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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Victims, Survivors, and April eNewsletter

Often, our clients need our help due to situations that arise outside their control and that are not their fault.  These people could be described as victims – of abuse, of oversight mistakes, of circumstance – but most of them prefer to be identified as survivors.  Some of them include Shelmun’s client Ellen, who was nearly evicted from her house because of a bank’s mistake; Kathryn’s client Betsy, who was almost not granted her nursing license because of records that should have been sealed; all of the CLASP program’s clients, who survive violence and abuse; and people subjected to systemic racism just because of where they live and the skimpy resources available to them.  Nonetheless, they continue to survive, and, with LAF’s help, to thrive.
You can read about these stories, and much more, in this month’s eNewsletter.  On behalf of everyone who does this work every day, and everyone who benefits from our services and your contributions, thank you.  Your continued support makes it possible for LAF to fight for the rights of victims and survivors and to ensure that they can see justice and fairness prevail, regardless of their circumstances.

February eNewsletter

The winds of political change have swept over the country, and word of massive change in programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps, and the Affordable Care Act is in the air.  Immigrant families are terrified of being caught up in mass deportations.  Funding for even the Legal Service Corporation itself is at risk – which would slash LAF’s budget nearly in half.
No one can predict the outcome of the political debate, but it certainly looks as if, in the words of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, “a hard rain’s gonna fall” on people who have very little shelter from the storm.

Eric Fong Stands for…Efficiency

Eric F.pngFrom an early age, LAF’s IT Supervisor Eric Fong knew he wanted to work with computers. “I like being able to teach people new ways of doing things that will save them time,” he says. “I try to be a force multiplier—so that people are able to do their jobs more efficiently.”

He first became familiar with civil justice issues during college, when we worked on a project for Illinois Legal Aid Online. “I knew I wanted to work at a place where I’d be excited to contribute, and LAF’s mission really spoke to me,” he reflects. “And even though I’m not a lawyer, I can put my skills to use helping lawyers. And I think that’s important.”

In Eric’s more than ten years at LAF, he’s worked hard to ensure everything runs smoothly and efficiently so LAF can increase its capacity to serve people in need. He describes the staff’s sincerity and dedication as what keeps him excited to come to work each day. “I see people when they’re at their most frustrated. But no matter how much they’ve been worn down by a difficult case or whatever it is they’re dealing with, I know it’s all because they care so much about the work. And that means I never have a bad day here.”

Like Eric, your support keeps LAF up and running—so that more people can get the legal assistance they need to protect their homes, families, and livelihood. Make your tax-deductible donation for 2016 today at www.lafchicago.org.

Denise Davis Stands for…Restoration

On top of physical and emotional trauma, victims of violent crimes are often burdened with overwhelming financial costs. Through the Illinois Crime Victim Compensation Program, victims and their families can apply to be reimbursed for expenses accrued as a result of a violent crime, such as medical costs and loss of earnings. However, many victims aren’t aware that such a program exists, forcing them to bear the full financial burden themselves as they try to heal physical and emotional wounds. “Information on the Compensation Program is in a small box on the back of the police report. Without advocacy and community outreach, a lot of victims don’t even know the program exists,” says Denise Davis, Crime Victim Advocate at LAF.

In her nearly 25 years at LAF, Denise has provided support to countless victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other violent crimes. From writing letters to creditors on behalf of her clients so they’ll put collection efforts on hold, to reaching out to doctors and dentists to see if they’d be willing to provide their services, Denise goes above and beyond to make sure her clients get what they need to be able to rebound from their victimization. “It’s about doing what we can to help them be whole again.”

Individual contributions enable Denise to continue supporting crime victims as they fight to get their lives back on track. Help LAF start the new year strong by making your tax-deductible donation for 2016 today at www.lafchicago.org.

Ian Jackson Stands for…Empowerment

ian-jacksonShortly after graduating college, Ian Jackson and his roommates ran into an issue with their landlord. Frustrated and unsure how to proceed, they reached out to student legal services for guidance. After meeting with a legal assistant, they took the issue to small claims court and won their case. “That experience inspired me to go to law school,” Ian says. “That feeling of empowerment was something I wanted to be able to offer to other people—more agency in their own lives, facing their own challenges.”

As a Fellowship Attorney in LAF’s Housing Practice Group, Ian now works directly with people in poverty to ensure they have a safe, affordable place to live. “Having a decent, stable place to live is one of the basic foundations of life,” he says. And with a stable foundation, individuals and families can build better, healthier lives. “It’s often a stepping stone for people to move in a different direction with their lives or recover from a setback, or take steps to move forward with various goals for themselves and their families.”

Your support helps LAF move forward, so that attorneys like Ian can empower more people to build better lives for themselves and their families. Make your tax-deductible contribution for 2016 at www.lafchicago.org.