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Partner Spotlight: Tzedek DC

Logo for Tzedek DC. Tagline: Legal Help for People in Debt.Tzedek DC is an independent public interest center headquartered at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law that helps people with problems stemming from debt.

Tzedek DC’s official mission is “to safeguard the legal rights and financial health of DC residents with low incomes dealing with the often-devastating consequences of abusive debt collection practices and other consumer related issues.” The nonprofit seeks to “carry out that mission with the goal of addressing racial gaps in wealth and equality.”

The formative Jewish teaching of “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” which translates to “justice, justice you shall pursue,” (Deuteronomy 16:18) inspired the organization’s name. While founded on Jewish values, Tzedek DC serves low-income DC residents of all faiths (or no faith). The nonprofit’s client base consists of 95% people of color and 25% people with disabilities.

“Since our founding, we have employed a three-part strategy to fight abusive debt collection practices, counteract the weaponization of poverty, and support DC residents in their quest for a more stable and hopeful financial future,” said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, Founding President & Director-Counsel of Tzedek DC.

Disabled attorney and activist, Marissa Ditkowsky, leads the Tzedek DC’s Disability Rights Program which utilizes the organization’s three-part strategy to aid disabled clients disproportionally affected by debt. The nonprofit’s three-part strategy includes offering free legal services, community outreach and partnerships, and advocating for systemic reform.

Free legal services offered by Tzedek DC are life-changing for clients. Many vulnerable DC residents do not know how to seek counsel and face societal barriers to accessing council. The Disability Rights Program provides direct representation to clients facing debt and consumer problems and acknowledges the way disability may affect the guidance provided.

Alongside partners in every ward, Tzedek DC does outreach activities and provides immediate education on consumer rights and responsibilities. As part of the Disability Rights Program, Ditkowsky has conducted trainings and presentations with the DC Center for Independent Living staff, the DC Public Library Center for Accessibility, the DC Department on Disability Services Rehabilitation Services Administration Staff, the self-advocacy group Project ACTION!, and the DC Developmental Disabilities Council.

Additionally, Tzedek DC identifies public policy rules that contribute to the impoverishment of its residents and works with coalition partners to influence systemic reform. Through their advocacy, Tzedek DC has successfully contributed to the reform of driver’s license suspension laws and wage garnishment laws. Ditkowsky proposed language changes to legislation that would require debt collectors to provide reasonable accommodations to, and not discriminate against, disabled debtors, and to provide required notices in accessible formats.

“Access to an attorney can mean the difference between having to pay back thousands of dollars to a debt collector and having to pay nothing at all,” says Ditkowsky, “Centering clients, understanding their needs, engaging them in their own cases and systemic advocacy, and reaching out to their communities in ways that are accessible to them are critical for achieving positive outcomes.”

Tzedek DC has already impacted thousands of disabled DC residents and hopes to expand the project further in the future.

Meet the Author

Becca Block

Block graduated cum laude from the University of South Carolina School of Journalism & Mass Communications. She also works at Temple Beth Ami in Maryland as an accessible educator in the religious school.

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