Reclaiming Our Clients’ Power: Serving Hearts, Serving Communities

Monika Kalra Varma

LCCR executive director Monika Kalra Varma gave the following remarks at the annual ELAP Breakfast for Justice in Bellevue, Washington on May 22, 2019.

Congratulations to the Eastside Legal Assistance Program for 30 years of serving this community.

Jerry and Alex asked me to share a bit about my international work and how it might apply to what’s happening in our country right now. I have had the incredible honor of working with communities in different parts of the world. They have taught me more lessons than I can count – this morning I’m going to share two of them.

The first is to serve your heart.

For nearly a decade, I worked on human rights for Haiti. I was serving as the Director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and our partners there included Zanmi Lasante or Partners in Health. On my first visit to Haiti, I met Isaac. Isaac was 10 years old. He was literally all bones. He was too sick to hold up his head but he held my hand. The doctors called him an IDB kid, named after the Inter-American Development Bank which had withheld clean water loans to Haiti. Isaac had typhoid from drinking contaminated water. He died a few days after we met him.

For the next several years I – and an army of lawyers, law students and community partners in Haiti –  fought to release those loans.  We served the far too many people who were dying of preventable diseases.  And we served the belief that everyone has a right to water. But, the lesson that Isaac taught me –  was to serve my own heart too — the heart which I had placed in Isaac’s hands the moment I met him.

The second lesson was to believe in, and support, the power and dignity of my clients.

Many years ago, at the UN War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, I served on the team prosecuting a Serbian General who was in charge of the Siege of Sarajevo. There, I met Fatima. Fatima was a pediatric nurse during the siege. She ran to the hospital under sniper fire each day – under such threat that the heat from a bullet literally singed off her hair on her way to work one day.

Fatima came to the Tribunal to testify, but she was afraid to sit in the courtroom with General Galić. She didn’t want anyone to see her face or hear her voice so she asked for protective measures, to distort her face and voice. I did not try to make her feel better- I did not tell her not to worry. I knew she was not in danger but I did not try to convince her to remove the protective measures.

Instead we spent days preparing. She told me the stories of the children she took care of. She brought in crumpled crayon drawings that her patients had made for her. We cried together. As I sat with her, I saw her power. I was in awe of her power. And it was her own strength that helped her decide, at the very last minute, as she was walking into the courtroom –  to remove her protective measures.

And instead of fearing General Galić she looked him directly in the eye and stared him down when she testified. She testified about a day when his troops had mortared a playground where children were playing. And then targeted the hospital when the wounded children arrived there. In her words:  “[The children] were so frightened, covered in blood, mud, dismembered. Their parents would be crying. The staff would be crying. The walls would start crying.”

She was speaking directly to General Galić – and he – for the only time in the trial, put his head in his hands and showed a flash of emotion. And in that same moment she reclaimed her power.

Believe in the power of your clients. Support them in claiming it.

Many of our clients come to us at moments in their lives when someone has tried to take that power or their dignity. In those moments, it may be hidden even from themselves. Serving is not charity for those less fortunate than we are. Service is supporting someone in harnessing their own power. Along the way, we may find that we are also serving our own hearts.

These lessons apply beyond the individual client. At the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, we have seen the power of the communities we work with for over 50 years. We bring our legal tools to address entrenched problems of racism and discrimination. The communities we work with guide us to dismantle systems that strip away power.

In Oakland, California – the Housing Authority has its own police department. They have stopped some of our clients – primarily African American men – 60 and 70 times for “loitering.” They were stopped for loitering when they are sitting in front of their homes, visiting friends and even gathering for funerals. We filed a lawsuit in the fall of 2018 and within 6 weeks, the city repealed the loitering ordinance that has been on the books for 35 years.

But we are not stopping here. The next step is to shut down the Housing Authority’s police department – and we hope that other jurisdictions across our country will follow this example.

Our clients – whose power and dignity have been under attack for years – have a clear vision of what a safe and supportive community looks like for their families. And they know how best to achieve it. They guide this process. The communities we serve help us understand what is truly broken within the systems that have tried to take that power away.

The Lawyers’ Committee has done asylum work for decades. Many of our clients were processed through Border Patrol facilities in Arizona. They told us they were held in hieleras or “iceboxes,” forced to sleep on concrete floors without proper blankets, deprived of clean water. They sounded the alarm about the lack of medical care. Their conditions are far too similar to the ones that have led to deaths of 5 children because of border patrol custody. Armed with firsthand knowledge, we brought suit against the federal government —and won a preliminary injunction to improve some of these conditions. We are now preparing for trial.

Serve your heart. Believe in and support the clients and communities you serve.

When we look at what is happening in our country right now, it can be paralyzing. Our criminal justice system is broken. We have systems upon systems of laws and policies that discriminate against and destroy opportunities for people of color. And when we add to that a rise in white supremacy and the daily dehumanizing of immigrants and people of color, it is almost too much to breathe in.

But if we ground ourselves in serving our own hearts – we will know where we are called to serve. And when we believe in and support the power and dignity of our clients we will find the path forward.

I am not going to say this is easy.  It is often incredibly difficult.  There have been a few times in my career when I had severe vicarious trauma. I had regular panic and anxiety attacks and could not sleep. In those moments, serving my heart meant stepping away from this work. And there are times now, sometimes weekly, when I get overwhelmed by the fear and hatred that is attacking our communities. I am scared for our country.

But the spirit and power of our clients bring me back. They support me. Their power strengthens my own. And when we walk together – supporting each other, we begin to create.

Together, we have the power to not only fix the parts of our country that have always been broken, but the power to reimagine and create different communities. Communities where we learn from one another, where our justice system is more fair and equitable – and accessible to all, where our democracy ensures that each person’s strength and power is not only protected, but celebrated. Communities where people serve their own hearts by supporting the power in others.

Today, I do not serve my own heart. I serve the hearts of my three children. I do not serve the world as it is, but the one I want to raise my children in. I serve the community – that doesn’t fully exist yet – where we honor the power and dignity of each individual.

Let us all serve our hearts. Let us all believe in and support the power of our communities, this country, and the individuals who serve it.