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Civil Legal Aid Community in North Carolina Celebrates Work this Fall

By Mary Irvine

Anita Earls shared inspiring remarks with legal aid advocates from across the state at a lunch reception at the 2016 North Carolina Legal Services Conference held last month. Earls, who is co-founder and executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, called on advocates to be bold in their work and aggressively advocate for the rights of low-income and marginalized clients. 

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) is a nonprofit organization that partners with communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities to defend and advance their rights through legal advocacy, research, organizing, and communications. Most recently, SCSJ led challenges to voting rights changes passed in 2013.

The 2016 North Carolina Legal Services Conference, held October 26-27, 2016, in Greensboro, was hosted by the Equal Justice Alliance, a coalition of civil legal aid providers that provides central coordination of a sustained statewide system of legal services to people in poverty in North Carolina. The two-day event brought together nearly 250 legal aid advocates from across the state, including attorneys, paralegals, support staff, administrators, volunteers, and supporters. The first of its kind since 2008, the conference celebrated the work of legal aid to serve the civil legal needs of low-income individuals across the state, and provided opportunities for advocates to learn and strategize together. Following are some highlights of the event.

Preceding remarks from Ms. Earls, a number of long-time legal services advocates were honored for their commitment to legal aid. Kenneth Schorr, executive director of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont (LSSP) since 1988, received the Julian Pierce Award honoring an attorney who has devoted his or her career to providing legal services to the poor. In the nomination, LSSP Board President Todd Stillerman, Bank of America assistant general counsel, described Ken’s leadership and service to Mecklenburg County’s most vulnerable residents: “Ken’s commitment to providing legal services constantly motivates LSSP’s staff and volunteers to action. He both encourages us to increase our efforts, and sets an example for service with his own actions.”

Pam Hemphill received the John Lea Support Staff Award recognizing a nonlawyer advocate working at a legal services organization that has made outstanding contributions to their organization and community. Hemphill, private attorney involvement coordinator at Legal Aid of North Carolina, has been an invaluable member of the Morganton office since she joined their staff 37 years ago. She initially served as a legal secretary and later became a certified paralegal. In 2000 she became the office’s coordinator for pro bono cases, establishing relationships with local social service agencies and private attorneys to refer pro bono cases to volunteer lawyers. Hemphill is also a committed public servant: founding board member of Habitat for Humanity of Burke County, chair and volunteer of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life event, and dedicated member and volunteer for her church, St. Stephen’s Episcopal.

The Willis Williams Client Award posthumously recognized Nancy Street, a former member of the Legal Aid of North Carolina Board of Directors and Clients Council. Street was a tireless advocate who worked to bring services and resources to those in need in her community, volunteering with the Community Kitchen in Canton and helping retired residents of the Mountainview Housing community. Prior to her death, Street coordinated a two-day event in western North Carolina to assist individuals with prior justice system involvement to access relief to barriers to employment and other services with expunctions or certificates of relief.

Celia Pistolis, chair of the Equal Justice Alliance and assistant director of litigation at Legal Aid of North Carolina, was thrilled that the alliance was able to host the statewide convening this year. “Lawyers and staff at legal aid organizations work in more than 30 offices statewide from Sylva to Ahoskie, often collaborating on cases remotely and communicating about issues of common interest electronically. Opportunities to come together as a whole community are rare but critical to sharing knowledge, building strategy, and developing our team of advocates with the shared goal of achieving justice for poor North Carolinians.” Other conference highlights included an evening reception at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum with opening remarks from Chief Justice Henry Frye and the conference’s closing plenary with Don Saunders, vice president of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
The 2016 North Carolina Legal Services Conference is just one of several events hosted by the legal aid community in North Carolina this fall.

On September 10 the North Carolina Justice Center celebrated the organization’s 20th anniversary with an evening gala and awards ceremony at the Raleigh Convention Center. In response to federal restrictions on programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation, the Justice Center was founded in 1996 with the merger of two organizations. The Justice Center maintained the critical advocacy and research efforts of its predecessor organizations and took on the now-restricted activities of representation of immigrants and class action litigation. Using all tools available, leadership sought to create an anti-poverty organization more able to respond to the needs of the low-income community.

Executive Director Rick Glazier and Representative David Price opened the event, calling on advocates and supporters to continue pursuing the critical work of the Justice Center by providing policy advocacy, analysis, research, and community education. During the event, the North Carolina Justice Center introduced the Leslie Winner Fellowship, a post-graduate fellowship for newly minted lawyers to work alongside talented advocates at the center on high impact litigation in an array of poverty law areas. Winner, one of the award recipients recognized that evening, described the need to provide a strong foundation of support, training, and mentorship for lawyers who are just starting out and want to devote their careers to civil rights and social justice.

The Honorable I. Beverly Lake Jr. received the Executive Director’s Award for Service to North Carolina. Former Chief Justice Lake was a long-time public servant and advocate for an improved criminal justice system. During his tenure as chief justice, Justice Lake founded the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, a nationally-recognized entity organized to address wrongful convictions and common issues that lead to such convictions, including unreliable eyewitness identification and lack of DNA evidence and testing. Since leaving the bench, Chief Justice Lake has continued to advocate for justice system reforms. Champion of Justice Awards were given to James Andrews, president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO; former Governor Jim Hunt; Representative Henry “Mickey” Michaux Jr.; Tom Ross, former president of the UNC System; and Leslie Winner, former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

On October 5, Pisgah Legal Services hosted its annual Poverty Forum, an event that raises awareness about poverty and shines a light on the work of Pisgah Legal Services to alleviate poverty by providing free civil legal services to improve the lives of Western North Carolinians. This year Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, addressed the crowd of more than 1,000 attendees. A social justice champion, Edelman spoke about the depth of child poverty and practical solutions shown to improve child and family wellbeing. “Now, America’s poor children didn’t ask to be born. They didn’t choose their parents, they didn’t choose their country, state, neighborhood, race, color, or fate” said Ms. Edelman, noting the vulnerable position of very poor children from families whose incomes are less than half of the poverty level. But the solutions to reducing child poverty are available, said Ms. Edelman. “We don’t need to invent new things, we just need to implement what we know works and invest in them and make sure everybody who is eligible gets them.”

In her keynote address, Ms. Edelman highlighted a recent report published by the Children’s Defense Fund demonstrating that additional federal investment in programs that increase employment and ensure that the basic needs of children are met could significantly reduce child poverty across the country. The report considered the impact of a variety of social programs, including those that provide job opportunities, improve wages, increase child care subsidies, and make housing vouchers and food programs available to families. The report estimates that with a modest 2% increase in support for these programs, 6.6 million children nationally would be lifted out of poverty.

In Pisgah Legal Service’s six-county service area, 25% of children live in poverty. The free legal aid offered by Pisgah Legal Services improves the lives of children by ensuring safe, affordable housing, protecting benefits which help meet the basic needs of children and their families, and providing access to healthcare. Last year Pisgah Legal Services’ work positively impacted more than 5,000 children in Western North Carolina.

Two of these children are teenage sons of Rebecca, a full-time student and single mother who also cleans offices in order to make ends meet. Rebecca receives a voucher to help her afford her rent while she pursues her education to become a mental health counselor.

As Rebecca approached the end of her three-year lease, her landlord informed her he would no longer accept her Section 8 voucher. Rebecca began to search for new housing and found nothing comparable that she could afford. With very low rental housing vacancy rates in the Asheville area, she simply had nowhere to go.

Faced with eviction and homelessness, Rebecca contacted Pisgah Legal Services. A staff attorney at Pisgah Legal Services was able to delay the eviction, keep the family off the street, and preserve their voucher, which would have been lost as a result of the eviction. The delay allowed Rebecca to find a three-bedroom, two-bath home that she could afford in her sons’ current school district.

“If I had not received the help, I would have been homeless,” shared Rebecca. “In turn, it’s allowed me to pay it forward by starting a recovery center at my church. It’s amazing!” 

Jim Barrett, executive director of Pisgah Legal Services, said this year’s Poverty Forum was very well attended with great interest from the community—including members of the legal profession—in hearing Ms. Edelman speak. “Each year the Poverty Forum opens a community conversation around critical issues facing the poorest individuals in our mountain communities. Marian Wright Edelman has long been a passionate advocate for children and disadvantaged individuals. Tonight she appealed to community members, decision makers, and partners to keep working together to solve poverty’s challenges.”

Mary Irvine is the access to justice coordinator for NC IOLTA, a program of the North Carolina State Bar that uses interest earned on lawyers’ trust accounts to make grants for the provision of civil legal assistance and other programs that work to improve the administration of justice. Irvine also works as director of external affairs for the Equal Access to Justice Commission and director of the Equal Justice Alliance.