Former Dancer Erica Nelson ’07 Leads Effort to Reduce Racial Inequity in Dane County, WI
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a B.A. in American History, Erica L. Nelson ’07 headed to New York to become a professional modern dancer. A Wisconsin native, Nelson had lived much of her life in Washington, D.C. and Connecticut, so returning to the East Coast to pursue her dream in the nation’s center of professional dance felt like a natural decision. She did so clear-eyed about both the limitations of a dance career (“a young person’s profession”) and the lure of the legal profession. “As long as I can remember,” she says, “I had an interest in eventually becoming a lawyer. I guess I saw being a lawyer as one of the best ways to tackle many of the social justice issues I had been passionate about my whole life.”
Nelson performed with and choreographed for modern dance companies for six years before enrolling in law school. She chose Rutgers School of Law–Newark for several reasons: “great clinical programs, a long-standing reputation for being public interest-focused, recognition as one of the most racially and ethnically diverse law schools in the region, and lastly, close enough to New York City that I could maintain the friendships and community that I had built there during my dancing career.” Raised until age 10 in rural Wisconsin and interested in preserving open spaces and in environmental justice issues, Nelson was drawn to environmental law. She was a student in the Environmental Law Clinic, founded and was president of the Environmental Law Society, and spent the summer after her 2L year as an intern in the Environmental Protection Bureau, New York Office of the Attorney General.
But she also was interested in efforts to address the challenges faced by disadvantaged families and children. Her parents’ professions (her father led the Annie E. Casey Foundation and her mother was a social worker and therapeutic riding instructor for children with disabilities) meant that she often was around people who were involved in improving child welfare systems, juvenile justice systems, welfare reform, and the breadth of economic justice issues. “I recognized that while I loved environmental law,” she recalls, “I was strongly drawn to working directly with people, adding whatever value I could to improve their lives. I also was fulfilled by the interaction, communication and trial work that I experienced as a summer intern at Lawyers for Children, Inc. in Manhattan Family Court. Finally, it became clear to me that there was a great and unmet need for committed attorneys in the field of child welfare, and I felt that I could make a real contribution in that arena.”
After receiving her J.D., Nelson spent three years at the Center for Family Representation in New York where she represented low-income parents in child-protective proceedings. In 2010 wanting a less intense lifestyle and missing the proximity to family and friends, Nelson and her husband decided to move their family from Brooklyn, NY back to Madison. Now the mother of two, Nelson has since January 2012 served as project director of Race for Equity, a project of the Madison-based advocacy group Wisconsin Council on Children and Families that she initiated. “As an assigned public defender for the State of Wisconsin,” she explains, “there was often talk among lawyers about the vast racial disparities and disproportionalities in the child welfare, juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems. There was also a lot of conversation and debate about the opportunity gaps or achievement gaps in our public school system and how best to address them.”
Nelson wanted to learn more about the origins and extent of the disparities and the most effective ways to deal with them. She approached the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and got its agreement to support a project to collect, disseminate, and analyze data regarding race disparities in the well-being of children and families in Dane County. Released in October 2013, the Race to Equity report found “alarming levels of inequity” in almost all 40 indicators of well-being. As for community reaction to the report, Nelson is gratified by the conversations that it has started and hopeful about its potential impact.
“I am very encouraged and optimistic about changes that are happening in Madison and Dane County to address the deep racial disparities between African American and white well-being,” she says. “There has been a surge of equity initiatives launched by the city and the county to address these disparities, as well as an intensified focus on racial equity by non-profit organizations, the private sector, the media and the broader community as a whole. I do not under-estimate the complexity and difficulties of the equity and opportunity challenges we face, but also know that with time and ongoing effort, significant change will come.”
In addition to serving as the Race to Equity project director and a private bar attorney for the Office of the Wisconsin Public Defender, Nelson uses her legal education to advance community interests as a member of several Madison non-profit organizations. “Class discussions and clinic experiences that ignited, fed and supported my beliefs and values, and also taught me how to be a more effective advocate for those ideals,” are, along with lifelong friendships, her most treasured memories of Rutgers Law.
Nelson also has come to appreciate “the learning and personal satisfaction that came from meeting the special challenges of being an older student.” She had to overcome some fear about returning to school after a long absence and heading down the path toward a new and very different career. It is a decision Nelson does not regret. She declares: “I still see the law as a great tool for fighting for the underdog, the under-served and oppressed.”