In fall 2021, we began a trial, seven years in the making, that could be a turning point in the history of our Commonwealth. The trial, taking on the Pennsylvania state legislature’s inadequate and inequitable funding for public schools, lasted fourteen weeks, and our trial team and co-counsel lived out of Harrisburg hotel rooms for months. In our 2021 annual report, take a look inside the courtroom, and the experience of educators and families who brought the case, taking on a two-tiered system, divided by local wealth. Our work in 2021 took us in many directions, and the Law Center remained at the forefront of fights for voting rights, safe housing, environmental justice, and more in Pennsylvania. Through it all, we learned that realizing our mission is an ever-evolving pursuit of creative strategies, connections to community, and holistic problem solving, undertaken with perseverance and grit.
2020 presented challenges that at times felt insurmountable. So in a year like no other, the Law Center and our clients showed a resilience like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the deeply entrenched systemic inequities that we, as public interest lawyers, fight every day on behalf of our clients. So when we see that a fundamental right and resource is being violated, attacked, unjustly taken away or unfairly being blocked, we step in to action, and we do so with a humble understanding that racial and social inequities must be disrupted for good. In our 2020 annual report, you’ll find the stories of just a few of these efforts–defending our right to vote, taking on gun violence, and more–with first-hand perspectives from our clients and attorneys.
As this chronicle of the comparatively simpler days (compared to 2020’s annus horribilis) of 2019 reminds us, the injustices of now are not new. The gross inequality among school districts, in which some students have all the modern advantages and others learn in crumbling buildings, is a longstanding reality for Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren. Firearm violence already was raging through our community before the surge in 2020, disparately killing and maiming young Black men. Brown and Black renters have faced the worst of Philadelphia’s eviction crisis for many years, while too many unscrupulous landlords in our city fail to provide basic needs, like working heat and water. That is the point of what we do–we the entire community of the Public Interest Law Center, past and present. We are here for the long term, because the evils we see now are deeply entrenched, having lurked among us for years, if not centuries.
2018 Annual Report – 50 Years of Justice
This year, we celebrate a milestone in the history of our organization–the 50th anniversary of our founding as an affiliate of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in 1969. As we immerse ourselves in today’s challenges, we sometimes neglect to pause and truly appreciate all that came before us: the hundreds of people who did the work and the thousands whose lives are better as a result. This anniversary is a time to do just that. In this report, we look back on groundbreaking victories throughout our history, significant accomplishments from 2018, and the fundamental principles that tie them together. The work and courage of the lawyers and clients who came before us–taking on a school system that shut out students with disabilities, or a state that would not curb auto emissions, and much more–stands as a challenge. It is not enough to bask in the successes of yesterday. Poverty and discrimination still pervade our community. What they have passed along to the staff, board, donors, and clients of today is a responsibility. It is a charge never to give up, never accept the injustice we see, but instead to use all the tools we have to keep the fight going.
As we look back over 2017 we feel—dare we say?—hopeful. Last fall, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court gave hope to our public school children when it revived our lawsuit designed to make public education funding fair and equitable. That same Court, in response to our gerrymandering lawsuit, held Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional district map unconstitutional, protecting all voters from a map that locked in election outcomes regardless of voter preferences. We also drew inspiration from the millions of people who became civically and politically engaged, many for the first time. With hope, though, comes a clear-eyed recognition that many of Philadelphia’s deepest problems remain. Racism, poverty, and discrimination are deeply embedded, leading to persistent structural inequality. In 2018, as we mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, all of us, board and staff, are working harder than ever to meet his charge: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Today, we are living our strategic plan by making sure our work brings positive changes to the greatest number of people. We are going to the courts–which continue to discharge their critical responsibility to uphold the Constitution–to make our elections fair and accessible to all, and to protect employees from discrimination. We are enforcing laws that require safe and habitable housing for renters, and laws requiring states to provide healthcare to low income and disabled people. We continue to prepare our most marginalized fellow residents with the tools they need to gather and present their demands collectively, exercising their constitutional rights to assemble peaceably and associate freely.
These are the times that try men’s souls.
—Thomas Paine, The American Crisis.
Written in winter, as our young nation’s survival hung in the balance 240 years ago, Thomas Paine’s words feel fresh today. Stories of worsening conditions in public schools caused by lack of funding stream in from all corners of the Commonwealth. Children enrolled in Medicaid in Pennsylvania are not getting in to see a dentist. People with disabilities want to work but face unemployment at more than twice the rate of their peers; and people with criminal histories face ongoing barriers to the work force even after resolving their charges. We can’t count on the political process to fix the problems because members of the Pennsylvania legislature have insulated themselves from the political process by drawing the election maps to preserve their seats. It is in these times of darkness that we most need people to challenge these broken systems. The Public Interest Law Center is doing just that.
Notice anything different? Over the last few months, with input from board, staff, clients, and stakeholders, we underwent a rebranding process, thanks to support from The Philadelphia Foundation. We streamlined our name, retired old acronyms, and freshened up our look. We did not, however, discard our rich legacy and core values. At the heart of our identity remain the most important components of our work: our clients, our focus on the public interest, a dedicated and talented staff, and our fundamental commitment to eliminating poverty.
This year, we pause to celebrate some of the most important social justice advances in American history such as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Mississippi Freedom Summer. As we celebrate these historic achievements, we must renew the intensity of our focus on the civil rights we have not yet achieved: a quality public education for all children, the unencumbered right to vote, and the freedom from want we all need to lead our lives. In 2013, we made powerful strides toward remedying these modern injustices by laying the groundwork for litigation against the state’s inequitable funding system, defeating Pennsylvania’s voter identification law, and toppling barriers that kept people from accessing education, vacant land and local food, and employment.
A two-year program report on the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI), which the Law Center launched in 2011, with support from the Skadden Fellowship Foundation.
A review of the Law Center’s work in 2012 including our successful case that kept the Chester Upland School District open, our advocacy work in the Eastwick neighborhood, our continued efforts to eliminate Pennsylvania’s Voter ID law and much more.
Articles on the Philadelphia Project, the Garden Justice Legal Initiative, the Hunting Park Community Garden, our employment discrimination case on behalf of Al Dunn, our Supreme Court brief in Douglas, and more
Updates on the Lebanon truancy case, special education in Lower Merion, environmental advocacy in Eddystone and Hazleton, our Lincoln University voting rights case, and more
Updates on the Florida Medicaid case, two strip-search civil rights cases, discriminatory enforcement targeting minority-owned busses, the Campaign for Teacher Quality, Sugarhouse Casino sewage plan, and more
Updates on special education in Lower Merion and elsewhere, deinstitutionalization in Tennessee and Connecticut, electronic voting machines and emergency paper ballots, Philadelphia desegregation settlement, public school funding, and more