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Helping Others Together: The Fight for Racial Justice

May 20, 2021

In the fall of 2020, associates Kevin Benedicto and Nnenne Okorafor embarked upon on a virtual mission to serve two public interest organizations best known for serving others. Through an initiative of the firm’s Mobilizing for Equality Task Force, the lawyers would spend six months seconded as fellows to provide fulltime support to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (the Lawyers’ Committee) and the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) while the communities that relied upon their services fought against everyday injustices to survive in the middle of an unprecedented global health crisis.

Here Nnenne and Kevin discuss why they felt it was important to give back and their experiences helping those who help others.

What drew you to this secondment opportunity?

Nnenne: I was drawn to the secondment at NYLPI because I saw it as a way to commit myself to serving the nonprofit organizations that are directly combating social and racial injustice and that have continued to support our communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While taking the secondment meant temporarily stepping away from my day-to-day legal practice, I viewed it as an opportunity that wouldn’t likely come again and knew that my practice group supported my decision.

Kevin: I was most drawn to this opportunity because of the timing. Given the massive historical importance of the 2020 US presidential election and the renewed calls for racial justice and civil rights across the country, I could not pass up the chance our firm provided to play even a small part in ensuring that the right to vote was protected and the election was conducted in a fair and just manner.

What can you tell us about the organization you were seconded to and the support it provides to the communities it serves?

Nnenne: My secondment was with the Pro Bono Clearinghouse at NYLPI. The Pro Bono Clearinghouse works to help nonprofits find pro bono legal counsel and to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations and the nonprofit sector. The Clearinghouse is unique in that it helps startup nonprofits and reaches smaller organizations that are often left behind by other programs.

Kevin: The Lawyers’ Committee is a nonpartisan organization that is also one of the nation’s oldest legal civil rights organizations. It was founded in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and hate crimes.

Describe a project that you contributed to, its challenges, and the desired outcome.

Nnenne: I contributed to the creation of a limited scope assistance program for nonprofits needing help with commercial leasing issues. It was a challenge to bring together our key partners, to ensure that we were providing the appropriate trainings for volunteer lawyers, and to create systems that facilitated accountability. Putting together the program was a long process, but it was very rewarding when we launched and were able to start meeting this need in the nonprofit sector.

Kevin: I was part of a team at the Lawyers’ Committee that brought litigation on behalf of a broad coalition of civil rights organizations and a Native American tribe in Georgia that is challenging the legality of the state’s recently passed legislation imposing significant restrictions on voting. This law is just one of many being considered by state legislatures across the country that would restrict voting rights for many Americans.

Tell us about an assignment you worked on that was particularly rewarding and why?

Nnenne: I have really enjoyed working with organizations that are based in Brooklyn. As a transplant to Brooklyn who has come to love the community, it was great to help organizations doing impactful work nearby. One of these organizations was working on a program to teach fencing to underprivileged Brooklyn youth. Another organization was seeking to establish a community garden. These are just two examples of the many organizations that came across my desk.

Kevin: In October 2020, an electrical issue in Virginia caused the state’s voter registration website to go offline on the last day of online voter registration. I was able to speak to voters who encountered issues and were unable to register, and was able to tell these voters that I was a lawyer, I was there to help, and that I would do everything I could to ensure they could register to vote. We were able to help bring an emergency motion in court to extend the registration deadline by 72 hours. Because of the work we did, 24,000 additional people were able to register to vote during that time and have their voices heard.

Why is pro bono important to you?

Nnenne: I think pro bono is incredibly important because it’s a chance for lawyers regardless of their practice area to use their education and skills to give back.

Kevin: The law can be daunting and hard to understand, and lawyers have the tools to navigate it. But as the axiom goes, to whom much is given, much is required, and pro bono allows us to apply our legal skills to help those who so desperately need our help and do not have the resources to otherwise get it.

 

Nnenne Okorafor and Kevin Benedicto