Taking Civil Legal Programming to the People
While many libraries have had to limit in-person services during the pandemic, the importance and demand for civil legal information related to unemployment or eviction continues to be a pressing concern. A national moratorium on evictions is expected to be lifted this summer, and attorneys representing both landlords and tenants anticipate an avalanche of eviction cases. According to the American Bar Association, the backlog of cases may take a year to clear. The pandemic got Jenny Garmon, Legal and Government Information Specialist at Kansas City Public Library, thinking about different ways to bring the library’s successful Lawyers in the Library program to patrons while in-person programming at the library was unavailable. Inspired by Baltimore County Public Library’s innovative work, Garmon searched for a community partner who could safely host a legal aid clinic that was accessible and welcoming for patrons.
Garmon’s deputy director shared the idea with someone at the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, who thought the program met their motto of “neighbors working together to build a strong community.” They invited Garmon to present her idea to the group and Linda Williams, Executive Director at Kansas City’s Melting Pot Theatre, stepped up to volunteer. Williams understood the community’s need for affordable and accessible legal information, and offered the theatre’s space to host legal clinics. They worked out a mutually agreed upon arrangement such that attorneys with Legal Aid of Western Missouri would staff the clinic on the fourth Thursday of each month from 12:00-1:30 pm. The library developed a flyer (pdf) which was reviewed by Legal Aid, the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, and the library’s Public Affairs team. The library frequently posts the flyer on social media and Garmon shares it with Jackson County’s Community Resource Coalition in emails, helping to promote the opportunity for obtaining free legal information from an attorney at one of the legal aid clinics.
Library staff arrive in the bookmobile, which is then parked outside the theatre, offering a visual cue that the library is in the neighborhood. While patrons aren’t able to use the bookmobile at this time, library staff are able to explain the legal clinic and to direct folks to contact the Legal Aid office to set up an appointment if they are interested. Garmon noted that the bookmobile is a visible reminder that the library is committed their community.
The clinic attorneys can see up to nine patrons for 30 minutes each. To schedule an appointment, interested patrons call the Legal Aid office and answer a few screening questions to make sure there are no conflicts of interest and that the patron meets the eligibility requirements. The library provides staff for the legal clinics, to take temperatures, give out books, provide a printer, and hand out literature from the bar association, such as information about the Constitution and how laws are made.
Garmon shared her favorite patron feedback from the first day: “Thank you. You have no idea what I’ve been through and today I feel so much better. I know what to do.” Garmon is thrilled to have found a space and an engaged community partner to host the legal clinic; they plan to continue at the theatre as long as patrons continue to sign up!
While the library hasn’t determined when in-person services will resume, Garmon is hopeful that they will be able to continue this program into the future. The collaborative and impactful partnership is a true testament to the power and strength of a community pulling together. For library staff interested in beginning a partnership like this, Garmon suggests continuing to be a presence in the community; show up, listen, build relationships. “Keep persevering. You don’t know who your next partner might be.”