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Advocating for Veterans: The Basics on VA Benefits, Discharge Upgrades and Veteran Cultural Competency 2018


Speaker(s): Barbara Saavedra, Elizabeth A. Hom, Kate Richardson, Margaret Kuzma, Maureen Siedor, Michael Blecker, Mikayla Pentecost, Nicole M. Perez, Rose Carmen Goldberg, Shannon Kissinger
Recorded on: Nov. 14, 2018
PLI Program #: 221688

Shannon Kissinger is a Policy Associate with Swords to Plowshares with a Masters in Social Work from Humboldt State University and bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in foreign policy. Shannon has extensive experience in veteran policy concentrating on macro solutions to veteran issues. Shannon presents Combat to Community® cultural competency curriculum and provides outreach and technical assistance to other community-based veteran services agencies.

Shannon worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs as a Social Worker dealing specifically with homeless veterans, infectious disease, and medical practice. Shannon has also worked for numerous veteran non-profits and managed geriatric and senior services for clients. Shannon spent five years in the U.S. Navy as a Seabee and is a service-connected disabled veteran.


Barbara Saavedra is a Senior Staff Attorney at Swords to Plowshares, a community-based non- profit organization that provides case management, employment and training, housing, and legal assistance to veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her background includes complex civil and criminal litigation and a specialty in the development and presentation of evidence related to PTSD and other mental health conditions.


Elizabeth A. Hom is a Program Supervisor at the State Bar of California, Office of Access & Inclusion where she is responsible for grant administration, and works with the legal services community and other stakeholders including providers, pro bono programs, lawyer referral services, law firms, law schools, bar associations, and courts to develop, coordinate, and support policy and innovation to improve access to justice, and diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

Prior to joining the State Bar, from 2015-2017, Elizabeth served as Pro Bono Counsel at Bay Area Legal Aid, where she managed the firm’s pro bono projects portfolio, which reached across a seven county region. Her responsibilities included stewarding law firms and corporate legal departments to develop pro bono projects that ranged from legal clinics to affirmative and impact litigation opportunities. Elizabeth also managed recruitment, training programs, and support for law clerks, interpreters and other volunteers. From 2004-2015, Elizabeth served in various roles at the Alameda County Bar Association (ACBA,) including as Director of Access Programs, where she oversaw the Lawyer Referral Service and the ACBA Volunteer Legal Services Corporation (VLSC,) the pro bono arm of the ACBA. Elizabeth was responsible for developing and improving pro bono projects, building strong relationships with local legal services providers, the court, and the private bar as well as fiscal oversight, including budget monitoring, developing and executing a diverse fund development plan, and grants management. Elizabeth has also worked extensively on board relations, board development, and strategic planning, and is a graduate of the OneJustice Executive Fellowship Program for Nonprofit Management. Elizabeth is committed to developing, evaluating, and shaping policy and programs to promote and advance social justice. Elizabeth participates regularly in regional and statewide pro bono forums. She has served on the board of directors for Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA), and on the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Standards Review Team.

Elizabeth holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in Psychology and Legal Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Juris Doctor and a Masters in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago.


Kate Richardson is the Legal Director at Swords to Plowshares, a community-based non-profit organization that provides case management, employment and training, housing, and legal assistance to homeless and low-income veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area. As Legal Director, Kate oversees the legal services unit and pro bono program, which provide free legal assistance to veterans in their VA benefits claims and military discharge upgrade applications. Her experience in disability rights work includes direct services, policy advocacy, and community lawyering approaches. Prior to joining Swords to Plowshares, she worked on access to justice issues at an international legal empowerment organization. She holds a J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law and a B.A. from the University of Michigan. She is a member of the State Bar of California.


Margaret Kuzma is the Director of Discharge Upgrade Practice at Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. In addition to her work at CVLC, Margaret taught as a Visiting Clinical Lecturer with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School from 2016 to 2017. Prior to CVLC, she worked as a Skadden Fellow attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago, Illinois where she served low-income veterans and military families. Before becoming a public interest attorney, Margaret worked as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for Fort Benning and USAG Baumholder. Margaret received her J.D. from DePaul University and her B.A. from Brown University. She is admitted to practice law in Connecticut and Illinois.


Maureen Siedor is the Staff Attorney & Pro Bono Manager at Swords to Plowshares, a community-based non-profit that provides legal aid, housing, and social services to homeless and low-income veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to her work at Swords, she was a staff attorney at DNA-People’s Legal Services providing legal assistance to victims of domestic violence on the Navajo Nation. She is a graduate of Boston College Law School and Barnard College, and a member of the State Bars of California and Colorado.


Michael Blecker has been associated with Swords to Plowshares since 1976, only two years after its founding in 1974 by a group of Vietnam veterans and VISTA volunteers at the Veterans Administration in San Francisco. He began as a staff attorney and was dedicated to helping veterans access their VA benefits. After a three-year struggle, Swords to Plowshares was granted recognition from the VA in 1978 to represent veterans seeking benefits and in 1979, he won one of the first PTSD cases and helped develop the Agent Orange Self-Help Guide. In 1982, Mr. Blecker became Executive Director, guiding the agency from its small grassroots origins to one with a continuum of specialized services and an annual budget of nearly $20 million.

Mr. Blecker has a nationwide reputation for dedicated service and as an authority on veterans’ services and veterans’ rights. He served on the Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans (2002-2007) which advises the Secretary; he is co-founder of both the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and the California Association of Veterans’ Service Agencies. He has served on the Congressional Commission on Service Members and Veterans Transition Assistance, the California Senate Commission on Homeless Veterans, the San Francisco Mayor’s Homeless Planning Committee, the National Agent Orange Settlement Advisory Board, the Agent Orange Information Center, and the Veterans Speakers Alliance. In 2015 he was appointed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to serve on the federal Commission on Care, examining veteran access to VA care.

Mr. Blecker served in the U.S. Army combat infantry in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970. He holds a J.D. degree from New College of California School of Law (1980) and a B.A. degree with honors from UC Berkeley (1974).


Mikayla Pentecost is a Staff Attorney at Swords to Plowshares, a community-based non- profit organization that provides case management, employment and training, housing, and legal assistance to veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mikayla graduated from William & Mary Law School in 2017. During law school, she interned with several legal aid providers including the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia and Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. She previously worked with veterans at the William and Mary Law School Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic, and is a member of the California State Bar.


Nicole is the managing attorney of the Veterans Justice Center at Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) is the first place thousands of people who have low-income turn to when they need legal assistance for a crisis that threatens their safety, security or shelter. We take care of the most vulnerable people in our community: people who are unhoused, unemployed, working poor, domestic abuse survivors, victims of torture and human trafficking, elderly, disabled, and Veterans of Los Angeles, by providing free life-saving legal services. We also provide free legal education, outreach, and self-help assistance to litigants and community members, allowing for additional access to justice. Founded in 1929, LAFLA celebrates its 90th anniversary this year and continues to strive to achieve equal justice and address systemic poverty through direct representation, impact litigation, and community empowerment. With five neighborhood offices, three domestic violence clinics and four self-help legal access centers, LAFLA serves communities as diverse as East Los Angeles, the Westside, South Los Angeles, Pico-Union and Long Beach.

As a disabled woman from a marginalized Latino community, Nicole has dedicated her career to fighting for economic and racial justice. At LAFLA, Nicole works passionately alongside Veterans with low-income and/or disabilities to advocate for government benefits, prevent Veteran homelessness and access civil justice. With a law degree and Masters in Social Work, Nicole practices holistic advocacy for Veterans and their families, utilizing the support of pro bono, community, and social service partners. Nicole obtained her graduate degrees in Law and Social Work from UCLA, her undergraduate degrees in Social Welfare and Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley, and her “degree” in life skills from her kind and hardworking single father Fred Perez. Nicole began her legal career as a Skadden Fellow in homelessness and government benefits advocacy at LAFLA. She is also an Adjunct Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School where she founded and continues to teach a veterans justice practicum to upper-level law students.


Rose Carmen Goldberg is a Supervising Staff Attorney at Swords to Plowshares and a Lecturer at Berkeley Law School. She is the legal director of a Medical-Legal Partnership with the Oakland Vet Center, a partnership that integrates legal services and mental health treatment for veterans. Her background includes health policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, legislative assistance at the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Native American affairs at the White House.