The Power of Second Chances: CGLA’s Esther Franco-Payne
Esther Franco-Payne is the Executive Director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid. A long-time advocate, Esther continues to educate the community about issues related to exposure to trauma, violence prevention, and criminal justice reform. She has a master’s degree from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, is a 2015 Leadership Greater Chicago Fellow and resides in Chicago with her husband and their three children.
IEJF grantee Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA) provides legal representation, wraparound services, and advocacy for people affected by the criminal justice system.
Your website says CGLA is changing the status quo in Illinois. What do you mean by that?
For CGLA, changing the status quo in Illinois means changing the policies and perceptions that place barriers on people negatively impacted by the criminal justice system as a result of an arrest or conviction. We also recognize that individuals of color, who make up a significant portion of the criminal justice population, are discriminated against on a daily basis due to the laws that statutorily bar people from opportunities which allow them to achieve positive outcomes in their lives – thereby creating perpetual cycles of crime and violence. We work to raise the community’s awareness and change the underlying systems that affect individuals, families and communities, with the goal to create positive change, while simultaneously providing direct legal services and social supports that remove barriers.
Most people come to your organization with a legal problem that’s often intertwined with other social needs and issues. How do you help clients get on a stronger path forward?
Due to our interdisciplinary approach and assessment process, we not only look at the presenting legal issue, but are able to identify other areas of key stability that impact a person’s life. Our assessments look at a person’s legal standing, their economic and income stability, housing stability, family and social connections and health. In this way, we aim to address each person holistically.
What’s the number one thing you want policymakers to know about the people and communities served by Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic?
Laws and policies strip away the humanity from individuals, too often labeling them, excluding them, and refusing to allow them to pursue opportunities for full and meaningful lives. This is particularly troublesome when laws and policies are absolute and lifelong – it leaves no room for discretion or individualized analysis of a person’s circumstances.
As a social worker, what different perspective do you bring to running a legal aid organization?
Currently, I am the only person of color running a legal aid organization in the state of Illinois. As a leader without a law degree but with a social work background and extensive experience in the world of criminal justice policy and advocacy work, I have always seen myself as a bridge between those in the community and those who make decisions. My aim is to elevate the voices of those who are not always heard in an effort to ensure that decisions made about their lives and communities are inclusive, equitable and fair. Having worked with stakeholders at all levels of the system, the unique perspective I bring to CGLA and to the legal aid field is one of connection, proximity, and diversity, serving as a representative of those we help each and every day.
Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA) was founded in 1973. In 2017, CGLA served over 6,300 clients and expanded access to legal services for criminal records by implementing their summit model to two additional counties in Illinois. They engaged 445 volunteers who provided more than 18,000 pro bono hours. CGLA supported legislation that passed the General Assembly to expand sealing eligibility for thousands of people. CGLA also supported the Reunification Ride, bringing 180 children to visit their incarcerated mothers.