Traci Feit Love continues to deliver pro bono services while negotiating through the trauma and injustices she witnesses
Lawyers have been organizing in large numbers during the last six years to offer pro bono legal services to immigrants, racial minorities and small businesses affected by COVID-19. The new post-Roe landscape is no different.
Among the significant forces behind this pro bono organizing effort is Lawyers for Good Government, a nonprofit that grew out of 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 drive is also a way of coping with the injustices she witnesses in the world.
Our discussion highlights how reactions to individual or collective traumas never look the same and need not cause an inability to function. They may even inspire extreme productivity, as exhibited by Love. Maintaining a personal routine that facilitates her work keeps Love going and inspires others. L4GG has delivered more than $15 million worth of legal services. While the cumulative toll on Love has made her feel as if she aged 20 years in six years, the work seems to be the only way to not give in to cynicism.
Mallika Kaur: Let’s begin with the Dobbs v. Jackson decision. How have you and the team at L4GG responded in the immediate wake of that decision, especially while balancing a range of personal reactions?
Traci Feit Love: We responded by focusing on the work; trying to identify what the short-term, medium-term and long-term legal needs would be and what we as an organization could do to help address 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 large law firms, the RHLAP will provide legal information and guidance to medical providers across the country. It’s an ambitious project, so as a team, we’ve had to keep focused on that.
Mallika Kaur: Many, though of course not all, have talked about feeling this decision in their bodies. This is especially interesting to those of us who have for long recognized the physiological, bodily impact of traumas—no matter our legal training or experience. Have you had an opportunity to fully embrace your reactions to this decision?
Traci Feit Love: If I’m being honest, I really haven’t allowed myself to spend much time dwelling on the emotional side of this. A wave of emotion hits, I feel it, and then I put it aside. I don’t know how else to get the work done.
On a webinar I hosted in the immediate wake of the decisions about how lawyers can protect reproductive rights post-Roe, I had to compartmentalize all of my emotions in order to try to keep the focus on the work. If I had allowed myself to feel everything on the call I would have broken down. I felt two minds about my “keeping it together.” On the one hand, there really is important work to do, and we all need to be focused enough to get it done. On the other hand, I didn’t want anyone walking away from the call to think that if it is too hard for them to focus on the work right now, that they are not strong enough. It is a normal, strong, human response to feel overcome 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 is just not stopping long enough to fully embrace the range of reactions.
Mallika Kaur: Have the emotional negotiations of your work gotten easier or more complex as you have gained expertise and moved from one crisis to the next, feeling like you cannot stop?
Traci Feit Love: More complex. When I started this work, I honestly had no idea how big of an effect it would have on me, on our staff or on our volunteers. I feel like I have aged 20 years in the past six years, and a lot of that has to do with the emotional weight of the work we are doing.
In addition, over the past three years L4GG has grown from a full-time staff of one (just me) to 12 (and still growing). That means learning how to not only navigate my own individual emotions, but also to manage the varying emotional responses of different staff members and the relationships between staff members. It’s not easy.
Mallika Kaur: I often talk to advocates about negotiating three Ts in our direct services work: triggers, trauma, time. News cycles, no matter how triggering or troubling, have shorter half-lives. But legal cases still need staying power. How do you negotiate all of that as you organize others?
Traci Feit Love: What I have tried to do through L4GG is look for ways to convert outrage—which is often fleeting—into sustainable, systemic action. That means asking lawyers to volunteer at the moment they are most inspired to do so, creating systems within which pro bono work can make a meaningful difference, reminding pro bono attorneys about the impact of their work on an ongoing basis and—from the very beginning of any project—assuming that there will be turnover. A sustainable project by definition has to outlast the initial group of volunteers. … That also means asking funders to support new pro bono projects beyond the initial news cycle. Pro bono work isn’t free.
Mallika Kaur: Would you be comfortable sharing your own emotional reactions as a younger woman organizing in the legal space?
Traci Feit Love: There’s no easy way to summarize my reactions to doing this work. At different times over the past six years, and sometimes at the same time, I have experienced immense sadness, anger, guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, disgust and more frustration than I knew was possible. I have also experienced joy, gratitude, and pride, particularly in those moments when we succeed in helping to change someone’s life for the better. One thing I work at 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 funny TV show with my daughter. Spending time with family and friends. Hanging out with my dog. And sleep. Sleep is big.
Mallika Kaur: Your organization has pivoted from one highly impacted or traumatized client population and issue to the next very quickly. Could you share about any occasion you recall when your movement lawyering work became too much for you personally?
Traci Feit Love: Summer 2019. I brought a team of pro bono immigration attorneys to Matamoros (Mexico) when the “Remain in Mexico” program was extended to the Brownsville, Texas, port of entry to see what the situation was on the ground and what we could do to help. What I saw was hundreds of people who had fled their homes with nothing but what they could carry, in hopes of finding safety in the United States. … It was incredibly hot. Conditions were absolutely terrible. The only food and clean drinking water was what some U.S. volunteers were able to carry across the border each day. I spoke with so many parents that day who were just pleading for help for their kids. “Please, my baby needs water.” “Please, my daughter is nonverbal, and I am so scared they will take her away.”
It was shocking and horrifying. I got back to my hotel room that night and cried. Then I threw myself into the work. Since then, we’ve 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 L4GG seek to work in a way to encourage others to healthily negotiate being professionally rigorous while also being personally satisfied in this work?
Traci Feit Love: We provide L4GG staff members a health insurance plan that includes mental health care; we strongly encourage—and constantly remind—everyone to take 100% of their personal time off; and in addition to that we usually close our organization for at least two weeks between end of December and early January—a time to recharge and prepare for the work ahead. We also have a practice of starting our weekly team meetings by celebrating good news and ending with “shoutouts,” an opportunity for staff members to publicly recognize and show appreciation for others on the team. In spite of all of that, I know there are times when the work is too heavy to bear.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on human rights, with a specialization 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 classes at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.