One in 7.4 Million and Counting: My Story in Access to Justice

July 2, 2024

In 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that over 7.4 million families lived below the poverty line in the United States, with projections calculated to be 11 million by 2024. My family was one of those 7.4 million my entire adolescent life. That experience is what makes access to justice so personal to me.

A week after my fourth birthday, my parents–then only 24–moved my older sister and I from our small town of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico to Orlando, Florida. More specifically, the smaller, poorer town of Kissimmee just on the outskirts of Orlando. It was a strange feeling to get glimpses of the shining “Most Magical Place on Earth” from the balcony of a crumbling apartment complex.

My parents had no college education and no professional work experience. They were kids raising kids. In Florida, we moved around constantly. Hopping from city to city, we never saw the end of a lease. Evictions and job losses and opportunities alike ensured we rarely unpacked more than three boxes. My parents took odd jobs to support us–jobs that often exploited their financial circumstances. Looking back, I think of the trendy, beachside restaurant that refused to fulfill my father’s contract when he had committed over 200 hours to them. Or for my mother, the very popular Florida theme park that fired her after she submitted a harassment claim. They knew my parents, and many of their employees, didn’t have the money for a legal battle. Our housing was even more precarious, with landlords refusing to fix dangerous living conditions or throwing us out without proper notice. 

These instances became the norm for my family and many families around us. While we tried to make the best of it, there were countless times legal aid would’ve been the difference between a roof over our heads or sleeping in our car. When I was accepted into American University in Washington, DC, I pursued a degree in Justice and Law. My childhood experiences fueled my desire to do right by those that were going through what my family had. I focused my academic research on the various ways our justice system is inaccessible to those in poverty. In my professional life, I focused on organizations that did impactful, measurable good for marginalized groups. My first formal introduction to access to justice work was through my internship at the Legal Services Corporation. I was exposed to people whose commitment to access to justice was deeply moving and inspiring. When I graduated, I pursued a position with A2J Tech, drawn in by their dedication and personal connections to access to justice. 

My childhood was not unique. I can still remember the feeling of helplessness and uncertainty that colored each new move and each new job my parents pursued. Those in poverty are dehumanized, forced into a constant cycle of “figuring it out” and enduring hardship. Access to justice is a vital part of changing the exploitative systems that rely on the lack of resources available to those subjugated by them. More importantly, it is incredibly empowering for people who have been stripped of their agency to have the opportunity to take some control over their circumstances. When you’re constantly in survival mode, having choices instills a much sought-after confidence. To me, access to justice is more than a tagline–it’s a way of life.

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