Tahirih opened its first satellite office in Houston, Texas in 2009 in order to serve the needs of those seeking asylum in the fifth largest U.S. destination for immigrants. Today, Houston has the largest client-base of any Tahirih office, serving 1,655 individuals and their families through free legal and social services in 2018 alone. Alongside its direct service work, Tahirih Houston engages regularly with policy makers and community members and participates heavily in border work to shed light on ongoing human rights violations. This past year, the office launched the Breaking Down Barriers to Justice Project, Tahirih’s first local public policy advocacy team, with the mission to utilize the Houston network of allies and coalition partners to create and implement policies that ensure the safety of immigrant survivors of violence and to challenge existing policies that create barriers for our clients. This fierce and ambitious office includes the work of Deputy Director, Liz Shields.
Liz grew up in Liberty, Texas, a small town just outside of Houston. She attended Rice University where she received a degree in women and gender and then continued her education at the University of Houston School of Law. While at the University of Houston, she spent two semesters working at the immigration clinic and outside of school spent some time working with a local immigration firm. She knew even then that she wanted a career that would help improve the lives of women.
After law school, Liz was not excited about the prospect of working at a traditional law firm, so she began exploring nonprofits that focused on immigration and women’s rights. It was then that she stumbled upon Tahirih, which seemed like the perfect way to combine her passion for women’s rights with her experience in immigration law. Since there was no office in Houston at the time, Liz applied for a position in the Falls Church office that houses both the National and Greater DC teams. While she was not initially hired, Liz received priceless advice from Tahirih’s Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy, Jeanne Smoot, who provided a blueprint for how to get a job at a place like Tahirih.
“Two weeks after that interview, I took a leap of faith and moved out of my apartment in Houston into a small studio in Washington D.C. I contacted each organization Jeanne suggested and started interning with the Women’s Refugee Commission. Before I knew it, I found myself working in a very non-traditional setting – with the in-house pro bono team at the large law firm of Holland & Knight LLP. In many ways, this was a dream job as I was able to take the types of cases that any other nonprofit attorney would, but with the resources of a large firm. My caseload included a significant number of Iraqi refugees, LGTBQ asylum seekers, and unaccompanied minors. I had a strong mentor who was fearless when it came to pushing back against the courts and all systemic barriers.”
While Liz was still maturing as a young lawyer, a new nonprofit, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), started to form. Liz began working with KIND and as the sole staff member in the Baltimore office, took on a heavy workload with children and families. Although the work was rewarding, Liz started to feel the burnout that comes with working in direct legal services.
“Working with young children and their families is admittedly hard. I began to realize that if I wanted to support this type of work long-term, I had to find a way to do so differently. Then, I saw an opportunity with Tahirih’s Houston office for a Deputy Director and remembered my interview a decade earlier with Jeanne Smoot. In some ways, it felt like my career had come full circle and it would be the perfect fit.”
Spoiler alert – she got the job! Now, in her current role as Deputy Director for Tahirih Houston, Liz’s main goal is to provide support to staff so that they may focus on serving clients. This support comes in many forms, such as managing the programmatic side of grants, facilitating meetings, and ensuring that long-term projects and initiatives move forward without a hitch.
“Really, I’m a pinch hitter. Whatever comes up that needs to be addressed on an office-wide level is my responsibility. My colleagues are my responsibility and supporting them is the most rewarding part of my job. They come to this work for so many reasons and are the most driven, passionate, dedicated people who inspire me every day.”
But the job, of course, comes with challenges. For Liz, the hardest part of working at Tahirih is the reality that she and the rest of the staff do not have the capacity to serve everyone who seeks Tahirih’s services.
“At times, we have to say ‘no’ in order to maintain the level of service our current clients deserve, which is hard. But while that reality exists, Tahirih always strives to do more. Rather than just accepting that we are doing all we can do, we constantly strive to find ways to be creative and serve clients more efficiently.”
For the Houston office, this means working with community partners and local healthcare providers to ensure that all immigrants have access to healthcare, as well as partnering with local women’s shelters and the district attorney’s office to help individuals in outlying counties receive services.
Liz hopes that the impact of Tahirih’s work will extend beyond its individual clients.
“Tahirih fights for equality with each individual client we serve, but we also advocate for systemic changes in our communities, and sometimes, hopefully, help support our clients in this endeavor as well. Our clients are the true warriors – fighting for equality and an end to all forms of oppression each day.”