Carol Ashley filled a new position, vice president of advocacy, when she joined the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law last December. Carol had been in private practice in Chicago at Futterman Howard & Ashley, where she concentrated on civil rights litigation, primarily school desegregation, and represented community organizations. She oversees the Shriver Center’s advocacy for justice and opportunity on a range of issues.
You previously worked on civil rights issues in public school districts in Illinois. How do you see that work intersecting with your work at the Shriver Center?
The work that my colleagues in private practice did on behalf of African American and Latino students has been based on a simple principle—equitable educational opportunities level the playing field. This work always involved a significant amount of policy development and implementation, and my work with Shriver Center advocates allows me to extend that “level the playing field” principle to other areas—economic opportunity, housing, criminal and community justice, workplace, and health care issues.
I suspect my mother’s experiences contributed the most to shaping my work on helping communities overcome discrimination and poverty. She was the daughter of a Georgia sharecropper and the playmate chosen for the plantation owner’s daughter. She received an associate degree from a historically black college in the late 1940s and taught in a one-room schoolhouse in a rural Georgia town before joining the “great migration” and following her husband north to a growing Midwest city. Once north, my father worked at a prominent manufacturer and, together with my mother, raised a family of eight in a home they owned in a working-class African American neighborhood. When my father died in his early forties, my mother continued the journey that they had started. Raising their eight children, ranging in age from 3 to 17 at the time of her husband’s passing, she worked as a public school teacher’s aide and then as a welfare caseworker in an urban center. My mother saw all of her children attend college, seven graduating, and then go on to obtain master’s, J.D., and Ph.D. degrees, with one sworn in as a member of the judiciary. My mother knew that education and jobs change lives. The knowledge that when people have access, lives change, has always motivated me, both in my previous education equity work and now joining the team of attorneys at the Shriver Center.
You’re relatively new at the Shriver Center, having joined us in December 2012 as our first vice president of advocacy. What’s surprised you the most during your first year?
My mother saw all of her children attend college, seven graduating, and then go on to obtain master’s, J.D., and Ph.D. degrees, with one sworn in as a member of the judiciary. My mother knew that education and jobs change lives.
The lack of racial diversity of the legal aid community. While the litigation circles of private practice are no bastions of diversity, I hold an expectation that attorneys committed to antipoverty work are just as committed to effectuating diversity in their workplace, particularly when the work affects so many persons in African American and Latino communities. At the same time, it’s clear to me that the vast majority of those working in the legal community indeed support workplace diversity but for various reasons—some actual and some based on myth—need strategies and tools to convert this support into results. Of course, the issue isn’t merely academic or ethical—increasing racial diversity within legal aid broadens perspectives and approaches and, thus, enhances the quality and effectiveness of the work.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
I think I answered that on the second question!
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
Classic movies, particularly anything film noir. It started with Astaire and Rogers and other musicals and progressed to the noir staples such as Out of the Past, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, etc. Of course there are always issues of how race was characterized in most classic films, but I’ve learned to take the good with the bad and the ugly, as one movie title puts it. I’ve also made it a point to explore the paradoxical world of black films of the same era.
You can read more about Carol Ashley on her bio page.