SPIRE PUBLIC SERVICE AWARD: Nebraska Appleseed Creates Change From Courts to Communities

The staff of Nebraska Appleseed pose for a photo at the 2019 Good Apple Awards at the Livestock Exchange Building Ballroom in Omaha on Oct. 10, 2019. At the annual award ceremony, Appleseed recognized Marty Ramirez (Jim Wolf Equal Justice Award), Misty Frazier (Milo Mumgaard Emerging Leader Award), Omaha Together One Community (Roots of Justice Award), and Legal Aid of Nebraska (Seeds of Justice Award). (Courtesy Gabriella Parsons/Nebraska Appleseed)
Molly Ashford
The Daily Record

Nebraska Appleseed follows a systemic approach in the fight for justice and to expand opportunity.

The public interest, nonprofit law organization deploys philanthropic efforts through litigation, legislative advocacy and community organizing. Instead of choosing a specialization, Appleseed’s work goes where it’s needed to create change for Nebraskans.

“Our mission is to fight for justice and opportunity for all Nebraskans – and that’s a pretty big mission,” said Executive Director Becky Gould. “We focus our work in the areas where we know there are significant needs in Nebraska, and where we know a focus on law and policy can make a real difference.”

The Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest was recognized by the Omaha Bar Association’s 2020 Robert M. Spire Public Service Award for its consistent work and advocacy.

Gould became involved with Appleseed shortly after graduating law school as a staff attorney working in the center’s economic justice program. She has been the director of the organization for 12 years, and her time there has spanned nearly her entire professional career. 

Although Appleseed is an attorney-led organization, it prefers to deal with issues within communities, Gould said. It’s often better to promote change through conversations with people instead of inside of a courtroom.

“Our litigation work, we really view as a last resort,” Gould said in a video for the OBA. “We take our obligation to do justice seriously and to not waste resources unnecessarily by going to court –so we are always talking to state agencies or officials and trying to work it out that way. But sometimes, we disagree about what the law says and what it means”

Robert M. Spire, the prolific Nebraska lawyer and philanthropist who inspired the award for attorneys to honor their devotion to public service and education, believed in law as a catalyst for change. Dave Sommers, executive director of the OBA, said that Spire’s beliefs about the law as a philanthropic tool are reflected clearly in Appleseed’s efforts.

“They have been there to help hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans who wouldn’t have otherwise had a voice,” he said. “The work they do is very widespread –they focus on people and communities who wouldn’t otherwise have access to justice.”

Indeed, Appleseed is a multifaceted organization with lawyers, community organizers, public policy experts and administrative staff composing its devoted 36-person team. Through methods of advocacy ranging from pro bono civil litigation to the formation of local organizing teams within communities, the organization tackles issues including health care access, economic justice, child welfare and immigration.

Throughout the 21-year history of Appleseed, the organization has secured monumental victories for Nebraskans through its litigation services. For decades, the center’s attorneys have fought alongside and for low-income people and families for child care, health care and food security, among a myriad of issues. Appleseed typically takes on class action lawsuits and high impact cases.

“In the types of cases we take on, the outcomes impact a large group of people or change the interpretation of laws or policies that are in place,” Gould said. “I think we all find that to be a very rewarding practice to be part of.”

An issue that Gould is particularly passionate about is the working conditions for people employed in the meat packing industry – an area where Appleseed has placed its focus long before national and statewide attention was placed on the industry due to its contribution to exacerbating the pandemic.

Appleseed has worked directly with workers for years to identify the most prominent challenges in the industry and to find solutions.  Its efforts and concerns have increased in light of the increasing numbers of  COVID-19 cases in Nebraska communities with meatpacking facilities. 

“On those manufacturing lines, you have a lot of workers really close together,” Gould said. “That’s part of what has caused the hotspots with the spread of the virus. With the current situation, we now have even more of an opportunity to lift up some of these issues that have been challenges for a long time.”

Gould views the pandemic as an opportunity to continue lifting up the issues that Appleseed has fought to address for years. That’s echoed by James Goddard, program director for Appleseed.

Goddard said that the fallout from COVID-19 has reinvigorated conversations about systemic inequities and gaps in health care and social safety net systems.

“The new reality we have found ourselves in has changed the way we do our work,” said Goddard. “But the things we work on and have been working on for years have only become more important for Nebraska.”

Learn more about Nebraska Appleseed at neappleseed.org.


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