Nu, So Sue

What keeps Nu Usaha motivated? A psychic paycheck

Published in 2009 Southern California Rising Stars magazine

By Suzy Frisch on June 12, 2009


Helping others comes naturally to attorney Nu Usaha. When she was a child in Thailand, her parents adopted a 13-month-old baby from a struggling acquaintance. It’s just the Thai way for family and friends to help each other, she explains. And it’s that tradition that inspired her to become a public interest lawyer. Today, Usaha is a staff attorney at the Western Center on Law & Poverty in Los Angeles, where she focuses on welfare and food stamp issues.

Her journey to public interest law began when she was 12 years old in Bangkok. Usaha’s aunt and uncle were headed back to America, where they had a better life, and to give their niece a better life, they formally adopted her so she could join them. Despite knowing only a few words of English when she arrived, Usaha settled in and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.

During college she tutored underprivileged children in Chinatown. Her volunteer work made Usaha realize she could make more of a difference by learning the law, gaining a more powerful arsenal to improve poor people’s lives.

She enrolled in law school at the University of California, Davis, with a firm intention to practice public interest law. This choice dismayed her parents, who wanted her to pursue a more lucrative specialty.

“I always thought that it’s important to make a lasting impact in this world,” says Usaha, who went ahead with her plans. “Doing public interest work affects the 1.4 million people on welfare. So that’s the way I choose to make a difference.”

After law school, Usaha began work at Legal Services of Northern California and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. She served as co-counsel on Lomeli v. Saenz, a case that challenged California’s rules for recouping the cost of over-issued food stamps. Through this case Usaha met Dick Rothschild, director of litigation at the Western Center, who recruited her to his institution, which emphasizes comprehensive changes to the public aid system.

In 2001 she moved to the Western Center and currently advocates for changes in welfare and food stamp laws and regulations. Usaha provides guidance to legal aid attorneys and nonprofit employees who work directly with people on public assistance. That might mean answering 40 to 80 phone calls a month from advocates for the poor or writing 1,000-page manuals that explain California’s complex statutes on public assistance. “What keeps me motivated is a psychic paycheck,” she says. “When we have a victory, it feels really good and it means a lot. It means a lot to the people I work with and it means a lot to our clients.”

Another part of Usaha’s job is teaching community college students enrolled in the CalWORKs welfare-to-work program about their rights and benefits. She teaches students how to use the 150-page welfare and welfare-to-work manual to do their own research, including how to look up the law that affects them. Subsequently, they take advantage of that information to advocate for themselves, whether it’s before a county case worker or administrative law judges.

The manual looked intimidating and was more widely distributed to welfare advocates than to the students. But changes in training made a difference. “People assumed we couldn’t do it with welfare recipients,” she says. “But I said, ‘That’s not true. They are in college and they are very smart and motivated. They can be self-sufficient and become their own advocates.’ They feel so empowered now, and they know their rights.”

Usaha has been honored for her work, receiving the Asian Bar Association of Sacramento’s Public Service Award and the Exceptional Merit Scholarship for Public Service from the Foundation of the State Bar of California.

The new mother of a baby boy, Usaha is a Buddhist who adheres to its tenet to lessen suffering in the world. She is teaching her son to appreciate his fortune: having two loving parents who provide for him, grandparents, a home and a free public education.

These are lessons Usaha learned from her parents—when they adopted the baby who is now her teenage brother and forged a path for her to live the American Dream. “My work is an extension of where I come from and how I grew up,” says Usaha. “It’s important to live my life in a way that’s true to myself. I love my work and I feel really fortunate that I get paid to do something I’m very passionate about.”

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