Katie Kersh has years of experience working with the immigrant community in Dayton as an attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE). When she became project director of a new community lawyering initiative at ABLE in 2019, it was the perfect opportunity to marry her legal experience with a new approach to building social change.

“I was drawn to community lawyering work because I saw it as a way to help communities identify and address their problems,” Kersh said. “Pursuing the community lawyer model became the next step in supporting clients in their advocacy.”

Kersh had a chance to test the model in early 2020, when Latino leaders in the Twin Towers neighborhood started meeting to discuss concerns about access to COVID services and resources. Kersh, a part of the meetings from the start, was ready to listen when the Latino leaders came up with the idea to create a new advocacy group, Latinos Unidos, that would work to reduce poverty and promote civil rights. Kersh used her legal skills to help the group incorporate and draft bylaws, setting them up for success.

From 2017 to today, the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation has granted more than $11 million in community economic development funding for Ohio’s legal aid organizations through its Neighborhood Stabilization grant program, funding that has allowed legal aids to design projects, outputs, and goals that align with community needs. The grants support projects like Kersh’s, as well as community initiatives that increase access to fresh and healthy food, develop solar energy to build Black wealth, and provide legal support to minority-owned small businesses, among many others.

“This funding has been transformational in that it uses civil legal services to support neighborhoods and community groups in achieving their goals,” said Foundation Executive Director Angie Lloyd.

With the proper legal structures in place and support from Kersh, Latinos Unidos has continued to meet regularly, building its capacity to advocate for its community. When Latinos Unidos became aware of a new Dayton police pilot program in the Twin Towers neighborhood, Latino leaders worked with Kersh and ABLE to ensure city and police leaders heard their perspectives.

“It was a very cool process,” Kersh said. “The Latino community from the east side of Dayton came together with other organizations from the west side of Dayton who have mostly African American constituencies to advocate around the need for community input and transparent processes in the use of surveillance technology.”

While this work is ongoing, Kersh and ABLE will continue to support Latinos Unidos in other areas. The group has identified a need for affordable housing for the Latino community, which Kersh will support with transactional legal services.

Kersh is a champion of community lawyering and encourages other attorneys to incorporate it into their practices. She recently authored a paper with ABLE attorney Matthew Currie for the UIC Law Review that prompted much interest from the legal community.

“Community lawyering is much easier to incorporate than people think,” Kersh said. “If a lawyer is interested in it, they probably have the drive and the connections to incorporate it in their practice immediately.”

If there’s any hesitation, Kersh encourages others to start with the basics.

“You can always have the community inform your advocacy by being present and listening,” she said.

The Ohio Access to Justice Foundation is the largest funder of civil legal services in Ohio. A gift to the Foundation supports community economic development and Ohio’s legal aids.