The second and later of her two oral histories with CNEJL. Includes her work as founder and director of Mississippi Center for Justice, and Voices for Civil Justice.
Oral history details
|Date of interview:||May 15, 2015|
|Where relates to:||Mississippi and National|
Full text of transcriptDownload PDF: Transcript
Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Conducted by Alan Houseman
May 15, 2015
Alan Houseman: This is an oral history of Martha Bergmark, who’s the executive director of Voices for Civil Justice. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice Library. Martha, let’s begin, before we focus in more detail, with a brief overview of your background, and history in civil legal aid.
Martha Bergmark: Well, that’s about a 42-year history, so I’ll do it quickly. I actually grew up in Mississippi. My parents were teachers, and active in the civil rights movement. As a teenager, so was I. It was Oberlin students who inspired me to apply to Oberlin because they had come to Mississippi to participate in Freedom Summer. That was the only school I applied to attend. From there, it was a pretty easy jump to the University of Michigan Law School. During summers of law school, summers of 1971 and 1972, I worked at North Mississippi Rural Legal Services in Oxford.
Martha Bergmark: My next legal aid stop was as a “Reggie” (Reginald Heber Smith Fellow) at Community Legal Services in Jackson, Mississippi. Then I was in private practice with the civil rights firm that I helped to start in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In ’78, when expansion money began to be available in the Carter Administration, I was part of a group that did the planning for expansion of legal services in Mississippi and started Southeast Mississippi Legal Services in Hattiesburg. I was the founding executive director and served there for nine years. I came to Washington, DC after that in ’87 to be an executive director of the Project Advisory Group for about three years. I transitioned over to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association as the civil division director there.
Martha Bergmark: From there, I did a tenure of about four years at the Legal Services Corporation as the executive vice president, coming in under Alex Forger as president when the Clinton Administration first was able to appoint a board. After that, I headed a project that I worked on with you, the Project for the Future of Equal Justice to look at what needed to happen in legal aid post-Gingrich Congress changes in the LSC program. We worked on a variety of things that I know you and I will talk about in the next few minutes. I went back to my home state of Mississippi in 2003 to form the Mississippi Center for Justice, which is a nonprofit statewide advocacy organization that advances racial and economic justice throughout the state. I started at one desk, but then subsequently turned that into a program of about $4.5 million a year, really serving some of the functions that state support centers once did under the LSC framework. Finally, I’m here at Voices for Civil Justice.
Alan Houseman: Good. An earlier oral history covered your early years in Mississippi and your tenure at Southeast Mississippi Legal Services. I want to begin with the Project Advisory Group to which you came in 1987. Describe what that was, and describe what your role was, and describe some of the things that you worked on.
Martha Bergmark: My relationship with PAG, as we called it, the Project Advisory Group, began as a volunteer. It was primarily a volunteer organization of legal services program directors around the country who wanted to have a role in the governance and the policy-making about how the federal program would work. I was on a number of committees and then co-chaired one of the main funding committees of that organization while I was in Mississippi. In Mississippi at that time, legal service programs were very much still carrying out the work of being lawyers to the civil rights movement.
Martha Bergmark: The civil rights movement had somewhat peaked at that point, but there was lots to do in terms of implementing the civil rights legislation that had happened in the mid-60s. That didn’t just change everything in the South without some help. The legal service programs in Mississippi and throughout the South were very concerned that the federal money coming through the Legal Services Corporation could be utilized in a variety of ways that were essentially serving the needs of poor people in our area. In that environment, that meant helping African Americans to achieve the legal fruit of what the legislative changes had done.
Martha Bergmark: At that time, there was very much a political conversation about what should be done with legal services money. PAG, the Project Advisory Group, was involved in those conversations about whether money would be restricted, about how much money would flow, about how much money would be available in the South, in particular, which had not been one of the better funded areas in the country. There were lots of policy choices that had to be made, and PAG wanted to have a role in that. So that was that organization.
Martha Bergmark: When I came to Washington in ’87, I was then staff director of that project. That involved corralling all these voices from around the country and making some sense of what the different interests were, and what the different concerns were, and working with NLADA and with you at CLASP. Those were the three organizations that helped to lobby Congress, to work with the ABA, to really steer the legal services program policy in a way that we thought would be most responsive to what clients’ needs were.
Alan Houseman: At PAG, as I recall, there was a futures project that you organized and ran. Describe that.
Martha Bergmark: In ’87, we were very much looking forward to the end of the Reagan Administration. The Reagan Administration had not been an easy time for legal service folks. There was going to be an election, and then was going to be, we hoped, a new day in terms of a new board at LSC, a more sympathetic board. We hoped for a more sympathetic environment politically for increased funding. We wanted to be ready for that eventuality. We convened a number of working groups on the topics that we thought needed to be covered. That included funding. It included delivery choices. It included what should happen with restrictions. It included how the program was structured in terms of our network of local programs supported by state and national support organizations. Just the range of issues that mattered to promoting an efficient, effective, provision of legal services was what we were about. We issued a document. What did we call the document?
Alan Houseman: The Future Challenges.
Martha Bergmark: Future Challenges. Well, indeed there were future challenges, so it was well named. Future Challenges was criticized, actually, by some for not being visionary enough. I think it was a very good, solid statement of what those of us who had been in this world for a long time thought should happen. It didn’t really — how could it really — anticipate some of the very severe challenges that were to come in the 90s. It did lay out a blueprint, if you will, for what we thought the elements of an effective, efficient program should be.
Alan Houseman: Then in 1990, you went to NLADA, became director of the civil division and undertook a number of activities there. Could you describe some of those?
Martha Bergmark: Well, the relationship between the Project Advisory Group and NLADA was always a pretty strong partnership. It was a fairly smooth transition to move over to NLADA. But what really appealed to me about it was a somewhat broader mandate. Rather than simply navigating the politics of inter-program relationships and what the almost trade association-like interests of the legal aid program should be, it gave me an opportunity to really look a bit more broadly at what needed to happen, some changes that needed to be made. The thing at NLADA that I was most proud of helping with was the uniting support project. An effort to help national support centers coordinate better among themselves, gain some of the additional capacity that they needed around fundraising, around communications, around working together, and working more effectively with local programs. That was really a fun project.
Alan Houseman: You also I think helped out the litigation assistance partnership.
Martha Bergmark: We did. That was also an exciting foray into really improving the quality and effectiveness of litigation and using private attorneys to do that as well.
Alan Houseman: Then, after the election, you went over to LSC. Describe how you went over there in the first place, and then describe the many, many things you did at LSC.
Martha Bergmark: Well, at PAG, having come to PAG in ’87, that next election was the election of 1988 and that brought in George Bush, the first George Bush. That was a better environment politically for legal services than the previous eight years had been. A new board was appointed. It was still a Republican administration, but it was one that was far more sympathetic to the idea of legal services than the previous one had been. There was still lots that could’ve been done better in many of our view.
Martha Bergmark: When the 1992 election happened, and Bill Clinton was elected, that was a moment of major excitement in the legal services world because Hillary Clinton had been chair of the Legal Services Corporation board during the Carter Administration, so there was strong support there. That was just a moment of real excitement. It took a while to get a new board in place. It took a year or so following the election before we actually had a Clinton-appointed board in place. At that point, things began to happen very fast. There was going to be a transition to an interim president. Alex Forger was going to come in at the first of the year in 1994. NLADA, PAG, CLASP, ABA — all of the forces of support for legal services that were in place — were eager to make sure that Alex had the staffing that he needed to do what he was going to need to do to have an interim placement at LSC while the board did a search for a president.
Martha Bergmark: I was nominated somehow. Not quite sure. We all had discussions about it and who was in a position to go over and staff Alex for what was deemed to be just a short period. The intention at the beginning was that this would be just for the search process while making sure that we were making entrée to the new Congress, and moving the things that needed to be moved while a presidential search was in place. I was that lucky person, really. I will always treasure the relationship with Alex. Even though it was intended to be a marriage of only perhaps a few months, it lasted for almost four years, and has resulted in a lifelong friendship. So that’s how they came to pass.
Alan Houseman: Just for the record, who was and is Alex Forger?
Martha Bergmark: Alex Forger was a very prominent New York City lawyer, a former managing partner of Milbank Tweed. He also had strong connections to the legal aid world. He had chaired the Legal Aid Society board in New York and had a long history of support for legal aid there. His wife had recently died, and he was approaching 70 and looking at what he should do next. And Doug Eakeley, who chaired the LSC board, knew about that and thought of Alex as a person who might well be willing to take on this interim position. That’s how Alex came to be tapped by the LSC board.
Alan Houseman: Early in your tenure at LSC, you had to deal with putting the organization in the position of functioning effectively.
Martha Bergmark: That’s right.
Alan Houseman: What kind of challenge did you face and how did you deal with that?
Martha Bergmark: Well, the challenge was that for the preceding dozen years or so, the Legal Services Corporation had been somewhat adrift in this political maelstrom of attacks by the Reagan Administration, then amid maybe a more sympathetic approach under the first George Bush Administration. Nevertheless, LSC had not been transitioning smoothly from one president to the next. Also, it had a structure that was not necessarily adapted very well to what we hoped would be happening at LSC going forward, where we really want to do some new things, and make some positive changes.
Martha Bergmark: We put in place a transition team. We had Ada Shen-Jaffe, James Head, John Tull, Gary Singsen, myself, and Alex. We were the transition team that came into place right away in January 1994. Alex and I marched in there together on the first working day of January of that year. Then quickly we put this transition team in place to help us think through what should happen structurally. And that’s what we did, working closely with the board to understand how far they wanted to go before they had a permanent president in place. There was a trickiness about that. But I think Alex pretty clearly decided that, as he surveyed the scene internally at LSC, some changes needed to be made. We did make the decision to let go of several long-term staffers. That really brought down on our heads a firestorm of opposition in some circles on the Hill. We ran into immediate conflict with our inspector general and Edouard Quatrevaux was not happy that we had not consulted him adequately he thought about those changes. We had some pretty serious internal changes that we wanted to make. Yet, we ran up against that buzz saw of being on the choke chain to the Congress, and some other forces that doesn’t give one quite the flexibility one might have in other settings.
Alan Houseman: In 1994, there was a new Congress elected and for the first time in many years, the House of Representatives came under the leadership of a Republican majority under Speaker Newt Gingrich. The political situation for LSC changed.
Martha Bergmark: It certainly did, to say the least.
Alan Houseman: Describe what we did, and talk about that, and the challenges that it faced for the Legal Service Corporation.
Martha Bergmark: In January 1994, I was not alone in feeling that a new day was dawning for the Legal Services Corporation. It was indeed, but we didn’t realize quite what that day was going to be like. In fact, we were really slammed with a dose of reality. As 1994 wore on, well, first of all, our reception on the Hill was not exactly warm and inviting. I think in hindsight we began to see pushback on some things we thought would happen. For example, some much stronger embrace of support for increased funding. Much stronger embrace of some other authorization legislation changes. We hadn’t had reauthorizing legislation in over a decade. We thought the authorizing legislation was going to move in a way that was positive. Anyway, we began to get real pushback on that, which turned out to be in retrospect a signal that things were not going to go as well as we had hoped, even though we were still pushing at it. Over the course of the summer, I remember, Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA) and some others like Barney Frank (D-MA), were warning us that this election was going to be very tough.
Martha Bergmark: As the election happened, it was still a shock. I was pretty horrified by the whole thing. Sure enough, we woke up after that election day in November of 1994. We faced the Gingrich Contract with America. It didn’t refer expressly to the Legal Services Corporation. But certainly there were people in the Congress who thought that meant we were going to be on what came to be called a “glide path to elimination.” That glide path became really a frightening prospect. We knew at that point that we were going to be confronting at least serious cuts and restrictions. We had been battling against what were called the McCollum- Stenholm restrictions. Over several years, there was a group in Congress who wanted to seriously restrict the activities of LSC programs.
Alan Houseman: Who were the two members of Congress you mentioned?
Martha Bergmark: Charles Stenholm was a Democrat of Texas. Bill McCollum of Florida was a Republican. Over the course of several years, they worked first with the Reagan Administration folks who ran LSC, and then the Bush Administration. By 1994, there was a very well developed model for the restrictions that they thought should be put in place.
Martha Bergmark: It turned out that, on the Republican of the aisle, yes, there were those folks who just wanted to eliminate LSC and they were the glide path to elimination wing. But then, there was a group of people who were prepared to say, “No, we really mean that we want it reformed.” There were those of us who would’ve said early on, well, McCollum and Stenholm was just a mechanism to essentially eviscerate LSC program work. In fact, there turned out to be a group of reformers for whom reform really was their agenda. That became the conversation and the battle within the Republican side of the aisle as to what the future of LSC would be. One of the things that happened in that period — and we’re talking about now ’95 and on into ’96 — was this struggle over whether the glide path to elimination would really happen. We at LSC were trying madly to get a foot in the door to even be part of conversations about what that outcome should be. But really that was a conversation that was going on on the Republican side of the aisle. We were being as supportive as we could to the reform wing, wanting to get out from under this threat of complete execution. We really weren’t at the table in terms of how that compromise was fundamentally worked out.
Alan Houseman: Although, as you know, some people said that the LSC leadership negotiated the program in exchange for the restrictions.
Martha Bergmark: Exactly. That just could not be farther from the truth. I mean we were offered no such choice. Yes, that’s certainly the charge that has been leveled.
Alan Houseman: During your tenure at LSC, you and others began to focus on rethinking LSC’s role vis-a-vis the states.
Martha Bergmark: Yes.
Alan Houseman: Talk a little bit about that.
Martha Bergmark: Okay. I mentioned the transition team. That was in place until I think about June of 1994. At that point, Alex had decided to go ahead and apply for the presidency of LSC and the board selected him. What happened at that point was the transition team went away. But John Tull, Gary Singsen and I all stayed on in permanent positions. I was the executive vice president under Alex. At that point, all this political maelstrom is swirling about us. We’re really doing all of the work that was needed to develop budget requests, and respond to interrogatories that seemed to arrive by the boatload from the Hill asking us questions about this, that, and the other. We were pretty besieged just trying to navigate the very rocky waters of the political attack.
Martha Bergmark: At the same time, we were also going out around the country warning our colleagues, our grantees, that this was coming. We were the ones very close to it, and seeing it on a one-on-one basis with Hill staffers who were raking us over the coals in one way or another. But we needed to get that message out to the programs — that a huge change was about to happen, that we were going to get, at best, a dramatic funding cut and the McCollum-Stenholm restrictions. That package included a ban on class actions, and restrictions on all of the money a program had, not just their LSC money, The new restrictions were going to carry over to every resource they had. It was going to mean the end of the national and state support center funding, and on and on. It was quite a comprehensive package of new restrictions. Our goal with programs was to be getting that message out there so people were beginning to accept that that was what was coming and make the changes necessary.
Martha Bergmark: Our message, our vision that we tried to convey early on was what needs to happen at the state level. States are those very significant jurisdictions legally in our constitutional structure, It was the states that were going to have to step up as leaders to figure out what legal services needed to mean in their states. That meant raising resources at the state level, and finding new allies at the state level, and finding substitutes for funding that previously had come through state support or national support — doing all of that. LSC staff was working of course — mostly with folks at NLADA, CLASP and the ABA — to formulate a notion about state justice communities that could help weather what was clearly going to be a difficult time with the federal funding. We weren’t going to be able to replace the lost federal support for legal aid if we didn’t generate it locally at the state level.
Alan Houseman: One other major endeavor that you had a large part in was, after the law change, the Legal Services Corporation had to respond to the set of new and changed regulations to implement the restrictions and changes that Congress imposed. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Martha Bergmark: Yeah, that wasn’t very much fun either. As the congressional debate was going on, we obviously wanted the moderate wing of the Republican party to win. Even though it carried rather draconian restrictions and funding cuts, at least we were going to survive to fight another day. One of the things that we at LSC were being looked to for was, were we in good faith going to implement these restrictions? The board and staff leadership immediately tasked ourselves with developing the regulations that would implement those laws. We were not going to be perceived as saying, “Oh, yes. We want this compromise,” but then fighting in the way that we wrote the regulations.
Martha Bergmark: The other piece of this was that the package included a competitive bidding provision that grants weren’t just going to be automatically renewed over time. We needed to develop an entire program to do it very differently. Now we would give out our grants based on competitive bidding. So, we were developing a regulatory scheme that would be perceived as responding in good faith to the legislative structure that was being put in place. Those were massive efforts, as you well know, to get all of that done and get it done promptly, and get it done in a way that our our friendlier allies in Congress were going to be able to say, “Yes, these people are doing that.”
Martha Bergmark: LSC had to contend as well with a whole debate that had been going on outside LSC about whether a constitutional challenge to the whole structure of the restrictions should be filed in court. Ultimately, litigation was filed against it in Hawaii and in New York. Again, we fought those battles. We hired pro bono counsel to represent us in each of those cases defending the constitutionality and legality of the congressional restrictions. All of that was, we felt, absolutely necessary to preserve the continued existence of the Legal Service Corporation. It was in mid-1996 that the House vote happened that got us off of the glide path to elimination. That was a moment of tremendous relief. I mean, at point we knew that we’d probably navigated these waters successfully to an outcome that implemented the restrictions and the funding cuts, but would let us live to see another day with federal funding.
Alan Houseman: One other thing you tried to do during your tenure was to set up a new system of compliance and peer review. Talk a little bit about that.
Martha Bergmark: That was something we had wanted to do. Right from the beginning that was on the agenda. The monitoring of programs and evaluation programs under the previous 12 years of LSC administrations had been a tremendously fraught exercise. It was sometimes politically motivated. Certain programs were tremendously paranoid about any oversight of grants. That was something we were hoping to work on. Even in our best, rosiest scenario of how things might turn out, that was certainly on the agenda for how to make that better. When we finally got to that issue, it was complicated by everything else that was going on. Yet I was really quite proud of the work that John Tull and others did — working closely with NLADA, and PAG and CLASP — to implement a system that was pretty well received and rightly so, despite the fact that it carried all of this baggage of all of the political happenings.
Alan Houseman: Is there anything else before we move on that you want to add about your tenure at Legal Services Corporation?
Martha Bergmark: Well, I would say that it was the hardest four years of my professional life, period — the most politically fraught, and difficult. I never wanted to work that close to the US Congress again, frankly. It was not really a happy experience. I did apply to be the president of LSC. Alex left in early ’97, he stepped down. The same board, Doug Eakeley’s board, were faced with the task of selecting another president. I did apply for that job. What I offered them was being a lifer in the legal aid world, a legal professional who certainly knew the ropes and history, and so forth. My platform was really to say this is our moment to be connecting up to other US government agencies. That was what I said to them needed to happen next now that we had navigated the glide path to elimination and we weren’t going to be eliminated. We really needed to start reaching out and using our status as a quasi-federal agency ourselves to establish those relationships and get other agencies to understand what legal aid is, and why it matters, and how their funding stream should support it. That didn’t happen. The board very strongly wanted to go with an outsider, preferably a Republican, somebody coming in to take the corporation through the next phase. That was their decision to make. I stepped away in September of ’97 and went back to NLADA at that point.
Alan Houseman: Let’s talk about that period. What was it that you did then?
Martha Bergmark: George Soros and the Open Society Institute, now the Open Society Foundation, was coming on the scene, along with the Ford Foundation. Ford had been forever a pioneering supporter of legal aid, but the two foundations were coming together to inject some new funds. They had lots of concern about what was going to happen now given the new statutory framework. Actually, you yourself were one of the initiators of what was called the Project for the Future of Equal Justice. The Project for the Future of Equal Justice was funded by Ford and by the Open Society Institute to really take a look at this whole new situation we were in and figure out what should happen next. That was a very exciting opportunity to move away from the maelstrom of controversy, and being on a choke chain to Congress, which as I said, I really didn’t care for. Now I could think creatively and newly about what could happen in this new environment. It was not perfect, not what we would have wished for. Yet, it was what we had to deal with. So, that’s what we started doing in the fall of ’96.
Martha Bergmark: What are the key issues that something new and creative could happen on, that would really ensure that civil legal aid was going to be there — vibrant, efficient and effective — in spite of whatever might happen in Congress? The glide path to elimination specter was what for me really fundamentally changed my thinking from where we were with the future challenges document of 1989 or 1990.
Martha Bergmark: Fast forward those several more years to my revelation moment which was: Great, the federal government needs to support legal aid. Absolutely. We need to fight for that. That’s a huge resource that we certainly will never walk away from. But we cannot be fundamentally thinking this is going to be the complete fix. So, the project for the future was an opportunity to say, okay, what else is part of that fix? We identified about five things that we thought the project for the future could help make happen and that were fundamentally connected to this idea of state justice communities. That was a concept that we were very committed to. In each state there needs to be not just the federal flow of money coming into the nonprofit grantees, but a real state commitment to justice for all at the judiciary level, at the legislative level, at the governors level. There needs to be a state responsibility for access to justice.
Martha Bergmark: Fundraising was a big deal. That was certainly what the community wanted and demanded from us. It was, how do we do better at raising resources from other sources? Technology was really emerging. The Internet was just really beginning to come up as a major new technology, and all that went with that. We could see that there were lots of things going on there that were going to help improve access to justice, such as state-based advocacy. Again, this links to the idea of state justice communities. But it was really the fact that state support centers were lost in many states and we wanted to find a way to resurrect that capacity. Communications came up as a key element that was a stepchild of our focus on fundraising. We realized there’s no way we’re going to raise resources without communicating far better about what legal aid is and why it matters.
Alan Houseman: So, the project for the future started and worked in all of these areas. I have two questions. We’ll start with the technology area.
Martha Bergmark: Julia Gordon was our staff person. She was a staff member at CLASP, as you well know. She was our leader on that, but she worked closely with the Legal Services Corporation, which was very interested in that issue as well. There were a number of private and local program people who really emerged on this. Pro Bono Net was coming on at that time. Richard Zorza had an interest in making sure that technology was being used effectively to serve self-represented litigants. That was beginning to bubble up.
Martha Bergmark: There were a number of national meetings that came together around that. Hugh Calkins at Pine Tree Legal Services in Maine was one of the key figures in figuring out what needed to happen at the state level with websites that were accessible both to clients, as a law help resource, and for advocates. It sounds very primitive now to talk about our focus on websites, just information being accessible on the web. Yet, at that time, that was the cutting edge thing. It eventually led to the technology innovation grants that LSC now funds. I’m ecstatic to see that our very nascent little start in 1997 and 1998 has turned into such a vibrant focus on uses of technology.
Alan Houseman: Finally, around this, you continued to work on state justice commissions.
Martha Bergmark: We did.
Alan Houseman: I don’t know if you want to add anything to that.
Martha Bergmark: Well, access to justice commissions were getting going at that point, so we were able to be very supportive of that through some of the writing that we did on what the elements are that need to characterize the state justice community. You were obviously one of our main drafters on that. It took a group effort to make sure that we had conceptual underpinning for what should characterize access to justice communities. Access to justice commissions are probably today’s best expression of what we were seeking to do with our notion of state justice communities.
Alan Houseman: In 2003, you made both a geographic move and a shift in roles. Why did you go back to Mississippi and what are you doing?
Martha Bergmark: Okay, well the project for the Future of Equal Justice had as one of its pillars of activity this notion of what had happened with the defunding of the state support centers, and in many states the loss of that capacity. We looked around the landscape and it was pretty depressing. Several state support centers had been quite successful. I want to say that some were on a much better footing when the change came in ’95 and ’96 than others. Some were able to do what almost all of the national support centers were able to do, which was turn on a dime and look to their business models for how they could survive.
Martha Bergmark: Most of the states in the deep South, which is where I was from and where my heart is, lost their funding. Programs just ended. The programs just went away. That was true in Mississippi. Mississippi was the place because that’s where I had strong ongoing relationships to the civil rights legal community there. I knew there was much unhappiness with the fact that the state support center was gone, and that national organizations — like Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and NAACP Defense Fund, which had served the legal needs of the civil rights movement in Mississippi — had closed their doors and gone home. Mississippi had nothing in the way of a state legal advocacy capacity to advance a civil rights agenda or antipoverty agenda.
Martha Bergmark: We began at the project … Really it was visits home to see my parents, where I would see friends, and see what was going on. It seemed that there was a real appetite there for something to happen. We did over the course of about six or eight months a series of meetings within the state with community leaders and legal civil rights leaders to see what would need to happen for there to be a new organization to come into place to replace that lost capacity. At that point, I never was thinking I was going to do it. That was really was not part of the conversation. But, in the summer of 2002, we were putting together a board. So, Project for Future was providing resources to help get things started, suggest next steps, think about who should be on a board for such an organization, what should be the fundraising strategy. At that point, trial lawyers were doing very well in Mississippi and that seemed to be an avenue for funding. What ended up happening in the summer of 2002 was that we formed the board. We put our application in for 501(c)(3) status. We set a fundraising plan. We wanted to raise $300,000 by the end of the year, probably in $10,000 or $15,000 increments from trial lawyers. Suddenly, there was an anonymous donor who was so excited about this idea that she staked that whole first year of operations with a pledge of over $300,000. That was really kind of a jolt to our new little board — an exciting, good kind of jolt.
Martha Bergmark: At that point, people said, “Well, Martha, you are going to come to do this, right?” I said, “Oh, no, no. We’re going to do a national search. We’re going to find a great person to do this. Don’t worry. It’ll happen, but no, it’s not me.” But the pressure built. It was fun thinking about trying that on for size. When I did that, I just knew that it had my name on it. In the fall of 2002, I and my husband, Elliott Andalman, who together had that civil rights firm in Mississippi all those years ago, got very excited about the prospect of making this happen.
Alan Houseman: And you returned to Mississippi.
Martha Bergmark: I did. Although, I always commuted. My Elliott has a disability practice right here in the DC area. While we were empty nested at that point, which made the whole thing possible, moving back full-time to Mississippi didn’t seem possible. I did it on a full-time, but every-other-week, basis for the next 11 years. It was like going over to the Legal Services Corporation for six months. If somebody had told me that would last four years, I would have said, “Oh, no, no. That’s not what’s planned.” Same with the Mississippi Center for Justcie. It was like, well, I’m going to do this for a couple of years. But it really has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my career.
Alan Houseman: So, tell us a little bit about the Mississippi Center for Justice and tell it any way you’d like. How you built it up, what is it now, etc.
Martha Bergmark: Well, we were lucky enough to get that first investment, but that was just $300,000 and it was just for that first year. We had a serious resource development task on our hands. We charted a mission to advance racial and economic justice through legal advocacy and systemic change. What we quickly found out was that there was a huge appetite for that. So our outreach to develop individual donors as a very significant base of the funding turned out to be very successful. The funding goal was mostly to operate with foundation funding, because those were going to be the big dollars, but to demonstrate with at least one-fourth of our budget that there was a real commitment and real investment by individuals in the state and outside the state to make sure this would happen. Even today, over almost every year of our existence, our budget has been three-fourths foundation funding and one-fourth individual donors.
Martha Bergmark: Hurricane Katrina came along. We were a two-year-old organization at the point that Hurricane Katrina hit the coast hard and really pushed us into a different model. We had really been in backup center mode doing class action litigation and policy advocacy at the state legislature. We were really in that mold in those first two years and did a significant amount of work in Medicaid and in juvenile justice reform. But, when Katrina hit, it took us to the coast and it really landed us back in that model of legal services that many of us grew up in, which was a combination of the individual services and the policy and systemic work that really do go hand in hand.
Martha Bergmark: Since then, the center has been way more into what we now call community lawyering. Yet, as you look at community lawyering and its effort to use all the different possible advocacy forums, and be very connected to community-based expression of needs and priorities, that’s what the Mississippi Center for Justice has emerged to do.
Alan Houseman: Today, how big is the staff? Give a couple of examples of some of the kinds of things you do. Then I want you to talk about the BP oil disaster.
Martha Bergmark: Yes, my whole career has just been peppered with these disasters along the way that we end up trying to make the most of, right? Maybe that’s a theme. I’m not sure. The staff today is about 40 people in three offices. We have our main office in Jackson, the capital city. Then our second office was in Biloxi, after Katrina. Then our real challenge was to move to the Mississippi Delta, which is the state’s historically most challenged, most poverty-stricken region. We opened that office in 2011. We have three offices, about 40 staff, a budget of about $4.5-million. Today, thankfully, it’s really a thriving organization thanks to support from people all over the country. I didn’t hesitate to tap every friend and resource I could find to help make it work.
Martha Bergmark: Our goal, what we said to each other at the Project for the Future of Equal Justice back in about 2001, was boy, if you could do that in Mississippi, you can’t say you can’t do it anywhere else. I think that’s true. The center is thriving today because the need is just intensely great. It’s attracted a staff, and leadership there now. Riley Morris is the new president and CEO of the center. It just feels good that it’s thriving today.
Alan Houseman: Yeah, on this point, one of the unique things you do is every year your fundraiser here. Just a few seconds on that.
Martha Bergmark: Well, that really turned out well. My going away party from NLADA, of course, we made into a fundraiser for the Mississippi Center for Justice. That was really the seed that grew. That year we raised about $30,000, which was fabulous. I remember showing what I called baby pictures. By that time we had a house, a small house that we purchased as our first office. I remember handing out those pictures. Fast forward, that’s an event that today generates about $300,000 in donations. We’ve just stuck with it year by year. I kind of learned the fundraising ropes. The main lesson you learn is stick with it and it’ll grow, so that’s what happened.
Martha Bergmark: In 2010, the BP oil disaster struck the coast, five years after Katrina. You might think well, five years after the hurricane, surely everybody was back to normal by then. I can assure you that even today, 10 years after the hurricane, it’s a new form of normal. We had by that time won or settled a lawsuit to get money. There was about $200 million that our governor in Mississippi had wanted to take away from hurricane housing recovery and spend on a special project to expand the Port of Gulfport. We had succeeded in restoring that money to the housing recovery.
Martha Bergmark: We were still very much involved with the communities on the coast. The BP oil distaster was a devastating next chapter for them. It’s affecting many of the same people who first had to cope with Katrina. When the BP oil disaster happened, what we saw again was the risk that whatever help came would go only to better-off people. The notion value of equity in a recovery from a disaster like that was not going to be there if we didn’t hold up that banner.
Martha Bergmark: By that time, because of Katrina, we had strong relationships across the border with Louisiana and New Orleans from learning from each other about Katrina. We took that and convened our Louisiana colleagues. Of course, the BP oil disaster most strongly affected them. We were next on that score, but also Alabama, Florida, and a little bit of Texas. We convened a consortium of about a dozen legal aid service providers and went to Ken Feinberg, who had been tapped to do the initial claims process. We just beat down his door to say, “You need us to make your claims process work. We are the trusted resources in local communities who people turn to when they need help with something like this. You’re just not going to reach them thinking that in Washington you’re going to run a little claims process.” Ken eventually agreed with us. He didn’t immediately warm to it, but he did within the next few months. The Department of Justice was very supportive of our efforts to offer this. That program is going on still today. It will end within the next year or so. We’ve brought in tens of millions of dollars in claims for the lowest income, the most vulnerable, of the disaster’s victims.
Alan Houseman: Most recently, you returned to DC full time and you’re now running a new organization. What is this new organization? Why is it needed and what you’re hoping to accomplish?
Martha Bergmark: Voices for Civil Justice is a communications hub for civil legal aid. It arises out of the recognition that civil legal aid today remains largely invisible. It’s poorly understood, certainly by the public in general, and even by policymakers. For me, it feels a little bit like coming back to another one of the pillars of the Project for the Future of Equal Justice. Communications was something that we identified in 1999 as a piece that needed work. We just did not have capacity in our state programs or at the national level to tell our story, to convey through the media, and through other venues or vehicles, what civil legal aid is and why it matters.
Martha Bergmark: Mary McClymott is a key figure in this story. She had come to be President of the Public Welfare Foundation a few years ago. It brought her back to the civil legal aid work that she had done back when she was at the Ford Foundation. She was able to see, as she made some very strategic grants to help build up national capacity to advance civil legal aid as a cause, that communications was a missing link. Her model for it was a group called America’s Voice, which is the communications hub on immigration issues. Frank Sharry at America’s Voice has stood up that organization to be a communication hub for immigration.
Martha Bergmark: We’re somewhat modeled on America’s Voice with a very small staff and a contract with BerlinRosen, a national communications firm, to do two things. One is to use the media as a vehicle for getting messaging out about what civil legal aid is, how it fits into everyday life in ways that people aren’t really aware of. When you read a story in the media about domestic violence, or about veterans not being able to get their benefits, or about unaccompanied children at the border, legal aid is actually behind that story. Legal aid folks are doing that work across the country, but it’s usually not in the story. Our folks don’t appear as spokespeople, as experts. Our client’s stories aren’t necessarily getting fully told. That’s our role in it. So far, we’ve placed well over 50 media stories in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NBC News, USA Today, New Yorker, just this last month. Stories about what we are and what we’re doing.
Martha Bergmark: The second things we’re doing is to do try to build better capacity in our community for communications. Most programs don’t have full-time communications staff. They often might have somebody whose job description includes crisis communications, or something. It’s usually the project director, but there’s there’s just not a lot of capacity there. We think we can add some value through some messaging help, media toolkits, and coaching as people do their media placements, We’re just going to build that local capacity. We play with a network of about 400 people now in every state on our media placements.
Alan Houseman: If you look back over your life, you’ve been involved in the legal services from the OEO days. You’ve been involved from the early LSC days of expansion. You’ve been involved at the national level, including as President of LSC. You’ve been involved in creating a new institution in Mississippi and finally leading this communications effort at the national level. As you think of all those areas, what closing thoughts do you have about civil legal aid?
Martha Bergmark: Well, I am just a resolutely glass half full person. I know we could spin this as, oh my gosh, you spent your whole career in life working on something that remains sadly underfunded and somewhat marginalized. And yet, I don’t see it that way at all. I see that we have been a tremendously resilient community, in part because of the value we protect. We are the guardians, if there are any in America, of fulfilling the promise of justice for all. That’s a very powerful vision to me and to many. The resilience we’ve shown despite lots of setbacks is to constantly be looking for the new way to go at it, the new opportunity with other funders, with technology, with new partners.
Martha Bergmark: I think we’re in a very helpful place today. Despite all of the vicissitudes in funding (and we won’t use up camera time to talk about all of the changes in federal funding, state funding and so forth), we’ve really held steady and grown as a sector in the last few years. Our work at the state level is really starting to pay off as chief justices of courts around the country see access to justice as not being adequately provided. They’re seeing it as part of their core mission as well. In states like New York, Chief Judge Lippman has been an absolute godsend for what it really means to say we’re going to fulfill the promise of justice for all. But, he’s not alone in being committed to that. I see a good future ahead for us as we really hit on all cylinders. In our very LSC- focused days, that was fine for what it was. But we weren’t hitting on all of the cylinders we needed to. I am delighted to be returning to communications — one of those necessary elements of what needs to happen — and to really stand that up and make that thrive. As long as I can keep doing that, I’m a happy camper.
Alan Houseman: Thank you very much.
Martha Bergmark: Yep. Thank you.