New Legal Aid Unit Aims To Tackle Racial Justice Inside And Out

  Anne Oredeko is the supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society's new Racial Justice Unit. Photo courtesy of The Legal Aid Society

Anne Oredeko is the supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society's new Racial Justice Unit. Photo courtesy of The Legal Aid Society

Anne Oredeko went to law school knowing she wanted to work toward social justice, and her career has so far followed that path. After an initial stint as a Legal Aid Society public defender in Brooklyn, she spent two years at Youth Represent, a nonprofit serving young people who end up in the criminal justice system.

But as a lawyer, Oredeko wants to be a resource for activist movements rather than leading any herself.

"I have a tool set that I can use, but that tool set is not the only way that people are going to find liberation," she said.

Oredeko hopes to share those tools as the supervising attorney of Legal Aid's new Racial Justice Unit, which aims to tackle racial justice both in the courtroom and within the city's largest legal services group.

Informed by grassroots organizations and Legal Aid's other staff, the unit will bring litigation around systemic racial justice issues such as gentrification, Oredeko said.

While the unit is still being developed, Oredeko said it will also provide support to on-the-ground groups that often don't have access to lawyers.

"I really want it to be able to dig deep and start to really pull at the underlying issues that a lot of New Yorkers are facing and a lot of New Yorkers are being harmed by,"she said.

Oredeko also wants to help Legal Aid's attorneys and support staff attach a racial justice lens to their work through training and educational programs.

The unit will aim to aid those staffers in understanding the social and cultural dynamics of their interactions with Legal Aid's clients — who are mostly low-income black and brown people — while also offering resources to help staff sustain themselves, Oredeko said.

"You can come into this work with the best intentions but if you yourself have not worked on creating anti-racism as a central focus in your own personal life, or in your own work life, you're still going to be impacting your clients in a negative way," she said.

Now about two weeks into the job, Oredeko is currently the unit's only staffer. But she said she hopes to eventually bring in staff attorneys to help.

Oredeko said she thinks Legal Aid is unique in creating a division dedicated to racial justice. It's a model other organizations should follow, she said.

"I think a lot of organizations intend to incorporate those practices, and intend to incorporate that lens," Oredeko said. "But for Legal Aid to step outside of just intending and actually designating a unit to have a path of doing that work consistently, I think that's really rare."