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.