During February, we observe Black History Month by examining how the contributions and sacrifices of Black men and women have improved the world we live in. But in many ways, the equality that those before us fought for has still not been achieved.
Now that February is over, the question remains: What can we be doing all year to bring about racial justice?
It’s that question that, more than ever, drives our work at Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. While social justice has always been part of our mission, it has taken on a new intentionality since the violent death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. In the days immediately following that tragedy, we established a Racial Justice and Equity Team made up of 30 staff and volunteers to take a closer look at the work we do through a lens of racial equity.
Through our work with clients across Middle Tennessee, our goal is to specifically identify and dismantle the effects of racism. While our programs only address a fraction of the many needs that exist, they all tie into a common theme of creating opportunity for members of marginalized communities.
Housing and the racial wealth gap
The racial wealth gap in America is stark — according to the Brookings Institute, a typical white family’s net worth is $171,000, nearly 10 times larger than a typical Black family ($17,150).
For most people in America, their home is their largest asset, and historical differences in homeownership rates have allowed white families to grow and pass down wealth through the generations in a way that Black families haven’t. We know that when a family loses its home, that hurts its ability to build generational wealth. Legal Aid Society is addressing this issue with a new fellowship program aimed at keeping minority families in their homes.
A common scenario we see is an elderly homeowner passing away without a will. This causes three main issues. First, even though the next of kin have legally inherited the property, there is a lack of documentation to prove ownership. With the title still being in the name of the deceased person, living heirs experience difficulties entering into contracts having to do with the property or leveraging the equity in their homes.
Second, depending on the deceased owner’s family structure, the property is often left to multiple family members as co-owners. Any of these co-owners has the ability to sell the entire property even if other family members are living on property and paying the property taxes.
Last, where co-owners who have inherited a property do not have a clear plan, taxes are sometimes left unpaid, leaving an opening for third-party investors to pay the bill and then issue a lien on the property.
In each of these scenarios, the family’s opportunity to create generational wealth is lost and it has to start over from scratch.
We can help families avoid this situation by helping to update property titles, sorting out legal issues of ownership, creating wills and even setting up family trusts to protect property from creditors. We also do a lot of education and outreach across Middle Tennessee to help families understand the options available to them.
The challenges of re-entry
Our re-entry program, aimed at those trying to reacclimate to society and return to the workforce after a period of incarceration, is open to everyone. However, because we know that minority populations are disproportionately impacted by incarceration, we view it as part of our racial justice and equity efforts.
Having a criminal record can make it nearly impossible for a person to find employment or housing. A conviction for certain crimes can also make a person ineligible for a driver’s license, dramatically limiting their ability to live independently and pursue employment. We’re able to assist in areas including expungement of nonviolent convictions, driver’s license reinstatement, certificates of employability and voting rights restoration.
Education for all
Our Gilbert Family Fellows program assists children and young adults who are impacted by the disparate impact of disciplinary actions in schools. Minority students are typically disciplined more heavily, and sometimes the root causes of their behavior, such as mental health, are overlooked by busy educators. It can be easier to expel or suspend a child who is being disruptive than offering them the additional support they need.
We work with educators to establish Individualized Education Programs for students in need of extra educational support, keeping them from being expelled and curbing the school-to-prison pipeline so they can be productive in society.
Where to find us
We recently established a new Racial Justice and Equity website, las.org/rjet, to highlight our efforts of advancing diversity, equity and inclusion within our organization and surrounding communities. For low-income Middle Tennesseans seeking legal assistance with these and other civil legal issues, we’re here to help. On Black History Month and every month of the year, we’re committed to working toward a more equitable world for all.
DarKenya W. Waller is executive director of Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands.