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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Attorney/activist works with marginalized communities
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2015-08-05

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Attorney and activist Nebula Li, who identifies as queer and gender non-conforming, has been a practicing attorney focusing on immigration, criminal defense, public benefits and civil rights law at a variety of entities over the years.

Currently, Li is a staff attorney and coordinator of Community Legal Education at Community Activism Law Alliance ( CALA ). Li coordinates the Enlace Chicago clinic in the Little Village neighborhood. Aside from Li, CALA is staffed by two other attorneys.

Along with the Enlace Chicago clinic, CALA operates two other clinics—Centro de Trabajadores Unidos Clinic and the Sex Workers Outreach Project Clinic. CALA also has a partnership with Organized Communities Against Deportation ( OCAD ).

CALA ( which began last year ) is, according to its website, "a non-profit organization that brings legal services directly to the most disadvantaged in the Chicagoland area and to advance public awareness of legal issues affecting these communities. CALA uses an innovative practice model, community activism lawyering, to remove barriers to justice for those who are overlooked or turned away by other organizations. CALA's mission also includes supporting the work of our partner community organizations to strengthen their capacity and impact. CALA pursues its objectives through community activism law clinics created by and operated in the communities they serve, and in collaboration with respective partner community organizations. All services provided by CALA are free of charge."

Li holds a walk-in clinic every Tuesday night at 5-8 p. m. at the Enlace Chicago location. The clinic is an opportunity for individuals to get advice and counsel from Li and other attorneys.

"All of our work is guided by our community partners and our mantra is to meet the needs of the communities we're serving including the South and Southwest side of Chicago," said Li. "I have follow up times on Tuesday and Friday during the day and once a month we do a DACA workshop.

"I really enjoy working with Enlace Chicago because they're an activist group working on every kind of immigration case as well as other things such as family, education, criminal records and labor law. I'm happy to be able to help the countless individuals in need of legal help who otherwise might not be able to afford it. In Little Village alone, there are 20,000 undocumented immigrants and I'm happy to serve this community."

Li, a second generation Chinese-American whose parents emigrated here from Hong Kong and China, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1989. They grew up in North Carolina and New Jersey and attended Mary Baldwin College before transferring to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where they graduated with a degree in political science.

"I took a year off after college and worked as a tutor before starting law school at the University of Chicago in 2008," said Li. "I graduated in 2011 and since then I've worked at a couple of non-profits, small public interest law firms and done community organizing. Those include the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, Shiller Preyar Law Offices, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago and Justice for Our Neighbors.

"I decided to stay in Chicago because I really like it. I've found a great queer and trans people of color community here. I feel like I have a pretty solid chosen family here in Chicago so I don't have any plans to leave any time soon."

While attending law school, Li participated in the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic's Criminal & Juvenile Justice Project. They also interned at Immigration Equality and Harvard Immigrant & Refugee Clinic/Greater Boston Legal Services. In addition, Li received the University of Chicago President's Volunteer Service Award and was a Law School Leadership Fellow. Li was also a member of the 2012 class of the "20 under 40" attorneys across the country that were recognized by Just The Beginning Foundation.

"When I went to law school, I initially wanted to be an LGBT rights attorney," said Li. "I had an internship at Immigration Equality, a group based in NYC and DC that focuses specifically on LGBT immigrants. That internship was the catalyst for me because I had some knowledge about my identity as a queer person but working there introduced me to intersectional work.

"It made me realize that LGBT issues are bigger than just same-sex marriage. They include other things such as racial equity and immigrant rights. That was a really transformative experience for me and subsequently it made me realize that I enjoyed practicing immigration law specifically as it relates to the LGBT population."

Li was also an active community organizer. Just last Fall Li, led the Pan Asian Voter Empowerment Coalition to mobilize over 4.000 Asian America immigrant voters in the Chicagoland and Elgin areas during the fall 2014 election season.

"When I was a third-year at [UChicago], I, along with some other students, organized a workshop around education issues for undocumented high school students that included information sessions on a variety of topics related to being undocumented," said Li. "I realized that I did the workshop all wrong because, as a native born citizen, I didn't listen to the undocumented community in creating the workshop. An undocumented person called me out and said 'you do realize you are an ally to the community?' This was a big moment for me because as a queer person who's done queer activism before, I understood for the first time that I was doing work for a community with which I did not identify.

"I realized that despite my immigrant heritage, I wasn't a member of the undocumented community. To be reminded that I was an ally was an educational moment for me as an activist. I realized the most important thing I can do is listen to the groups who are affected if I'm not a member of that group."

This past spring, Li participated on a panel focused on the intersection between LGBTQ and immigrant rights with Windy City Times Publisher Tracy Baim and queer, undocumented activist Arianna Salgado following a screening of "Limited Partnership."

"It was a great talk, and I felt like we did a great job talking about the issues," said Li.

Li is a board member for the National Lawyers Guild Chicago and is a member of Invisible 2 Invincible: Asian/Pacific Islander Pride of Chicago ( i2i ) and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.

When not working and doing community organizing, Li likes to sing karaoke and cook with friends. Li is also addicted to the TV show Nikita ( a reboot of 1997 TV series La Femme Nikita ) and can't stop talking about Maggie Q's performance as Nikita.

Li also speaks Spanish proficiently as well as basic Cantonese.

"It would like LGBTQ people to become more involved in the issues that affect the most marginalized in our community for example people of color, those in prison and undocumented people," said Li. "It's really important to acknowledge that queer people are everywhere and are affected by police brutality especially trans women of color.

"There are also the issues surrounding workers rights, adoption rights, parenting rights and immigrant rights as well as criminal defense access including having the right to an attorney. My hope is that by talking about the work that I do at CALA as a queer, second generation immigrant I'll be able to highlight the various ways queer people can give back to the community."

For more information, see CALAChicago.org .


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