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Penn Law alum founds nonprofit to help workers end gender violence

After graduating from Penn Law, Sheerine Alemzadeh L’11 received a prestigious Skadden Fellowship and went to work at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. She represented clients and litigated sexual violence cases to achieve workplace justice for survivors of sexual violence. And, for the most part, she found that was representing low-income workers.

“What I saw as I was doing that work was that those who were most likely to experience the most severe violence and the most egregious violations were the least likely to come forward and report,” said Alemzadeh.

To build power among low-wage workers who feel unwilling or unable to report sexual violence, Alemzadeh has co-founded a new nonprofit in Chicago called Healing to Action, whose mission is to advance a worker-led movement to end gender violence.

“Sheerine’s work with Healing to Action is so important because she is reaching out to work with people who find themselves targeted because they are underestimated and undervalued,” said Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Toll Public Interest Center. “Through its work, Sheerine’s organization is helping people access their own power to fight back against unfair treatment, resulting in justice for those affected by gender violence while, at the same time, cultivating leadership in communities to stand up against the exploitation of low-wage workers.”

People in the lowest income bracket in the U.S. are three to six times more likely to experience gender violence in their lifetime than people in the highest income bracket, Alemzadeh noted.

Healing to Action works with people whose labor doesn’t lift them out of poverty: low-wage workers who lack regular hours, safe working conditions, sick leave and healthcare — as well as people locked out of the labor market altogether due to systemic inequalities.

The organization aims to develop worker leadership while supporting community partners to address the intersection between poverty and income inequality and gender-based violence.

In 2012, Alemzadeh helped found the Coalition Against Workplace Sexual Violence in Chicago, a collaboration between worker rights organizations, rape crisis centers, civil legal aid providers, and government partners. Since 2012, the organization has been addressing gender violence against low-wage workers through developing training materials and know your rights workshops, as well as doing participatory research to understand the low levels of reporting of sexual violence.

“What we realized as a coalition is that what we really needed, in order for this work to be sustainable, was the ongoing leadership and engagement of workers who were affected by the issues,” said Alemzadeh. “Because without their leadership, all of the solutions that we come up with — and all of the training that we did, and all of the legal resources available — were not actually going to reach those people who were the most isolated in the community.”

So Alemzadeh partnered with another coalition leader and public interest attorney, Karla Altmayer, to found Healing to Action. Healing to Action brings the resources of the coalition, which includes attorneys with legal expertise, rape crisis counselors, and takes those resources into communities that don’t have access to them because of shame and fear, or geographic distance. Social services are centralized in the Loop in Chicago — an area not easily accessible to some of the outer edges of the city, particularly the south and west side.

Healing to Action facilitates providing opportunities for workers to receive know your rights workshops and other resources. And, through those programs, they try to identify potential leaders to join the coalition. The hope is that the coalition will become worker led in the next two to three years.

The organization also partners with organizations that already have a member base, such as workers’ rights organizations, to provide them with training and evaluation to understand what their members’ needs are relating to gender violence. Healing to Action then comes up with a plan so that organizations can better respond to the needs of their members.

For Alemzadeh, this is the work she’s always wanted to do. After she graduated from college, she worked at Tahirih Justice Center, where she worked with immigrant women and girls fleeing gender based violence. It was there that she first noticed how poverty and economic instability made people unable to leave a workplace or abusive relationship. She decided to go to law school to continue that work she started at the Tahirih Justice Center.

At Penn Law, Alemzadeh was Toll Public Interest Scholar and an active member of the public interest community at the Law School. She had mentorship from TPIC and co-founded the pro bono group Students Against Gender-based Exploitation. That experience has helped her be an innovative public interest lawyer.

“Sheerine was a force of nature when she was a student at Penn Law,” said Rivera Finkelstein. “Her compassion and drive to find new ways to help communities access justice was always evident. It is inspiring to see the impact she is already having, and to imagine the incredible work she has yet to do.”

“You have to really think creatively about the skills you obtain in law school and the ways that you can use your legal education to reach communities,” said Alemzadeh. “Sometimes you have to think beyond the traditional ways in which your law degree can be used to work with people who are underserved.”

Members of the Penn Law community interested in learning more about Healing to Action can visit its website at www.healingtoaction.org, or contact Sheerine directly at sheerine@healingtoaction.org.