July 28, 2020
July 2020: Ariel Levinson-Waldman
Ariel Levinson-Waldman (he/him)
Member, ACS Washington, DC Lawyer Chapter; Author, A New Frontier for Civil Rights: Ending Discriminatory Driver’s License Suspension Schemes (ACS Issue Brief 2019)
I wish ACS had existed when I started law school in 1998.
As the grandson of Holocaust survivors and son of a Russian-Israeli immigrant to the United States, I had a vague, generalized sense that the tools of lawyering should be used to help those with less access to power and privilege. However, I had no well-developed framework for what that might mean in practice. And in law school, most of the organized events on broad, framework legal ideas were put on by the Federalist Society and emphasized concepts of efficiency and originalism and textualism. These felt, to say the least, radically incomplete and inadequate. Fortunately, by the time I graduated, a nascent organization called the Madison Society had started up. That group eventually evolved into ACS, and I’m grateful it did.
ACS provides an important platform for promoting a positive vision for laws and policies that “uphold the Constitution in the 21st Century by ensuring that law is a force for,” among other important goals, advancing “the public interest and for improving people’s lives.” At each of my professional stops before founding Tzedek DC – as a law clerk, as a Fellow at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, in private practice, and during my eight years serving in the DC and federal governments – ACS and its national convention, issue briefs, individual events, and informal gatherings have all been a highly valued resource for both ideas and meeting terrific people. I have also been honored to be an ACS mentor at a series of events over the years and to have the opportunity to give back.
One particular area of ACS advocacy – ensuring access to civil justice – has been central to the work of the organization Tzedek DC, which I co-founded in 2016 as a volunteer and have led since 2017. Drawing on a central tenet of Jewish teachings – “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” or “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” Tzedek DC’s mission is to safeguard the legal rights of low-income DC residents dealing with often unjust, abusive, and illegal debt collection practices, as well as other consumer protection problems like credit reporting issues, identity theft, and predatory lending. Ninety-five percent of Tzedek DC's clients are African American. Tzedek DC pursues our mission as anti-racism work in response to (a) the massive gaps in wealth that track racial lines in DC, where the mean net assets of white families are 8,100 percent those of their African-American neighbors, and (b) the debt collection industry's practices, whose mass-filed lawsuits extract wealth disproportionately from community members of color. In support of this work, we provide free, direct legal services for the thousands of people in our community sued in mass debt collection cases; engage in systemic advocacy, such as our efforts to end driver license suspensions for unpaid debts, and our more recent advocacy for emergency legislation to protect people from wage garnishment during the pandemic; and offer community outreach and education, such as our recent English and Spanish language Know Your Rights webinars.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an especially important time for the core values of ACS to influence services provided to vulnerable community members and to shape reforms of key public policies that in so many ways have failed our communities of color. I’m proud to be part of a network that hopefully can contribute to positive and long-overdue change.