Section Review

The Dow Fund: A legacy and experiment to increase access to justice Zenobia T. Lai and Frederick H. Dow

Zenobia T. Lai is managing attorney of Greater Boston Legal Services Asian Outreach Unit and trustee of the Harry H. Dow Memorial Legal Assistance Fund.
Frederick H. Dow is president of the Harry H. Dow Memorial Legal Assistance Fund.
In April 1985, following the tragic death of Harry Hom Dow, who in 1929 became the first Asian-American admitted to practice law in Massachusetts, his family and friends merged the condolence tributes received to establish the Harry H. Dow Memorial Legal Assistance Fund. Established as a nonprofit charitable trust, it has one overarching mission, that is, the development of permanent resources to improve access to justice for Asian-Americans.

With an initial sum of $10,000 in donations, the Dow Fund, as it has since become known, began to build an endowment that would generate sufficient income to support its projects. As designed, the Dow Fund's trust document states that it shall provide internship opportunities to support low-income bilingual and bicultural Asian-American students to work in legal services programs.

For 18 years, the Dow Fund has enhanced its endowment and implemented its internship program to enable more than 100 bilingual and bicultural college students and law students from New England and beyond to intern at the Asian Outreach Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services. These students offer their education and language skills to help staff the weekly community intake of the Asian Outreach Unit in Boston's Chinatown and in Dorchester. They help expand the Asian Outreach Unit's capacity in extending legal assistance to many more individuals by dispensing counsel, advice and brief service. The interns also participate in individual cases and major litigation by providing a crucial language bridge and research support. Through these contacts with individual clients, the interns become acquainted with their community, learn about its assets, become invested in its issues and formulate their own career paths steering toward public interest. Some Dow Fund Internship graduates have returned to work in legal services or public interest positions, while others have moved on to form nonprofit organizations to meet pressing community needs.

Since its inception, the Dow Fund and Greater Boston Legal Services have worked in concert to address the needs of the Asian-American community: the fund raises income to support interns placed at GBLS' Asian Outreach Unit and spearheads new projects to meet emerging needs. In return, GBLS provides a base for many of the Dow Fund's operations, including office space, supervision and training as well as supplemental funds and staffing to support project implementation. This symbiotic relationship led to the Asian Outreach Unit launching the Asian Battered Women Project in the early 1990s in response to the disproportionately high incidence of fatal domestic violence in Asian homes. Similarly, when changes and cuts from federal and state welfare reform hit home in 1996, the Dow Fund quickly raised money and assembled the staff necessary to implement the Asian Immigrant Rights Initiative. This effort yielded a series of workshops and legal clinics to address community concerns about impending welfare reform and provide legal assistance to individuals.

By reaching out to various segments of the Asian immigrant community, the Dow Fund has consistently identified unmet needs and emerging issues in the community. For example, based on the success of the Asian Immigrant Rights Initiative, in 1999 the Dow Fund launched the Cambodian Outreach Project in Lowell, home to the nation's second largest Cambodian-American community. The goal of the Cambodian Outreach Project, similar to other Dow Fund projects, is to connect an insular Asian immigrant community with legal services through funding and the design of linguistically and culturally appropriate frameworks to ensure the project's long-term success. Within the Cambodian Outreach Project, the Dow Fund seeks to accomplish two goals: connecting Cambodian-Americans with legal services programs in their community, and fostering community development by cultivating indigenous leadership among local Cambodian-Americans. Now housed in the Merrimack Valley Legal Services, the Cambodian Outreach Project has opened doors to accessing legal services in Greater Lowell, and it is rapidly becoming an integral component of Merrimack Valley Legal Services.

The creation of the Dow Fund was similar to that of the GBLS Asian Outreach Unit 13 years earlier, in that both were the logical outgrowth of necessity. When the Asian immigrant population started growing in the early 1970s, following a Congressional enactment to remove discriminatory immigration policies, Massachusetts counted only a handful of Asian-American lawyers. The founders of the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts reminisce that in 1985 it would have taken less than two banquet tables to hold the organization's first membership meeting. With the dynamic growth in the Asian immigrant and working class community, bilingual and bicultural lawyers and paralegals became essential to tackle issues on immigration, housing, education, employment and family law. The challenge was met by the first generation of Asian-American law students to emerge after Harry Dow's admission to the Bar some four decades earlier. Their first step was to form a part-time student-run legal clinic out of a nascent health center in Chinatown to offer legal assistance to the growing population. With a singular mission to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate legal assistance to low-income Asian-Americans in Greater Boston on general poverty law matters, what was then known as the Chinatown Outreach Project evolved into a permanent and vital resource within Greater Boston Legal Services.

Thirty-one years and many iterations later, the Asian Outreach Unit is one of a handful of specialized units in legal services in the United States that caters to a particular population that, because of language and cultural barriers, has difficulty accessing mainstream legal services. Through experience, the Asian Outreach Unit has also broadened its mission from providing legal services to undertaking community development. It recognizes that if legal services are to make lasting social change, it is not adequate to only protect a family's home or end abuse on a case-by-case basis. The unit's philosophy is to strengthen the community it serves and constantly infuse the work with new energy and vision. Therefore, the Asian Outreach Unit also has evolved to provide legal assistance and legal support to Asian Pacific-American community groups on community development and community empowerment issues. It utilizes this special perch to train Dow Fund interns and other aspiring Asian Pacific-American community lawyers, thereby expanding the pool of public interest lawyers.

For all of its success, the Asian Outreach Unit can hardly fulfill its stated mission alone. It is through close collaboration with the Dow Fund that the Asian Outreach Unit maintains the flexibility needed to serve an increasingly diverse Asian-American population with ever changing needs. With the Dow Fund's vision and mission to serve a community's legal needs and GBLS' institutional support of its projects and programs, the Dow Fund and GBLS have developed a model that could be replicated elsewhere to serve the newcomers in our community. The five-year-old Cambodian Outreach Project stands as proof of the potential to replicate the infrastructure for other Asian Outreach Units in other legal services program.

The Dow Fund and the Asian Outreach Unit have served as the rallying ground for many public interest minded Asian-American lawyers. Whether serving on the board of the Dow Fund or coming together as an ad hoc think tank, committed Asian-American attorneys have pooled their collective strengths to ensure that access to justice will never again be denied to Asian-Americans or other immigrant groups. The relationship between the Dow Fund and Greater Boston Legal Services is an example of how we can collectively improve access to our legal system for those who would be denied equal justice due to barriers of poverty, race, language, culture or immigration status.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association