There is a framed piece of artwork hanging in a colleague’s office at JF&CS that features the phrase, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). I imagine that many of you have heard these words or perhaps seen similar artwork, some evoking the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also hung those words in her office. As we are halfway through Domestic Violence Awareness Month this October, I’m thinking a lot about justice. At Journey to Safety (JTS), the JF&CS response to domestic and dating abuse, much of our work supporting domestic abuse survivors is rooted in the strong belief that everyone has the right to be safe.
But there is no question that our safety net and justice system do not work equally for all. At JTS, we are asking ourselves what role we have played in supporting or looking past inequities and what role we can now play in supporting initiatives that will lead to meaningful societal and systems change. Today I would like to share just one of these efforts: a proposal to make it easier for non-English speakers to connect with public benefits and legal services.
Not being able to speak English fluently can present significant barriers. With dedicated funding to serve Russian-speaking abuse survivors, JTS staff members often witness first-hand the steep challenges of trying to access legal services and government programs such as rental assistance, unemployment and health care through online systems set up only in English or Spanish.
Moreover, when it comes to the courts, federal law requires that qualified interpreters be provided when needed during judicial proceedings. However, at times that means courts rely on community-based programs like JTS to provide basic translation and interpretation services. Our advocates do incredible work, but they are not trained professional court interpreters and are also not available for every non-English speaker who needs one.
As a result of these barriers, many people who don’t speak English and who desperately need assistance with housing, food, finances or legal services simply give up because they cannot navigate the process that was set up to help with these needs. In this way, our public systems are failing some of the most vulnerable among us, including some of the very people they are intended to help.
To address this gaping hole in our statewide safety net, the Language Access and Inclusion Act, championed by the Massachusetts Language for All Coalition, has been introduced in the Massachusetts legislature. The proposed law would require state agencies to translate vital documents and provide interpretation services, among other elements.
Many of us have wondered how to be a voice for people whose voices go unheard. Initiatives like this one go a step further, creating a clear path for people to be able to speak for themselves.
I think back to the words hanging in my colleague’s office, and that were once in Justice Ginsburg’s, and am inspired once again. Creating laws and policies grounded in equity, respect and dignity for all Massachusetts residents is just one of many ways to pursue justice and create real change. As we move into this new year, I invite you to join us in the collaborative work of building a world that is safe and equitable for all.
Many thanks to the Language Access for All Coalition for their leadership in this effort. We are also grateful to the staff at Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, for their leadership on this initiative and so many other efforts to affect meaningful and lasting change.
JF&CS Journey to Safety focuses our outreach and awareness-raising efforts on the Jewish and Russian-speaking communities and welcomes survivors from all backgrounds who are seeking support and assistance. For help, please call 781-647-5327 and ask for Journey to Safety or email [email protected] Note that support and assistance is available both to abuse survivors and to friends, family, clergy and other community members who are concerned about someone in their lives.
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