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The Avodah Blog

Centering Clients in Justice Work: Q&A with Corps Member Nina McKay

Nina McKay is one of our 2021-2022 DC Service Corps Members. She grew up just outside of Philadelphia and recently graduated from Bowdoin College with a degree in history and religious studies. We spoke with her about her service year so far: 

How did you hear about Avodah?

I started hearing about Avodah during my first year in college. My older sister had a close friend who was doing the Service Corps and I also had a friend who was about to become a Corps Member, too. As I continued through college, it felt like there was always a person around who had a connection with Avodah, and they were always someone whose commitment to social justice and thoughtfulness I admired. I felt like if those were the types of people who participated, it must be an interesting program.

What was the application and matching process like?

When I applied, I left my location preferences open between DC and New York. My family has a lot of connections to New York City, and I had only been to DC a couple of times. I felt like trying something new and was interested in exploring DC. I interviewed with Naomi (Avodah’s DC Program Director) and left it up to the process, which is a decision I still feel really good about. 

I was selected for DC and got really excited when I learned about Bread for the City. When it comes to legal services work, it’s a pretty common thing in the field for the organization to have to say, “All we can do is legal services, you’ll have to go somewhere else for your other needs.” I was excited to see an organization that doesn’t operate that way. Bread for the City provides a lot of services, including its own food bank and health clinic.

What is your role at Bread for the City?

I am a Legal Clinic Coordinator, along with another Corps Member, Eden. There are two main components of the job: legal on-call and public benefits work.

If folks want to get help from the legal team, the main thing they’ll do is call the on-call line. Eden or I will answer the phone, ask them what’s going on, and figure out if it’s something we may be able to schedule an intake for. Often, people are calling about issues that fall outside of our practice areas, and we try to give those callers information or contact details for other organizations. Sometimes, depending on the issues the person is calling about, we may not have any resources to share, which is really difficult. That was a hard lesson I learned in the first few weeks. That being said, I am amazed all the time at the work that the lawyers put in to help who they can. They make a big impact.  

For the public benefits work, we work with clients who are experiencing problems with their Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or Alliance benefits (Alliance is a DC-specific health insurance program for folks whose immigration status makes them ineligible for Medicaid). The public benefits work is still relatively new, because we spent the first several weeks of our service year getting familiar with the on-call line, but I really enjoy it. I like speaking with the clients, building relationships with them, and reaching out to government agencies on their behalf to try to take some of the burden off of them when problems arise. I’m generally working with four clients at a time.

What sort of issues do you help tackle as part of your service work?

Bread for the City is an anti-poverty, anti-racism organization. The legal team works on matters under the umbrellas of housing, family, and public benefits issues, as well as limited problems related to immigration and identification documents. Because Bread for the City is only able to serve folks with incomes at or under 250% of the federal poverty guideline, these issues nearly always have some connection to living with limited resources and facing the barriers associated with that. The most common calls for the legal team are probably those that have to do with family and housing law, but sometimes folks call with issues  the social services team is sometimes able to assist with, such as a mental health challenge or figuring out how to get connected to a caseworker. 

How has this work affected your mindset about justice work?

It’s increased my awareness of different systems of oppression — and how our “regular” systems can act as systems of oppression. This experience is definitely really complex for me personally. Many of the clients I talk with have been in DC for a long time and are dealing with poverty often connected to gentrification and displacement in DC. As a young person with a lot of different kinds of privilege, it’s really important to be aware of how gentrification is impacting the folks who have been here for many years, or generations, and of the role I play in that. That’s a really hard and complicated part of it, but it’s also really important to be aware of. 

Professionally, I am really interested in going into legal work in the future, and I’m in the process of applying to law school right now. Even though I was going into the Service Corps with some legal work experience from summer internships, it’s nice to confirm that I really do like the work. I like hearing the team talk about policy and how it’s affecting strategy. I enjoy getting to be in conversations with community members and doing what I can to take the burden off them as they navigate systems that can be really harmful.

What has it been like to live communally?

Nina with several of her fellow DC Corps Members.

We have a really great group in DC! We started out the year with all 17 of us living in the same house, but even when we split up into the two houses, we decided to keep functioning as a bigger group. The people I live with feel like good friends at this point, and I’m really grateful for that aspect of the program. 

We do all weeknight dinners communally. We have a pretty elaborate system, where we cook in groups assigned by whoever has agreed to coordinate meals that month. It’s such a process to cook for 17 people, but when we’re all squashed around the table, it’s really nice.

It’s really important to have people in your life who understand the toll justice work can take and be able to push you past thinking about yourself. We have to be able to keep going and be present so we’re in a good state of mind to work with the next community member calls to access services. My housemates are great at validating when one of us has had a hard day or a hard conversation, but they’re also really committed to not letting us get caught up in thinking about ourselves when we have those hard interactions with clients.

What advice would you give to 2022-2023 Service Corps applicants?

Come as open and trusting as you can. It’s kind of a scary experience to come into a community this large. You may have to compromise on some things you once thought of as needs, but just as you’re committed to meeting the needs of your group, they’re committed to helping you meet your needs, too. It’s really great to have the chance to meaningfully support other folks and have them support you. There’s something really powerful about having conversations like, “Different people here have different Kashrut needs, so we’re all going to live according to those.” I feel very seen and cared for, even though I had to go through an adjustment period. 

 

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