Interview with BFC Managing Attorney & Cicchino Public Service Award Winner, Tracy Davis
As we continue our month-long blog posts about our advocacy work, we’d like to introduce you to Tracy Davis. Tracy is the managing attorney in our Northwest office and supervises the family law work of our legal clinic. Her advocacy work was recently recognized by her alma mater, American University’s Washington College of Law., where she was one recipient of the Peter M. Cicchino Public Service Award. The award is given to two alumni each year for their remarkable public interest work. Each day, Tracy arrives at Bread for the City and fights to make the world a little bit better for the clients we represent.
We sat down with Tracy to talk about the challenges of navigating the system, what keeps her motivated, and what winning looks like.
Tell us a little about what you do here.
I supervise our Domestic Violence Community Legal Services Project. In addition to representing survivors of domestic violence in protection order and family law matters, I also manage a team of five attorneys who do that work.
Can you talk a little about the services our legal clinic offers?
We focus on three areas: family, public benefits, and housing. All those practices also have additional focus areas. Most of what we’re doing is representing DC residents who have legal needs that have to do with the safety and security of their families, like making sure they’re getting the right amount of food stamps and TANF benefits, preventing evictions and preserving housing. All the things we think contribute to making people’s lives more livable. We’re always striving to improve on that. We want people to have dignified lives and be in control of their own destiny.
What are some of the challenges that come with doing this work?
The overwhelming nature of poverty. The historic trauma of racism. In our case work, we focus on these one or two concrete legal issues that are a window into an individual’s life. It almost feels impossible at times to get to a positive outcome when you’re working in systems that have so much disparity and inequality.
This work can be really difficult at times for all involved, how do you keep your staff and clients motivated to keep going?
In my role as supervisor and manager, I try to keep staff inspired. Sometimes that involves being a listening ear for staff and clients; other times it means encouraging staff to share their success stories and moments of strength.
With my clients, it often involves recognizing the little things, like acknowledging that they came to court in a difficult situation. It can take a lot of fight to show up for court if they’re juggling kids, trying to find transportation, or have jobs that don’t have any flexibility. “Thank you for showing up today, you’re awesome for doing that.” You’ve gotta focus on the little things.
Can you share a story of success that you’ve had with a client?
A client had a really contested divorce and custody battle that went on close to three years. At the conclusion of our work, she said that if she looked back three years when she left her husband, where she is today is exactly where she hoped to be. That was really meaningful for me. For somebody to see their growth and see how they managed to sustain through all the legal battles and be in a place where they hoped they would be.
We’ve talked a lot about the systems and structures facing the people we serve. What does winning look like?
In the most immediate sense, it’s when a client gets the outcome they want.
With the legal system, winning would be having a system that starts from a place of believing our clients. We’re not starting at ground zero, we’re at negative 50. We’re trying to convince the court system that our clients are telling the truth and that their experiences are true. Whether it’s domestic violence or a landlord-tenant dispute or a city agency failing to provide a service to someone. I want the system to start from a place of believing our clients.
What are some of the hurdles to getting to a system like that?
I think it’s just a need for solid training in implicit biases and implicit racism so that people are moved to a place of self-awareness about how their judgment is impacted by systems of oppression and stereotypes.
I don’t envy the judges in Superior Court. It’s a difficult job, and I think we need more resources so judges aren’t burned out.
There’s also something about the adversarial system that isn’t well-matched for trauma survivors.The adversarial and argumentative style of court can retraumatize people and make it difficult to get to the truth. I’d like to see a shift or the opportunity to have legal systems set up in a way that isn’t so adversarial and understands that there other ways to get at the truth that might be less harmful and more healing.
What do you want the public to know about the work? How can people support?
I want people to know, especially lawyers, that it’s important for them to see their degree as a privilege and think critically about how they use that and who it’s benefitting. We all have an obligation to lift one another.
Don’t assume your voice doesn’t matter or that you can’t have an impact. Show up at meetings with your council members. Learn their policies and challenge them to do better. It can be easy to be involved as an active resident and have your voice heard. I encourage people to do that and not be blasé about it. This city has exceptional wealth, and only a small number of people benefit from that. We can do better.