Diane V. Elliott
From the time I was a young child, I was faced with bigotry and prejudice. Fortunately, my parents taught me to see each person as an individual and sent me to an integrated and very culturally diverse school, where we learned from each other and were taught tolerance and understanding. I was very shy growing up except when I saw an injustice and then you couldn’t keep me quiet. I am first generation born in the United States. When we heard the bigotry from some of our leaders, my dad would say “I fought for this country and yet I am frequently made to feel like I do not belong here.” Hearing this hurt me, angered me and scared me.
So what motivates me? In a word EQUITY. Fairness. Everyone deserves to get what they need to level the playing field — to provide equal opportunities. We all deserve to walk down the street and feel safe, and feel confident that our children are safe. Wealth, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or identity: none of these should define a person’s chance to fulfill their potential or to access healthy food, or safe, clean shelter, or a good education with all the tools needed to learn, and to dedicated, passionate, effective legal representation.
That was why my professional life took the trajectory it did. I went to law school to make a difference in people’s lives and to serve those least able to afford legal representation when their freedom, and in some cases lives, were at risk. I became a public defender. I practiced for 20 years, in both state and federal court, working many of those years with the Defenders Association of Philadelphia. I felt very strongly that it was my job to make sure that the constitutional rights of those charged with a crime were vigorously defended. By doing so, I believed that I was protecting the rights of all who came before the court and most importantly those who were innocent and could not afford an attorney.
In law school, in the courtroom and in public discourse — both nationally and in our neighborhood — I continued to experience bigotry and prejudice. My family is diverse and because of this, my daughters experienced the hurt of unkind words. I taught them early to never stereotype and that respect needs to be earned. Everyone matters and each person’s character needs to be assessed on an individual basis. I also instilled in them the importance of giving back to the community. They spent time with children who were different from them and engaged in volunteer work with me. They grew up understanding how lucky they were and that “but for the grace of God go I.”
Around the time my children were born I learned about the effect that pollutants in the Valley were having on residents’ health, particularly children, often living in low-income areas. I became involved in several environmental citizen suits, going back to school to obtain a master’s degree in environmental science. The degree gave me greater credibility and the ability to recognize and support those industries that were doing the right thing and take on those that were not. I continued my criminal law practice, until the adoption of mandatory guideline sentences took away judicial discretion and my ability to assure equity in the courtroom. I chose to continue my work in another way.
I became involved in community development and eventually co-founded and became the first Director of the Lehigh Valley Land Recycling Initiative (LVLRI), which reused old industrial sites, instead of building in farmland and pristine, greenfield areas. It allowed job growth in areas that were easily accessible to those without vehicles. LVLRI is 20 this year and continues to clean up sites, making them an important asset to the communities in which they are located.
My choices eventually led me to New Bethany Ministries, where I had a real opportunity to give back to the community by providing those in need with the tools necessary to improve their quality of life. I learned so much from the people I served about the ways in which their basic needs were not being addressed. Without safe housing and nutritious food, it is virtually impossible to focus on obtaining a job, an education and/or safe childcare. Without stable housing, income and healthy food, traumatic stress can reach a level in young children that can keep them from achieving their full potential. I saw first-hand the inequities in the way we provide for and treat those who are perceived as being different.
This is what motivated me not to retire but to commit myself to finding a Valley-wide solution to the need for safe affordable housing, a living wage and vibrant neighborhoods. I chair the Regional Homeless Advisory Board’s Affordable Housing Committee and am working with others to develop job training that will help create long term employment, affordable housing and community pride simultaneously.
Although I maintained my law license, handling an occasional case, I had no plans to return to the practice of law until I learned of Greater Good. Here was an opportunity to combine my passion with my legal knowledge. I will be focusing my efforts on fair and safe housing – both landlord and tenant – while continuing to fight for equity for all those who are marginalized both in and outside the courtroom.