As Neal Dudovitz retires and Yvonne Mariajimenez becomes director, NLSLA reflects on its legacy expanding access to justice in Los Angeles, and looks to a bright future.
After 25 years of leadership, Neal Dudovitz is stepping down as Executive Director of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. Yvonne Mariajimenez, who for 20 years has served as the organization’s Deputy Director, will become Executive Director on September 1, 2019.
“This is an incredibly exciting time for NLSLA,” said Board President Paul Loh. “Neal’s thoughtful guidance and extraordinary vision have made the organization one of the most prominent legal services firms in California, and we look forward to working with Yvonne as we build on that success and expand our vision for the future.”
When Dudovitz joined the organization in 1993, it had a staff of 30, a budget of $3 million, and one small office that was bursting at the seams. Today, NLSLA has a budget of close to $20 million, a staff nearing 150, and four offices serving areas with high concentrations of poverty in Los Angeles.
“As big as we are now, we are out of space—we’ve outgrown ourselves again!” Dudovitz said. “But it’s an opportunity for the program to expand not just its physical office space but also its vision of who we are and what we can become.”
Under Dudovitz’ leadership, NLSLA developed an effective model of service delivery that combines direct representation, policy advocacy, and impact litigation to reduce the effects of poverty, support the development of opportunities for individuals and families to move themselves out of poverty, and protect and enforce the legal rights of poor people by ensuring access to the justice system.
The organization runs the largest network of self-help legal access centers in the United States and leads a groundbreaking project of Medical Legal Community Partnerships (MLCP), which place NLSLA lawyers in community clinics and hospitals. That project is now permanently embedded in the County’s health delivery system. In response to the housing and homelessness crisis, NLSLA spearheaded a collaborative of Los Angeles programs that provide legal representation to people facing eviction in poor neighborhoods, and has also brought several successful lawsuits that have halted discrimination and expanded access to housing subsidies for people living in poverty.
The organization has significantly grown its health advocacy and is today known as a state and national leader in expanding access to care and coverage. In 1998, it launched the Health Consumer Center, which has helped tens of thousands of people access critical care and led to several successful lawsuits that changed how Los Angeles County administers its Medi-Cal program.
“We now see almost everything we do through the prism of health,” said Mariajimenez. “And that’s going to be a big part of our plan for the future: to treat access to housing, education and justice—basic human rights—as key components of individual and community health. We will continue to act as a leader in ensuring all Angelenos have these rights, regardless of their abilities, race, creed, status, or economic standing.”
Mariajimenez was raised in East Los Angeles and was an advocate and interpreter for her mother in a government-funded mental health system ill equipped to treat poor immigrants. The experience instilled in her a passion for advocacy, and she began her career at NLSLA as a paralegal in 1978. She will take over as Executive Director after 41 years at the organization, having served in various roles as a Staff, Managing, and Senior Attorney and Deputy Director. She has led policy advocacy related to immigration, domestic violence, and elderly housing discrimination. Following the 2008 financial crisis, Mariajimenez’s efforts in collaboration with homeowners, community-based organizations and faith-based institutions to address the tsunami of foreclosures impacting poor neighborhoods in Southern California resulted in the passage of the California Homeowner Bill of Rights. Most recently, she has led NLSLA’s MLCP effort alongside NLSLA staff and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and Department Directors.
Dudovitz said he and Mariajimenez have worked side by side for the last 20 years. “She has played such a critical role in all of the organization’s accomplishments,” he said. “I couldn’t be more confident in her unique ability to guide the organization and her enduring commitment to expanding access to health, housing, economic security, and justice in Los Angeles.”
Mariajimenez is a member of the Management Information Exchange (MIE) Board of Directors providing high-quality training to new legal services executive directors, administrators, attorneys, and key financial staff across the United States. She served on the Legal Services Corporation’s (LSC) Performance Criteria Advisory Committee evaluating and ensuring the highest standard of legal services by all LSC organizations. Mariajimenez sits on the Board of the Heart of Los Angeles, which equips underserved youth to reach their potential, pursue their education, and strengthen their communities. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California and Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.
“The Board cannot imagine a better person to lead NLSLA into its next chapter,” Loh said.