RALEIGH · October 2, 2019 – North Carolina Lawyers Weekly has named Legal Aid NC attorneys Lesley Albritton and Yolanda Taylor as
Leaders in the Law for 2019.
Based in our Greenville office, Lesley is the managing attorney of our Disaster Relief Project and the manager of our Community Economic Development Practice Group. She is responsible for making our firm a critical partner in our state's preparation for and response to natural disasters.
Yolanda Taylor is the managing attorney of our Wilson office and one of our firm's leading community economic development lawyers. She is the leader of our firm's participation in efforts to fight gentrification and racial segregation in Rocky Mount.
As the managing attorney of our Disaster Relief Project, Lesley Albritton is responsible for leading one of the most dynamic, high-profile and broadly impactful practice areas in our organization—a vital and weighty responsibility that she fulfills with aplomb, passion and skill.
In our state, the question is not
if there will be another natural disaster—usually a hurricane—but
when. For that reason, and because disaster-related legal cases can crop up long after the event has passed, our disaster-relief work never ends. There are always open cases, and there is always the next disaster to prepare for.
It is thanks to Lesley's persistent, prescient preparation that, when disasters do strike, Legal Aid of North Carolina is able to hit the ground running. We can immediately call upon national and state partners—including FEMA, the American Bar Association, the Red Cross, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the North Carolina Bar Association—to spin up a service infrastructure to help survivors overcome the legal barriers that stand in the way of a full and equitable recovery.
The keystone in that infrastructure is the free statewide legal hotline deployed immediately after a disaster. The hotline is part of the formal Disaster Legal Services partnership among Legal Aid NC, the NC Bar Association, the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association, and FEMA. Operated by Legal Aid's Central Intake Unit and the NC Bar, the hotline serves as a single point of contact for survivors who need legal help. Depending on their legal problem and other circumstances, callers are referred to Legal Aid or pro bono volunteers recruited by Legal Aid and the NC Bar.
Learn more about the Disaster Legal Services partnership.
Key to the success of the hotline is spreading the word to survivors—no small task when all the usual forms of communication (phones, internet, mail) are likely to be out of commission. To ensure that survivors know that help is available, Lesley oversees the deployment of a team of Legal Aid staff and volunteers that conducts outreach at Red Cross shelters and embeds in FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers. Team members hand out free legal education materials, consult with survivors and direct them to critical recovery resources.
Our ability to connect quickly with survivors by immediately establishing an on-the-ground presence after a disaster is thanks in large part to Lesley's role as Legal Aid's point person on the North Carolina Disaster Recovery Task Force, a multi-agency group convened by the Emergency Management division of the N.C. Department of Public Safety. Legal Aid's role on the task force is, in partnership with other agencies and organizations, to implement the housing section of the Disaster Recovery Framework, the state's all-encompassing plan for responding to natural disasters. Legal Aid is responsible for handling cases involving public housing admissions and evictions, and terminations of housing subsidies, like Section 8 housing vouchers.
Lesley's participation on the Task Force puts us right in the middle of the preparations for and the response to natural disasters, establishing Legal Aid as a critical partner in the recovery effort and paving our way to accessing survivors immediately after the event.
Our commitment to meeting survivors where they are, rather than making them come to us, doesn't stop after the shelters and recovery centers close down. In early 2019, months after Florence made landfall, Lesley worked with the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center to put on a well-attended and successful series of free FEMA Appeals Clinics at community colleges throughout the southeastern part of the state. Survivors showed up in droves to hear Lesley give a legal-education presentation and to meet one-on-one with pro bono volunteers recruited by Legal Aid and the Pro bono Resource Center.
Learn more about the FEMA Appeals Clinics.
At Legal Aid, the result of all this outreach to survivors is, of course, casework. All the calls to our hotline and connections with survivors at shelters and clinics translates into hundreds of cases for clients who need help with disaster benefits, insurance claims, landlord-tenant issues, consumer scams and more. Overseeing all of this legal work is, of course, Lesley.
It's one of her most important—and fulfilling—duties, she says. She provides legal support to our staff attorneys, including an elite corps of disaster-relief specialists funded by the Golden Leaf Foundation, pro bono volunteers and paralegals. By reviewing work, making suggestions, and providing nudges in the right direction, Leslie sets up other attorneys for success.
"It's hard to overstate how this has become my favorite part of this job," she says. "It makes me feel so good when our attorneys are successful. The confidence boost they get from a big win makes them feel great, but more importantly, it makes them more eager to take on their next case and get an even bigger win for their next client."
At Legal Aid, our commitment to our clients extends far beyond their legal needs. Following Hurricane Florence, Lesley employed a team of social workers to develop plans for outreach to the public and community partners to develop a network for case referrals and to build an exhaustive list of resources in each impacted county.
Moreover, Lesley does all this while
also handling her own disaster-related caseload.
Yolanda Taylor, the managing attorney of our Wilson office, is a true leader in our organization and in the communities she serves.
As the head of our Wilson office, Yolanda oversees the provision of critical legal services to low-income and vulnerable residents in Edgecombe, Greene, Lenoir, Nash, Wayne, and Wilson counties.
With a small staff of 13, including 9 attorneys, three paralegals, and one community economic development outreach coordinator, our Wilson office bears the weighty responsibility of being the sole source of free civil legal services for the 116,000 low-income residents of its service area.
With so many people who need help and with so few people to provide it, Yolanda, as a leader of our community economic development work, has pioneered the practice of community lawyering to leverage her office's limited resources to meet the needs of its clients.
As defined by the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, "community lawyering is a process through which advocates contribute their legal knowledge and skills to support initiatives that are identified by the community and enhance the community's power."
The use of community lawyering allows a relatively small group of advocates to have a disproportionately positive impact in a marginalized community by serving as force multipliers for efforts that have already galvanized the community.
It's a bottom-up approach that ensures that those who are best able to identify and articulate a community's needs—the members of the community in question—remain in the leadership roles that will best enable them to meet those needs. Community lawyers, essentially, are just there to lend a helping hand—though a critically important and powerful one.
Yolanda has put the philosophy of community lawyering to successful practical use in her efforts to support the Steering Committee of Community Academy, Inc., a nonprofit that advocates for low-income people in the city of Rocky Mount.
The group was founded in 2015 following the release of the Twin Counties Visioning and Strategic Plan, a report issued as part of a strategic planning process led by representatives from the City of Rocky Mount and Edgecombe and Nash counties.
One result of the process was the identification of 14 low-income, racially segregated communities in Rocky Mount that were rapidly gentrifying. Members of those communities, facing the prospect of being priced out of their homes and exiled from their neighborhoods, wanted a voice in the community development process. They wanted those in power to hear their concerns—and to address them.
Yolanda helped the Steering Committee raise its voice on behalf of the community members and ensure that they were speaking to the right people. She and her staff helped them develop talking points and taught them how to advocate at city council meetings. She educated them on the federal Fair Housing Act and the powerful protections it provides to struggling communities. "I armed them with the law," she says.
Her efforts have been incredibly successful. The Steering Committee now holds monthly meetings with city management, where the two groups work together to develop strategies that will ensure the equitable growth of Rocky Mount, which includes the perseveration and expansion of affordable housing, food equity, access to transportation, and the increased health and vibrancy of the community.
Thanks to this new partnership, the city council has voted unanimously to address the community's gentrification concerns and have incorporated community-led strategies to mitigate the effects of gentrification into its fair housing plan. The city also implemented a workforce housing advisory council that will address the fair housing needs of residents, affordable housing and the gentrification concerns in affected neighborhoods. The city is now partnering with the community to shape equitable land use policies.
Yolanda's successful use of community lawyering to make a broad impact within communities of need has made her a recognized expert on the subject within our organization and throughout the broader public-interest legal community.
She has led trainings on community lawyering and community economic development for Legal Aid advocates, and at conferences hosted by the N.C. Equal Access to Justice Commission, the N.C. Equal Justice Alliance, the N.C. Justice Center, the Racial Justice Institute of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the Center for Budget and Tax Accountability and more.