Friday, October 31, 2008

Well-Meaning Pro Bono Programs ...

... are indeed well meant. Let's not deny that.

I signed up for the WSBA's Pro Bono and Legal Aid Committee (PBLAC) so I could be a contributor, not a complainer. Yesterday (Thursday Oct 30, 2008) was its new member orientation, followed by a regular meeting.

They are all well-meaning people, and I wish things went better. We met for two-and-a-half hours and did not mention a single measurable, meaningful target to be met within a defined time. That is to say, I saw no real plan. There *is* a huge plan; we had at least five pounds of dead-tree handouts in a 3-inch-wide binder. It defines a process that provides some helpful activities, no doubt, but by its very bulk and obscurity doesn't solve the problem of access to justice.
It's as if Boeing were to say, "We need a better jetliner. We've been making lots of progress toward it: we've made some parts, we had a rollout event, et cetera. But a date for it actually flying? Hey, look at that shiney thing over there!"
This problem is not unique to the law-and-justice community.

However, if a private enterprise screws up, no-one should be crying except the shareholders, and they knew the risks. But charitable matters are different; people with limited choices rely on them to be effectual, and this makes it doubly wrong when they're not.

I'm familiar with PBLAC and its cousin, the Access To Justice Board, from over a decade of hanging around the Washington State Law-And-Justice Community. I've been struck with how carefully they tiptoe around actually stating the problem in measurable terms, defining a plan to solve it, and reporting on progress toward completely meeting the goals.

Instead, there are factoids ("X% of Washington's low income residents have such-and-such a need") but never facts ("a specific number of persons or cases have such-and-such a need"). Why this is, I can't say because the volunteers are uniformly well-meaning and the paid staff are nice people. It is entirely possible that, when you do the math in your head, there's just no way to solve the problem with the tools at hand:
  • One million Washington State residents unable to purchase the services of an attorney
  • If each has one problem every five years, that's 200,000 problems per year
  • 20,000 licensed attorneys in Washington State might conceivably address civil legal issues
  • Each takes 10 pro bono cases a year
  • Problem solved!
It ain't gonna happen folks. And if we get hit with a Depression, it's doubly not gonna happen, as lawyers drop out of the profession, take minimum wage jobs, and default on the law school loans.

Now you can play with the numbers to get a more happy or less happy result. The point is, PBLAC and ATJ and the rest of the community don't run the numbers. They provide a lot of data, but not the really distressing information. Instead, they publicize the amount of work they do:
  • X hours donated
  • Y clients helped
  • Z expressions of gratitude from a forelock-tugging peasantry
Any project that reports effort expended instead of progress achieved toward completion is about expending effort, not solving the problem.

If that last point (and the "forelock-tugging" bullet) seems a little cynical, it's because I'm really tired of the Lady Bountiful model of legal aid. I was raised poor. Without foodstamps, I wouldn't have teeth and without welfare I have close family members who would be dead. Charity is important, but empowerment is more important.

Certainly I'm going to put in a lot of work on this committee, but holy cow!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

8 Ways To Check Up On Charities

You want to direct your charitable work and dollars into those that are effective. Sad to say, there are reports of fake charities; on the other hand, a charity with high administrative costs may just need your hands-on assistance to turn itself around. Do the research and help wisely.

read more | digg story

Monday, October 27, 2008

The 10 Most Outrageous Opening Lines in Literature other words, 10 books that you've got to read at least the first sentence of!
Top 10 List Courtesy of Michael Conor Sullivan
  1. THE METAMORPHOSIS by Franz Kafka
    "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."
  2. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS by Hunter S. Thompson
    "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . .' And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming, 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'"
  3. TRAINSPOTTING by Irvine Welsh
    "Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday night. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life . . . But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?"
    "They're out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them."
  5. ORLANDO by Virginia Woolf
    "He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters."
  6. NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    "I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man. An unattractive man, I think my liver hurts."
  7. INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison
    "I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me."
  8. 1984 by George Orwell
    "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
  9. NEUROMANCER by William Gibson
    "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
    "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."

read more | digg the list

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Early Voting Successful and Fun

Yesterday, a bunch of us living here in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood met at a coffee shop to talk over the issues, then walk to the county offices to cast our absentee ballots in person.

This freed us from the uncertainties and vagaries of election day. We all work, so Election Day is always a problem. Some of us take time off to be poll watchers or polling place inspectors, and usually that's some place other than our home precinct.

But throwing an absentee ballot into the mail is no fun; it lacks the drama, civic commitment or magic of assembling as citizens to cast a secret ballot.

No problem! We organized our own Early Voting Party and it worked great! We were open to all persons of any political preference, but we had several things in common, among them a love of coffee and a desire to make our votes count.

We had some fun, maybe made a few new friends, and decided to meet again to party, maybe do some politicking, maybe just have fun. You can too - why don't YOU try an Early Voting Party?

(A shout-out and a thank you! to the staff at the Centennial and the people at the Olympus who supported this nonpartisan effort - it's really cool to build community!)