Advocating For Social Justice

Victor Geminiani, Jenny Lee, Mindi Allison, Jennifer Andrews, Diane Haar

(from left) attorneys Victor Geminiani and Jenny Lee development coordinator Mindi Allison, paralegal Jennifer Andrews and attorney Diane Haar. Photo courtesy Victor Geminiani

You know the old romantic notion of a hero, the guy who swoops in and rescues a damsel in distress, or the superman or woman who rescues a bunch of people trapped on a runaway train?

Well, I’ve got my very own, quite modern definition of a hero – or heroes. They’re the people who make up the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. Their leader is a fast-talking, passionate, compassionate and totally committed man named Victor Geminiani.

Geminiani’s a lawyer, the kind who uses his education and legal know how to make life better for people who are poor, disenfranchised and marginalized.

Geminiani’s philosophy is simple, really: “I love this country. I think it’s the most incredible place in the world. But we always need to make sure we’re being fair to everyone, because we’re strongest when everyone is sitting at the table and participating in decision-making.”

He has been an advocate for social justice since he began as a young attorney in the Deep South 43 years ago. Here in Hawaii he worked with the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii until the 1996 Congress barred federally funded legal aid programs from engaging in class actions or cases involving welfare reform. That restriction led to the creation of Lawyers for Equal Justice, which focused on advocating “on behalf of low-income individuals and families on civil legal issues of statewide importance to help our clients gain access to resources, services and fair treatment they need to realize their opportunities for self-achievement and economic security.”

In other words, Geminiani is all about bringing everyone onto the playing field, and then leveling it.

Since its inception, Lawyers for Equal Justice has litigated and won significant changes in how the state maintains public housing, the rights of disabled tenants to reasonable accommodations, and ensuring that homeless children have stability in their public education.

But along the way Geminiani realized that, in order to survive and continue to foster change, he couldn’t rely solely on litigation, which is why he sought out an affiliation with the national Appleseed Network. As the Hawaii Appleseed Center they are able to tap into nationwide resources, strategies and models of change that they can adapt and use to tackle local problems.

Now, instead of going to court, Geminiani and his small staff are focusing on what he calls “administrative and media advocacy” in order to create permanent, systemic change. They aim to influence public policy-making through education, research and public discussion.

In the last six months, the Hawaii Appleseed Center has researched and put together focused and detailed reports on:

* The plight of Micronesians in Hawaii

* How to approach the problem of homeless and affordable housing in Hawaii

* A comprehensive report on gambling in paradise

* A report on the state of poverty in Hawaii, which included policy recommendations

These reports were presented to the Legislature and were well-publicized. Geminiani hopes they will ultimately lead to real change in the way we approach these challenges, and in the way low-income people perceive themselves and their place in our system. He believes that if everyone has a sense of inclusion, that breeds ownership. And when you have ownership, you believe in the country and get involved. When you don’t, you’re more likely to shrug and walk away.

“Ultimately,” he says, “if this country is going to continue to prosper and remain strong, we’ve got to bring the low-income population into the decision-making process, give them access to participation in the institutions that are so critical to our development.

“That’s access to the political system, access to our education system. And finally access to our judicial system. Clearly, low-income people are challenged on all levels. They need fair access. Equal access. Good quality access.

“My goal, my mantra is to make these institutions accessible – all of them.”

And in my book, that makes Victor Geminiani and the folks at the Hawaii Appleseed Center real heroes.