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.”
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