Photograph: William Abromowicz/Illustration: Oksana Badrak
Jane Sujen Bock: The Justice Seeker
Sitting among the law books in Jane Sujen Bock's Manhattan office is a plastic bag full of paint chips: a keepsake from a successful case, and proof of an inventive legal mind at work. In 2002, Bock, an attorney with the Homeless Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, learned that the city was using the Bronx House of Detention as a homeless shelter. "The ventilation was horrible, and kids were having asthma attacks," she says. "Not to mention the emotional damage to children who were being told that this"—living in a jail—"was what they were worth."
Bock could have built a case for relocating the kids, which would have taken years to wind through the court system. But she wanted a solution now. She visited the jail and, suspecting that the facility wasn't up to code, peeled a few flakes off the walls. Sure enough, tests revealed that the place was coated in lead paint; within weeks, hundreds of families had been moved to safer, more humane shelters—and the story had hit the front page of The New York Times.
"Traditional legal tactics often don't work well for poor people," says Bock, 51, one of just two lawyers tasked with helping 10,000 homeless families in New York City. "They're up against massive bureaucracies, and the court system is very slow." So Bock recruits pro bono advocates to push for legislation; she tips off the press to injustices and brings clients to testify at city council hearings; she's even been known to shadow vans transporting homeless families to collect affidavits about inadequate shelters. Her enterprising approach means that, on any given day, Bock is not just a lawyer but a social worker, detective, community activist, and building inspector—in addition to being a mother of two with a deep empathy for her clients. "I see homeless mothers who are being so creative in trying to provide for their children when they have lost their jobs, or have been battered, or have had their ceilings fall down on their heads," she says. "I'll do whatever I can to give these kids a chance." The proof is in the plastic bag.