by Devon Capizzi
What do we think about when we think about public service? Maybe we picture volunteering at a foodbank or a homeless shelter. Maybe we donate our old books, our shoes, our jackets and winter hats. Maybe we spend a day with friends, co-workers, or fellow students to clean up a public space, sort through donations, or give a local elementary school a new paint job.
But what happens when the demand for service moves outside the boxes of material needs, and beyond the time constraint of a single day or afternoon? What happens when strengthening vulnerable communities involves less tangible methods of service?
MassLegalHelp, a PKG community partner, is very much reliant on the multiplicity of service. As an online legal resource for low income communities, “MassLegalHelp is about using technology to improve access to justice,” says Caroline Robinson, Co-Director of the MassLegalAid Websites Project and Editor of MassLegalHelp.org. Robinson, who has been doing this work since 2004, says the Websites Project is vital in work that is wide-reaching, diverse in nature, and, perhaps most importantly, incredibly high volume.
“Legal aid in Massachusetts turns away 65 percent of people who qualify, of those who are eligible for support,” Robinson says. The demand for low-income legal support greatly outweighs the resources available to meet that demand. “There just aren’t enough attorneys,” Robinson says. MassLegalHelp is combatting this disparity. “It’s supposed to help close the gap,” Robinson explains, “and also help people understand what the law is and what their rights are in complicated legal situations.” In cases where members of the community are forced to represent themselves in court, the site is a resource in empowering them to do so. But to be a viable resource, it needs to be both functional and secure.
The Websites Project is always looking to streamline its services, and this past year Robinson worked with MIT student Kendall Garner (‘21), a PKG work-study recipient. “I’m not a technology person,” Robinson admits. “I’m a content and editor type of person… and so I’m always interested in people’s ideas [and] Kendall has made himself indispensable.” Garner worked with the Websites Project to create an elaborate housing survey. Originally working on content entry and basic website updates, Garner eventually found a way to use classroom skills and knowledge to create an incredibly secure server for MassLegalHelp that is in use to this day.
Garner’s housing survey allows community members to answer identifying questions about their personal needs. “When you’re done,” Robinson explains, “you should know which of the three or four forms you should use, given that you don’t have a lawyer to represent your case.” Because even as these forms have been made available at MassLegalHelp.org, it is still a challenge for community members to determine which documents and resources will best equip them for their specific cases. In a sea of information, Garner’s survey imparts a lighthouse.
There are, of course, a multitude of tasks at hand to serve the underserved. “A big need is to have people here to help me post these forms,” Robinson says, explaining how demanding it can be to input information to the website even at the most basic level. MassLegalHelp renews their literature each year to ensure they are delivering both up-to-date and relevant information to community members. It’s a big task, Robinson says, but it’s also rewarding work. “It’s a really exciting environment to work in and be a part of… and you learn so much about these issues as you go through the information and post it.”
Looking forward, MassLegalHelp hopes to develop even more creative and engaging ways to reach and support the communities that have so frequently been deserted. Robinson would love to generate video content, expand Garner’s survey system to areas of work outside of housing, and, perhaps at the forefront, as the need for immigration rights information rises, Robinson would love this website to be more actively and functionally multilingual. Garner’s survey is an incredible asset for thinking about accessibility, and enabling accessibility through technology, but it is only one piece of the pie.
And so whether you volunteer your time to update public forms and DIY content, or you are looking to engage with public legal services in more complex and creative ways, MassLegalHelp is an incredible resource that requires a spectrum of public service workers.
The MIT community is one of innovation, creativity and real-world application. Connecting with community partners like MassLegalHelp is a rewarding way to put this spirit to work, to support disadvantaged community members, and to start seeing public service through a multitude of lenses.
To volunteer and get involved with MassLegalHelp, contact Caroline Robinson for more information.