Community Lawyering & My Journey to Self-Love, Healing, and Justice

March 12, 2024 Perspective

Author

Eileen Kim

Eileen Kim

Staff Attorney, Community Safety

Eileen Kim

Staff Attorney, Community Safety

Eileen Kim is the Staff Attorney for the Community Safety Program at the Asian Law Caucus. She previously worked as an attorney adviser with the Social Security Administration Office of Hearing Operations in San Bernardino, California.

Eileen is an experienced advocate across Black, Brown, and AAPI spaces. She has spent the last decade studying prison-industrial complex abolition and the Black liberation movement and has since offered her personal time, voice, and skill set to advocating for an abolitionist world where community-driven public safety would make the carceral state obsolete. Namely, she has taught a college-level seminary course at a men’s state prison in California’s Inland Empire and spoken on panels and podcasts about mass incarceration, abolishing the police in the social psyche, internalized racial oppression, white supremacy in the church, and America’s xenophobic racism toward the AAPI community – in tandem with the AAPI community’s complicity in anti-Black racism. She has also marched at multiple protests, performed spoken word at a BLM rally at Los Angeles City Hall, and written two books for charity – The Language of Abolition and a children’s book, Grandfather and Simon the Bear, aimed at helping Asian American youth navigate racism. She has also worked with outreach programs and non-profits overseas in Mexico, Kyrgyzstan, England, and Benin.

Eileen is a graduate of Northeastern University School of Law and has interned with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Boston Juvenile Court, and Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services.

I've been a community lawyer at the Asian Law Caucus for a year, and as part of my job, I’ve had the privilege of meeting with Asian American students, lawyers, and community leaders at different schools and organizations that uplift Asian and Pacific Islander voices around the Bay Area. These conversations have taught me that to achieve a more holistic approach to community lawyering, we need to hear from a wide variety of voices and find value in everyone’s stories, including our own.

As I’ve grown professionally as an attorney, I’ve also evolved personally and have become more confident as a Korean American woman. This wasn’t easy. My career journey has been unconventional, littered with more failure than success. I've experienced my share of hardship, rejection, and mental health struggles throughout my career. In my years of being a lawyer, doing community-facing work always seemed like a remote possibility until I joined ALC.

In my position, I help community members throughout San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, and Siskiyou Counties recover from violence and harm and hold local and state agencies accountable to upholding civil and human rights.

Eileen Kim speaks at the front of the room to a group of members sitting at a conference table.

Eileen Kim and other ALC staff train Asian American Bar Association of Greater Bay Area members on culturally sensitive, in-language legal services for victims and survivors of violence.

For me, advocacy begins by being mindful of the 7-year-old girl inside me who was silenced and neglected growing up. My mental health as an Asian female lawyer depends on centering my younger self’s voice and her needs, much like what we do for victims and survivors of violence through our legal clinic. Even if I feel scared to let my voice be heard, my little one is counting on me to advocate on her behalf, because when she gets heard, she and I both get to heal, and help others heal.

Through our legal clinic, my co-workers and I help Bay Area community members who have experienced violence navigate the criminal legal system. We also help people identify what they need to feel safer and heal from that violence, and introduce restorative justice to expand how our communities can prevent harm from happening again.

ALC staff pose in a group in front of an outreach table.

ALC staff, including Eileen, organized a training for local lawyers to join our free legal clinic for victims and survivors of violence.

In a recent clinic, one of my clients was an older Asian American woman. She was visibly upset since she had lost a family member and was hurt that this loss did not seem to matter to the police. Because of the police department and district attorney office’s lack of communication and significant delay in moving the case along, her grief, frustration, and anger overwhelmed her. At that moment, I knew my first priority was to meet her on a human level.

As I have learned to do for myself when I process through traumatic experiences, I focused on hearing out her concerns fully, validating them, and centering her need for understanding and connection. After this interaction, she was more at ease and I felt like she trusted me to help move the case forward.

To help clients, I ask them to tell us what happened. Listening to a client’s account is an important first step to both advocating on their behalf with the police and district attorney offices, and giving them agency over their own healing process. Providing an empathetic space is also how community members gain the opportunity to name what they need for accountability and recovery. This is often not an easy discussion for our clients. We understand we are asking a lot from people who have already gone through so much pain to share about the harm they endured. This is why we prioritize making the consultation space as safe as possible.

To that end, I make sure to be understanding of the clients throughout the hour we have together, and thank them for pushing through difficult conversations that allow us to support them. I believe it is critical to approach these conversations as both a lawyer and a human being. My personal experiences help me connect with the client’s pain and vulnerability with tenderness and compassion, as I would have wanted in my moments of pain and vulnerability. It’s also my personal experiences that help me recognize that my legal degree is not what gives me the ability to speak to the client's trauma, but rather, it gives me the opportunity to unlock doors for them to navigate a complicated and often inaccessible legal system.

Experiences from my own life and the insights I garnered over the years have truly made me the community lawyer I am today. Those life experiences have given me the opportunity to speak on panels, webinars, podcasts, and protests. Beyond my law degree, what resonated with people the most was that I was willing to show up as my full, vulnerable, and imperfect self. With the goal of bringing all aspects of my skills and talents to the movement, during the height of the pandemic, I also wrote and self-published a book to demystify abolition for the Christian church and a children’s book on navigating racism as a young person of color in this country.

As a growing community lawyer at ALC, I’m learning that making a difference in my field goes far beyond becoming a seasoned legal scholar or political strategist. It’s about acknowledging other facets of me that include being an advocate, teacher, and healer, knowing that who I am is enough, and bringing every part of me to this work.

The AAPI Women in Law panel pose for a picture.

AAPI Women in Law panel hosted by AABA - Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area - and UC Law San Francisco APALSA.