University of Vermont

Community Partner Profile: Jay Diaz, Esq.

Jay Diaz

Jay Diaz is an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Vermont and is a faculty member with Vermont LEND. Prior to working with the ACLU, Jay worked for Vermont Legal Aid where he wrote the highly regarded report entitled: Kicked Out! Unfair and Unequal Student Discipline in Vermont's Public Schools. Jay shared with us the story of how he came to Vermont, what he’s doing at the ACLU, and what he sees on the horizon for Vermont. 

How he got here

Jay grew up in New Jersey and attended New York University where he majored in Political Science. Jay said that after graduating, he worked at a big law firm while he considered law school, but says he quickly learned that corporate legal work wasn’t for him. Instead, he said it was “very much about businesses and money.” However, as part of his pro bono work at the firm, Jay started working with the New York Legal Aid Society[1], supporting prisoners in Rikers Island. He found that this as well as other opportunities to help people, were very rewarding and in line with his values. These experiences, Jay said, “showed me what was possible with the law and how you could really impact our environment and our world in a lot of ways.”

Jay attended Boston College Law School and worked on “nothing but public interest” during his time there. He worked at two Legal Aid organizations in Massachusetts, quickly realizing that this was his passion. After graduating in 2012, Jay received a fellowship from the Vermont Bar Foundation to work at Vermont Legal Aid on legal issues for children in poverty.

This fellowship provided Diaz the opportunity to learn more about Vermont. “It was a great opportunity to be a legal services lawyer, which is what I wanted to do at the time, and to design my own project,” he shared. The scope of the project was largely up to Jay: “The only thing they told me was to focus on childhood poverty in some way.” After doing some research and digging in, Jay realized he wanted to focus on something with both short- and long-term effects. “I was thinking of kids who were homeless, who were struggling with housing insecurity and then also thinking of kids who were getting kicked out of school—for one reason or another—either being held out or being kicked out.” The cohorts of students out of school were eye-opening: “Sometimes it was because they were homeless, sometimes it was because they were a parenting student with kids of their own, sometimes it was because they were a student with disabilities and schools just couldn’t provide the services they needed, and other times it was because of ‘disciplinary problems.’” Jay found the same groups being excluded in every corner of the state: “I saw the real struggle that low-income Vermonters are dealing with, and I saw how it is replayed over and over again with families.” Some kids, Jay emphasized, were walking into schools already at a disadvantage.

Over the next two years, Jay worked on over 100 cases on this topic. The end result of these efforts was the Kicked Out report.

His current work

Jay has been working at ACLU for three years, which have been full of transition. Jay started working at the same time as another staff attorney, bringing their staff up to four people. Today, they are a staff of 9 before counting their regular volunteers and part-time staff. “Our ability to do more work has definitely increased. We’re getting more support from other attorneys and people are reaching out,” Diaz said. This has been instrumental in building ACLU of Vermont’s capacity.

One of the biggest differences between Vermont Legal Aid and working at the ACLU for Jay is his client-load. He cited working with people as one of his primary motivators, so it was a transition to work on the bigger picture items and not with clients every day. Looking back at some of the projects he tackled while at Vermont Legal Aid, Jay does think this was a change he was preparing for: “I think I’ve come to realize that it’s really important that in Vermont there is an organization that’s doing that high-level systemic work, or at least has the capacity to do that work.” The ACLU has given him that opportunity to “take the time to focus and find systemic issues that we can tackle through whatever means are available: through the legislative and the policy world, through organizing, or through litigation.” In order to find these larger issues, Jay praises local agencies and organizations: “I don’t think anything we’ve done would have been possible without grassroots organizations or people who have been here much longer than me. We live in a state where the struggle for justice and equity is one of mutual aid. We need to depend on each other.” 

Today, on the top of the ACLU’s list of priorities, both state-wide and nationally, is mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. Jay said that this also intersects with disability rights: “We’re Partnering with Disability Rights Vermont in trying to work on how, in particular the prison system and mental health system, treats people. I certainly see how disability has an intersectionality with poverty…how that plays into everything from how the police will treat a person to how the state will treat them more broadly.” While Jay acknowledged Vermont does a lot of things well in the disability arena, we still have to do better here. “This state unfortunately has a long history of having bad interactions with people with disabilities and mental health crises,” he noted.

What he sees ahead

Jay described some of the pockets of work he has been seeing done by entities to address diversity and cultural and linguistic competency. He acknowledged Vermont State Police and the Burlington Police Department for taking some good steps forward in training on diversity and mental health issues, but still sees a giant need across the state for more. “Training in this area is a good start,” he shared. “If nothing else, it builds an awareness that they need to take an interest and they need to focus on this issue.” He also recognized that this need of more training on cultural and linguistic competency, especially at the intersection of disability, is not exclusive to law enforcement: “I think that fairness and equity in those kinds of interactions really requires that kind of training, but I’m not seeing it yet. That goes for the DCF system, and I’ll call out lawyers, too. I don’t think we do a great job of understanding our obligation to people with disabilities and we need to increase that in our own profession.”

Looking back into our schools, Jay hopes to create a five-year follow-up report to Kicked Out. He also highlighted some good work being done around the state towards the promotion of equity and access. “There’s been a lot of movement around the state to incorporate restorative practices in discipline,” he observed. He added that he’s seen a number of trainings on inclusion and equity at statewide conferences, and he would like to see more leadership from the Agency of Education. When asked about the new special education funding bill, Jay said they would be watching it very closely. Jay and ACLU Vermont are dedicated to protecting and advancing the civil rights and liberties of all Vermonters, and the right to education is no exception. They will be putting in the effort to make sure these changes are executed responsibly and evaluated. “The work continues, and it’s having an impact.,” he said. “That’s why we continue to do it.”

[1] Legal Aid organizations all receive funding through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), an independent nonprofit established by Congress in the 1970s to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. Like University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, there is at least one Legal Aid organization in every US state and territory.