I’ve worked at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia for 10 years. Here’s why I’m angry — and why I want big change

Caitlin Nagel poses for a portrait outside Community Legal Services in Philadelphia

Caitlin Nagel has worked at Philadelphia's Community Legal Services for 10 years. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For the last 10 years, I have worked with the most amazing advocates at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) to prevent eviction and homelessness, to mend the safety net, to help people with criminal records get a fair chance at jobs, housing, and education. I have met incredible people in the streets of our city, from tenant organizers to workers fighting for their rights, who have established mutual aid programs, taken direct action to make change, and who have dedicated their lives to the cause.

I love my job, and I am beyond grateful for everything I have learned there, everything I have gotten to do, and everything I have yet to do.

But I am also deeply angry every single day.

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I am furious at the injustice that our clients experience. I am furious at those who seek to harm: Landlords who call child welfare on their tenants instead of making repairs they are legally required to; over-policing that has saddled countless Black and brown people with criminal records that shut them out of employment; legislators who vote to slash benefits and rip holes in the safety net.

If we want to fight back, we need more than just Band-Aid solutions.

We need to fight for big changes to move the needle on poverty. We also need to see people who are struggling to get by as our neighbors, as people who are more than just the problems they face.

As I have said many times, poverty has solutions.

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Injustice isn’t just some concept that is too complicated to fight for. Preventing homelessness and hunger and despair is well within our reach. Mostly, it comes down to putting cash in people’s pockets, and trusting them to make their own decisions with it.

We saw the success of the stimulus payments, which most people spent on food and housing. The Child Tax Credit slashed poverty, and now that it’s gone, millions of children are back to living in poverty. The rental assistance programs helped keep roofs over families as they struggled with job losses. These programs worked because they let people pay for what they really needed. For a brief moment, our society provided help to people who needed it, and allowed them to use it in whatever way was best for their families.

But these programs are gone now. And I am outraged that there isn’t more outrage. Why wouldn’t we want to lift families out of poverty? Where is the energy here?

Small solutions are important, but we need to think bigger

I have found myself discouraged from time to time during the last decade. The truth is that it’s hard to care about everything that is going wrong in the world, and often, that is by design. After all, it has been said that pessimism is a tool of white oppression.

There are days I feel like giving up, weeks and months where I have stopped dreaming.

But, most days, I do dream. Because I know we can do better. And because I understand the stakes.

I became a mom six months before I started at CLS. And when I dream, I dream of other moms and what it would mean if everyone could raise their kids the way they want to, if everyone had, as I say to my son, “everything we need and some of what we want.”

Because I don’t just want people to survive, I want them to thrive.

My one true dream in this life is that every parent or caretaker will be able to give their kid a birthday cake. It’s oddly specific, but it’s so meaningful to me because of what it symbolizes. It’s about having a stable home and having the lights on, but it’s also the ability to provide joy. For me, the best part of being a mom is putting a smile on my son’s face.

As a society, I want us to decide that other people deserve joy, and that it’s worth fighting for. That we can recognize the humanity in other people, that other people are worth caring about, that we can get angry in a way that fuels our fire and sparks action.

I want us to decide that small solutions are not enough — that we can think big.

I often see things like toy drives for kids in foster care, canned good drives around Thanksgiving, and coat drives for people experiencing homelessness. There is nothing wrong with participating in these things — we need to help people facing urgent crises.

But what if we also put our energy, voices, and power behind dismantling the systems that put people in crisis in the first place?

What if we called our elected officials in support of increased SNAP benefits so people could have fresh food all year long? What if we demanded better access to rental assistance and benefits for people with disabilities so we could keep people housed? What if we marched in the streets to bring back the Child Tax Credit so parents wouldn’t lose their children to the foster care system in the first place? What if everyone asked “How is that Legal?” and then fought to change unjust, racist laws?

When we fight for big change, I believe we can move past the overwhelm. When we work to change entire systems, and when our work feels more like a drop in the bucket, we can use our anger and our dreams to keep going.

Ten years in, and my fight for justice is far from over.

I believe in the work we are doing at CLS to challenge systems of injustice and break down systems of oppression. If we work together, we can build a better Philadelphia, and by extension, a better world.

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 Caitlin Nagel is the director of Advancement & Communications at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (@CLSphila). She can be reached at cnagel@clsphila.org and tweets from @Caitlin_C_Nagel.

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