The Scoop: The Urban Justice Center (UJC) has spent over 30 years giving a voice to the voiceless and empowering the powerless to change their lives. This compassionate nonprofit runs 12 projects that support impoverished, oppressed, and abused New York City residents by using a combination of direct legal services, community education, and advocacy work. The UJC’s Domestic Violence Project (DVP) provides niche resources to help survivors of intimate partner violence find a way forward for themselves and their families.
In 1984, an attorney named Douglas Lasdon received a $25,000 grant from the New York Community Trust to form the Legal Action Center for the Homeless. Its stated mission was to provide legal services for New York City’s homeless population. Douglas set up his office in a dilapidated building in East Harlem and began reaching out to this underprivileged community.
He worked alongside Emmaus House, a local homeless shelter, to develop impactful solutions and educational programs that would empower individuals to get back on their feet.
Douglas became a dedicated advocate for the homeless, and he gradually expanded his nonprofit, now known as the Urban Justice Center, to include other projects that assist oppressed, deprived, and abused New York City residents overcome obstacles in the pursuit of happiness. Today, the UJC runs 12 projects that serve a diverse range of clients, including sex workers, domestic violence survivors, veterans, immigrants, street vendors, and the homeless.
Over the years, the Urban Justice Center has raised awareness about human rights issues and championed some of New York City’s most vulnerable residents. Its progressive mission has attracted and inspired hundreds of professionals pursuing careers in the law, advocacy work, or policy making. In fact, after graduating law school, Senator Cory Booker’s first job was as a UJC staff attorney before he entered public office.
Whether it’s providing mental health education or representing domestic violence survivors in court, the UJC puts the needs of the vulnerable first and upholds their rights by giving them access to affordable legal and social services.
“We provide a supportive, friendly community for dynamic advocates to fuel social change,” Douglas said. “We don’t always stop to appreciate it, but we’re really doing a lot of good work helping people change their lives.”
Hardworking Attorneys Have Closed Over 9,600 Cases
The Urban Justice Center is powered by a committed team of attorneys and civil liberties advocates. The nonprofit helps vulnerable individuals navigate legal issues, and it also pushes for overarching reforms in public policy. This is difficult work, and it takes a great deal of collaboration and trust to make progress.
Today, the Urban Justice Center has over 200 staff members, and it has closed over 9,600 cases and helped over 15,800 people. Part of the secret to this success is the leadership team’s willingness to see staff members start a project and run with it. The nonprofit provides an organizational framework for legal services, but it gives directors the autonomy to hire their own staff, choose their methods, set goals, raise funds, and handle day-to-day issues in their own way.
UJC Associate Director Madeline Garcia Bigelow came on board in 2003 because she saw an opportunity to make a difference by helping survivors of intimate partner violence get the support they need.
Madeline started as a prosecutor in the South Bronx where she focused on prosecuting abusers and working with domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors. She also worked as a civil attorney representing survivors in family and integrated domestic violence courts seeking orders of protection, custody, and visitation matters. As she worked on case after case, she realized that the system was falling short by failing to collaborate across multiple disciplines.
“I just felt that, even though we were all on the same team, there was a disconnect,” Madeline said. “I started the Domestic Violence Project to address that.”
The DVP unites attorneys, social workers, and other advocates to provide comprehensive legal and clinical services for victims of domestic violence. The project uses a human rights framework to empower individuals to know their rights and navigate the system more effectively. The project’s multicultural team speaks English, Spanish, Russian, Farsi, French, and Arabic, and they have offices in all five boroughs in New York City. In the last 15 years, this knowledgeable team has helped survivors as young as 18 and as old as 70.
Throughout her career, Madeline has met survivors of all ages, nationalities, sexual orientations, and genders. She told us that domestic violence is a widespread issue, and anyone can fall victim. She has designed an inclusive domestic violence project to support and empower everyone experiencing intimate partner violence.
“Patriarchy impacts everyone,” she said. “Misogyny is only one form of oppression an abuser uses against their partner. We will not eradicate intimate partner violence until we address it globally.”
The Domestic Violence Project Enriches People’s Lives
Madeline founded the Domestic Violence Project to aid victims of intimate partner violence. The project lends vital support to individuals who have been physically abused, threatened, manipulated, and isolated, and its client success stories speak to the overall impact such work can have. The committed and caring team shows up in court on behalf of survivors, encouraging them to identify what they want and get out of bad situations.
“Empowerment, for me, means that you can make the decision,” Madeline said. “It might be the right decision, or it might be the wrong decision, but it’s yours to make. I just have to make sure that I open as many doors as possible for you, so you can make an informed decision.”
Madeline’s team educates clients so they know what their options are and can decide what’s right for their situations. They don’t tell clients what to do, and they are sensitive to the fact that the legal system can sometimes seem overwhelming and intimidating. They walk clients through the legal process and prepare them to deal with the issues that can arise. For instance, some individuals lose their homes when leaving an abusive relationship, and they need resources to get a roof over their heads, food on the table, and new job opportunities.
Once survivors have their basic needs met, they have greater confidence in their ability to take care of themselves and their families without their abusive partner. That’s a life-changing realization for individuals who may have felt helpless up to that point.
“Our clients don’t have the luxury of making mistakes because they often don’t have a way to pull themselves up,” Madeline said. “They may want to get out of this relationship, but they don’t have money, they’re not the lease holder, they may have children, they don’t have insurance, they may be undocumented. There’s so many different things that go into it.”
The DVP addresses the immediate legal crisis at hand (i.e. getting an order of protection, custody of children, or spousal support payments) while also dealing with the personal repercussions of starting over. The legal team has the client’s back in family court, and the advocates handle everything outside the courts. They help individuals handle housing, transportation, school, finances, and all the seemingly small daily issues that can keep people down.
“My end goal is to assist survivors as best as possible,” Madeline said. “I’m not helping someone get out of the abuse nor am I helping someone survive the abuse, I’m helping them get to where they want to be.”
Continuing a 30-Year Fight to Fuel Social Change in NYC
The Urban Justice Center’s team has worked tirelessly to support underprivileged individuals in New York, and they’ve learned a lot about what people need and want by, well, asking them what they need and want.
Madeline told us she regularly meets with DVP clients to get their two cents on how the process is working and what they could be doing better. The Director’s Café provides a forum for survivors to speak out and have their needs met. Such helpful feedback informs the project’s work and gives them a direction for future growth.
“As an attorney, I understand that I am in a position of power,” Madeline said. “So I need to make sure I’m working shoulder to shoulder with you and sharing that power with you.”
In 2019, the DVP team plans to develop and implement a hiring program that will turn their clients into team members. This will give impoverished people the work experience and job skills they need to get their foot in the door in the workforce. Madeline said this program will be yet another way the DVP builds people up and empowers them to build a the life they want.
The Urban Justice Center’s work is good for individuals as well as the overall community. The nonprofit estimates that its interventions and safety net projects have saved taxpayers over $10 million. Its team gives people the services and support system they need to become productive members of society, and it bolsters health and happiness throughout the five boroughs.
While the projects tackle serious issues, the teams make sure to bring some levity to their clients’ lives and help them de-stress once in a while. The UJC and the DVP recognize that its clients are human and have emotional needs as well as legal needs to be met. That’s why, the DVP organizes social activities and events, including a recent Valentine’s Day celebration, so people can have fun with their loved ones in a safe environment.
Whether they’re throwing a summer picnic or leading a trip to the museum, the DVP creates enjoyable yet affordable activities to enrich the lives of the families they’re helping.
“Everyone on staff is really committed to not just the issue but the actual person coming through the doors,” Madeline told us. “We’re always thinking of things we can do to make people happy.”
The UJC Provides a Structure to Support the Underprivileged
The Urban Justice Center began over 30 years ago thanks to one man’s desire to help the homeless, and it has now grown into a citywide effort to tackle complex social issues and create a better tomorrow. The nonprofit’s 12 projects offer vital resources to the marginalized and oppressed people in society.
The Domestic Violence Project is particularly useful for individuals who are dealing with intimate partner violence and its legal and personal repercussions. Madeline and her team have created a holistic support system to get clients out of bad situations and on their self-determined path. The project’s legal experts and advocates support survivors in court while also giving them the tools and skills they need to move forward.
“I try to support my clients, so when we’re done and they’ve tapped into all the services we can provide, they can continue to advocate for themselves,” Madeline said. “It’s your life. You may still have to deal with the system in order to survive. So, you need to have the self-esteem to feel confident advocating for yourself.”