This article previously appeared in Kentucky Opera’s OperaBill for The Marriage of Figaro, 2020

Article by Julia M. Leist, Director of Development and Communications at Legal Aid Society

Famed theatre and opera director Anne Bogart once said that art “shines light into the dark spaces.” It’s the thread that connects the work of artists to activists, arts organizations to social service organizations. Art has the power to illuminate problems, to encourage the collective to empathize, and to empower us all to pull together and find solutions.

Kentucky Opera’s Awakenings series asks the community to come together in conversation to “challenge tradition, question social narratives, and invite varied perspectives.” As the Development and Communications Director at Legal Aid Society participating in the January 21, 2020 Awakenings panel, this was not only an opportunity to educate the broader community about civil legal aid and why it matters, but to highlight the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors—to shine a light.

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro initially served as a commentary on the power of privilege. At Legal Aid Society it is our mission to ensure that the justice system is truly blind to privilege. For nearly a century, Legal Aid Society has (sometimes quietly, sometimes not) pursued justice for the most disadvantaged in our community, upholding what Alexander Hamilton called “the first duty of society.”

As children we learn and commit to memory our nation’s pledge. These words are imprinted in our national DNA and flow from our collective memories like a song. The Pledge of Allegiance is the summation of highest ideals and noblest pursuits. And at its conclusion, we recite the principle that unites us all as Americans, the optimistic ideal of “justice for all.”

What does this really mean? What does “justice for all” look like?

Many Americans’ understanding of the justice system is shaped by one-hour crime dramas. If you were to flip through the channels on cable TV tonight, you will more than likely find a police officer reciting a suspect their Miranda Rights. “You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” This “Law and Order” effect has created many misunderstandings of the justice system and how it works.

But did you know that if you have a civil legal issue, you are not guaranteed an attorney and one will NOT always be provided to you if you cannot afford one?

The Great Recession illustrates the importance of access to justice when you consider the number of Americans suddenly in need of legal help when their homes were being foreclosed upon due to corrupt mortgage lending practices. Another, and more immediate example, is the crisis of homelessness and eviction in our own city. In Jefferson County, the eviction rate is double the national average. The impact of eviction is systemic, causing disruption in education, health, and can lead to homelessness. The causes for this crisis are many, but one statistic is staggering—in housing courts across America, 90 percent of tenants facing eviction have no lawyer, while more than 90 percent of landlords do.

This is where Legal Aid Society steps in, putting equal justice into action and balancing the scales of justice.

There are over 170,000 Kentuckians in Legal Aid Society;s fifteen county service area who are income eligible for Legal Aid’s assistance (living at or below 125% to 200% of poverty). We know that over 70% of low-income Americans have at least one unmet civil legal issue in a given year, and many face more than one. Their issues aren’t trivial. They are about their families and homes and incomes.

We often speak about “closing the justice gap.” This metaphor describes the distance between ordinary Americans who need an attorney and their ability to access one. The image is strong, but not entirely accurate. A “gap” implies a naturally occurring phenomenon, omnipresent, and one that is seemingly impossible to overcome.

In fact, the challenges to access to justice are not immovable obstacles, they are manmade. And while the problems are large, they are not insurmountable. Daily, the staff and volunteers of our Legal Aid Society smash these barriers to justice; connecting individuals and families to the attorneys they need to resolve legal issues impacting the quality, and sometimes quantity, of their lives.

Civil legal aid changes lives, empowers families, and strengthens entire communities. It is a transformative tool that improves the economic, social, and health conditions of our neighbors and neighborhoods. Legal Aid Society ensures:

  • families facing foreclosure or eviction receive the legal defense they need to remain in their homes;
  • survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault receive legal protections to keep their families safe;
  • single moms facing crippling debt are given second chances at income stability; and
  • parents struggling to put food on their table, access healthcare for their children, or ensure that their families’ basic needs are met are enrolled in government assistance programs to help them in the darkest of times.

This is what equal justice looks likes.

The justice system is not separate and apart from our everyday lives, it is interwoven into every interaction. From our homes to our families; to the products we buy and the healthcare we receive—there are laws and legal systems in place designed to protect the civil rights we hold most dear, but first we must be able to access them. Attorneys are not just for corporations or the one percent, attorneys are the gatekeepers of justice, holding a special and specialized place in our society as the purveyors and practitioners of the law. Money should not be the key to unlock the system.

Mozart famously said “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” In the silence between the notes, Kentucky Opera has given Legal Aid Society and many other community partners the opportunity to be heard in new and powerful ways. We invite you to learn more about Legal Aid Society and the other great organizations partnering with Kentucky Opera for this performance. If the music is really in the silence, perhaps there too we shall find the space to make room for compassion, equity, and justice for all.

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