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Community Builder: Debra Lee is passionate about justice for all

Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Debra Lee, executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Legal Services.

Q: The Center for Nonprofit Legal Services has been in Southern Oregon since 1972. How does someone qualify for legal services?

Debra Lee: To be eligible applicants need to live in Jackson County. They must be low income or elderly. After that, we review applications for merit and case priority. Clients range from homeless vets to someone who wants citizenship. We have a diverse client population.

Q: What are some typical situations that bring people to you for legal assistance?

Lee: We are a public interest law firm that provides comprehensive civil legal services and access to justice for low-income and elderly Jackson County residents. I’m the executive director, but I also have a caseload. I specialize in elder law, so I see family caretakers who want to protect their child, their spouse or their parents. We go through the legal process of petitioning legal guardians for a family member who is dementing or has mental illness. We get a sense of the angst that people go through. Some come to us for housing matters. For example, if they are facing an eviction, we would be helping that individual or family try to stay in their home. The housing crisis is difficult. We see a lot of people traumatized by being homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Q: Why do you think the work of the Center for Nonprofit Legal Services is important?

Lee: If people don’t feel they have justice, then they’re marginalized. There was a study done by the Campaign for Equal Justice that shows even if a person loses their court case, they still feel better because they had access to justice. That’s a huge theme that we try to imbue into the community: People who don’t have the means should also be able to have access to justice. That’s the Pledge of Allegiance, right? “Justice for All.”

Q: Does Nonprofit Legal Services help people earn citizenship?

Lee: I’m an immigrant, I was born in China. We came to the U.S. in 1956. In the ’60s, my mom went to Beneficent Congregational Church in Rhode Island with 15 Chinese women taught by Mrs. Dunham to pass the U.S. citizenship test. We teach citizenship classes to our clients every Monday evening at First Presbyterian Church. All our clients who want to naturalize are required to take the class. If you become a citizen, you can’t be deported.

Q: How did your family end up in America?

Lee: My father was born in Boston’s Chinatown and was an American citizen. He and his four brothers and his mother went back to what is now Guangzhou Province when his father passed away. His older uncle sent the family back to China. He didn’t want to be bothered with them. My dad completed high school, played sports and was a newspaper editor in Tisane. He met my mom there. The communists were coming to southern China, he was considered bourgeoisie, so he and his four brothers fled back to the U.S. My mom, my two sisters and I were left in China.

Q: How did your mother and sisters get from China to the U.S.?

Lee: Mom had to go to Communist Party re-education meetings. If we left from our village, people would know; so, we had to move to another town and then traveled to Hong Kong. She had poor vision, so she had a medical reason to go to a larger town. She was quite the strategist. My mom, my two sisters and I came to the U.S. in 1956 to join my father in Providence when I was about 7. We didn’t know any English.

Q: How did you become a lawyer?

Lee: I went to the University of Rhode Island and got a Bachelor of Science degree. After college I went to Washington, D.C., and worked as a community organizer in Chinatown, creating after-school programs. I became involved with public TV and alternative education programs. When I was researching the laws, I went to the American Bar Association Convention and became interested in law. I attended the Antioch School of Law, which followed the medical school model with clinical experience. There were a lot of activists in my class. We had half women in my class and a quarter were minority. I graduated in 1978.

Q: And then to Southern Oregon?

Lee: No, it was a time of expansion of a legal services program to get lawyers into the rural areas. My first husband and I went to the rural area of west Tennessee — Covington, Tipton and Fayette counties. People who were sharecroppers tried to register to vote and they got kicked out. It has a rich history of civil rights. In those three counties, we were circuit riders.

Q: Were you involved in the civil right movement?

Lee: In Tennessee we did a lot of civil rights cases. We were young, and we had all kinds of energy. I had a client who wanted to be elected to the city government. Our voters’ rights lawsuit opened the door for her to be elected to Covington City Council.

Q: And you were going to change the world?

Lee: Well, we probably did. Retired Jackson County Circuit Court Judge G. Philip Arnold was our mentor during all those civil rights cases. People were friendly in Tennessee. There’s a lot more storytelling in the rural areas. We lived there and were part of the community.

After two years in Tennessee, we moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and worked for Central Arkansas Legal Services. People weren’t as aggressive about asserting rights and using legal services there. Residents still remembered the lynching in the ’60s. If you have access to opportunity and justice, you have a more positive, optimistic view. Working in Tennessee and Arkansas was a study in human nature.

Q: Then?

Lee: Then Phil Arnold called and said, “I have a vacancy. Why don’t you guys leave Pine Bluff and come to Oregon?” We had just had a child, Jared. He’s a Razorback. We took off and came to Southern Oregon in January 1982.

Q: What’s your take on the immigration issues going on in the U.S.?

Lee: Well, we’re doing as much as we can to make sure that our community members are protected. We can assist clients to become citizens. We’ve petitioned to help young people under the DACA program. The Department of Homeland Security has recently expanded the “public charge” exclusion. An immigrant seeking lawful permanent resident status can be deported if he or she lacks good moral character or if they are a “public charge.” Families can not have access to health care or food supplements, because immigrants could be considered “public charges.” We’re working with other Oregon legal services programs to determine the best way to prepare our clients for the change in the law.

Q: What do you see as the pressing issues in Southern Oregon?

Lee: We see housing as a pressing issue. We are focusing much of our effort into community education so that tenants understand their rights and responsibilities. There is an increasing number of Asian, Hispanic or African-American clients complaining of discrimination and a hostile living environment. We take a proactive stance on that. We contact the landlords and educate them about their obligations to keep people safe from harassment.

Q: Do you employ staff attorneys and also local lawyers who do pro bono work?

Lee: Well, we employ six attorneys and a staff of 18. We have two volunteer lawyers, Bill Haberlach and Bob Grant, who come in on a regular basis and work with our clients. We have a panel of private lawyers, about 25 of them, who take on conflict cases or volunteer at community outreach events. There are lawyers who say, “I am focusing on this area, and if you have a client who needs assistance, call me.” We have a great working relationship with the local bar and bench. A local attorney, Bill Deatherage, helped us raise money to retire our mortgage.

Q: Have you been involved in local community development?

Lee: I was appointed by Governor Vic Atiyeh in ’85 to be on the State Welfare Advisory Board. I was a member and chair of the board, helping with welfare reform to make sure that vulnerable families would not be cut off from welfare unfairly. I have to protect the interests of people who have no voice.

Currently, I’m member of Medford Rogue Rotary Club.

I was involved in the development of the Civic League and helped pass local levies and bond measures.

I am passionate about justice, diversity, equity and inclusion. The Center for Nonprofit Legal Services has a presence at all the community celebrations. We have to show that everyone is welcome and feels safe.

Q: What’s become clearer to you recently?

Lee: It’s really clear that Legal Services needs the community to know and support what we do. We’re actually the only freestanding county program in the state of Oregon. We pride ourselves on being innovative, collaborative and able to provide comprehensive civil legal assistance. We really try to be responsive to emerging community needs.

Q: Is there something that you feel needs to be said?

Lee: Lawyers get a bad rap. We’re not the ones who caused the problem. We’re trying to resolve problems. What’s critical here is that we have highly trained and experienced lawyers. We have attorneys who have varied experience, including corporate law, but they wanted to be more mission-driven and are happier doing this work.

Q: Has Southern Oregon been a good place for you to live?

Lee: It’s a wonderful place, because it’s so open. I’m about building relationships and making positive changes in our community. That is what lawyers can do — that extra analysis. But I think the most important thing is relationships. Otherwise you can’t get anything done.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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Debra Lee bio

Debra Fee Jing Lee was born in Toisan, China, and immigrated with her family to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1956.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from University of Rhode Island and her J.D. from Antioch School of Law, Washington, D.C., in 1978.

Before becoming executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Legal Services in 1989, Lee practiced as a legal-aid attorney in west Tennessee, central Arkansas and Jackson County. She is committed to resolving poverty issues, supported diversity, and increased access to justice locally and statewide.

Lee is a member of the Medford Rogue Rotary Club, Southern Oregon University Foundation, Medford Housing Advisory Commission, Jackson County Continuum of Care Board and American Leadership Forum of Oregon. She has been a leader of the Medford Multicultural Commission and Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association.

Lee’s awards include the 2012 Carl M. Brophy Award of Merit for Professionalism. Her publications include the OSB Elder Law Handbook, Chapter 4, 2017 Revision. Her professional memberships include the Oregon State Bar, Jackson County Bar Association, and WVD Inn of Court. She will be awarded the William V. Deatherage Pro Bono Award in May 2019.

Lee is married to Peter Sage. She has two sons, Dillon Sage and Jaren Guyer.

Debra Lee is executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Legal Services Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune