By Keyvan Eliasieh, HAC Managing Attorney

The HAC book club, established 2022, has read and discussed literature that has caused us to reflect on many things related to the work we do and our place in itOne book we read recently was bell hooks’s All About Love, New Visions. In chapter six, hooks expresses a notion I hold dear – about carrying a love ethic in all that we do, including our day-to-day work:

“Awaking to love can happen only as we let go of our obsession with power and domination. Culturally, all spheres of American life – politics, religion, the workplace, domestic households, intimate relations – should and could have as their foundation a love ethic. The underlying values of a culture and its ethics shape and inform the way we speak and act. A love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well. To bring a love ethic to every dimension of our lives, our society would need to embrace change.”

bell hooks, All About Love

Before my legal career, I took jobs starting in my teenage years as restaurant host, cash register clerk, caretaker of furry mascot. No matter where I worked, one thing that guided me then, and to this day, is my desire to serve my community in the best way I can. Regardless of the power I held or didn’t hold, I tried to do some good. I guided patrons at the Red Lobster to ensure they got a fine dining experience they otherwise couldn’t afford. I made sure those furry mascot entertainers walking through massive events were not only safe from hitting walls or passing out from heat exposure but felt an overall sense of purpose behind their difficult jobs. It has always been important to me to bring a love ethic into what I do.

I really mean it when I say I love what I do and what HAC centers in our worth ethic. I cannot conceive of anything more important than harm reduction to honor our clients’ rights to be free, to live fully and well, as defined by them. Our intention is strong in centering harm reduction as legal professionals in the face of bureaucratic disentitlement our clients regularly face. I consider it a truly satisfying win in our work when we manage to get a HAC client access to income, housing, and medical health care in a way that meets that person’s individual preferences.

While knowing the profound benefits these categories can serve for any person, we acknowledge every person has their own healing journey and pace that cannot be thrust upon them. Whether the client’s immediate needs be eviction defense, dental care, or the listening ears of an empathetic friend, we strive to provide the best advice and guidance we possibly can.

What Got Me Interested in HAC

Before starting at HAC, I worked at a variety of public defender offices, including San Francisco’s Office of the Public Defender when the late Jeff Adachi was still with us. I learned how to fight like hell for clients that the rest of the community had left behind. I owe a debt of gratitude to my mentors, colleagues, and the lessons I learned in lawyering from this field. From them I carry core principles into our work at HAC including the paramount importance of providing equal justice for all.

Working as a public defender was incredibly rewarding. It was shockingly common to get spontaneous fist bumps, surprise high fives, unprompted hugs, and overall heartfelt appreciation from clients as I proceeded through a rapid succession of clients and hearings in court. I nonetheless saw firsthand the myriad issues plaguing the criminal justice system – unsustainably high caseloads, incentives for clients to take deals, implicit bias against people of color, and a system that is not built for the disenfranchised to get out.

While deep in this public defender work, I heard from a colleague who encouraged me to apply for a job at HAC. They shared how I would represent similarly situated clients facing hardships, except I’d get to help people obtain income, medical care, and housing. I was amazed to hear that such an organization exists and that I could do this for a living. Since then, I have been hooked, I’m still pinching myself, and have stayed here ever since.

What Inspires Me

The work we do at HAC is coaligned with personal values that began with my Iranian-American upbringing. My Baha’i family in Iran has faced a history of discrimination and oppression. Since the 1800’s, women and religious minorities, including my ancestors, have been persecuted and even executed, their businesses have been interrupted, and their property has been seized by the government of Iran. Such continual oppression has called for mass movements, including the most recent called Women, Life, Freedom – a global action in solidarity with Iranian women and girls who are courageously demonstrating peacefully for their fundamental human rights.

My family members and friends have been terrorized and arrested for maintaining their peaceful faith as Baha’is. My parents came to the US as refugees and I was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area with deep appreciation for what this land has to offer. I have been fortunate to call it home for most of my life. People of Middle Eastern heritage face ongoing islamophobia and related mistreatment in the U.S. This history is in my blood and emboldens me to provide an active voice to those who have been neglected.

Here in our community, our clients often face a long, lonely, and difficult path until they are awarded disability benefits. It is a privilege to represent clients in this process and mentor others doing the same. Often clients must apply, get denied, appeal, be denied again, then request a hearing where they can finally testify before a judge as to the merits on why they are entitled to benefits. Many of them applied for these benefits years earlier and multiple times before they came to HAC. Evaluators are tasked with being objective, and yet our clients regularly share how they feel that no one has been fairly considering their concerns or interests.

Remaining Faithful to our Clients’ Rights

I once represented a client I’ll just name Kelsey out of respect for their privacy. Kelsey’s disability case was incredibly righteous. His mental health had proven to prevent him from keeping a job indefinitely. Kelsey grew up without parents in the picture and the foster care system was not a good fit for him. He had been in and out of homelessness since his early teens. Since age five he was placed in special ed classes as a result of early childhood trauma.

Before Kelsey came to our office he had managed to get on SSI by himself. Unfortunately, his mental health got him wrapped up in the criminal legal system and in jail for more than a year. This wasn’t good for Kelsey because after you get out of jail, you can’t just get SSI reactivated – even if no one expects your disability to go away. He had to reapply, and it takes years to wait, appeal, and try to get by without much income. In addition, Kelsey is really hard to get a hold of. He was unhoused, without a stable phone, and he often cannot remember to attend appointments.

So, we applied and pled with social security to just go ahead and approve his disability claim considering how every source gave an opinion that he still could not work. That didn’t cut it, and instead they let us testify before a judge at a scheduled time and place. This worried Kelsey and me. We knew, more likely than not, that he’d miss the appointment. However, I also knew if he were there to testify, the judge could really fill in the gaps and decide to grant his claim.

We tried everything: I gave him multiple printouts of the hearing schedule, he wrote the date of the hearing on his arm with a sharpie, I got his back-up contact people’s numbers, told them about it, and he got our contact info. None of this mattered. A week before the hearing, he showed up at our office, stressed out thinking he’d missed it.

The day finally came. I’d tried many times to remind Kelsey, reach people he knows, drive by where he stays – and nothing. I showed up by his encampment several hours prior and no one was around. I had a strong feeling I was close and maybe if I just waited a while, he would turn up. So I did – I waited for hours and watched from my car, sipping my coffee while imagining I was as cool as Matthew McConaughey in True Detective.

At a certain point it was time for me to get to Court and speak to the judge about why Kelsey didn’t show. I started driving … and guess who I almost hit with my car as they darted across the street? Kelsey! He looked at me and yelled, “It’s today?” I was sweating bullets, saying, “Yeah man, time to rock and roll, get in!” We drove over in a hurry, got to court with just a minute to spare, and just as I’d hoped, the judge granted the case!

I find it our duty to speak truth to power and make sure the powers that be are held accountable for the determinations they make. At HAC, we make efforts to counterbalance what our clients often describe as a system intentionally weighed against them. It’s only right that we make damned sure our clients get a fair shake.