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.”
Democrats in the only Southern state that voted for Hillary Clinton for president are now trying to wrap GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie around President Donald Trump in hopes Gillespie will sink like a stone in the 2017 electoral waters. State Senator Creigh Deeds, House Minority
The bass from the DJ speakers outside hadn’t quieted yet, but the second annual Memorial Day cookout in Tonsler Park had come to a close. Several dozen people made their way past the turntables and into the nearby community center. Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas was ready to talk.
Beetles on the brain As the invasive emerald ash tree borer creeps its way into Central Virginia, UVA groundskeepers are suiting up for battle—kind of. First discovered in the U.S. in 2002, this beetle has been detected in most of the eastern half of the country. After it lays its eggs inside
A former Western Albemarle High School associate principal, teacher and coach denies he molested a 12-year-old student in Louisiana in the early 1980s. The New Orleans Advocate reports his accuser told a New Orleans detective in early 2016 that, while attending Isidore Newman School, she had a
City Council’s first meeting after the July 8 KKK rally had 57 people wanting to voice their concerns about police use of force and tear-gassing protesters. Legal organizations asked for investigations and multiple citizens wanted the permit for Jason Kessler’s August 12 Unite the Right
Four Jaunt buses and a townhome were up in flames when the Charlottesville Fire Department received a call for service around 2:40am July 13. Alice Facknitz, who lives in the Carlton Bridge apartment complex behind the Jaunt station and the Linden Town Lofts townhomes, says she woke to what she
Berkmar’s parallel path Governor Terry McAuliffe and Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, along with about 70 other prominent guests, stood before the finally open (but not finished) Berkmar Drive extension on July 6. This is one of VDOT’s eight ventures included in its $230 million Route
After several weeks of prodding by a UVA researcher, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society produced two of the 26 Ku Klux Klan robes in its collection, but its president refused to reveal which of the city’s citizens wore those robes in the 1920s. The yellowed robes were
Charlottesvillians pulled out the unwelcome mat for the Loyal White Knights of the KKK July 8 in Justice Park. An estimated 1,000 people surrounded the park before the arrival of the 50 or so out-of-town Klansmen, and the event was loud, but aside from the arrests of protesters who refused to
The Loyal White Knights of the KKK made their showing in Justice Park July 8 to protest the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of protesters surrounded the park, delaying the arrival of the 50 or so Klansmen. The brief 30-minute event was loud, but uneventful. Afterward,
Virginia traffic officials began discussing ways to make U.S. 29—a highway that carries 50,000 vehicles a day—flow more successfully about three decades ago, Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne says. When Governor Terry McAuliffe took office three-and-a-half years ago, he made it a top
For more than a week, Thomas Jefferson’s home has reverted back to a time when it didn’t have online ticketing and phone service. And despite the ransomware hack that hijacked its computer and phone systems, the 18th century estate has soldiered on during one of its busiest weeks of
Little more than 40 years ago, former Charlottesville mayor Nancy O’Brien received an unexpected letter. Sent from Poggio a Caiano, a tiny, two-square-mile municipality in the Italian province of Prato, the epistle recounted the tale of a very special—and very old—friendship. “We were preparing
At the same time Charlottesville has faced controversy over its decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the University of Virginia has approved a memorial—with nary a peep of protest—to the enslaved workers who built and maintained the school. “I don’t think it’s
Last August, locals protested Dominion Virginia Power’s plans to rebuild area transmission lines with a much brighter material than their darker predecessors. Now a state commission has ruled that the power company must chemically darken its structures, and the group of people that worried new
Unstoppable Brogdon UVA alum Malcolm Brogdon was named NBA Rookie of the Year last week. He plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, and is the first second-round pick to receive the award. No word on how many rookies have two college degrees, including a master’s in public policy. Monticello hacked A
First he brought you Studio IX, and now he’s set his sights on another collaborative workspace, one for whom he dubs the town’s creative entrepreneurs. In the Downtown Mall’s historic Bradbury building—the former Bank of America space—James Barton prepares to open Vault Virginia, where he says
The head of the Loyal White Knights of the KKK could decide to stay home from the rally he called in Charlottesville July 8 because his bond for a pending stabbing charge prohibits him from leaving North Carolina. Christopher Barker was arrested in December on the eve of a parade to celebrate
A matter of crime “We’re safer than Charlottesville.” Okay, we made up that quote. The crime rate for both Albemarle and Charlottesville is low, but according to the county police’s most recent report, Albemarle’s went down last year, while the city’s went up. Albemarle arrests by race The