Few young lawyers have helped so many clients by age 34. Lydia Edwards is a fellow at Greater Boston Legal Services, assisting immigrant workers who are victims of wage theft, human trafficking, and worse. Edwards helped advocate for the state’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, with regulations that aim to improve conditions for nannies and other domestic workers taking effect last April. She recently spoke about how she started doing this work and why it continues to keep a hold on her.
1. Edwards became interested in social justice law by the time she was 9, inspired by a TV movie about the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down the legal basis for racial segregation.
“I always wanted to be in law enforcement,’’ she said. “I saw ‘Separate but Equal’ with Sidney Poitier when I was in second or third grade. I watched it on repeat all the time. This kind of law, it was always a part of me.”
2. Edwards received her law degreefrom American University in Washington, D.C., and later earned a Master of Laws in taxation from Boston University. Edwards’ first legal job was at a large firm, a job she lost in a layoff. So in 2009, she went to volunteer at the Brazilian Immigrant Center (now called the Brazilian Worker Center) in Brighton.
“The next year I went back to clerk at the [state] Appeals Court. But I couldn’t get the Center out of me, I loved it. I loved learning Portuguese, learning about a different kind of struggle. These individuals I met were just hard-working, salt-of-the-earth, religious, good people. They didn’t go to the police when they were abused. They didn’t fight for their wages. They were exploited constantly. I felt very honored to fight with them.”
3. She has helped hundreds of immigrant workers since 2009, from explaining people’s rights to writing letters on their behalf to filing lawsuits to recover their wages. She started a clinic at the Brazilian center and devoted much of the past few years to helping win new legal protections for domestic workers. She’s also helped women escape from abusive employers and students to get an education, including two who were kicked out of classes because administrators wrongly suspected they lived in another community.
“Two girls came to my office. It was my first education case. They said, ‘Our school said we had to pack up and leave.’ They retained me and paid my fee of $40, enough to cover my Zipcar. We went over to their school. The school let them back in.”
4. She speaks not only Portuguese and Spanish, the languages of some of the largest immigrant groups in Massachusetts, but also German.
“I was a foreign exchange student in Germany. I think my Mom being in the military made me hunger to travel around the world. It makes you culturally fluid. I was in a small town going nuts — Gwinn, Mich., on the upper peninsula.”
5. In five years, she sees herself still committed to the immigrant community and the movement to protect immigrant rights. She sees a family in her future, too.
“I hope motherhood is a part of that dream, having a kid or two. I see myself really taking off in the solidarity-economy movement and really taking a unique stance or leadership role, taking on an unju st immigration system and criminal justice system that really put a lot of people out of the American Dream.”