New blood, same mission: Legal Aid Justice Center changes leadership, eyes immigration issue

Photo courtesy of Legal Aid Justice Center. Photo courtesy of Legal Aid Justice Center.

Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center is getting new leadership at the top for the first time in 20 years as Executive Director Alex Gulotta leaves to take a post as head of the Oakland-based Bay Area Legal Aid. Stepping into his place is Mary Bauer, a longtime litigator known for her work on immigrants’ rights issues.

Bauer is no stranger to the city or its legal advocacy organization, she and Gulotta explained during an interview at LAJC’s Preston Avenue headquarters, where they talked like two old friends about passing the torch.

A 1990 graduate of UVA’s School of Law, Bauer worked for Legal Aid for much of the decade and a half that followed. Gulotta—who arrived at LAJC in 1994 and shepherded the organization through a major shift that saw it abandon federal funding to allow for more independence of mission in the late 1990s—has known Bauer for most of her career.

Bauer worked at LAJC as a housing and consumer lawyer before leaving to serve as the legal director at the ACLU of Virginia. She returned to Charlottesville to head up LAJC’s immigrant advocacy program, and then in 2004, the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center hired her away to create its own fledgling immigrant rights effort.

She later became SPLC’s legal director, running advocacy and reform efforts at the organization’s five offices across the South. In June, she came back to Charlottesville to serve as LAJC’s director of advocacy. Bauer said the Charlottesville group still chases the big-picture goal that led to the creation of legal aid services organizations all over the country in the 1960s: Fight the root causes of poverty through the legal system.

“I’m not sure every office still thinks that way, but we do,” she said. “We want to figure out not just how to help one person who walks through the door—though we do that, and it’s important—but how to turn that case into a real challenge to a system that grinds up people in lots of different ways.”

And that inevitably means picking your battles.

“We know that we can’t represent every single person with a civil legal problem,” Bauer said. There just aren’t enough lawyers or dollars in the budget, “so we have to be really smart and strategic.”

A major part of the job is sniffing out big cases with broad impacts on emerging problems, something Bauer does well, according to Gulotta. The economy crashes, and scores of people face employment issues and foreclosures. The Affordable Care Act is rolled out, and its lawyers have to become insurance-law experts. It’s about staying ahead of the curve, Gulotta said, “and not coming in behind and just cleaning up the mess.”

The organization’s most recent suit is focused on immigration, Bauer’s expertise. Lawyers working with young immigrants who were granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status—not citizenship, but a reprieve of sorts thanks to an agreement by federal officials—realized their Virginia-educated clients were being denied in-state tuition because of their legal status. LAJC filed suit against the State Council of Higher Education on behalf of seven students seeking the right to pay the same lower rates other Virginia high school graduates are offered.

The way Gulotta and Bauer explain it, the work of the organization has to be like that—seeing the forest thanks to the trees. “It’s not like we just help people get their papers straight,” said Gulotta.

The suit takes aim at one of the issues the two leaders said are among Charlottesville’s biggest sources of injustice: housing and immigration. It’s no coincidence that Bauer has a lot of legal experience in both.

LAJC represents the city’s Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR), which puts the organization in the middle of the ongoing debate over the future of Charlottesville’s federally funded but foundering housing program. In any conversation about redevelopment and reform, said Gulotta and Bauer, there has to be a watchdog. Other cities have made choices that have backfired, they said, like giving up permanent subsidies in favor of temporary voucher systems.

“We don’t want poor people to have to live out in Buckingham or Fluvanna and drive in because they can’t afford to live in Charlottesville,” Gulotta said.

When it comes to the other battleground, Bauer said she thinks there’s been progress since she left the area nearly a decade ago. Latino immigrants are starting to build a power base here, she said, but the state’s employment policies are still stuck in the past.

“Virginia still has unbelievably regressive laws that exclude large categories of workers from the state minimum wage requirements,” she said. “It is a list that’s entirely categories that were historically held by people of color: agricultural work, shoe-shine boys”—and now a new group of people are feeling the pain of that imbalance.

Racial discrimination touches many of their fights, she said. It might not be immediately obvious, the way it often was in the communities where she worked in the Deep South. “But you look at our prison system, you look at our juvenile justice system, you look at our education system…structural, institutional racism is as real here as it was in Alabama,” she said.

But the thing about Charlottesville, Gulotta and Bauer agreed, is that its problems—disparities that perpetuate poverty—are paired with a will among many to change the status quo and embrace LAJC’s efforts to force issues into the spotlight with legal action.

“There are places where to get people to support you, you almost have to hide that,” said Gulotta. “Here, it’s the opposite. People get it. They don’t want us to put a Band-Aid on it. They want us to go out and fix the problem.”

In some ways, his new turf in and around San Francisco, where he and his wife will settle starting in January, is similar. “There are lots of poor people, and lots of very rich people,” he said. The parallels are actually something of a joke: “Somebody said to me that we’re moving from the Berkeley of Virginia to just Berkeley,” he said. He can only hope that the legal community and donors step up out there the way they have in the city that’s been his home for two decades.

Meanwhile, the fact that Legal Aid has a broad base of community support is a big part of why Bauer came back, and wants to fill the seat her friend is leaving.

“This was the only place I really thought of coming back to,” she said.

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