MLRI’s Race Equity Project was created to identify issues impacting the state’s burgeoning communities of color, devise effective strategies to diminish systemic barriers, and promote equal rights and equal opportunities. Census data reveal that 1 in 3 Latinos, 1 in 5 African Americans, and 1 in 6 Asian Americans live in poverty, compared to 1 in 15 whites. Over the past 8 years, following a comprehensive examination of the critical legal issues facing low-income communities of color, MLRI's Race Equity advocacy has focused primarily on 3 areas of concentration: education, employment and the collateral civil consequences of criminal records. In 2008, the unit led a scholarly examination of the spatial concentration of poverty and is poised to pursue a place-based advocacy approach.
Education Advocacy to Close the Racial Achievement Gap:
For nearly eight years, MLRI has worked with a grassroots group in Southbridge, Massachusetts--a low income community with a high Latino population and poor education outcomes--to build its capacity to address racial achievement gaps in education. Our technical support helped to develop the group from a fledging entity to an established 501(c)(3) organization—ASPIRA of MA—funded by Community Development Block Grant to provide SAT tutoring, MCAS remediation, college preparatory, mentoring and youth leadership development programs.
Having acquired expertise working with high and middle school students and learning that the achievement gap manifests much earlier for low-income children and that more than 20,000 three and four year olds do not have access to formal early education, MLRI now seeks to expand its education advocacy to lower grades particularly pre-kindergarten (“pre-K”). We are reaching out to colleagues in states where universal pre-K has been attained, either through litigation or legislative reform, to glean best practices and to develop a strategy, in collaboration with other organizations, to reform the state's universal early education statute to mandate access to pre-K for 4 year olds in Massachusetts.
Redressing Credit History Discrimination that Creates Barriers to Employment:
Having successfully brought class-action litigation as well as pursued reforms of the state’s criminal offender record information system, which previously excluded rehabilitated people with criminal histories, disproportionately racial minorities, from jobs, housing and other mainstream-living opportunities, MLRI has turned to the problem of credit history, which (like CORI) is also used to deny otherwise qualified applicants employment. We have reached out to the National Consumer Law Center, the Volunteer Lawyers Project and others to discuss prevalence of credit history discrimination and strategize on advocacy blueprint. In addition, we will reach out to community based organizations, particularly in minority communities, to gather client stories, discern pervasiveness of problem and enlist support.
Transforming Low-Opportunity Neighborhoods through Targeted Advocacy & Cross-Sector Collaborations:
In 2008, with support from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), MLRI led a statewide examination of the spatial and structural barriers impeding access to opportunity for low-income communities resulting in a publication, The Geography of Opportunity: Building Communities of Opportunity in Massachusetts, (2009), co-produced with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.
The report revealed, for example, that 95 percent of low-income Latinos, 93 percent of poor African Americans, 71 percent of poor Asian Americans and 43 percent of low-income whites live in low and very low-opportunity communities—meaning, communities typically characterized by failing schools, inadequate or poor quality housing, prevalence of poor health outcomes, high unemployment and high poverty.
Based on these findings, MLRI is currently exploring the creation of a multi-sector, cross-substantive place-based project targeting a low opportunity neighborhood, possibly in one of the state's Gateway Cities, with the goal of strategically targeting resources and creating cross-sector community partnerships to improve conditions and expand opportunities in distressed neighborhoods.
MLRI Success Story - Comprehensive CORI Reform:
MLRI led, in collaboration with its community-based partners, a successful seven-year advocacy campaign resulting in Governor Patrick signing into law, Chapter 256 of the Acts of 2010, dramatically reforming the state’s criminal offender record information (CORI) system. While passage of this legislation has helped eliminate a significant barrier to employment, job training opportunities, and housing for all racial and ethnic groups, it is particularly important for minority populations. Key components of the law include:
- Requiring that applicants for employment be judged on their job related credentials prior to conducting a criminal background check, preventing the immediate dismissal of qualified applicants who may be listed in the state’s CORI system.
- Limiting the length of time in which criminal records are open to the public (10 years for a felony; 5 years for a misdemeanor, except for convictions of manslaughter or sexual misconduct), thus preventing youthful indiscretion or stale records from limiting the opportunity to secure employment, housing or job training.
- Allowing applicants to contest the accuracy of records by requiring employers to provide a copy of any record obtained which results in an adverse decision, a critical aspect of the reformed law given that the system is prone to inaccurate information.
MLRI’s success has inspired advocates across the country, many of whom rely on MLRI as a resource, to seek similar reforms in their own states.