Celebrating Diana White

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Ask Diana White about her career and leadership at LAF, and she’ll regale you with stories of strategic plans, office moves, the world’s slowest PhD, labor strikes, broken bones, inspiring clients, book recommendations, and at least as many questions about your life as you can ask about hers.

It was early 1997 when Diana, then a partner at Jenner & Block, had been thinking about a career change and talking to people in various nonprofits, when she came across an ad in the National Law Journal seeking a new Deputy Director at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago. She sent her application to Sheldon Roodman, LAF’s Executive Director at the time. “He called me the day it hit his desk,” she quips.

When Diana started that March, she understood the urgency. Federal funding for legal aid had been cut by more than 25% the previous year, and a number of experienced poverty lawyers had left LAF. Only three weeks into the job, negotiations between LAF union and LAF management broke down. Diana’s job was to make sure that all LAF’s cases got covered during what became LAF’s biggest and longest strike to date. “I knew nothing about poverty law,” she admits. “I could just about keep Medicare and Medicaid straight, if I was reminded.”

But with help from her seasoned colleagues, she was a quick study. Charged with overseeing LAF’s special projects — which at the time included Housing, Immigration, Children, Adult SSI, Public Benefits, and Migrant Workers — Diana had to learn about a wide range of poverty-law issues. But she did know about writing briefs, organizing trial teams, and conducting discovery. And she quickly developed a deeper understanding of poverty and the systemic injustices that foster it.

“I think most people have no real conception of what poverty does to people, or how completely constraining it is when you can’t see any way to improve your situation and there’s no one you can rely on to help you,” Diana says. She recalls a case she worked on with Rich Cozzola, now Director of the Children and Families Practice Group, during her first few years at LAF. Their client, who we’ll call ‘James,’ had a daughter with a woman who turned out to be a prostitute. The mother disappeared one day, having sold the baby to a crooked lawyer — now disbarred — who arranged her adoption by an affluent family in Florida. James was unemployed and living on the south side of Chicago, and the adoption had been done quickly and without his knowledge.  At trial, the judge concluded that James was a fine father, but that his child would have a much better life if she stayed with the family in Florida. LAF and James knew they had to appeal, but that process could take years — and James’ daughter might not even know him by the time the appeal was over.

“I remember thinking, how do we get him down there, so he can at least have visits? I didn’t know what to do,” Diana recounts. But James was determined to be with his daughter, and managed to save up enough money for a bus ticket to Florida where he stayed with his uncle and got a job working the night shift at a factory. They won the appeal, and James was able to be part of his daughter’s early childhood and eventually bring her home, thanks to his hard work and tenacity and Diana’s inexhaustible dedication to his case.

“Those are the sorts of things people don’t realize — the impossible choices people in poverty are faced with.  They’ll say, how could someone have made that decision which, in hindsight, looks like a mistake?  How could you have spent your rent money on textbooks for your oldest child, the first in the family to go to college? Well… how can you not?”

After ten years of working with remarkable clients like James, Diana began her decade-long tenure as LAF’s Executive Director in 2007. “There were so many things I wanted to do — not glamorous, but practical things. And this was my chance to do them,” she explains.

One of her first acts in her new role was to enlist a consultant to develop a strategic plan for LAF. At the time, LAF had a central office, but most staff worked in offices located in various neighborhoods throughout the city. After surveying staff from each of the neighborhood offices, it became clear that LAF needed to centralize its intake. “Because the neighborhood offices were so small, if someone wasn’t there, they just didn’t function. And staff from different offices weren’t communicating much with each other,” Diana explains. “So I thought, here’s a piece I can fix.”  At the end of 2011 LAF moved to a central office and restructured into the five practice groups we have today. “Once people got down here, they enjoyed the chance to brainstorm and collaborate. The quality of the practice improved a lot.” Under Diana’s leadership, LAF also formed the Community Engagement Unit, which helps LAF maintain its presence within various communities after the neighborhood offices closed.

Another challenge Diana faced head on was the changing nature of legal aid funding.  Because of recurrent cuts in government funding for legal aid — at the local, state and federal levels —LAF needed financial support from individuals, law firms, and corporations in order to keep its doors open. Thanks to Diana’s leadership, LAF has built a strong donor base, particularly in the Chicago legal community. “Chicago has this amazing civic pride,” she says. “I’ve lived in a lot of cities, but it’s really something here.” She sees LAF’s next big challenge as reaching people outside the legal community — helping them understand civil legal aid and its importance in fighting poverty and building stronger communities everywhere.

After 20 years of dedicated service at LAF, Diana looks forward to retirement with enthusiasm and welcomes incoming Executive Director John Gallo. Up next for Diana? Gardening, reading, volunteering at LAF’s Woodlawn Legal Clinic, traveling, and maybe even taking up the piano again. We are deeply grateful for Diana’s leadership and wish her a stress-free, well-deserved retirement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day

Today, the UN recognizes World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. According to their research, as many as 10% of older people globally may experience some kind of financial exploitation. Such abuse often goes unreported, due to shame and embarrassment on the part of the victims or their inability to report it. Advocates at LAF work every day on behalf of senior clients who have been taken advantage of, by family members, scheming contractors, or others, to protect their safety, homes, and savings. Many of those clients are like Francisco and Margareta.

Francisco and his wife Margareta are in their late 70’s and speak very little English. Last winter, they called a company to repair their furnace. A man named Jake from the company came out and agreed to fix the furnace for a price of $1,000. He had Francisco, who is nearly blind, sign a document that offered him a discount to the $1,000 rate. Francisco gave his credit card number, but Jake said that the credit card would not work, so Francisco gave a second credit card number. The next day, Jake and a few workers from his company came back out. They brought more documents and, folding the paper over so that only part was visible, insisted that Francisco sign again. This time the amount was blank. Francisco signed, and the workers went downstairs to begin work. A few minutes later, Margareta went downstairs to demand a copy of the document that her husband had signed. She was given a copy which showed a charge of $13,500. A few minutes later, she looked out the window and saw the workers loading their central AC unit onto their truck. This made no sense since the contract was merely to fix the heater. They also loaded the furnace on their truck. Frantic, Margareta called her daughter, who got on the phone with Jake and demanded that he stop all work. While Jake was on the phone with her, his workers drove off with the AC unit and furnace. They also charged $6,000.00 onto Francisco’s credit cards, and recorded a mechanics lien on the home for $13,500.

That’s when Margareta and Francisco came to LAF. LAF prepared for a serious legal battle, but Margareta and Francisco convinced LAF and Jake to settle before they went to court. They just wanted their house adequately heated. In the end, they received new heating and central AC units and repayments of most of the fraudulent credit card charges. Jake’s company was also forced to release the mechanic’s lien, so that Francisco and Margareta own their home again outright. Finally, their heat has been restored and, because of LAF’s help, all of the other trouble Jake’s company gave them is over.

Sometimes justice isn’t a long-fought legal battle. Sometimes it’s just holding contractors to the promises they make to their customers. LAF is here to make sure vulnerable seniors are protected and their homes, savings, and health are safe.

John Gallo Appointed Executive Director of LAF

jgalloLAF has appointed its new Executive Director, following the retirement of Diana White this summer. John Gallo, currently head of litigation at Sidley Austin LLP and former Assistant U.S. Attorney, is active in civic work in the Chicago area. Throughout his illustrious career, John has demonstrated a deep commitment to providing pro bono counsel to indigent criminal defendants and others in need. He has also served on the board (most recently as chair) of Horizons for Youth, a nonprofit that helps children living in poverty become the first ones in their families to prepare for, attend, and graduate from college.

“When the opportunity to join LAF presented itself, I recognized immediately that it would allow me to follow my passion to provide a voice for those in need while helping an incredibly deserving organization continue to grow,” John said. “I’ve always felt that, as a lawyer, I have a responsibility to use my skills to provide services to individuals that otherwise could not afford legal representation. It is an honor to be selected to lead the city’s preeminent provider of legal services to people living in poverty and other vulnerable groups.”

Diana White, who will retire as Executive Director on June 30, 2017, says, “John is a great lawyer. He is also a real leader, helping people on his team do their best, and most satisfying, work.  John is friendly, open-minded, enthusiastic, and empathetic. LAF is lucky to have found him.”

John will take office at LAF in the early fall, and will spend the summer getting to know us, our clients, and our work. Until John arrives, Kate Shank will be LAF’s Acting Executive Director. We are excited to welcome John to LAF and look forward to all he will bring to our work providing free civil legal aid to people living in poverty across Chicagoland – and getting them back on their feet.

A full press release is available here.

 

 

Student Loan Debt: Rights & Relief

fileLast week, friends and cohorts from Chicago’s social services community joined LAF and Joseph Sanders, Assistant Attorney General from the Illinois Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Bureau, to discuss student loan debt—an issue social service providers like LAF are seeing more and more among its client population. “Having student loan debt that is past due harms people’s chances of landing a job, obtaining permanent housing, and pursuing further education down the road,” said Kulsum Ameji, Staff Attorney in LAF’s Community Engagement Unit and moderator of the discussion.  “It can actually exacerbate poverty and push vulnerable people deeper into the cycle of poverty.”

The idea of higher education leaving people worse off runs contrary to the narrative that has shaped how we’ve talk about education for generations. As President Johnson famously said as he signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law—which greatly expanded financial assistance for higher education—the “nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained close to any American.” But as enrollment rates skyrocketed, so did tuition—and at a rate that outpaced income growth, forcing more and more students to take on large amounts of debt to finance their education under the universal assumption that investing in education will lead to higher income and more opportunities for a better life.

Today, with $1.4 trillion of student loan debt in the United States—more than either credit card and auto loan debt and now second only to mortgage debt—and a default rate of 11%, the question of the real return on investment in education is starting to surface. “We have such a positive view of education that we don’t think about its costs the way we do when we’re buying a car,” explains Shelmun Dashan, Staff Attorney in LAF’s Consumer Practice Group. “Most people don’t go to school just for the intrinsic value of learning—we have the goal of achieving a higher income or changing careers, but a lot of times we haven’t done the homework to figure out if what we’re doing will actually meet those goals. Private lenders let you take the loans out regardless, and that gets you in trouble—which they know. They depend on people having this positive association with education and not thinking about what it really means.”

Being an empowered consumer takes some time and research. Is the price tag worth what I’m getting? Are there other ways to get what I want? Apply that same mindset as best you can to higher education, advises Kathryn Liss, Senior Attorney in LAF’s Consumer Practice Group. “It is absolutely imperative in this climate that people really compare the costs, the financial options, and the subsequent opportunities.”

And while educating people considering going back to school now or in the future is a sound preventative approach, there are plenty of resources for the millions already grappling with student loan debt. “Even if we’re not able to take every case out there, we want to be sharing resources and playing a role in connecting people who need help with student loan debt to other organizations that focus on those issues,” Katie says.

That’s where folks like Joseph come in, who helps oversee the IL Attorney General’s Student Loan Helpline. “We started the helpline back in 2015, training five of our Citizen Advocates specifically on student loan issues, he explains. “They are there to assist with anything related to student loans. Even if they’re not your loans, for service providers it can be helpful if you’re working with a client and have a question.”

As student loan debt affects more and more people—disproportionately those from low-income and vulnerable communities—it’s important for community partners to continue having these conversations. Thanks to Joseph and everyone who joined us for this fruitful discussion!

 

 

May eNewsletter and LAF Awards

President Trump’s 2018 proposed budget, published last week, again proposes to defund the Legal Services Corporation, the source of 45% of LAF’s annual funding. While this would have a devastating impact on LAF, we’ve doubled down on proving how important LAF is by working harder than ever at making sure that people living in poverty have a fair shot at justice. And people seem to have noticed! Just this month, our own Dolores Cole and the Community Engagement Unit were surprised with a Program Champion award from the Rush Generations program, for their work educating older adults on their rights. Volunteer John Held received the Federal Bar Association and the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois’ Excellence in Pro Bono and Public Interest Service Award. And Executive Director Diana White was honored by the Rotary Club of Chicago among their outstanding Women of the Year.
You can read about these awards, and much more, in LAF’s May eNewsletter, out now.
On behalf of everyone at LAF, as well as our and clients and communities, thank you for your continued support. Your gifts of time and money are our most steadfast and reliable source of income and they ensure that LAF will remain strong even as political winds blow.

‘Reporting for Duty’ at the Veterans Legal Clinic

Veterans Legal Clinic PicAccording to the CHALENG for Veterans Progress Report, legal assistance is one of the greatest unmet needs among veterans. In fact, legal issues make up 5 of the 10 greatest unmet needs CHALENG identifies, including legal assistance for eviction/foreclosure prevention, help restoring driver’s licenses, child support, and outstanding warrants and fines. Thanks to LAF’s Veterans Legal Clinic, held the third Thursday of each month at the Community Resource and Referral Center near Douglas Park, more Chicago veterans have access to the legal help they need.

Supervisory Attorney Kathyrn Socha, Veterans Legal Corps Fellow Ellen Rheaume, and Hilary Gordon, AmeriCorps VISTA tasked with coordinating the clinic, are on the frontlines each month, alongside two attorneys from LAF’s Veterans Task Force that serve the clinic on a rotating basis. With only a few cubicles at their disposal, space is limited. And since about half of the clients they see make appointments ahead of time, work at the Veterans Clinic is what some might call controlled chaos.

Each client meets with an attorney for one hour, enabling the attorneys to not only provide brief services and referrals, but also screen for extended representation. The clinic, along with LAF’s Veteran Hotline which enables veterans and their family member to bypass LAF’s regular intake process and speak with an expert in veterans’ issues, are part of LAF’s greater outreach efforts to reduce homelessness and unemployment among veterans in our community.

Hilary shares the story of one former client—a veteran and public housing resident who came to the clinic seeking a building transfer. “He suffered from an untreated psychotic disorder and believed he was being watched in his apartment,” she explains. “We were able to work with his doctor to get a disability accommodation so he could move to a quieter building where he now feels safer.”