In a time of furloughs, layoffs and business closings, ArchCity Defenders is growing the organization’s increasingly diverse team of lawyers, organizers and social workers.
The firm has brought on 10 staff members in 2020 — including six Black and two gender nonbinary people — bringing their fulltime staff to 32 employees. These additions have also helped maintain the diversity of ACD’s staff. Half are Black or people of color and more than half are women or gender nonbinary.
ArchCity Defenders represents clients in criminal cases and brings civil rights lawsuits that challenge abuses of the criminal legal system.
Kimyatta Smith joined the agency in October as the organization’s social work program manager. She said staff diversity is critical for ACD to best serve its clients.
“I think that as we prepare to serve clients, having people from different backgrounds, different walks of life, different experiences, adds to the way that we build out the programs and build out services, because you have a different spectrum of ideas ...,” she said.
“I think when it comes to that direct service component, clients can find people they can identify with and I definitely think that improves people’s experiences when they come to our organization.”
Smith said her three-person department is building a pilot program that will formalize the social work the agency has provided for the last 10 years. Those efforts include addressing clients’ basic needs such as housing, transportation, paying for utilities and food.
She also wants to be able help clients to recognize their own strengths and needs, whether it's someone who wants to do community organizing, go back to school or learn how to drive a car.
Madison Orozco, ACD's community collaborations associate, said her goal is to establish a St. Louis that cares for people while actively fighting and dismantling oppressive systems and institutions.
Diversity: Good for clients, good for staff
She agreed with Smith that it’s important for the staff to reflect the diverse identities of the clients. But the diversity is equally important for staff members, too, Orozco said.
“When I started at ArchCity, I had never really worked in an organizing space that had minority leadership, that had black leadership, that had a lot of people who were impacted and involved in the work,” she said.
“… I've been at places that may have some diversity in the staff, but you need to make sure it goes a step further so those people aren’t just there to make it look good, those people are there to be an intentional part of the work you're doing.”
According to the National Association for Law Placement’s 2019 analysis, representation of associates of color has continued to increase since 2010 from 19.53% to 25.44%. Representation of women has increased by 1.1% since 2009 (46.77% from 45.66%).
Statistics on non-lawyer staff at firms were not readily available.
Another new staffer, Joe Holt, became director of development in October. His background is full of nonprofit and union work. Most recently, he worked as the regional chief development officer at the Missouri-Arkansans Red Cross.
Holt, who is biracial, said he has experienced various work situations, from being the only person of color as a ranger for Missouri State Parks in 2003 to working with labor unions full of diversity.
And I'm not just saying that because I work here — I was just talking to folks about how it felt very comforting to be in an organization that really welcomes everybody. Where everybody's sort of coming to the same area because they want to make a difference.”
With the increased interest in civil rights issues this year, in part due to the deaths of people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, ArchCity’s work is in the spotlight more now than ever.
“I know I always had an affinity towards a lot of the work and the milestones that happened during the civil rights era,” staff attorney Katrina Hudson said. “I didn't realize that during my lifetime there would be something kind of similar going on in terms of what we're seeing now, with the Black Lives Matter movement and things like that.”
Hudson joined in July. She’s assigned to ACD’s special projects division, which focuses on impact litigation throughout Missouri, in an effort to expand the areas where ACD works.
Moving toward justice
“One of my favorite quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. is, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’
“... for me, it's just about finding my place in the movement and being on the front lines of this pivotal moment in our history and just pushing that arc a little bit further toward justice.”