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Nicole LindquistNicole Lindquist

Nicole Lindquist: Creating a Legal Link

If you live in the Willamette Valley and you're poor and in need of legal help, chances are good you won't get it. Senior politics major and Carson Scholar Nicole Lindquist decided she could help change that.

"Eighty percent of low-income Oregonians who have legal problems don't get the help they need," says Lindquist, who received a $2,500 Carson Undergraduate Research Grant which helps students conduct original, independent research. "Free legal aid is available. Why aren't people getting it? I decided to study the barriers that prevent poor people from getting free legal help."

Lindquist spent six weeks volunteering at the Marion-Polk Legal Aid Services, a non-profit legal center staffed by attorneys and paralegals. They provide free legal services to residents of Marion and Polk counties whose income is no more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The problem is, like many other legal aid service centers, Marion-Polk Legal Aid Services is operating at maximum capacity and can't handle more clients. "I thought that perhaps they could improve certain processes and then they'd be able to take more clients," says Lindquist, who spent her time at the center doing data entry, answering phones, conducting client intakes, observing attorney-client meetings and going to court. "It turned out that Marion-Polk Legal Aid is one of the premiere free legal services in Oregon. They're doing an excellent job."

That excellent work put Lindquist back at square one. She broadened her research by exploring other legal aid services across Oregon, talking to staff about what they do, how they do it and what they need. What she found left her feeling discouraged. "After doing all this research, I felt disillusioned with the system. There's really no funding available for legal services for the poor. There's no energy to reform the old system or to create a new system."

She also felt overwhelmed by the complexities that poverty presents. "Poverty is far worse than most of us think. I listened to stories of women who are fighting to get out of poverty and domestic violence situations. They face so many barriers - transportation, childcare, mental instability, emotional stress. As I listened to their stories, I kept wondering what I'd do if I had no where to go, no resources, and I was sitting on a curb with my child and my few possessions."

As the weeks wore on, Lindquist's project seemed to be floundering. "I felt lost because I had no defined end result. I was supposed to do research, hone in on a problem and create a solution. But my problem kept changing; my research didn't go the way I wanted; and much of the time I had no idea where I was going with all of this. I just had to trust that it would all come together."

The solution turned out to be incredibly simple - a computer link. Many area non-profit social service organizations use a website called oregonhelp.org that helps low-income people find the services they need. During intake sessions at the agencies, clients are taught not only how to access the site, but how to use the computer and where to find free internet access. The site does not, however, offer legal services. Lindquist found a second website called oregonlawhelp.org that addresses the legal needs of low-income residents. "I figured if I could link oregonlawhelp.org and oregonhelp.org, we could reach many more people."

Lindquist negotiated with the two organizations and got them to agree to link their websites. "I told them this is a really cheap solution and that they could do it quickly to help a lot of people." The organizations agreed.

While she knows a computer link isn't going to solve all the legal problems faced by poor people in Marion and Polk Counties, Lindquist says her project taught her that it takes creativity, not necessarily money, to make a difference. "You have to think outside the box. No matter what the problem is, there are going to be funding limitations. It's easy to say it would be better if we funded these organizations appropriately, but that's not going to happen. There are just too many needs. We have to stop thinking that we have to change the system. We have to try to revamp the system in ways that are both effective and low-cost."

It's also taught her that she has a calling to help. "When I see someone who hasn't got enough to eat or who has an abusive husband, it just squeezes my heart. I can't forget about it until I do something. It's my duty, my calling to help."

Lindquist, who previously thought she wanted to pursue a legal career, isn't sure where her calling will lead. She's currently applying for fellowships and plans to return to graduate school within two years to earn an advanced degree. "I want to be a social activist. I'm not sure if the best place for me is working in radio journalism, in public policy or at a non-profit. I know for sure that I want to help change the world."