The Center for Justice’s new executive director, Dainen Penta, is the center’s first person of color as its leader, and he’s “looking at things through a race equity lens,” said board president Paul Dillon.
Dillon was quick to point out that Penta’s background and ability to unite people is the reason he earned the spot at the head of the “community’s law firm,” as the CFJ refers to itself. The Center for Justice, located in the Community Building at 35 W. Main Ave., is a nonprofit civil legal aid group, started in 1999 by attorney Jim Sheehan.
Penta joined the CFJ in January, following Rick Eichstaedt’s departure last year.
He spent the past eight years practicing real estate law in Seattle, he said, working with homeowners associations and property owners to solve problems like “Whose responsibility is it to pick up the dog poop in the common area?” and “There’s been a condo around for 30, 40 years. Whose job is it to fix the building?”
Born in Korea and raised in Longview, Washington, Penta graduated from Whitworth University in 1997. He earned his law degree at Lewis and Clark College in Portland and then studied tax law at the University of Washington for one year.
He said he came to the CFJ to do something that would make a positive difference “instead of moving people’s money around,” he said. His first day at the CFJ was Jan. 23.
Penta’s sights are set on keeping the CFJ financially stable. He wants to improve local law enforcement’s implicit bias training and help people avoid eviction, prevent searches on Greyhound buses and help people understand how to file legal forms with the court – only a handful of things he’s working toward.
“Our mission is to empower people in the community,” he said.
A bigger project that Penta is working on is a rebuke to an appeal for the controversial Proposition 1, which would have allowed city workers and police to question anyone about citizenship status – what Penta calls an anti-immigration initiative. The case could appear in the state Supreme Court, if it’s accepted, before the end of the year.
Another project the CFJ is about to launch is representing a few “Camp Hope” residents in finding justice after the group of protesters camped outside City Hall to protest laws they say are harmful to homeless people.
Penta said the Camp Hope residents aren’t looking for a huge payout, but more so simply recognition that they were treated unjustly and were stripped of their possessions when kicked out of the camp.
“It’s never about the money,” he said. “The monetary value of the Camp Hope’s residents’ personal belongings might not be great, but to him, those are all of his belongings.”
But for most issues that the center tackles, Penta said he hopes that he and his staff can resolve them before the courts get involved.
“One of our goals is to stop things from getting to the point where it reaches litigation,” he said. “It saves everyone money, frustration and stress.”
The programs offered by the CFJ are one way it pushes that needle, Penta said. They include a housing justice program and clinics to help people to avoid eviction and negotiate settlements with landlords. The center also schedules monthly times for walk-in consultations.
All in all, about 60 people benefit from the programs per week, but Penta said the programs are more helpful if people jump on them earlier in the process.
Breean Beggs, former executive director and now a City Council member who’s still involved with the CFJ, said Penta stood out as someone who can structure conversations to make them much more productive.
“He’s particularly good at bringing people together,” Beggs said. “He doesn’t put people off by being too adversarial.”
Beggs said it’s exciting to see a person of color in a leadership position in Spokane.
“Having the face of the Center for Justice be a person of color gives them credibility for their clients,” Beggs said.
The CFJ had a long list of candidates apply, Dillon said. But Penta stood out because of his thoughtfulness and experience in management, as well as his background as the president of multiple law groups including the Washington State Bar Association Young Lawyers Division and the Asian Bar Association of Washington.
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