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TZEDEK DC: Legal Help for People in Debt

by Emily Simmons, Washington Council of Lawyers board member

Tzedek LogoTzedek DC is a relatively new organization, but its mission draws on a very old Jewish teaching: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” meaning “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” While Tzedek DC only opened its doors in February 2017, volunteers had already spent two years interviewing DC residents about the barriers to economic and social stability. They found that debt collection issues, including lawsuits and impaired credit, were major hurdles for an overwhelming number of residents, especially in Wards 7 & 8.  Founder Ariel Levinson-Waldman explains that debt-related crises — and the fact that income debt collection lawsuits are filed disproportionately against African-American and Latinx households — contribute to the deep stratification of wealth along racial lines in DC. He notes that, according to the Urban Institute, white households in DC have a net worth 81 times greater than Black households.

Tzedek DC seeks to help change these trends by addressing debt issues through a civil rights lens and by engaging in three strategies to increase access to assistance navigating financial problems. First, the organization provides free legal assistance to residents across the District, with a focus on the community East of the River. These services focus on two areas: debt collection cases in court and improving credit and credit reports.  Thus far, Tzedek DC has served over 800 families in these efforts. The organization also provides guidance on where to go for individuals on the verge of being sued or who have already been issued default judgments.  Second, in partnership with key community organizations, Tzedek DC engages in outreach and education to empower residents, including a focus on immigrant community members who may be deterred from defending themselves in civil debt cases due to their lack of legal immigration status. Tzedek DC engages partners and preexisting programs that already have relationships with community members to increase impact.  Finally, Tzedek DC advocates for policy and systemic reform, including arguing against harsh penalties for incurring government debt.

To achieve all of their goals with a small staff, the organization has trained over 75 volunteer lawyers. They have also started an Emerging Leaders Committee, co-chaired by Leah Schloss, Senior Associate at WilmerHale, and Professor Matthew Bruckner of Howard Law, to connect newer lawyers and other DC professionals who are interested in getting involved.  Tzedek DC is headquartered at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, where law students regularly volunteer or intern with the organization.  To learn more or to volunteer, visit https://www.tzedekdc.org/.