In an unprecedented year, the barriers confronting low-income and marginalized Marylanders have been laid bare. The long-felt ramifications of the COVID-19 health crisis and the protests for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have exposed faults in our justice system and left many questioning where true justice lies in the legal system.
The Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland’s 22nd Annual Partners for Justice Conference, held from May 10 to May 14, 2021, sought to provide a space to address these timely questions. Bringing together legal services providers, government agencies, and law firms from across Maryland and the United States, the conference allowed the over 225 attendees to participate in conversations tackling various issues facing low-income service seekers in the mid-Atlantic region today.
Participants gathered as partners in the fight for equal justice, coming together to not only hold the systems accountable, but to hold one another accountable. The 14 panel sessions created space for individuals working in the legal field to share their own experiences—whether it be about confronting their implicit biases, what authentic advocacy in the courtroom looks like, or how certain policies disproportionately affect communities of color. Attendees also heard from high-profile members of the legal community, speaking on how this past year has affected the profession. Speakers included Maryland’s Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, Attorney General Brian Frosh, and Public Defender Paul DeWolfe.
The event culminated in a Keynote Address by Chris Wilson, author of The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose. In his address, he spoke movingly about his experience, from being a teenager sentenced to life without parole, and becoming the man that he is today— a free man, social entrepreneur, artist, and social justice advocate. Mr. Wilson also participated with formerly incarcerated persons and advocates on a panel about Juvenile Lifers to discuss the lived and shared experience of many children in Maryland sentenced to life in prison, and to interrogate the justification behind enforcing such punitive action.
The Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC) stands in a unique position to host this event as a statewide convener of pro bono attorneys and local nonprofits that strategize and collectively address a range of issues such as homelessness, consumer fraud, elder abuse, immigration, and more issues that impact economic and social justice.
At the end of the day, the resiliency of the community was felt—the resiliency of under-resourced clients tasked with tackling a system stacked against them, the resiliency of legal providers as they continue to serve an overwhelmed system, and ultimately the resiliency of individuals who found ways to continue to build community together despite being apart.