This post was written by Abby Mitchell, a summer intern for Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s development team. Abby is a rising senior at American University.
I sat in an old-fashioned leather office chair as an intern at Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, formerly Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, and asked a routine question: “How did you come to work here?”
Ted Fillette, senior attorney of the Legal Aid of North Carolina Charlotte office, sat across the table, a lifelong advocate for housing rights in North Carolina whose work began as an attorney for Legal Services more than 40 years ago. As a veteran in the fight for social justice, he symbolizes hope that it is possible to advocate for and enact change, make it sustainable, have a lifelong occupation in the process.
He looks across the table and promises to compress the story to a minute and a half: “When I was in college at Duke in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King came to speak at the campus and I was a freshman. Having come from Alabama, I lived in a completely segregated community. I had no idea what was going on in my state. It was shocking to me and it changed my life. It made me want to do something about it. The question was, when, where, and how?”
I’ve been reflecting on that statement ever since. More than his dramatic story of getting the landlord-tenant legislation he drafted passed into law, effectively protecting the rights of thousands of North Carolinians, or his impact in Charlotte over his career, I’ll remember that sentiment he expressed.
When I went to off to college in 2014 and left St. Louis, my hometown, riots over the Michael Brown shooting were erupting just miles away in Ferguson. I remember that feeling Ted had described. The shock of uncovering neighborhood segregation in St. Louis, the question that followed, “What now?” and even today, the “When, where, and how?” of it all.
As my senior year of college looms, these questions remain, in anxiety inducing bursts. The process of figuring out the answer to that question is a long and challenging one for any young person, but I think it’s especially hard if you’re aiming to make a difference.
Many of these young people, like me, come to Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy to see what making a difference looks like even in the mundane, day-to-day moments. As I write this on my final day as an undergraduate development intern, I can tell you that no matter what you work on here, you’ll find a passion and commitment for the mission of pursuing justice up close, and if you’re like me, that fire will catch in you too.
A couple weeks into my time here I met Matt Freeze, a summer associate for Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, for lunch. He told me about his previous experience advocating on behalf of children’s rights in Washington, D.C. and his current position as a development director of a nonprofit for abused children in Rowan County.
He shared his summer experience helping disabled individuals trying to get benefits from insurance companies. I asked him what he wanted to do after he finished law school and he told me he wanted to work with a legal services organization or with the elderly, preparing wills because the act of drafting a will is a process of preparing a life for loved ones after you are gone. There’s nothing more selfless than that.
In June, I go to a monthly morning networking event for nonprofits hosted by SHARE Charlotte. I talk with a woman from the Arc of Mecklenburg County who lights up when she realizes that our services could help the families her organization serves.
In July, I go with a Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy staff to volunteer at Hospitality House of Charlotte, where family members of patients at the nearby hospital can stay for reduced rates or for free. We make far too much lunch for the house in exchange for inspiration.
Later, I get to interview an attorney in one of Charlotte’s biggest office buildings to talk to him about the pro bono work he has done for Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, and in a particularly reflective moment, he tells me, “I would like to think every lawyer returns or is pulled to return to more of a local type of help, to give back.”
In July, a staff attorney shares a letter from a client expressing gratitude even though he was unable to win her case. She was so grateful just to have someone fighting for her. She wrote, “You always kept your word to me, calling to inform or advise or provide as promised.” Sometimes just being in someone’s corner makes all the difference.
These are the moments that will stay with me long after my internship experience. From researching the broader benefits of medical legal partnerships in the community to simply serving as a witness at a will signing, the work I did here has shown me that even in seemingly mundane moments of day-to-day office work, there’s a beautiful dedication to advocacy with the ultimate hope of building a better world. One day, I hope to join that cause with the passion I found here.