“I’m really proud about the program,” Talia Rodriguez happily announces as she sits down at our Karibu headquarters. She tells me about the perks and exclusive services Say Yes Legal Clinic offers to families with children attending Buffalo Public Schools. We talked about “Language Line,” one of their unique services available to all of their clients. She lists off several languages the program has aided. “We can serve anyone in any language as long as they have children in the BPS.”
Rodriguez is a Buffalo native and one of five children. Her mother is from Buffalo and her father is from New York City. Proud of her Latina heritage, she tells me about how coming from a different culture and working hard to find the resources they have has influenced her professional style, by creating a personal relationship with all of her clients.
Karibu News had the chance to talk to Rodriguez about Say Yes Legal Clinic, the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) and her past growing up in the West side.
I coordinate Say Yes Legal Clinics. I bring attorneys from our six law firm partners into five Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) so the students and families can meet with them and ask them basic civil legal questions.
Say Yes has other legal clinics; they started in Syracuse and they also have a clinic in Harlem, NY. They ran the clinic for six months before I came on board. Upon graduating from Law School, I applied and got the job. I have a J.D. from SUNY Buffalo Law School, and a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from SUNY Empire State, and a Political Science degree from St. John Fisher College.
The West side has always been this place where, as a newcomer you settle and find resources. I love being able to tell my BPS students my family story and why I am motivated to serve. When I was growing up in the West side I never saw a Latina in a suit. I never met a Puerto Rican attorney until I interned in Washington D.C. and the first Puerto Rican attorney I met was Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.Part of what I wanted to do was be in the BPS to be a living example to people that you can come to poverty and access education and be blessed to come back into your community with a success story. My grandmother is someone who inspired me tremendously. She’s from rural Puerto Rico and later moved to NYC. She marched with Rev Dr.Martin Luther King Jr during his March on Washington in 1963.
It has had a tremendous impact; I imagine it is such a tremendous relief for the BPS staff, the Say Yes specialist and anyone in the building. Often times, BPS parents or students ask questions with legal undertones. Staff members can link them to attorneys who can answer those questions. It’s a free, walk in clinic, and there are no appointments needed, which frees up a lot of worries. I’ve seen a huge impact on my clients. I’ve had people come in who are fighting eviction and we were able to mediate issues with their landlord; this was especially important to me as we were reaching the holiday season. Additionally, we’ve had folks with tax problems who we refer to our low income tax clinic. We have people facing all sorts of issues, and we can help them with that.
Say Yes is a privately funded nation-wide initiative. Buffalo Public was a district Say Yes wanted to work with, and it has had a huge impact. They have a scholarship program where if you are eligible you can have assistance in filling out FASFA and communicating with colleges. There is a wealth of services they provide to families and students. It is one of the most exciting projects I have ever been a part of.
Say Yes is committed to helping students through a lot of avenues. They have mental health clinics, a summer camp program – they are really trying to touch many avenues where public policy, programming and the BPS intersect.
In terms of their relationship with the VLP, Say Yes wanted to tap a community partner that had experience working with pro bono attorneys. It’s been a fantastic partnership. Say Yes also has specialist in the schools, so we are available to them if they have questions as well. I think VLP works so well with Say Yes because VLP is fantastic at collaborative initiatives. Several of their other projects involve governmental agencies, community partners, and working directly with constituents and citizens. VLP has that experience and they are the largest legal services program focusing on attorney volunteers.
I’m ethnically Latino and I speak Spanish. A lot of my clients are really thrilled when they find someone who speaks their language. We have a multilingual staff at VLP; some people speak Portuguese, French, and other languages. More than anything, I think they want to talk to someone who they feel they can trust. I am from the low income community, so I have experience with Section 8 and SNAP. When they have an issue, I understand how it works and how it will impact the legal advice the attorney will give them. I have a very personal style of leadership. I follow up with all of my clients, and I call them personally at the end of our session to thank them. I think they are happy to make a friend who they feel can help them.
A lot of the people who work with Say Yes are lifelong buffalo residents who have a wealth of experience working in the community.. They know how to navigate available programs. In terms of me for the legal community, it is definitely special. When I graduated, I was the only Latina from the city to graduate from SUNY Buffalo, and there were over 200 graduates. Growing up biracial in a diverse city like Buffalo, has positively influenced the way I work with my clients.
VLP has a multitude of programs; we have a low income tax clinic for individuals who are struggling with federal taxes. We also have a program for HIV positive families. Individuals who are HIV positive, and their family members, can access full legal services which is exclusive to them. We have an immigration program that works with individuals who may have been human trafficked or labor trafficked. Some of the lawyers at VLP go to the the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility at Batavia New York. and provide “Know Your Rights” sessions in Spanish. We have the family court help desk which is similar to my program but it is inside family court. People can access information about family court issues like custody and child support. We do unemployment benefit insurance hearings and we have the CRLS Project. I’m so proud of the work that my colleagues and I do. It special that we have volunteers donating their time and skills to help others. K