Former Skadden Fellows Help Organizers Carve Paths to Justice at Make the Road New York

Both started out as Skadden Fellows and, at the end of their Fellowships, transitioned to permanent positions at their sponsoring organizations — Sienna at Legal Services NYC, addressing underserved families’ needs in the Bronx, and Elizabeth at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, representing low-wage immigrant workers subjected to exploitative labor conditions on Long Island. Their trails eventually converged at Make the Road New York (MRNY), the largest immigrant-led grassroots organization in New York state, which Sienna joined in 2015 and Elizabeth in 2014. They now serve as the nonprofit’s general counsel and co-legal director, respectively.

Co-founded by former Skadden Fellow Andrew Friedman (’98) in 2007 (by merging the nonprofits Make the Road by Walking and the Latin American Integration Center), MRNY serves as a community hub that seeks to secure justice for its immigrant and working class members by providing legal and survival services to tackle discrimination, abuse and poverty; supporting community organizing; offering educational opportunities; and developing new policies to address unjust laws. Sienna and Elizabeth liken MRNY’s five community centers — in Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens, Staten Island and Westchester County — to holistic one-stop shops where members can get legal advice, hold meetings, take English classes, participate in youth programs or enjoy a free meal.

Sienna and Elizabeth provide MRNY members with legal advice on a wide range of employment, immigration law, housing and benefits, and transgender, gender-nonconforming, intersex and queer rights matters. Those conversations inform their advocacy, legislative and community-organizing efforts. “By working closely with our community members, we have a pulse on what’s happening on the ground,” Elizabeth explains. “We see changes in how the law is being applied or how policies are affecting our membership and are able to respond quickly.”

For example, MRNY’s legal team has represented individual workers experiencing wage theft, which led to the organization’s successful advocacy for increased protections in New York City. Similarly, the legal team’s advice to tenants experiencing egregious harassment by their landlords influenced MRNY’s advocacy for increased tenant protections at both the city and state level.

Sienna and Elizabeth stress that building trust with MRNY members and organizers is essential to their work. The members, as part of organizing committees, collectively steer the organization and its goals, as well as inform its legal work and priorities, and regularly seek the legal team’s perspectives on ideas for potential legislation. “It’s invigorating to see everyone have a seat at the table,” Sienna says. “The organizers are leading the discussions — they are the experts.”

One of the toughest aspects of Sienna’s and Elizabeth’s roles is assisting community members during moments of crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, most of MRNY’s community centers were located in areas hit hardest by the virus and its aftershocks — many members were let go from their jobs and, as undocumented immigrants, excluded from federal relief. MRNY connected members with food donations and fought for New York state to adopt the Excluded Workers Fund, a billion-dollar program offering one-time payments to undocumented immigrants who lost their jobs. After helping secure support for the fund — one of the largest in the country involving excluded workers — Sienna, Elizabeth and their legal team provided recommendations to the state’s Department of Labor for implementing a program to reach workers. “While handling crises is one of the hardest parts of the job, MRNY’s rapid action and responses are some of the best parts,” Elizabeth says.

Since its inception, MRNY has regularly partnered with Skadden’s pro bono program. The firm is currently supporting MRNY’s efforts to ensure that state and local agencies are aware of a deferred action program for workers involved in labor investigations. The program seeks to address workers’ concerns regarding retaliation for reporting labor violations. Skadden attorneys also participated in MRNY’s car wash campaign, which sought to improve conditions for workers at New York City’s nearly 200 car washes by increasing city and state oversight. In addition, MRNY has twice sponsored Skadden Fellows — Gabriela Siegel (’19) and Stephan Cha-Kim (’11).

This year marks MRNY’s 25th anniversary, and there’s a lot to celebrate. Construction on the organization’s new 24,000-square-foot Queens facility is expected to be completed soon. MRNY also will begin administering its collective bargaining agreement with its newly unionized staff. “We currently are setting the organization’s vision for the next five years and exploring ideas with members and staff to decide on our path forward,” Sienna explains. “It continues to be exciting, which is why I have stayed all these years.”