Two women open The Way to Justice law firm
By Marijke Fakasiieiki
Virla Spencer and Camerina (Cam) Zorrozua, formerly with the Center for Justice, opened The Way to Justice, in February to provide representation, impact litigation, reform policies and do advocacy.
From Sept. 25 to 30, The Way to Justice is hosting a Justice Week open house to introduce their services to the community and to offer assistance through their driver's relicensing and post-conviction programs.
The community law firm created and led by women of color addresses barriers facing individuals negatively impacted by the justice system.
It seeks to remove barriers to access to lawyers, who are among the highest paid professionals in the country, Cam said. Many lack the thousands of dollars needed to pay retainers. The Way to Justice offers relief to clients who can't afford an attorney.
Virla worked for the Center for Justice for more than 10 years and Cam for more than two years. When it closed, Virla told Cam, "Let's start our own center."
They knew their clients needed the programs that the center had offered for 20 years.
"As women of color, we see things through the lens of race equity, because it is our life. What we do now is influenced by everything we have done up until now and everyone we've interacted with," Cam said.
The Center for Justice's anti-racism mission drew them there. When no one else advocated for students of color, they stepped in. When people ran out of resources, they called it discrimination. When no one else was listening or paying attention, they did. They approached such situations as advocates and attorneys.
"If programs and services we offered were not enough, we connected clients with community partners." Virla said.
"We are unapologetically driven by principles of racial justice. We announce ourselves as an anti-racist organization," Cam said.
Partnering with Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, their office is at 845 S. Sherman, the MLK Center's former site.
Their client-centered, holistic approach means they meet with clients where they are, listening, treating them with respect, understanding their experience, and protecting them.
COVID precautions make it difficult to serve clients, because some "face-to-face, personal interaction is required, listening with no judgement as people tell their stories so we engage with them as partners," Cam said.
Few of their clients have technology, limiting their ability to work online.
The Way to Justice partners with Pioneer Counseling Services at the Emerson Clinic, where clients are referred by therapeutic courts. They work with clinic staff to offer clients housing and employment resources.
Many cases involve vacating convictions, which means withdrawing a guilty plea so a case is dismissed,.
The Feb. 25 State Supreme Court ruled that convictions for "simple personal possession of a controlled substance" was unconstitutional, but did not automatically vacate the convictions of thousands.
Cam helps vacate convictions and reduce sentences for defendants who ask for relief. She also requests refunds for fines people paid. The Office of Civil Legal Aid funds that work.
"We have to educate the public on this decision," Cam said.
Data shows that, while people of color are no more likely to use substances, they are disproportionately convicted, Cam said.
The Way to Justice also vacates records. For city or county misdemeanors, it takes three years to clear a record. For felonies, depending on the class, it takes five to 10 years, she said.
"By the time clients come, they have had years of crime-free lives. They are entitled to relief. It helps them access better employment, housing and education opportunities," Cam said.
The Way to Justice's relicensing program helps people whose drivers' licenses were suspended for unpaid fines. A new law means anyone with a non-criminal moving violation may get their licenses back automatically, but it does not wipe away debt.
They help clients with first-, second- and third-degree suspensions that happen because many risk driving on a suspended license, Virla said. For example, low-income people in rural areas with no buses or in cities with limited bus connections need to take a child to childcare and then go to work in another area of town. They also need to go to grocery stores or doctor's appointment. So they drive.
Virla's journey led her to this work. She raised her children on TANF, lived in section 8 housing and used food stamps. She learned "to keep going no matter what," she said.
"As a black woman, I experienced discrimination in the education, employment, housing and criminal justice systems. I have been homeless, a single mother raising seven children and having nowhere to go," Virla said.
As a victim of domestic violence, she can relate to clients who experience it. She knows what it's like to choose between paying the light bill or feeding the family. She knows what it's like to catch a bus at 5 a.m. to drop her children at daycare and catch a bus to be at community college on time, and then to return to the daycare before they call Child Protective Services.
While she was considering working with AmeriCorps Vista, a caseworker told her, "AmeriCorps Vista is a joke, not a real job. Your food stamps and TANF are running out. After 60 months, what are you going to do?"
Virla chose to do AmeriCorps Vista and "use it to turn over every rock."
She then called a WorkSource counselor with whom she had a good relationship. The counselor said, "I believe in you. You've come so far. You will get through this."
That gave Virla her push. With AmeriCorps Vista, she volunteered at the Center for Justice and worked her way up from volunteering, to part-time then full-time as outreach coordinator, then as assistant director of driver relicensing, running that program and now having her own organization.
"My experiences allow me to meet clients where they are. Often out of the trauma people suffer, greatness comes," said Virla who attributes her success to faith.
"I believe in Jesus Christ and rely on my faith for everything," said Virla a member of the Church of Berachah.
Cam's journey began when her parents named her for her grandmother, Camerina, who was born in Mexico during the 1907 revolution, experienced political upheaval, witnessed injustice and decided to come to this country," Cam said.
"She had a hard life there and here, but was a living saint, driven by faith," said Cam, telling of her grandmother's influence.
As a child, Cam attended St. Aloysius in Spokane and St. Rose of Lima in Cheney. She said her spirituality was influenced by going to a Saturday evening Indian mass at St. Aloysius, led by Indigenous people.
"I have a personal relationship with our Creator. Every day, I see a spark of the Holy Spirit in clients," she said. "Because we are called to do work that isn't done yet, we chose the name The Way to Justice."
Her social worker/therapist mother and foster children siblings introduced her to dynamics of mental health and to seeing everyone's humanity.
Her parents supported her legal studies and career. As a Gonzaga Law School intern, she worked at Maxey Law Office, continuing there 13 years before going to the Center for Justice.
Founder Carl Maxey influenced the practice. She collaborates with his sons and grandsons on a Spokane County systemic racism work group.
"With young attorneys and young people calling for change, there is hope," Cam said.
"Young people recognize we all have a responsibility. We didn't create the systems, but see the damage they can do. As professionals working in the system, we are responsible to address issues and make changes," said Cam.
Realizing they cannot work alone, The Way to Justice collaborates and partners on common efforts.
Cam and Virla invite donations and seek volunteers to help them expand their efforts, and hire another attorney, an outreach coordinator and interns.