As an organization committed to justice, Pro Bono Net works to bring the power of the law to all and to make the law work for the many and not the few.
Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15th, which marks the independence days of many countries in Central and South America, through October 15th. This month celebrates “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America,” according to the National Hispanic Heritage Month website.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re thrilled to highlight our Board Chair, Betty Balli Torres, and an in-depth interview our LawHelp Interactive Program Manager, Claudia Johnson, recently conducted with Betty about Betty’s background as a Latiné leader, work as Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, view of technology’s role in expanding access to justice, and more. We’re so grateful for Betty’s leadership and support of our work, and for all of her tremendous accomplishments as a champion of justice.
Betty has dedicated her professional career to public interest work serving as an advocate for civil legal services for the poor. She has served as the Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, the largest funding source for legal services to the poor in Texas, since 2001. Betty started as a staff attorney at Legal Aid of Central Texas after graduating from the University of Texas School of Law. She has held various public interest law positions, including: Executive Director of Laredo Legal Aid Society, Inc., Legal Director of Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, Managing Attorney of Legal Aid of Central Texas and as a staff attorney at Advocacy, Inc.
Betty has served on many local, statewide and national committees, boards and task forces related to access to justice and the legal profession. She is a Past President of the National Association of IOLTA Programs, Immediate Past-chair of the American Bar Association’s (ABA)’s Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities, Past Co-chair of the Board of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees Past-Chair of the Hispanic Issues Section of the State Bar of Texas and Past Co-Chair of the ABA’s Working Group on Unaccompanied Minors. She currently serves on the board of Management Information Exchange (MIE), member of the Steering Committee of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA)’s Latino Section, Co-Chair of NAIP’s Racial Justice Committee and member of the ABA’s Commission on Racial Justice and Ethnic Justice. She currently serves as Chair of Pro Bono Net.
Betty is a recipient of the Distinguished Lawyer Award (Austin Bar Association), Tower of Justice Award (Texas Legal Services Center), Outstanding Public Interest Attorney Award (Travis County Women Lawyers Association), the Regina Rogoff Award (Austin Bar Association), the “Nonny” Award for Outstanding Nonprofit Leadership in Austin, the “Star of Justice” Award (Texas Access to Justice Commission), the prestigious Harold Kleinman Award, the Community Service, Chair and Pro Bono Awards (Hispanic Issues Section-State Bar of Texas), Emily C. Jones Lifetime Achievement Award and the ABA’ s Grassroots Advocacy Award.
How do you identify? LatinX? Chicana? Hispanic? Latina?
We kicked off the interview talking about identity. This month is Hispanic Heritage Month and thus the topic of identity, self definition, and personal identity are very much in our minds. Betty’s response was powerful and refreshing:
Betty: “Identity journey – who decides what we are called? Who made that decision? You get told what you are: Chicano, Hispanic, Latina, LatinX, etc. Somehow we continue to be labeled by the government, State, others, and why? I prefer plain American – born and raised in the US.”
Betty shared insights on how these labels given by others create controversy within the Latiné community. For her, the question of identity is more about her family background, thus she identifies as Mexican American. Why? Because her dad was born in the US and her mom was born in Mexico. So she is both.
Betty would prefer that we skip these labels, and focus on our national identity – US born, but with immigrant mom roots and US dad roots. In effect, having others decide what box we fit in, and who they are is rather limiting. Over the course of her life and career, Betty has seen the labels come and go. It used to be that some of these labels were considered put downs, and then they became popular, like Chicano. Betty reflects, “what if the labels changed every year? I am still a US citizen with immigrant roots like most of us?” From Betty’s perspective, we should not allow anyone but ourselves to define us, because these labels help us, put us in a box and we are more than that label, whatever it is.
How long have you been leading the Foundation? What has been the hardest lesson you have learned as a funder in terms of funding innovative, game-changing projects and programs?
Betty shared that in the course of her experience, there has only been one other Latiné IOLTA director for the first 16 years of holding the position and it is only in the past six years that there has been another Latina director. Her counterpart is from Puerto Rico, and in all this time, there has not been any other Latiné leading any other state ATJ funding foundation that funds the services often provided to the Latinx, Black, Native American, or Asian communities.
More disappointing is that there seems to be a nominal pipeline to ensure that the state ATJ funding foundations can eventually include other life experiences. Out of the 52 individual foundations, there are less than a handful of people of color at the helm. To Betty, the fact that this has not improved in the past 20 years, when so many have graduated from law school, and are working and contributing in earnest and are excellent strategists, is disappointing. So she has made diversity a main area of focus of her volunteer and professional work.
Betty’s background prior to leading the Foundation in Texas is exceptional. She shared that she has been a legal aid lawyer, Pro Bono Director, worked at the border as a director, and did work at Disability Rights, all in Texas. Her direct advocacy in different communities and always there for the monolingual Spanish speaking clients and the most vulnerable groups informs her funding priorities now. She does not come with a top down approach, or from wealth management of firm background, but from direct experience representing people with mental and physical disabilities and the most vulnerable among us.
Betty joined the Pro Bono Net board because she sees and believes that tech can help be part of a solution, but is well aware that tech is not a silver bullet particularly to some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
Overlaying tech into an unnecessarily complicated system is not helpful. Betty strongly believes that “until we simplify the legal system, there has to be a human that works with certain populations. We have to make the technology that fits the communities. Technology has to be purposefully inclusive.” She believes that Pro Bono Net is centered on these values and beliefs, making it a unique tech nonprofit in this space. For example, she mentioned ¡Reclamo!, tackles the problem of stolen wages for immigrants, a real problem, with a very vulnerable population, immigrants and developing that tool with intentionality and community involvement.
In terms of her approach to funding, the Foundation likes to invest in what works and is effective, which isn’t necessarily what is “new”. For example, Texas Law Help helps millions per year and has for a long time. She is proud when resources can be shared for free to millions of people each year.
Another tool that she thinks is a good investment in the Access to Justice space is Live Chat, which has been around since 2015 in legal nonprofits. It is “old school” and that is ok by her. It is effective and provides good service in a reliable and high quality manner.
That said, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) is willing and very open to investing in new strategies, including funding legal kiosks, and new kiosks in Texas. TAJF has funded 25 kiosks and put them not inside the traditional places, but really placing them where the community is, for example shelters, libraries, Native American areas, rural deserts. She likes that they are learning from each different location and design. Betty shared that while a press event was being conducted in deep West Texas, a community member with legal needs showed up to use the new tool showing the need in remote areas. All the centers will be evaluated and then from there they will select how best to replicate them. Most importantly, the services and systems need to get out of the downtown buildings and go where the community is. “Get out to the community” as she shared.
TAJF is also focusing on ensuring all language groups are not left without legal information and services, and has made significant strategic investments in updating and modernizing in terms of language access and design, Texas Law Help.
What drew you to Board leadership at Pro Bono Net? What’s something that excites you about PBN’s work and impact?
Betty has been a long-standing member of the Pro Bono Net (PBN) Board and started serving in 2004, way before she became our Board Chair. She knew about LawHelp and then LawHelp Interactive, and saw that our technology, and not just one tool, were part of the solution. The one aspect of Pro Bono Net she finds thrilling, is that PBN always is innovating, improving, and coming up with new models that explore how and why technology can be impactful in empowering communities in need. She finds PBN innovative and dynamic and constantly improving or creating new approaches to a deep and hard problem. This is what keeps her involved.
She anticipates that PBN will improve at sharing the impact our tools make. She knows that we have a deep impact across the US, but she wants to see more of that impact story told. PBN’s constant innovation, not staying stagnant, is unique, special, and needs to be supported. Not all tech groups do this and she values and supports PBN’s growth mindset. IMMI, ¡Reclamo! – growth mindset.
Betty shared that time is a precious commodity. She is focusing all her energy where it is needed, and she is proud of contributing to PBN. She is now even more careful about where she spends her time, and her number one priority is to focus on the intersectionality of race and access to justice and supporting groups like PBN that make a real impact at scale.
One area she thinks needs more energy is in telling how nonprofit technology is having a huge impact on Access to Justice. There is an ecosystem of free high quality tools, like the ones that PBN focuses on, that are making a difference in the millions. How does that story become known? How does the ATJ ecosystem value those nonprofit contributions? We talked about how it will probably not be one tool to rule them all, but a group of tools all aligning along incentives and mission, to provide valuable and impactful tools for free for those in need. And how do we ensure that they are available to groups serving primarily POC and other systematically excluded communities.
How does the foundation decide priorities to fund projects? Who does it look for inspiration, for guidance? Are you focusing on reducing the court backlogs, for example, or are you looking more toward economic equality for systematically oppressed groups? If you had a magic wand, what projects would you fund? Think wild and outside the box.
Betty: “In the ATJ world, the biggest issue is that the legal system was not created for people. If I had a magic wand, we would reshape the system to create it for anyone, not just lawyers. We would have to make every area of the law so that anyone could go to represent themselves. Everything would be approachable, there would be people who speak your language and there would be multiple places to go for help, including online. There would not be a need to travel too far. Maybe you could go to a neighborhood court house, where you can do your own divorce, with support but not needing a lawyer.”
Betty wonders how we bring simplicity into the legal system. What we have is not for the people but for the system. We need to shift our thinking from “I need a lawyer” to “I need to get some guidance and support/orientation.” We need to help people resolve the issues with minimal time, stress, and resources.
Betty observes that some progress has been made with providing one lawyer to one client in certain courts, like landlord tenant court in some cities; however, that is not enough. If legal aid groups can only help 8 percent out of a 100 people who qualify for services, then the system is broken. The way forward, in Betty’s opinion, is to simplify the system, and to start thinking of community-based solutions, not top down approaches. Go where the people are, and there you will find the needs and solutions to problems. Bring back community-based services, but don’t center on the lawyers. Simple, free, easy to use technology will be part of that solution.
The solution would be one where people don’t need a lawyer to get through a process.
Thank you to Betty Balli Torres for taking the time to be interviewed and sharing your insights, energy, and wisdom. We are lucky to have you leading our board.
Pro Bono Net is grateful for all Latiné staff and Board members, partners, advocates, and supporters’ contributions to our work. We are also grateful that as a technical solutions leader in the area of access to justice, we strive to serve the Latinx community in parity with national demographics, and we remain committed to creating and building tools and partnerships that serve all, regardless of language and national origin, race, ethnicity and religion.