50 Years of Effective Advocacy for Fairness, Equality, and Social Justice

By Joe Onek

As staff attorney, executive director, board member, and board chair, I have been associated with CLASP for most of its 50 years. CLASP has, of course, changed in many ways over these 50 years. But its commitment to effective advocacy in the service of fairness, equality, and social justice has been unwavering.

CLASP was the first public interest law firm in DC and, not surprisingly, it initially worked on a wide variety of issues—the environment, mental health, access to health care, women’s rights, consumer protection, and worker safety. Over time, other public interest firms sprang up to focus on each of these issues. Many of these organizations were incubated within CLASP’s walls and founded by CLASP alums—including the Mental Health Law Project (now the Bazelon Center) and the National Women’s Law Center.

With our partners taking the lead on these critical issues, CLASP increasingly concentrated on the widespread problems facing people with low incomes and on protecting the Legal Services Corporation’s ability to provide legal assistance to those who struggled to afford their basic needs, let alone the cost of a lawyer.

While our strategies may have evolved over 50 years, the “through line” of our work remains effective advocacy. CLASP brings three great strengths to its efforts. First, it is highly skilled in working on joint federal-state programs such as affordable child care and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. After lobbying the federal government to obtain the best legislation and regulations possible, CLASP then counsels state governments on how to implement those laws and regulations. This in turn enables the organization to provide feedback to federal officials about how they can make the program easier for states to administer and better suited to the needs of beneficiaries.

Second, CLASP takes a sophisticated two-generational approach to social problems. It understands that children cannot thrive if their parents are struggling. Thus, in addition to supporting programs that directly assist children, CLASP promotes better employment and educational opportunities for parents, as well as access to child care and health and mental health services. 

Third, CLASP knows how to work with coalitions. With the National Immigration Law Center, it established the Protecting Immigrant Families campaign and mobilized scores of organizations to generate over 250,000 comments in opposition to the Trump Administration’s “public charge” rule denying benefits to immigrants entering the country or seeking a green card. It can also stay in the background, providing issue briefings and talking points to front-line advocates in states and local communities.

In all these ways—and more—CLASP has played a leadership role in advocating for fairness, equality, and social justice. I am honored to have participated along the way and look forward to seeing how the organization continues to build on its impressive legacy.

Joe Onek has served CLASP as staff attorney, executive director, and chair of the board of trustees. He remains a member of the board.

Click here to learn more about CLASP's 50th anniversary.