En Español Know Your Rights
Source: NYU Law
Subject: Profiles of MRNY
Type: Media Coverage

NYU Law Alumnus/Alumna of the Month (ALMO)

In late April 2008, Andrew Friedman ’98 filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of
more than 2,000 dancers, waiters and bartenders who claim they are owed
hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages from the Flamingo Night Club in Jackson Heights,
Queens. For years, the dancers—many of whom
are Hispanic immigrants—paid the club $11 a day simply to be allowed to work.
They were fined for missing work and were never paid a cent in wages, instead
relying on the $2 they received per dance.

Advocating for workers who might otherwise go unnoticed is a matter of
course for Mr. Friedman, who
co-founded the nonprofit organization now known as Make the Road New York (MRNY) with Oona Chatterjee ’98 while both were still students at NYU School of
Law. The organization helps members of the immigrant community in Brooklyn,
Queens and Staten Island learn English,
develop computer skills and navigate complex relationships with employers,
landlords, healthcare providers and public benefits agencies. In addition, MRNY
uses public policy making, legal advocacy and leadership development to address
the larger issues affecting the community. In 2007, for example, MRNY’s
combination of litigation, collective worker action, consumer boycotts and
media outreach helped workers in a range of industries collect nearly $2
million in illegally withheld wages and government benefits, plus damages.

"Since I
was very young, I’ve been focused on finding an effective way to combat
inequality," says Mr. Friedman, who
worked at a shelter for mentally ill homeless women for a few years after
earning his bachelor’s degree at Columbia
University. "No matter
how wonderfully we were doing with the 40 women who lived there, there was a
perpetual line out the door for beds in the shelter. It felt like we were using
a thimble to empty out the sea."

Determined
to engage in the larger public policy issues affecting these women and others
like them, Mr. Friedman decided to
pursue a degree from NYU School of Law. It proved to be an important
decision—both for Mr. Friedman
personally and for low-wage workers and immigrants in the city. "Having access
to the professors at the Law
School, as well as to the
amazing people I met during my internships, really helped me solidify and shape
my desire to engage in some sort of public policy work," he says.

A 1996
internship at the Latino
Workers Center,
which combined community organizing with free legal services for recent immigrants
whose workplace rights were violated, especially influenced Mr. Friedman. That same summer, Mr. Friedman and several fellow
students set up an informal reading group with the goal of applying what they
were learning in class to the streets of the city. "We thought we’d try to
imagine in the abstract how to structure a nonprofit that could achieve what we
wanted to do," he says.

 

The
abstract exercise became concrete after just a few months. Mr. Friedman and his fellow students began by working with a pastor
in Bushwick to develop a class that would teach members of immigrant
communities about the new welfare reform rules. "We prepared a workshop
explaining the new rules in typical law-student detail," Mr. Friedman says, laughing as he recalls his single-spaced 14-page
outline. "And when we got there, we found about 70 Spanish speakers—almost all
of whom had received a letter saying that their food stamps or disability would
be cut off because of welfare reform. What folks needed was much more basic
than we were prepared for."

So Mr. Friedman and his fellow students
dove in, spending 20 to 50 hours a week—on top of their law-school
workload—helping people iron out their benefits. They continued their breakneck
pace through graduation, eventually carving out time to work on public policy
analysis and advocacy in addition to providing direct service. Today, MRNY
focuses on five efforts: expanding civil rights, promoting health, improving
housing, winning workplace justice and improving public education.

The
organization continues to maintain a strong connection with the Law School.
In 2007-08, for example, students in the Immigrant Rights Clinic worked with MRNY to
develop practical strategies for immigrant New Yorkers who face improper police
questioning.

While the
need is great, Mr. Friedman has
worked hard to balance his commitment to MRNY with his desire for a fulfilling
personal life—including spending time with his wife and two-year-old son.
Still, he reflects upon MRNY’s early, all-encompassing days with
fondness and pride. "One of the advantages to starting when we were uncoached
and young is that we had 80 hours a week to give for years," says Mr.Friedman. "It’s a tremendous
privilege to attend NYU School of Law. To the extent that students can use that
privilege on behalf of others—particularly those who are underserved—they can
make a really valuable contribution toward realizing our society’s best
principles of justice."