Traci Feit Love continues to provide pro bono service while negotiating through the trauma and injustice she witnesses
Lawyers have organized in large numbers over the past six years to provide pro bono legal services to immigrants, racial minorities and small businesses impacted by COVID-19. The new post-deer the landscape is no different.
Among the important forces behind this volunteer organizing effort are Lawyers for Good Government, a nonprofit spun off from a popular Facebook group started by Traci Feit Love in 2016. In this interview, I talk with Love about the work she continues to do with unstoppable zeal. She paused long enough to explain that her conduct is also a way to deal with the injustices she witnesses in the world.
Our discussion highlights the fact that reactions to individual or collective trauma are never alike and do not necessarily result in an inability to function. They can even inspire extreme productivity, as Love shows. Maintaining a personal routine that makes her job easier keeps Love going and inspiring others. L4GG has provided over $15 million in legal services. While Love’s cumulative toll has made her feel like she’s aged 20 years in six years, work seems to be the only way not to give in to cynicism.
Mallika Kaur: Let’s start with the Dobbs vs. Jackson decision. How did you and the L4GG team react in the immediate aftermath of this decision, particularly balancing a range of personal reactions?
Traci Feit Love: We responded by focusing on work; trying to identify what the short, medium and long term legal needs would be and what we as an organization could do to help meet those needs. In response to a request for assistance from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, we are now moving forward with a new initiative, the Reproductive Health Legal Assistance Project. With support from more than 40 leading law firms, RHLAP will provide legal information and advice to medical providers across the country. It’s an ambitious project, so as a team we had to stay focused on that.
Mallika Kaur: Many, but of course not all, have spoken of feeling this decision in their bodies. This is of particular interest to those of us who have long recognized the physiological and bodily impact of trauma, regardless of our training or legal experience. Have you had the opportunity to fully accept your reactions to this decision?
Traci Feit Love: To be honest, I really didn’t allow myself to spend a lot of time dwelling on the emotional side of it all. A wave of emotion hits, I feel it, then I push it aside. I don’t know how else to do the job.
In a webinar I hosted in the immediate wake of rulings on how lawyers can protect reproductive rights afterdeer, I had to compartmentalize all my emotions to try to keep the focus on work. If I had allowed myself to feel everything during the call, I would have cracked. I felt two spirits about my ‘keeping together’. On the one hand, there really is important work to be done, and we all need to be focused enough to do it. On the other hand, I didn’t want anyone walking away from the call to think that if it’s too hard for them to focus on work right now, they’re not strong enough. It is a normal and strong human reaction to feel overwhelmed by powerful emotions in the face of injustice. People have a right to be outraged; emotional response to injustice is a strength, not a weakness. My personal approach right now doesn’t stop long enough to fully embrace the range of reactions.
Mallika Kaur: Have the emotional negotiations of your work become easier or more complex as you have gained expertise and moved from crisis to crisis, feeling that you cannot stop you?
Traci Feit Love: More complex. When I started this job, I honestly had no idea how big of an effect it would have on me, our staff or our volunteers. I feel like I’ve aged 20 years over the past six years, and that has a lot to do with the emotional weight of the work we do.
Additionally, over the past three years, L4GG has grown from a full-time staff of one (just me) to 12 (and still growing). This means learning not only to manage my own individual emotions, but also to manage the different emotional responses of different staff members and the relationships between staff members. It is not easy.
Mallika Kaur: I often talk to advocates about negotiating the three Ts in our direct service work: triggers, trauma, time. News cycles, whether triggering or disturbing, have shorter half-lives. But court cases still need perseverance. How do you negotiate all of this while organizing others?
Traci Feit Love: What I have tried to do through L4GG is to look for ways to convert outrage – which is often fleeting – into lasting systemic action. This means asking lawyers to volunteer when they are most inspired to do so, creating systems where pro bono work can make a meaningful difference, reminding pro bono lawyers of the impact of their work on a continues and – from the start of any project, assuming there will be turnover. A sustainable project, by definition, must last longer than the initial group of volunteers. … It also means asking backers to support new pro bono projects beyond the initial news cycle. Pro bono work is not free.
Mallika Kaur: Would you be comfortable sharing your own emotional reactions as a young woman organizing in the legal space?
Traci Feit Love: There is no easy way to sum up my reactions to doing this work. At different times over the past six years, and sometimes at the same time, I have felt immense sadness, anger, guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, disgust and more frustration than I thought possible. I also felt joy, gratitude and pride, especially in those times when we manage to help change someone’s life for the better. One thing I work on every day is refusing to give in to cynicism.
Mallika Kaur: How did you take care of yourself personally?
Traci Feit Love: For me, it’s the little things. Watching a fun TV show with my daughter. Spending time with family and friends. Go out with my dog. And sleep. Sleep is great.
Mallika Kaur: Your organization has moved very quickly from one highly impacted or traumatized client population and issue to another. Could you share an occasion that you remember when your job as a movement advocate became too much for you personally?
Traci Feit Love: Summer 2019. I brought a team of pro bono immigration lawyers to Matamoros, Mexico when the Stay in Mexico program was extended to the port of entry in Brownsville, Texas to see what the situation was like on the terrain and what we could do. to help. What I saw were hundreds of people who had fled their homes with nothing but what they could carry, hoping to find safety in the United States. … It was incredibly hot. The conditions were absolutely terrible. The only food and drinking water was what some American volunteers could carry across the border each day. I spoke with so many parents that day who were asking for help for their children. “Please, my baby needs water.” “Please, my daughter is non-verbal, and I’m so scared they’ll take her away.”
It was shocking and horrifying. I went back to my hotel room that night and cried. Then I got to work. Since then, we have helped thousands of asylum seekers at the border, but it will never be enough. That’s what hurts the most.
Mallika Kaur: How do you, as an L4GG, seek to work in a way that encourages others to negotiate soundly by being rigorous professionally while being personally satisfied in this work?
Traci Feit Love: We provide L4GG staff members with a health insurance plan that includes mental health care; we strongly encourage and constantly remind everyone to take 100% of their time off; and on top of that, we usually close our organization for at least two weeks between late December and early January, a time to recharge and prepare for the work ahead. We also have a habit of starting our weekly team meetings by celebrating good news and ending with “shouting”, an opportunity for staff members to publicly acknowledge and show their appreciation for fellow team members. . Despite all of this, I know that there are times when the work is too much to bear.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on human rights, specializing in gender and minority issues. She is the author of the new book Faith, Gender and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper. She teaches social justice courses at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.