Abigail Turner, litigation director at Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center, has been awarded two major prizes for her work in legal advocacy. (Photo credit: John Robinson)
There’s a story Abigail Turner likes to tell about her early days working as a civil rights attorney in 1970s Alabama.
Her co-counsel on the prisoners’ rights case her legal aid organization was litigating couldn’t make a meeting, so she went alone. The local attorney was on time, but the state’s attorney came barrelling into the meeting a half hour late and asked where her male colleague was.
“The local attorney said, ‘Sit down and shut up. You’ll learn soon enough she’s running this case,’” Turner said.
That sounds like his colleague, said Alex R. Gulotta, executive director of Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center, where Turner has worked since 2006 and currently serves as litigation director. “She speaks relatively softly and carries a big, big stick,” Gulotta said.
Last month, as she started to plan for the final chapter of her career, Turner was doubly honored with two important awards: the Virginia Legal Aid Award, given by the Virginia State Bar’s Access to Legal Services Committee, and the 2012 Kutak-Dodds Prize for civil legal services, a prestigious national award bestowed upon one legal aid attorney in the country each year. Fitting recognition, her colleagues felt, for someone whose devotion to her calling has spanned five decades.
The groundwork for a career in civil rights was laid early for Turner. When she arrived at Auburn University in the early ’60s, she faced a different world than she’d seen growing up in relatively progressive northern Alabama. The injustices she saw as a civil rights activist had a profound impact on her. After college, she worked for the U.S. Department of Labor on welfare reform. But she became frustrated, she said, at what she saw as built-in inequities in Nixon-era reforms.
“I was restless,” she said. So at 28, she headed to law school at George Washington University. Two years after graduating, she returned to her native Alabama in the late 1970s, where a second wave of key civil rights battles were under way.
Since then, Turner’s career has taken her to legal services organizations in New England and the upper Midwest. In 2006, she decided to return to Virginia, where she’d lived while working in D.C., to join the Legal Aid Justice Center. It was time, she felt, to turn her efforts back to the inequality she said is still entrenched in the South.
“I find Virginia very challenging, because I think there are so many vestiges of slavery in our public policy that still need work,” Turner said.
In six years, she’s tackled those problems and others head on. She’s lobbied to get the state to address problems in the juvenile justice system, and she’s drawn national media attention to mental illness among prisoners in solitary confinement at Virginia’s state prisons. She continues to work with the Department of Corrections locally, too, advocating for prisoners’ access to legal documents at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.
Turner said the pair of awards she received are a testament to the work of everyone at LAJC, and an affirmation of the importance of the issues they’re addressing.
“It’s about the teamwork we’ve done here, and the blood, sweat and tears—mostly blood and sweat—we’ve spent in an effort to look at systemic issues and change things,” she said.
At 68, Turner has an eye on retirement. She’s looking forward to more time in her garden in Ivy. But she has no plans to give up legal work. There’s too much left to be done, she said.
The resources to combat inequality exist, she said. It’s about prioritizing. “Our per capita income is one of the highest in the country. I don’t see Virginia’s problems as an inability to fund programs for adequate education and health care to support all our citizens, particularly children. It’s a matter of will.”
As a photojournalist for the last 25 years, working at both small and large newspapers in West Virginia and Boston, I was constantly on the outside of the fire line, shooting photos and telling the stories of those affected by fires, and the firefighters themselves. Firefighters were easy to
The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors last week adopted a tax rate of 79.9 cents per $100 of assessed real estate value—a 3.3-cent increase over the previous rate of 76.6 cents—but even with the hike, the county schools are $3.9 million short of their $164.3 million funding request. During
For years, Charlottesville’s fifth- through eighth-graders have hustled to make a first school bell at 7:40am. But the city schools are now debating how to institute a schedule shift that would push their day later—largely because science shows such an early start time is bad for adolescent
The General Assembly’s political dogfight over the state’s budget is threatening to neuter Charlottesville’s drug court. The Medicaid expansion stalemate in Richmond has left Charlottesville’s 16th Circuit Court without a designated judge to oversee the city’s drug court for the first time
A former Western Albemarle High School teacher is being held in a Staunton jail after a sting operation caught him attempting to meet a person he thought was a 13-year-old boy he’d encountered on the Internet, according to Augusta County Sheriff’s Office. John Daniel Patterson, 66,
Each week, the news team takes a look at upcoming meetings and events in Charlottesville and Albemarle we think you should know about. Consider it a look into our datebook, and be sure to share newsworthy happenings in the comments section. The Albemarle County Architectural Review Board meets
Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, bi-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics. By now it is generally accepted wisdom that Democrats are not going to do well in this year’s midterm elections. There are myriad reasons for this, but what it basically boils down to is this: A sizeable
Literacy Volunteers’ Wordplay Delights and Challenges for the Seventh Year On Wednesday night, nearly 400 team members, scorekeepers, and audience members filled the Paramount Theater for a night of trivia in support of Literacy Volunteers’ mission to provide free one-on-one tutoring for adults
In the past several weeks, the Ix property between Elliott and Monticello avenues has begun to transform from a former industrial complex that’s home to retail businesses, restaurants, and the Newsplex television offices to an art park. Ix developers Ludwig and Fabian Kuttner envision a
Our education reporting appears thanks to a partnership with Charlottesville Tomorrow. The funding future for an “intergenerational learning center” at Yancey Elementary is unclear after the Albemarle School Board met last week. “We need to define what the programming for an intergenerational
A team of researchers at UVA’s School of Medicine published a big discovery in the journal Nature this month: They’ve figured out how a particularly nasty parasite wreaks havoc in the human intestine, and the findings could go a long way toward treating a widespread and often deadly childhood
Last week, the $40 million dollar lawsuit of 21-year-old third-year UVA student Elizabeth Daly against the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control was moved from Richmond Circuit Court to the federal U.S. District Court in Richmond under Judge Henry E. Hudson. Now, the state of
Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding has always approached his work as a cop through his background as a social worker and through his Baptist faith. But after a four-decade law enforcement career that includes nearly 30 years putting criminals behind bars as a Charlottesville Police
This spring, colleges across the country are rewriting the rulebook when it comes to preventing and reacting to sexual assault on campus, thanks to the implementation of a law called the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act. Passed last year, it sets new requirements for schools when
Two weeks before the murder trial of Randy Allen Taylor is scheduled to begin on May 1, investigators from multiple law enforcement agencies searched property around his former Nelson County residence, according to NBC 29. Taylor is charged with first-degree murder in the disappearance of
Each week, the news team takes a look at upcoming meetings and events in Charlottesville and Albemarle we think you should know about. Consider it a look into our datebook, and be sure to share newsworthy happenings in the comments section. The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors gathers from
Early this week, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office approved the transfer of the $40 million civil suit filed by a UVA student against the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to federal court. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the suit filed in Richmond Circuit Court
The third annual Tom Tom Founders Festival is in full swing, and the city’s headed into a busy weekend of talks, music, and food. The Saturday and Sunday schedules in particular are busy enough to be a little overwhelming, so check out our recent feature story on the festival here—it
Jose Antonio Vargas first took a public swing at the wall between journalism and advocacy in June 2011. The Philippine-born, award-winning reporter—he shared a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for the Washington Post’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings—wrote a piece for The New York
It’s make or break time for local tech start-up company VividCortex, which officially opened for business on April 2 at Silicon Valley tech summit DEMO Enterprise, an exclusive annual conference that boasts on its website a “history of launching emerging technologies that disrupt old and define