Monday, June 24, 2019

Brittney’s Legal Life Skills Story

Street Law’s Legal Life Skills Program empowers society's most vulnerable people with the legal knowledge and civic skills needed to advocate for themselves, combat inequality, and participate effectively in their communities.

When setting up a Legal Life Skills Program site, Street Law strives to include and amplify the voices of program participants—the people on the receiving end of the lessons. This helps build stronger, more effective programs that better meet the unique needs of participants. It also creates a valuable leadership development opportunity for participant ambassadors as they work closely with the program leaders and liaise with their peers to ensure program success. 

Brittney Booze served as an ambassador in Street Law’s Legal Life Skills Program at St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth, and Families, a transitional housing program for vulnerable women and children in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Brittney arrived at St. Ann’s a homeless mother-to-be. As a resident, she embraced the Legal Life Skills Program and encouraged her peers to do the same. The legal literacy and leadership skills she developed helped blaze her path to independence. Today, Brittney has transitioned into her own apartment where she lives with her son.

We recently caught up with Brittney to reflect on her participation in the Legal Life Skills Program. Here’s what she had to say.

What brought you to St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth, and Families?

I got to St. Ann’s when I was six weeks pregnant with my son. I was homeless and didn’t have stability. I had been homeless since I was 18, so going into St. Ann’s was like a clean slate. I was about to have a baby, and I wanted to switch up the cycle for my son. I Googled transitional housing programs and that’s how I became aware of St. Ann’s. I went to the intake and became a resident of St. Ann’s within two weeks. I stayed for three years.

What was the transition like for you?

It was hard. It was definitely hard. I went through a lot of depression. I went through a lot of doubt.   I went through a lot of failures … just trying to find my place and what it was I was supposed to do. I had gotten to the point where in my mind I was just going to stay homeless for the rest of my life because I did not see any way possible for it to change for me. I didn’t have family. I didn’t have anyone I could turn to. It was just my son and I against the world.

But once I gave birth to my son, and he started to grow and to actually understand things, I looked at my surroundings and I said: “I want more.”

How did Street Law’s Legal Life Skills Program help?

The volunteers introduced us to important financial information, including credit, budgeting, banking, and taxes. They were speaking about real stuff that was going on in the world, even giving us real-life scenarios to help us be prepared.

So those scenarios not only helped me, they equipped me with information about the laws I need to protect my child, and myself, just in case anything happens in the future. It [also] allowed me to understand what attorneys were, if you couldn’t really afford an attorney, how the court could appoint you one.

You served as a participant ambassador to your peers in the program. What did you gain from stepping up and playing that leadership role?

First of all, I gained confidence. I am a very outspoken person, but there was something about Street Law that started a fire in me that I didn’t even know was there. And when I say fire, I mean the ability to stand up for those who did not know what those laws were. You hear what I’m saying? Now that I know those laws, I can stand up for other people and vouch for them. That was the fire that was burning inside of me, and it probably grew when Street Law came into St. Ann’s.

Being able to know my laws … made me feel like I had information that I wanted to spread to the world and if that meant me standing up and speaking up, then put me in.

I also found my voice with my peers. Nobody really wanted to be there at first, especially given all the stuff we had going on at St. Ann’s. But once [the Street Law volunteers] started to fully interact with us, that’s when they got it. When they started to interact with who they were teaching, then they had some people. You gave us the handouts, you gave us real-life scenarios, and you actually let us interact and express what we felt.

You all were so engaging. You saw something in all of us. That’s what made me step up. I was like “You know these people are coming there. They’re spending their evenings with us for free, volunteering to come to St. Ann’s.” I was always the leader when it came to the residents. If they saw me doing it, they were going to do it. So I said, “You know what? We are going to give them a shot. Let’s do it.” I would just say, “Come on guys, let’s participate.” That was enough to say, “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s do it right now.”

What set Street Law apart from other programs that you’ve participated in?

One thing that stood out for me was the interaction. I’m a hands-on person. [Street Law’s] vibe is something that definitely gets me involved. You all came in, you got to know who we were, and you got to know our kids. That was one thing that stood out for me because a lot of people come through our program, and they’re just doing it because they got a paper they got to sign off on … it’s just something that they have to do cause somebody told them to. Street Law actually came to help us. You came and you made us laugh. We were actually eager to come to class. When we found out Street Law was Thursdays, it was like, “Okay. Let’s go!”

You guys were so motivating. You were pushing us to do better in our lives, even if it was something small like checking our W4 forms. It made us realize that there were so many important things for us to be doing: whether we got a job, whether we were saving, whether we were budgeting, whether we were going to court for our kids.

So that was amazing. They also brought us snacks, so that was fun too.

How did what you learned help you transition out of St. Ann’s?

I’m going to be completely honest with you. What helped me get to where I am was the first day that you guys came in. You guys came and made me feel like I could, like I had power in my hands with just learning the laws and learning the things that I did not know before Street Law. I realized that there was so much more for my life and my son’s life. All I had to do was open my ears to listen. Some people can come into your life and just teach you something that seems so small but is so important.

What are you up to now, Brittney?

I’m just blooming … I’m taking it a day at a time. I see my future so bright. I want so much for my future and it’s scary. I’m like, “Okay what can I do today to change my future?” Because I’m ready to do this, and I’m ready to make an impact on somebody’s life. No one would believe that little old me that came from nothing, from the system, is where I am now. Evolving and growing. Empowering. Advocating.

Want to hear more of Brittney’s story? Check out this video of her speaking a the 2018 Street Law Awards Dinner.

Learn more about Street Law’s Legal Life Skills Program.