month, she set up a meeting with Snohomish County Legal Services for the three of us to talk.” 

That meeting eventually led to a 10-hour-a-week volunteer placement with SCLS writing client stories that get worked into social media posts and grant reports. “I like the way it’s been set up,” says Andrew. “My labor is respected and I have a work contract with a clear job description.” 

“I love their diverse background,” says Carrie. “And I can give them something and they’ll go off and do it. We tweak things together but I trust they’re doing what I need them to do and if they need me, they know where to find me. So that’s a perfect relationship for me!” 

Carrie says partnerships with other nonprofits continue to fuel their outreach efforts. “We take a holistic approach when it comes to people’s needs. Yes, we focus on the legal aspects but if we can introduce them to resources provided by other nonprofits, we’ll do that. There’s also a fear of the legal system, and asking for help in many immigrant communities is frowned upon. Overcoming those barriers to get to the people who need help has been really challenging, especially in a pandemic environment. By partnering with key community partners, who are already trusted within the immigrant communities, has been helpful. If the person you’re trying to reach trusts that partner, they’ll trust us.”

Then there is the partnership with Companis. “If I didn’t have Andrew, none of this (communications work) would have been done. It’s not even a matter of freeing me up to do other things. They took on things that I didn’t have the capacity to do in the first place.” 

Andrew has some favorite philosophers they read including political philosopher, author and Holocaust survivor, Hannah Arendt. One of her quotes reads: “Action without a name, a who attached to it, is meaningless.” Andrew’s name is proudly reflected in that quote as a Companis Worker with Snohomish County Legal Services. They are compassion in action. 



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