Avodah New Orleans honoring Partners in Justice at jazz brunch

Calvin Duncan, Davida Finger and Dani Levine

Avodah New Orleans will hold its annual Partners in Justice Jazz Brunch on June 2, honoring three “extraordinary social justice leaders.”

The event, which starts at 11:30 a.m. at Temple Sinai, will honor Calvin Duncan, Davida Finger and Dani Levine for “the work they do to create a more just world.”

New Orleans is one of four communities with an Avodah Jewish Service Corps. A group of 10 to 12 young adults, ages 21 to 26, spends a year living in a communal home and working for local non-profits dealing with social and economic justice issues. The placements are highly subsidized to allow the non-profit to expand its scope through services they might not otherwise be able to afford, while the Avodah members receive a basic needs stipend along with housing, public transportation costs and health insurance. This year, New Orleans had eight members.

Levine is well-versed in Avodah New Orleans from the inside. A Washington native, she became engaged in social justice through Habonim Dror camps and programs. She dabbled in environmental, public policy and consulting for environmental sustainability before deciding to follow full-time Jewish professional life.

She received her degree in environmental studies and comparative American studies at Oberlin, then went to Tulane for a Master’s in public health in environmental health and policy. After receiving her Master’s she was a Mayoral Fellow in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Office of Coastal and Environmental Affairs. In July 2011 she became the New Orleans director of Avodah, then became assistant national program director in 2018, moving up to national program director in 2020.

In 2019, she was in the initial leadership cohort for Inside Out Wisdom and Action. The IOWA cohort, now called Kirva, is a retreat-based learning and practice spiritual community for experienced Jewish social justice leaders, grounding social justice in Jewish spiritual wisdom.

In March 2022, she became the director of social impact at Hillel International, while still living in New Orleans and being active at Touro Synagogue.

Finger is the René August and Mary Jane Pastorek Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law and director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola New Orleans College of Law. She has taught the Community Justice section of the Law Clinic, the externship course, and the Law and Poverty course.

While in law school, she was founding editor of the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, and in 2007 was named an inspiring alum by Seattle University Law School.

At Loyola, she was the founding director of the College of Law’s Incubator Program for solo practitioners working for social justice.  She also founded the Education Project to represent low-income families on special education matters.

She and her clinic students represent on cases including landlord-tenant, post-disaster housing, housing discrimination, and other civil rights matters.  In addition to litigating cases, Finger strives to provide support and collaboration on community advocacy for anti-poverty and justice initiatives.

In 2022, she was named a Fulbright Specialist, eligible to be matched with projects designed by host institutions in more than 150 countries around the world.

Finger has worked with lawyers in Ukraine throughout the Ukrainian crisis, and ho helped secure travel and a study opportunity for Visiting Scholar Nagina Khalili as she fled the Taliban in her homeland of Afghanistan.

She served as co-president of the Society of American Law Teachers, a national organization of law teachers that works to promote teaching excellence, social justice and diversity.

Duncan is a New Orleans native who grew up in the Ninth Ward. At the age of 19, he was arrested and later convicted for a capital murder that he did not commit. He was sentenced to prison for the remainder of his life.

On Jan. 7, 2011, the Innocence Project of New Orleans secured Duncan’s release from prison after he had served 28 1⁄2 years. After his release from prison, he founded The Light of Justice Program, whose goal is to assist incarcerated individuals in gaining access to the courts. He has provided legal support in capital and non-capital cases to help incarcerated individuals understand the criminal justice system.

While in prison, Duncan worked as a jailhouse lawyer for inmates for 23 years. For 19 of those years, Duncan provided legal assistance to individuals on Louisiana’s Death Row. He also taught law courses to other incarcerated individuals for 15 years.

After his release from prison, Duncan was homeless. After spending several days at the home of his attorney, he moved into a transitional living home called Resurrection After Exoneration — one of Avodah NOLA’s first placement partner agencies. Duncan resided there until a law student provided him with the opportunity to reside in their home rent-free for one year.

Duncan enrolled in Tulane University’s School of Continuing Learning, where he pursued a degree in paralegal studies. To continue his work in providing legal assistance to incarcerated individuals, in 2013, the Open Society Foundation awarded Duncan the 2013 Soros Justice Fellowship, which strives to assist incarcerated individuals overcoming procedural barriers that hinder access to the courts. He also worked to change Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury verdict law.

Duncan co-founded the First 72+, which provides transitional housing for individuals recently released from prison. He also co-founded the Rising Foundations, whose goal is to stop the cycle of incarceration. In 2015, the Echoing Green Foundation awarded Duncan the 2015 Black male Achievement Fellowship. In June 2017, he earned his Associate of Arts Degree in Paralegal Studies and Paralegal Certificate from Tulane University. That same year, Mr. Duncan was awarded the Pony Award from the Street Lawyers. The following year, Duncan earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Paralegal Studies from Tulane University, and in May 2023, Duncan received his J.D. degree from Lewis and Clark Law School.

Tickets are $100 and sponsor levels start at $250. For those under age 36, Young Professional tickets are $40. Reservation information is here.

Updated May 12 with this year’s New Orleans number.