Sonoma Collaboration to Increase Access to Legal Services

Posted on April 8, 2019

OneJustice volunteers getting ready to participate in a workshop hosted by McDowell Family Resource Center, International Institute of the Bay Area and OneJustice.

The collaborative work of three grantee partners, McDowell Family Resource Center (FRC), International Institute of the Bay Area (IIBA), and OneJustice to increase access to legal services for immigrants in the Petaluma area exemplifies the power and impact of partnership.

Sonoma County is semi-rural and has poor public transportation making it difficult for residents living on the periphery to access key services which are located in the county seat. Immigrants in Petaluma, for example, have had to endure long wait times and multiple buses to obtain legal services in Santa Rosa. The demand for affordable, reliable legal services is high, but with few immigrant legal services providers in the county, one-on-one consultations and assistance with an immigration attorney have not been feasible. Organizations in other regions have tackled this issue by coming together to host legal clinics and workshops that utilize volunteers and pro bono attorneys. However, there weren’t any non-profit immigrant legal service agencies located in Petaluma and the local immigrant serving organizations did not have the staff capacity or the experience to offer workshops and clinics. Recognizing this issue and seeing the need to extend services to the southern part of the county, ZFF worked with local providers to develop a partnership to strategically address the challenges of isolated geographies and immigrant legal services.

The McDowell Family Resource Center has deep relationships with immigrant families and the Petaluma school district. Yet, the FRC did not have the legal expertise, experience, or staff capacity needed to plan workshops and recruit and train volunteers. With IIBA’s newly opened office in Sonoma County and OneJustice’s extensive experience in recruiting and engaging volunteers and pro bono attorneys to support immigration needs in rural and semi-rural communities, a partnership emerged. Three years into the collaboration, each organization has a critical role to ensuring the smooth execution and success of legal workshops:

  • The FRC reaches out to immigrant families through their networks to inform community members about upcoming opportunities for legal services consultations and assistance. The FRC is trusted by community members so immigrants, even if they are fearful, are more likely to attend to seek help.
  • OneJustice has relationships with law firms and law schools in the region and uses these connections to recruit volunteers and pro-bono attorneys, and works with IIBA to train workshop volunteers.
  • IIBA provides the legal oversight and follows up with individuals who need more assistance.

In the beginning, the collaborative encountered some challenges.  The three organizations had not previously worked together, and while their missions were generally aligned, they had different strategies and at times competing priorities.  For the partnership to succeed, they had to be in agreement about roles, responsibilities, work styles, and expectations. The partners committed to meet regularly to plan workshops, discuss outreach strategies, and develop shared outcomes, and the hard work has paid off. Through their efforts, the collaborative offered four immigration workshops in Petaluma last year that helped 89 people naturalize, apply for deferred action, and/or receive general immigration consultation and assistance. As more workshops are hosted, more volunteers will be engaged and partnerships with local community-based organizations strengthened, increasing the capacity of immigrant serving organizations to address the needs of immigrants in Sonoma County. ZFF is proud to be a part of this partnership and strives to foster and leverage connections between partners working towards a common goal.