In honor of Black History month, we’re featuring Black-led organizations and talking to their leaders about their work, and the importance of African American representation in nonprofits. Today, we talk to Karen A. Newton Cole, the Executive Director of Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP) in Washington, DC.
About Neighborhood Legal Services Program
Founded over 50 years ago, NLSP is a community-based, nonprofit legal services organization providing free legal information, advice and representation to low-income District of Columbia residents on civil legal matters. They are committed to equal access to justice and working toward a more just and equitable Washington DC for all residents.
At one point there were 10 neighborhood law offices, but as real estate became more expensive, the number of offices reduced. Today, NLSP has three offices, maintaining a presence in the most impoverished areas of DC.
NLSP has a unique board structure in that one third of their board are community members eligible for services. They always have co-chairs, one is a client-eligible community member and the other is usually from a major law firm. This structure allows them to draw on the perspective of those they are serving. As an organization, NLSP is dedicated to supporting individuals and the culture of the community. As Karen says, “This city is a rich tapestry, we shouldn’t miss out on that.”
Viewing the law as a great equalizer, Karen decided to be a lawyer at the age of 13. She was so eager to begin her career that she went through undergrad in three years. Originally, Karen attended a traditional law school, but became disenchanted. She transferred to Antioch, at the time it was only law school with mandatory clinical hours. Today, that structure is much more common.
Her first legal job was as a staff attorney with NLSP in 1989. After moving to a public interest law firm that specialized in housing, Karen eventually served as a member of the Senior Executive Service with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for almost 20 years. She returned as Executive Director of NLSP in 2017.
The Importance of Having African-Americans in Nonprofit Leadership
Karen remembers being a staff attorney with NLSP and stopping on her way to a meeting to kick off her shoes and play Double Dutch with kids on the street. People would call out, “There goes the lady lawyer.” These experiences solidified for her the importance of representation. She knows that if children aren’t exposed to people who look like them in different walks of life, they’re more constrained in what they believe they can do.
Over 90% of NLSP’s clients are African-American, so it’s important that some of the lawyers in the office look like the clients. People are attracted to what they know, and what’s familiar. Karen believes there are things that you experience differently when you’re raised as a minority, and that the familiarity helps clients.
In Karen’s view, simply having African-American lawyers and staff isn’t enough. She wants to ensure that NLSP avoids a “do gooder” mindset that might disenfranchise clients. For Karen, and NLSP, it’s important that for clients, the only difference between NLSP and a traditional law firm is that they don’t pay the lawyers at NLSP. Just as with a traditional firm, the client is in charge of their case.
At Brighter Strategies, we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to work with NLSP and help Karen and the organization with their mission.