PITTSFIELD — Eve Schatz believes that community, legal and social issues intersect, and that they need to be addressed together, not separately, when larger issues like economics or politics are involved.
"That's a perspective that has developed as a thread throughout my education, personal experiences, travel experiences and so forth," she said.
Schatz is the founder and executive director of the Berkshire Center for Justice in Great Barrington, originally known as the Free Legal Clinic of South Berkshire County, a nonprofit she founded in 2006. Her work there recently caught the attention of the Massachusetts Bar Association, which this month awarded Schatz its Access to Legal Justice Award.
But, this isn't the West Hartford. Conn., native's only notable achievement.
In 1998, before obtaining her law degree, Schatz formed the Great Barrington Neighborhood Group, an organization that eventually caused a local polluter to abide by Department of Environmental Protection regulations.
Schatz, a former snowbird who spent half the year in Florida, advocated for patients' rights in that state and helped fight to overturn Florida's then-wrongful death law statute. A bill she introduced in the Legislature was signed into law.
We spoke with Schatz recently about what led her to form the Berkshire Center for Justice, how someone who grew up in the 1960s views her work, and why she decided to go to law school so late in life.
Q: What was it like to be honored by the Massachusetts Bar Association?
A: It feels like getting an Oscar. To have the Massachusetts Bar Association, that's committed to making legal services accessible for disenfranchised people, to acknowledge the role the Berkshire Center for Justice plays is very gratifying.
Q: What led you to form what became the Berkshire Center for Justice?
A: I was a law student [at Western New England University] and, at the time, living in the Berkshires. I've been here over 30 years. I observed that there were lots of people who needed legal services but couldn't afford them.
The summer after my first year in law school, I wrote a grant to test the theory and offer free legal clinics. I didn't get the grant. But, I then asked myself the question: Did I construct a program of value, or did I do it just for the grant?
Obviously, I thought that I had designed a program of value that could truly meet unmet needs in the Berkshires. ... The Free Legal Clinic of South Berkshire County was my project.
Q: So, you began developing your programming when you were in law school?
A: Part of the programming developed before I went to law school, when I was a transitional program provider at Housatonic Valley Regional High School [in Falls Village, Conn.], putting together postsecondary plans for students with disabilities.
There was one young man in high school with an elderly father who was dying. I asked my supervisor at the time if I could help his father find an attorney because he had no estate planning in place. ... He said yes, and I found him a lawyer. His dad died before the young man graduated from high school, and his things were in order so it was a prepared situation for the family. That could have been a disaster.
That was my first professional experience combining legal, social and community [issues]. But, I have a lifetime of experience connecting legal, social and community. They really go together.
Q: Why were you interested in combining these three topics?
A: I could see them all connected like a piece of art. ... Most of what I saw reported in the media, or talked about in schools, had a tendency to separate one factor from another factor to another part of life. But, it didn't seem that way to me. I could absolutely see how you can't talk about economics without talking about politics, or without talking about laws. ... You see how integrated everything is.
I think COVID has pointed that out on an international scale. It's really spotlighted that reality. Here we have a pandemic and you can see how it affects business, the social, the health aspect, the laws had to change to accommodate that. That's one example where you pick one thing, an illness, and you can see all the social, community and legal components that are attached to it.
Q: Your website states that the Berkshire Center for Justice is known for finding "out of the box solutions" to assist people both inside and outside the court system. Give me an example.
A: I know this may sound unusual for a lawyer, but if litigation can be avoided, I think it's a good thing for my clients who are stressed out and short on money. So, I've been able to negotiate numerous alternatives to going to court even after somebody has been served.
One gentleman was being evicted from his trailer where he had lived with his son for 20 years or more, and rather than go through the whole eviction process and going to court, I negotiated with the attorney representing the landlord to let him stay for a certain amount of time, continue to pay rent and let him stay until he could complete his [chemotherapy].
He was an active cancer patient. So, it worked out really well. He was extremely grateful. So, he finished his chemo. His numbers showed that he was in remission. He found a new place to live with a wonderful landlord who actually hired him, and then he got a girlfriend.
Q: That must have been extremely gratifying.
A: Fortunately, the other attorney was very amendable to what I proposed, so it went very well.
Q: Why did you become an environmental activist, and how did you help rein in this polluter?
A: Some of my favorite childhood memories were being thoroughly delighted by nature. I think I was born with an appreciation of the natural world.
There was a polluter in Great Barrington who was spewing unfiltered carcinogenic neurotoxin chemicals in the air in a neighborhood across from a grammar school playground, which I objected to. It took me seven years, but finally I persuaded an [Environmental Protection Agency] senior investigator to come out and just evaluate the situation. He found numerous violations. ... Interestingly enough, the EPA investigator wrote a recommendation for me to go to law school.
Q: Why did you wait until the early 2000s to go to law school?
A: The major problem was, my daughter was reaching the age where she had to start school. ... I was in Florida during the winter and up here during the summer. I couldn't maintain that schedule, so, I had to make a school choice for her, which meant I had to completely reorganize my life.
In thinking about what I wanted to do, I realized that, in Florida, I had spent seven years fighting on behalf of patients' rights and against Florida's then-wrongful death statute. Up here, I had the environmental issues.
I realized that so much of what I did was under the umbrella of law, so, I decided that if I went to law school, I would understand how things worked and could do more faster. ... But, I had to figure out what the system was. It was all trial and error.