“For a nascent organization, it truly does take a village.”
Making the DC region more equitable is core to LGW’s purpose. And hundreds of our members have dedicated themselves -- both personally and professionally -- to this mission. So when Tzedek DC Founder Ariel Levinson-Waldman (‘20) approached Ward 1 DC Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau (‘15) to support his new non-profit, he wasn’t just tapping into her passion, but that of her vast LGW network.
Ariel founded Tzedek DC in 2015 in response to an urgent need in our region: low-income and working-class residents are saddled with debt collection suits, yet had no source of legal assistance. These legal disputes can have devastating consequences, ranging from the loss of an indispensable driver’s license to the seizure of a bank account to credit report impairment that causes long-term financial harm to vulnerable community members’ ability to get a loan, rental housing approval, a loan, or even a job. And, though there is well-established evidence that access to legal help in these cases makes a dramatic difference in the outcome, most residents facing problems arising from debt get no legal help whatsoever.
As Ariel worked to create and grow Tzedek DC, he reached out to leaders across the District of Columbia for guidance and support. One of those leaders was Brianne, who quickly saw the potential of the idea, the organization, and Ariel himself.
“This seemed like something that would have a deep impact on the vulnerable people I serve in Ward 1,” recounts Brianne. “I was impressed by Ariel’s passion and his plan. He knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it, but needed people to buy in. I knew I could help make connections for him and with him.”
One of the first connections Brianne made was with her LGW classmate, Rachel Kronowitz (‘15). Brianne knew Rachel’s service on another non-profit was coming to an end and would be looking for new opportunities. And, thanks to their LGW bond, Brianne knew this would be a good fit.
“At LGW, we get to know who people are as people, which helps us see what they care about and how they might contribute. That’s how I knew to connect Ariel to Rachel.”
Rachel, a lawyer herself, was instantly intrigued.
“I don’t work in our community day to day, so I came to LGW hoping to understand better what was going on in my city and what I could do to have some impact,” recalls Rachel. “When Brianne told me about Tzedek DC, it checked so many boxes.”
“Tzedek” (pronounced “Sedek”) is the ancient Hebrew word for Justice. From its roots in Jewish values to its groundbreaking model of direct services combined with systems-change and community education, Tzedek DC resonated deeply with Rachel, who has since become one of the leaders of Tzedek DC’s Board of Directors. But Rachel knew Tzedek DC needed additional funding to serve the massive need Ariel had identified. And she knew just who could help: another LGW classmate, Kirra Jarratt (‘15). Rachel made the connection.
As CEO of the DC Bar Foundation, Kirra oversees a large portfolio of grantees. So when she met Ariel and learned about Tzedek DC’s model and work, she knew she’d found a good opportunity for an investment in civil legal aid to support DC residents.
“When Ariel came to meet with us, he was clear on the problem, and what he wanted to do about it,” she recalls.
The grant from the DC Bar Foundation proved transformational for Tzedek DC. “'Having a rigorous evaluator like the DC Bar on board made a huge difference in terms of attracting other support,” says Ariel.
Since launching, Tzedek DC has served more than 1500 DC families with direct legal services and spearheaded systemic reforms that have improved the governing rules around debt for hundreds of thousands of DC residents. From a grandmother who had gotten into debt struggling to pay for groceries, to a teacher who ran into trouble paying student loans while supporting her daughters, Tzedek DC is helping some of our most vulnerable neighbors access the legal system to find a way out of debt, rather than further into it, and has been selected as “One of the Best” philanthropies in the region by the Catalogue for Philanthropy.
Ariel remains grateful for the trio from “Class of 2015, Enough Said,” who helped make Tzedek DC a reality. With Brianne, Rachel, and Kirra involved, Ariel's organization could leverage the strength of LGW relationships to transform Tzedek DC into the high-impact organization he'd envisioned from the start.
“For a nascent organization, it truly does take a village and they have all been an important part of the beginning of this village,” Ariel says. “You have these extraordinary people with platforms or experience driving change through philanthropy or their work. They care. They are thoughtful. They are doers.”
They also know a potential LGW participant when they see one. At Rachel’s urging, Ariel applied and was accepted to the current class of 2020.
“True to form, it wasn’t a gentle or subtle suggestion,” he jokes. “And I was delighted to follow that directive.”