Last evening, the Washington Council of Lawyers honored our executive director Patty Mullahy Fugere with its Presidents Award for Public Service. The event was a nice antidote to a disappointing day at the DC Council on the HSRA front. More on the HSRA tomorrow, but in the meantime, we want to share with you Patty’s acceptance remarks.

Thank you, Jim, for your very kind words of introduction, and many thanks to the Washington Council of Lawyers for this tremendous honor. It is a privilege to stand among this evening’s other award recipients.

We have such a richly talented and dedicated public interest community. Our consortium of LSP is 30+ organizations strong; the generosity of time put forward by DC’s law firm and government pro bono community is without rival; and we are all supported by community-wide endeavors such as the ATJC, and of course, the Washington Council of Lawyers. Ours is a community that supports and inspires, and I have been blessed to be a part of it for more than thirty years. (I also had the blessing yesterday of welcoming my daughter Genevieve to this community, when she was sworn in to the DC Bar.)

I will confess to you that I feel a bit awkward – perhaps even a bit disingenuous – to be receiving this honor. If I should be worthy of any award, it would be for hiring well. I have the privilege of working with an extraordinary group of justice-seekers at the Legal Clinic, folks who give of themselves day after day after day, on the front line, in the Wilson Building, at the Zoning Commission and beyond, first hand witnesses to the pain and isolation that far too many of our low income neighbors are made to endure. To my Legal Clinic colleagues, I stand in awe of you and I thank you and I so admire the passion and creativity and enthusiasm that you bring to your work. I truly don’t know how you do it.

That is no easy feat, especially in such unsettling, anxiety-inducing times.  I think we all get a daily dose of angst when we get a news alert on our phone, or switch on the TV or radio when we get home in the evening. But to be honest, it’s not the national headlines that worry me most; it’s what’s happening here locally that causes me the greatest concern.

Just today, for example, the DC Council voted to put tens of millions of dollars into an underground parking garage at Union Market, and immediately after, made it harder for families to access shelter, and easier for them to be terminated. Visitors will have a safe place to put their cars, but parents may find no safe place for their children to sleep.

It matters where our local officials choose to stand on issues like these. Do they stand with developers? With campaign contributors? With the well-to-do newcomers who are flocking to DC to be a part of this renaissance city? Or do they stand with those whom DC’s rebirth has ignored: the 40,000 low-income families on DC’s waitlist for subsidized housing? the parents who seek a safe place for their family to sleep tonight?  the students at Ballou? It matters where they choose to stand.

It matters where we choose to stand, too. Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest out in Los Angeles who is a founder of Homeboy Industries, an extraordinary gang intervention program, talks about the importance of accompaniment: where – and more importantly with whom – we stand. “By casting our lot with the gang member,” Fr. Greg shares in his book Tattoos on the Heart, “by casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing.” All the Lord asks of us, Fr. Greg says, is “’Where are you standing?’ And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He asks again ‘are you still standing there?’”

Are we?

I dare say that our souls have been numbed – even crushed – a time or two. It’s hard not to feel crushed when you are witness to the hypocrisy of a city that turns itself inside out to draw newcomers who are well-resourced, while demonizing those who need a bit of support, taking great pains to push them – or keep them – out. It hurts to see decisions made time and again that place profits over people, and to know that so many of our neighbors struggle simply to make it through the day.

But where does that leave us standing?

Are we willing to veer off of a well-charted and strategically planned course, because our clients need us to stand by them in a place that we might never have imagined our work would take us?

Do we have the humility to stand to the side so that our clients can stand front and center, directly speaking their truth?

Are we able to give up our seat at the table and stand off in a corner of the room, so that our clients’ participation – rather than our own – is central to the discussion?

Do we have the grace to seek out companions for this journey…. yet the courage to stand alone when we find no one by our side?

Can we stand present to our clients and their truth no matter the cost, even when the pressure to turn our backs and abandon their cause reaches a fever pitch?

It matters where we choose to stand.

Over the years, every now and again, we at the Legal Clinic have been criticized for where we stand.

“You are always so predictably in the same place,” we were once told many years ago, with the expectation that we would be horrified by the accusation of being so immovable. Our accuser was terribly disappointed that we saw this instead as a compliment. If we are unwavering in our position, it is because our clients need our faithful presence when everyone else has turned away. If we are immovable, it is so our clients will not be forcibly moved…moved out of sight, out of our awareness, or out of the District altogether.

More recently, we were told we were “marginalized…out of the mainstream…on the  fringe….” That speaker may not have realized it, but he was simply “accusing” us of standing with those community members who have been marginalized, DC residents who have been pushed – both figuratively and literally – to the fringes of the District…and sometimes beyond. We were being admonished for standing exactly where we need to be, doing the work that we are called to do. If we stand on the margins, it is because that is the only place that we can be present to our clients who have been marginalized. If we are on the fringe, it is because we stand with community members who have been told that they don’t belong. If we are out of the mainstream, it is because we choose to have no part of a mainstream that excludes…based on race, or gender, or the balance of a bank account.

I do have hope, though, looking out at this room at the passion and energy among us tonight, hope that someday, because of where each one of us here chooses to stand, there will be a demise of demonizing, a melding of the margins with the core, and the celebration of a community that is inclusive and just. It will not be easy, nor will it be soon, but we must settle – and strive – for nothing less. It matters where we stand.

I think I’m over time, but before I cede the mic, I have two more quick thank you’s…

  • to the Legal Clinic’s board of directors for sharing our vision and believing in us and standing with us as we stand with our clients;
  • to my beloved kids and kids-in-law – thank you for standing with me always. You inspire me every day to work towards a community where all parents’ hearts can be full of the same sort of joy as you bring to mine.