Legal Aid is excited to welcome our new Executive Director, Danielle Shelton Walczak. A former practicing litigator in the areas of family law, discrimination, and general civil litigation, Danielle has focused her career on working with historically disenfranchised populations and indigent clients. Most recently, she was with the City of Minneapolis as the Director of Strategic Initiatives, working closely with the City Council on creation and development of policy in the areas of housing, race equity, sustainability, human trafficking, and the arts.
Danielle started with us the last week of October. Here are some of her thoughts as she transitions to the Legal Aid team.
What are you most excited about as you join us at Legal Aid?
I’m really excited to work with the high caliber of excellence that is Legal Aid’s staff. I’m looking forward to being part of the impactful legal work that Legal Aid does for individuals and communities as well as its work in the creation of equitable policies and laws throughout Minnesota and potentially beyond.
What drew you to the Legal Aid community?
MMLA does the work that’s been important to me for my entire career — providing access and opportunities to people in society who don’t easily have those options. Earlier in my career I was a Legal Aid volunteer for years. Later, from my position in city government, I worked in partnership with Legal Aid on four different housing ordinances. Legal Aid and its work have always been on my radar, so I could not pass up the opportunity to join the organization when it arose.
As Executive Director, you’ll have a big picture/high level role in the organization’s work. What focus will you bring? What are you hoping to do?
I’m hoping to grow capacity of Legal Aid so we don’t have to turn away anyone who qualifies for our services. This is a very aspirational goal, but I think it’s an important one. The organization’s core work is to provide legal services to individuals. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated already existing inequities in our communities that require legal intervention, and we saw an increase in demand for those legal services.
When Legal Aid has to turn away people who need our services, we start to lose the core of the organization. That core is why the staff, the board, and our funders invest their intellect, emotions, time, and money in MMLA. We have people in communities that need us and that’s why it’s so important to focus on this goal.
What are you hoping to bring from your life and work experience?
I’ve been working in government for the past six years and while not perfect, we’ve developed a number of strategies and tools to incorporate a racial equity lens with our work and our interactions with community.
After the murder of George Floyd, I don’t think any organization — particularly in Minnesota — can afford to ignore the cries for racial justice and the imperative for antiracist behaviors and systems. These cries don’t just exist in the communities we serve – they exist among those who work in and with those communities, and all of us who simply care about our client communities and humanity as a whole.
How would you like to see Legal Aid grow, develop, or change?
In our new normal, workers — including our staff — have redefined what they want and need from employers to be happy. I want MMLA to hit the sweet spot of fulfilling the staff’s needs and desires while connecting with community in an intentional and personal way, and keeping our excellent standard of service.
Also, I’d like to see MMLA develop in a way where we’re not inadvertently perpetuating internal and external racist and inequitable behaviors and systems that will cause more trauma on top of historical trauma.
To do all of this — increase our client service reach, have greater impact, and be a leader in race and equity — we need the support of donors. Many firms, foundations, organizations, and individuals have supported Legal Aid over decades, of which we are appreciative. As demand for our services continually increases, our support needs to expand as well. I hope each person reading this who is a donor continues to support us through financial contributions, as well as urge your friends and colleagues who do not support Legal Aid to do so. I hope that if a person reading this is not a donor that you will seriously consider financially supporting Legal Aid.