2022-2023 F.M. Kirby Impact Prize Finalist Spotlight: Connecticut Veterans Legal Center

We are thrilled to share why we are so excited about each of the four finalists for the 2022-2023 F.M. Kirby Impact Prize. Check the CASE blog for posts on the other finalists. 

The Problem Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) is Working to Solve

Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) operates in medical-legal partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Connecticut, and supports veterans recovering from homelessness and mental illness to overcome legal barriers to housing, healthcare, and income.  Through the work of directly representing individual vulnerable veterans, CVLC identifies issues that it believes can be addressed more holistically through policy and practice change. The issue of focus in CVLC’s Kirby Prize application is the racial disparities it has identified in Black veterans’ designated discharge status – specifically, the use of the “Other Than Honorable” (OTH) discharge designation which results in ineligibility for VA benefits and puts the veteran at greater risk of homelessness, suicide, and involvement with the criminal justice system. CVLC undertook a study to better understand the burden and root causes, and the report from that study, Discretionary Injustice: How Racial Disparities in the Military’s Administrative Separation System Harm Black Veterans, quantifies the disparity and demonstrates how implicit bias and/or racial discrimination is a factor in less than honorable administrative separations.   

Veterans outside the Ererra Community Care Center. Photo courtesy of CVLC.

Why We’re Excited About CVLC’s Impact Potential

CVLC’s approach of working directly with impacted veterans, deeply understanding the context and issues facing them, and then pursuing greater systems change, is an inspiring example of tackling a problem from all angles – including its roots. For CVLC’s work related to racial disparities in the military’s systems around discharge status, it was clear to us that CVLC knows the key systems influencers, who else needs to be engaged to make the work successful, and how similar systems change efforts have worked in the past. They also shared a clear proposed use for the funds – to conduct a thorough analysis of existing data and to partner with the Black Veterans Project to bring together Black veterans to more clearly identify the markers of discrimination that can guide case law.  

We’re excited about CVLC’s impact potential for several reasons, including:

  • Its practice of deeply understanding key issues and patterns faced by veterans through its direct legal representation work.
  • The trust it has earned in the legal community through its development of legal manuals on key veterans’ issues and related nationwide training programs for veterans’ advocates.
  • Its commitment to strategic and effective partnerships to achieve its goals, including a partnership with the Black Veterans Project for the current effort to address racial disparities in military separation.
  • Its commitment to power-share with its partners – even when doing so means slowing down and sharing resources.
CVLC attorney consulting with client on her case. Photo courtesy of CVLC.

The Plan to Achieve Impact at Scale

As national experts in veterans’ advocacy, CVLC knows that its best scaling strategy is to continue providing direct legal support for individuals while undertaking work to change the systems in which they operate. Its vision is that “All veterans will be justly characterized in military separations, and not face racism in the discharge upgrade review process. Veterans will live with adequate financial means, affordable healthcare, safe and secure housing, and peace of mind.” 

To accomplish this vision, CVLC is planning to deploy the following scaling strategies:

  • Increase the number of discharge upgrade cases they represent, leveraging both their staff attorneys and pro-bono attorney network. 
  • Train and equip lawyers across the country to successfully take on discharge upgrade cases in their jurisdictions. 
  • Work at the systems level, building upon the Discretionary Injustice report and working with partners to advocate for changes to military processes that can even the playing field for all servicemembers. 

What’s Next?

CASE will announce the winner of the 2022-2023 F. M. Kirby Impact Prize at the Sustainable Business and Social Impact (SBSI) Conference on February 22, 2023.