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Reflections on Nonprofit Law Institute: creating space to build our community of attorneys and community organizations

Last November, Communities Rise hosted one our most impactful legal events: Nonprofit Law Institute (NLI). NLI is the foremost conference for attorneys engaged in nonprofit law in the Pacific Northwest. NLI 2023 was particularly special because it was the first time having NLI in-person since the start of the pandemic. The conference was hosted at the offices of Perkins Coie and brought together nearly 100 attorneys and community leaders.

As a legal provider, we understand the importance of staying abreast of emerging trends, evolving regulations, and paradigm shifts within our field. The conference featured nine curated sessions geared towards attorneys interested in advancing their skills with nonprofit organizations. But NLI offers more than a typical CLE event meant to impart legal education; the conference provided a space to build a unique community of experienced and developing nonprofit attorneys and community organizations.
Centering marginalized communities and their leadership was a core theme of the day. The lunchtime panel, “How Can Lawyers Best Serve BIPOC-led and Serving Nonprofit Organizations?” highlighted this theme. The discussion was lively and involved an exchange between BIPOC community leaders Sili Savusa, Executive Director of the Pacific Islander Community Association, Susan Balbas, Executive Director of the Na’ah Illahee Fund, and Sarah Tran of SamaPraxis and the audience of mostly nonprofit attorneys. Some of the ideas that emerged were:

  • BIPOC community leaders request to be seen for their full humanity by attorneys and other technical assistance providers — as people, not projects.
  • Attorneys must do the work of admitting and correcting internal biases. As one panelist powerfully said: “Don’t let your assumptions dictate how you treat me. My staff and I are often treated like… we don’t know anything.”
  • BIPOC organizations are at the forefront of crafting bold solutions to help their communities which raises special legal risks. Organizations need attorneys to help understand and navigate liability in creative ways.

The panel and conference brought home how important spaces like NLI are for relationship building between attorneys and marginalized communities. Communities Rise looks forward to creating more such opportunities as part of our multi-pronged effort to build power in communities impacted by systemic oppression. To realize this future, it is vital for attorneys and marginalized communities to build deeper relationships and for attorneys to provide key support to community leadership in breaking down oppressive barriers.