August 25, 2015

Days Like This One

by Mariana Múnera '16

Mariana is an iProv Summer Intern at the Rhode Island Center for Justice, which provides free legal services to low income Rhode Islanders in the fields of utility termination prevention, tenants’ rights, and workers’ rights. Her research is on utility termination for medically vulnerable households.

Working here has been an incredible flood of raw moments and emotions. 

Upon first glance, that’s a little confusing because utilities don’t exactly scream ‘riveting issue’, right? In the world of mental heuristics, it would seem pretty straightforward. Pay bills, have utilities. Cease to pay bills, cease to have utilities. However, any introductory sociology class would say it is really not that simple.

On the one hand, there’s the issue of affordability and actually being able to pay the bills. Energy costs are rising and the number of people struggling is only increasing. It’s not a matter of not wanting to pay bills or not understanding that they have to, but simply not having the means to pay all of the bills every month. Many families have to make extremely difficult choices every month, choosing between one bill or another. Maybe they’ll pay rent this month, utilities the next.  

On the other hand, however, there’s intersectionality. In addition to struggling to pay their utility bill, a number of low-income households are also dealing with difficult medical conditions requiring around the clock care. For some people who require electric service for their oxygen tanks or for their medication to be refrigerated, utilities are vital to their health and wellbeing. Anyone who’s been seriously ill or has had a relative in the home that has been seriously ill knows that dealing with illness is on its own a difficult, all-encompassing experience, without having to worry about keeping electric service on for their medical equipment.

Many conversations revolving around social justice emphasize the importance of capturing people’s stories, their narratives. One of my projects this summer was to capture some of our client narratives. So one day, my boss, Keally, and I drove out to a client’s house to get his story from when his utilities were shut off and the Center helped him get restored. To our dismay, we arrived only to find the utilities had just been shut off again.

He was on the verge of tears; his mother who has advanced Alzheimer’s was agitated and confused. They shut them off in the middle of her breathing treatment. It was unclear when their services would be restored and he quickly began to worry about what they’d do that upcoming night without electricity for her oxygen tank. 

We walked in with all of our equipment and quickly put it off to the side. As all of this was happening, I just had no idea what to say or what to do. Keally, however, quickly got in motion. She sat down at eye-level with our client’s mother and talked to her; she thanked her for having us in her home. She talked to our client and really listened to him and let him express his frustrations. We did everything we could to be helpful and when there was nothing more we could do, we drove back to the office in silence.

It was more than “their story.” It’s their life. It’s so many people’s lives in Rhode Island. The social justice space is a hard one to navigate. There are victories and we celebrate them, but there are also days like this one. 

The thing about the Center for Justice though is that they get it, the whole picture. They’re not there to be the suits that save the day. Their model is unique in that they partner with existing community organizations so they can work in collaboration with the people on the front lines who know this work better than anyone. They’re there to validate people’s experiences and help them try to achieve what justice means for them in the legal space. In so many of these situations, the odds are stacked against the individuals at risk. Day in and day out though, there’s no one more dedicated to advocating on their behalf than the Center for Justice staff. 

They’re already making a difference.

I was so lucky to be able to work with them this summer.

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