Purpose Prize

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Martha Bergmark

Mississippi Center for Justice
Purpose Prize Fellow 2010

Bergmark is helping to break the cycle of poverty and racism in Mississippi through a nonprofit, public interest law firm committed to advancing racial and economic justice.

Thirty years into a career as a civil rights lawyer, Bergmark knew a lot about how to make the justice system work better for low-income people. In 2003, at the height of her career, she turned her energies toward filling a void in her home state of Mississippi.

“Although Mississippi has made tremendous progress since the civil rights era, the state remains firmly in the grip of poverty and racial inequality,” explains Bergmark, who founded the Mississippi Center for Justice in Jackson, Miss. The center is a nonprofit, public interest law firm that pursues racial and economic justice. Through an innovative approach by community-based lawyers in partnership with pro bono attorneys from throughout the country, the center combines legal services to individuals, community organizing, public education campaigns, coalition building and various other activities that advocate for systemic change.

The goal is to dismantle outdated and unjust policies and laws that keep people in poverty. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the center marshaled lawyer and law student volunteers to provide direct legal assistance to thousands of Katrina survivors while advocating for new policies to help the region recover. Today, the center provides housing, health care, education, child care, financial and community economic development services.

Key advocacy successes include passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2005, which mandated dramatically reduced reliance on incarceration in favor of community-based alternatives for nonviolent youth. In 2009, pro bono lawyers provided 18,000 hours of free legal services to the center’s clients – the equivalent of nine full-time staff lawyers.