The virtual 2021 Friends of Legal Aid Luncheon and Equal Justice Partner Awards concluded last month with remarks from author and activist Mia Birdsong.
“The American dream is compelling, in part because it makes us feel a sense of agency and control, but it also implies that needing help is weakness, and if you can’t make it on your own, you deserve whatever you get,” said Birdsong to an audience of more than 300 friends, supporters and community partners across Nebraska.
Birdsong, the author of “How We Show Up, Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community,” spoke about the American Dream, success, wellbeing and happiness and facing hardships during the pandemic. She provided actionable steps to make Nebraska an even more inclusive and stronger state.
A new American California Fellow, Birdsong is a storyteller who engages the leadership and wisdom of people experiencing injustice to chart new visions of American life
Birdsong urges more connection with friends and colleagues, today
In her keynote speech, Birdsong said that poverty is not the problem we need to solve, but rather a symptom. “It’s the outcome of an economy and culture set up to blame entire communities for suffering under systems of injustice.”
“The American dream is compelling, in part, because it makes us feel a sense of agency and control, but it also implies that needing help is weakness.”
“Why do we have such a hard time saying ‘yes’ to offers of support and an even harder time asking for help?” she asked about life during the pandemic. “The American dream has conditioned us to believe that needing help and rest are immoral.”
She said we need more empathy. “The problem is the myth that so many of us believe about who is deserving of basic human rights like food, shelter, education and healthcare and who is not.”
New stories about success are needed for a better tomorrow
Birdsong said seeking help when facing challenges from your network is crucial.
“Too often we think the answer is to push through and endure, to suck it up. Instead, of reaching for the hearts and hands of others to bring us ease. In doing so, we are upholding a culture that says our well-being is something we have to earn.”
“The problem is the myth that so many of us believe about who is deserving of basic human rights like food, shelter, education and healthcare and who is not.”
For a future where all are cared for, Birdsong says that we are all culpable. “There are clear, well-researched practical policy changes we can make to ensure that all of us have what we need to live a life of well-being.”
She mentioned restructured tax codes, minimum living wage, guaranteed income, universal healthcare, housing and education, among them.
“Those things will continue to be out of reach if we don’t believe that the people who would most benefit from those policies…deserve it.”
Birdsong shared a quote from her friend Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University, “We are all better off, when we are all better off.”
Asking for help when struggling is the first step in relearning what it means to be human
She recalled the time her friend, Sarah, texted her during the pandemic to see if she needed anything from the store. The ability to offer those simple acts of kindness and the ability to accept that help from friends help bring us closer together.
“I’d seen it on her face, the first time she dropped off the salt. I happened to be in my living room, and I waved to her as she went down my front stairs after making her deliver and her face lit up. Even behind her mask, I could see how good she felt caring for me in this small way,” she said.
“We are all better off, when we are all better off.”
– ERIC LIU, CEO, CITIZEN UNIVERSITY
“This generative circle of giving and receiving creates collective ease, like Sarah did for me, like I do for others.” It is when we are vulnerable and intimate with each other in moments like these that more connections are able to be weaved between us, she said.
By relearning what it means to be human through more connectedness, we can begin to create new stories of what it mean to be successful and happy.
“The story we need says that our deservedness is inherent to us. It’s not something we have to earn and it’s not something we can unearn. It says ‘we are valuable and worthy just because we exist.’”
Why our Equal Justice Partner Award Winners were selected
Legal Aid recognizes partners in our statewide community who have made particularly significant and noteworthy contributions to this shared goal of providing equal justice for Nebraskans from low-income backgrounds. The following were honored:
Mid-Nebraska Community Foundation was awarded the Community Partner Equal Justice Award for having provided early leadership on addressing the affordable housing crisis facing low-income essential workers in central Nebraska, and for the consistent support of Legal Aid’s initiatives to enforce legal rights associated with safe and healthy living conditions for all.
Baird Holm LLP was awarded the Law Firm Partner Equal Justice Award due to its long-time, significant and unwavering support of the work and mission of the Legal Aid Society of Omaha, and its successor, Legal Aid of Nebraska. From firm volunteers to financial contributions, the firm provided valuable, and timely legal assistance to Legal Aid of Nebraska.
Hightower Reff Law was awarded the Law Firm Equal Justice Partner Award because of their extensive efforts to help ensure low-income individuals receive high-quality civil legal services during some of the toughest times of their lives. This firm is acknowledged for the commitment to helping to bridge the justice gap through diversity and innovation.
“The story we need says that our deservedness is inherent to us. It’s not something we have to earn and it’s not something we can unearn. It says we are valuable and worthy just because we exist.”
Marcia Anderson was awarded the Attorney Partner Equal Justice Award for enthusiastically volunteering at nearly every Legal Aid Pro Bono event since they began. She also recruited on her own initiative several of her colleagues who have become amazing pro bono partners and friends of Legal Aid.
Will Wallace was awarded the Volunteer Partner Equal Justice Award for his important role in Legal Aid’s tax project and bankruptcy cases. Without Wallace’s tax assistance and filing of tax returns, Legal Aid’s clients would not be able to resolve their tax and consumer issues.
Mutual of Omaha Foundation was awarded the Corporate Partner Equal Justice Award for acting without hesitation to put forward resources to help ensure critically important nonprofit services continued in the face of the public health and economic crisis.
Additionally, the Foundation’s continuous support of Legal Access to Justice Walk-in Center. And also for perceiving the need to institutionally respond to the most significant civil rights movement in fifty years in an open and positive manner, such as offering and supporting inspiring racial equity training for both staff, and non-profit partners, including Legal Aid.
Legal Aid thanks our sponsors whose generosity allows our event to be free for attendees:
American National Bank Lou and Patricia Lamberty
Clark Management Consulting Mutual of America
FNBO Mutual of Omaha Foundation
Hauptman, O’Brien, Wolf, & Lathrop Nebraska Legal Group
INSPRO Nebraska State Bar Association
Koley Jessen NIFA
Kutak Rock Weitz Family Foundation
Missed the event, but still want to help make a difference?
- To make a donation to help equal justice happen for low-income Nebraskans, donate here.
- To get involved and learn more about Legal Aid’s volunteer opportunities, visit here.
Jen Litton, Development Coordinator at Legal Aid of Nebraska, is the author of this article.