When I moved to Miami from Newark for law school more than 20 years ago, I had two priorities : first, to attend St. Thomas University School of Law, because it was located on the grass where the 1972 Dolphins practiced — and that was important to me; second, not to use my degree to practice law, but to work in the community, advocating for public policies that addressed societal problems.
I did not wait until graduation to start. As a first-year law student, I worked with the South Florida Council of the Boy Scouts to assist inner-city troops and packs. I also worked part-time in community relations at the law school. During my second year of law school, I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland for the summer and interned with the U.N. Sub-Commission on Human Rights. It was an immensely rewarding experience because I saw first-hand how people from around the world organized and advocated for the protection of basic human rights and social norms through the legal instruments of various treaties.
Needless to say, I was not your typical law student. I had no intention of practicing law in the traditional sense, i.e. by using my talents exclusively to either protect the wealthy or work to defend or prosecute the accused. I attended law school to understand American legal reasoning and the systems that created it. I was already armed with a degree in social work from Hampton University, and I attended Graduate School at Cornell University’s Institute for Public Affairs. I understood that public policy only changes when replaced with better public policy. Social Work teaches us that the field of community organization is the most effective tool to reform public institutions. No lasting change can be sustained without strong communities of support and organization.
After law school, I applied for and was offered a job with the Human Services Coalition (HSC) as its Policy Coordinator. The Human Services Coalition (now Catalyst Miami) was founded in 1995 with the broad goal of achieving dignity in all of our communities. When I met the founder and CEO, Daniella Levine Cava, I knew I was home. She was a social worker and a lawyer, who had spent her career in service since 1980. She was born in New York and attended Yale for college and Columbia for Law School and Masters in Social Work. She was a kindred spirit who applied her professional skills as a social worker and lawyer to create a better community.
To meet the rising needs of Miami residents, in 2002, HSC formed the first “Prosperity Campaign” in the United States, and my role in the organization was critical to it. We advocated for public policy that created a strong workforce, well-educated workers, strong families, and strong communities to achieve prosperity. The Prosperity Campaign, created strong alliances with the business community, to promote outreach and access to three critical programs that were underutilized in Miami: Florida KidCare, a health-insurance program provided by the state and the federal governments; the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal tax credit for working families; and food stamps, food assistance that working people were entitled to, but were not applying to receive.
As the policy coordinator for HSC, I led the charge for Real Benefits, a web-based tool to pre-screen potential applicants (often over the phone) and estimate benefits. If individuals appeared eligible, the tool could complete and generate applications for these programs. We distributed information and made presentations at local businesses for workers and human-resource departments. I set up tables at local health fairs. Some employers included information about benefits with low-wage workers’ pay stubs and, on a limited basis, some local businesses used the software to pre-screen their employees themselves.
Community prosperity depends on civic participation and economic opportunity — these are its pillars. I learned this from Levine Cava. Miami-Dade County was forever changed, and uplifted, by The Prosperity Campaign. It still exists and undergirds so much in our community today. The United Way adopted the Prosperity Campaign, as did the business community, including the Greater Miami Chamber Commerce and Beacon Council. Today, prosperity campaigns exist throughout Florida.
When Levine Cava, got directly involved in government and considered a run for the County Commission six years ago, I encouraged her, like many of her friends, colleagues and former employees did. We knew her ability to coalesce an entire community around a set of goals and challenges. Her campaign for office then and now is an extension of her life’s work to promote prosperity for Miami-Dade. This is not anything new for her. This is just Daniella.
Christopher Norwood is a member of the Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee and principal of The Norwood Consulting Group.