Gene Russianoff, senior attorney with the Straphangers Campaign, and Dr. Joseph Shin, assistant professor of medicine and co-director at the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights, speak at the New York City Bar Association during the Felix A. Fishman Awards Luncheon on Nov. 15. (NYLPI)
At first glance, Gene Russianoff's efforts to make New York City's mass transit system more accessible and Dr. Joseph Shin's advocacy for detained immigrants have little in common. But the advocates are alike in one important way — each has made helping others his life's work.
On Thursday, the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest put a spotlight on that similarity during its Felix A. Fishman Awards Luncheon, honoring both Russianoff, the senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group's Straphangers Campaign, and Shin, the co-medical director of the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights.
The Felix A. Fishman Awards, endowed by the Henry & Lucy Moses Fund, are named for the longtime Moses & Singer LLP attorney who served as a trustee and director of the fund. Fishman, who passed away in 1992, was a key figure in directing hundreds of millions of dollars to supporting medical, educational and other charitable causes around New York.
"In the midst of attacks on our client communities, we gather to recognize people whose work inspires us to do more," NYLPI Executive Director McGregor Smyth said during the luncheon. "Gene and Joseph are astounding leaders who have had major positive impacts in their respective fields; they are excellent partners in NYLPI's own initiatives; and they are perfect examples of the strong and persistent social justice community in New York."
The event at the headquarters of the New York Bar Association offered a window into ongoing campaigns to improve the footing of vulnerable populations.
Russianoff has spent nearly four decades advocating for improvements to the city's mass transit system, pushing through unlimited-ride MetroCards in the '90s as well as free subway-to-bus transfers for riders. Most recently, he has focused on the city's paratransit services for those with disabilities.
Thursday, the longtime subway user took a car to the event as part of a pilot program he helped develop with the Access-A-Ride Reform Group. The app-based program allows registered users to hail nearby taxi drivers who have signed up to participate.
Russianoff, who has Parkinson's disease, told Law360 that the pilot program has made a huge difference in the lives of those with disabilities, who previously had to make Access-A-Ride reservations 24 hours in advance.
"Who plans that far ahead?" he told Law360. "It's very difficult. But today, at 10:30 [a.m.], I hailed a cab."
He added that newly re-elected New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a big decision ahead as he searches for a new chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority following the departure of former head Joe Lhota.
"He's now more responsible than ever for what happens next with transit and paratransit," Russianoff said. "He can't hide behind another individual because he's going to pick the next MTA chairman."
The day's other honoree, Shin, received his award for advocacy he provides to immigrants held in detention centers who are denied proper medical care. While not an attorney himself, Shin works closely with counsel for detainees who have endured conditions that he said sometimes resemble concentration camps.
Lauren Quijano, the Health Justice Program community organizer at NYLPI, introduced Shin by describing a case in which he prepared a detailed medical summary over the weekend in order to help a man with worsening conditions obtain release.
"Not only did Dr. Shin review extensive medical records and write a detailed medical summary that outlined our client's medical conditions, but he also took a step further to reach out to his esteemed colleagues, who then provided additional medical experts for the case," Quijano said.
As the audience applauded and Shin took the podium, he joked: "If you told me back in med school that when I finally became a doctor, I'd end up talking to lawyers all day long, I would have been like, 'What have I possibly done to deserve that?'"
At the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights, Shin oversees medical forensic evaluation, research and training programs. In the past year, medical-legal networks that he has promoted trained 50 volunteer medical providers to advocate for immigrants held in detention.
After receiving his award, Shin told Law360 one barrier to getting doctors involved in these programs is a lack of familiarity and fear of engaging directly with lawyers on issues as highly charged as immigration detention.
"Once physicians who are interested in doing this work realize that it actually entails them doing almost exactly what they do in their normal medical practice, just in a different context, that actually breaks down a lot of barriers," he said.
"Physicians, with a little bit of mentorship and training, are quickly able to translate what they do clinically into this medical legal advocacy sphere," Shin added.
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--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.