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Meet Leslie Corbett of Illinois Equal Justice Foundation

Today we’d like to introduce you to Leslie Corbett.

Leslie, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I am a rarity in the legal aid field. I am not a lawyer, but rather a social worker. I have found having at least one person at the table who is not trained to argue can be helpful.

I began my career in legal aid via a college (Northwestern University) internship with Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers. It was through this experience that I chose to pursue a Masters of Social Work (Jane Addams College of Social Work/UIC) vs a Juris Doctor degree. Legal aid clients have life problems that culminate in the legal problems that impact their safety, shelter and financial security. Legal aid lawyers are confronted with social work issues daily.

I moved on to an innovative legal aid hotline, CARPLS, where I was eventually named Executive Director at the ripe age of 28. I immersed myself in learning as much as possible about service delivery, fundraising, bar associations, management and leadership. This led to a career in the foundation world with a brief but meaningful stint at the Chicago Bar Foundation and now 12+ years as the Executive Director of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation.

The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF) is charged via statue with distributing and advocating for the state appropriation for civil legal aid. The IEJF funds civil legal aid programs across the State, ensuring that all residents, regardless of income, have equal access to the justice system. I love that my job includes both grant-making and advocacy. I log many miles traveling the state to visit legal aid programs and to convince legislators that civil legal aid should be a funding priority.

After two years without a state appropriation due to the budget impasse, I am happy to report that the IEJF is back in the budget at level funding for 2018. Hallelujah!

My extra-curricular activities center around my family and community. I am an elected member of the Local School Council for Henry R Clissold Elementary School, Treasurer of Girl Scout Troop 20075 and a long-time member of the League of Women Voters of Chicago. I live in the Beverly/Morgan Park neighborhood with my husband, Aaron Chenoweth and daughter, Nora.

I am an avid Bruce Springsteen fan, Fitcode member and theatre-goer.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I count myself lucky in that career opportunities have always found me when I needed a new challenge. However, the nonprofit world certainly has its frustrations. Sure, you get to make a difference in people’s lives, which is incredibly fulfilling. Yet the constant struggle to secure adequate resources is draining. Effectuating impactful social change can be a slow journey. Patience and tenacity are required.

Funding stagnation really impacted the IEJF’s ability to fund professional development activities.

The IEJF Board recognized the impact this could have on morale and earlier this year nominated me for the Crain’s Leadership Academy. It was a great program that enabled me to recharge my batteries and strengthen my leadership skills. I am sure this aided in the IEJF’s successful advocacy efforts this legislative session.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF) is charged via statue with distributing and advocating for the state appropriation for civil legal aid. The IEJF funds civil legal aid programs across the State, ensuring that all residents, regardless of income, have equal access to the justice system. The IEJF funds programs that help families, seniors and veterans with domestic violence, foreclosure, consumer fraud and disability benefits issues.

The IEJF recently expanded its funding and programming via the Access to Justice Act. Through a second state appropriation, the IEJF was charged with developing, implementing and evaluating a legal aid hotline pilot and supporting legal services for veterans and active duty military. The first grants for the new IL Armed Forces Legal Aid Network were released in May. This new work also enabled us to double our staff — there are now two of us!

The IEJF is unique in the foundation world in that it acts as a grantor, grantee and advocate. The IEJF’s statewide Board makes hard grant-making decisions that increase access to the justice system but also protects the state appropriation. The IEJF asks tough financial questions of its grantees because it does not want to jeopardize this vital funding source. Accountability and transparency are key to all aspects of the IEJF’s work.

The IEJF is proud of its advocacy and coalition-building efforts. After two years without a state appropriation due to the budget impasse, the IEJF is back in the budget at level funding for 2018 for both its civil legal aid and Access to Justice appropriations… A team of engaged legislators, Board members, bar association partners and legal aid programs worked together to reinstate this critical funding.

What were you like growing up?
I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is a steel town that began to die when I was a kid.

Youngstown folks are scrappy yet insular. I figured out in the 7th grade that as a girl in a predominantly football culture that I needed to get all A’s from that point on in order to get out of there and go away to college. I was driven.

In some ways, I was a typical oldest child. I was bossy — I mean I had strong leadership skills! — and extroverted. I was lucky in that I had many diverse groups of friends as well as a handful of lifelong friends. I grew up on a great block that helped develop my sense of community.

I still have a very distinctive laugh that draws people to me.

I originally wanted to be a TV newscaster and then a psychologist. I did not really pursue either of these dreams.

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Copyright © 2017, Illinois Joining Forces, All rights reserved.

Getting in touch: VoyageChicago is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. Meg Ferrante

    September 13, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    Great story! I have had the distinct privilege and honor of knowing Leslie Corbett 30 years now. She’s a dynamo–tenacious and loyal to the cause–and yes, that laugh really is contagious….

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