Q&A with Toussaint Romain: the new CEO of the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy
The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is a non-profit organization that provides legal aid to those who need it, but cannot afford it.
The organization recently announced that Toussaint Romain would be the new chief executive officer effective May 16.
Romain has been a public defender and taught courses in constitutional law and mass incarceration. He also participated in the Keith Lamont Scott protests of 2016.
QCity Metro sat down with Romain to discuss his role as CEO and his interest in legal advocacy. The answers below have been edited for clarity.
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What will your role be as CEO of the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy?
We [Charlotte Legal Advocacy] have some very highly esteemed lawyers, paralegals and support staff. They will continue to do the individual representation, but also systemic advocacy. We have navigators who are getting into the community, meeting their needs, and putting a soapbox up by going to community centers and providing information and services. I look to do all of that.
But the biggest part of what I will focus on are the external relationships that this organization needs. There’s so much phenomenal work being done here. We need to tell our story and we need to really allow folks to know who we are so that they understand that their needs are getting met through our services, either through individual clients or through potential donors and supporters.
What is it like being the first person of color to hold this position at this organization?
I’m humbled to be the first person of color in this role and I’m excited about the work that I get to do, but it doesn’t change what this organization is about. They’ve been serving and representing people of color since 1967. So I’m glad to be at the helm, I’m glad to be taking over from Kenneth Schorr, who was an extremely amazing advocate throughout this organization’s history.
I understand the importance of it, but the work will be no different, the same work that we were doing, we’ll continue to do.
What sparked your interest in legal work and advocacy?
That takes me back to when I was a little boy in 1992. I was at home with my grandmother and my mother and my oldest sister in San Diego, California, when the Rodney King verdict was read, and the officers who had severely beaten this man were found not guilty for their crimes.
I was too young to really understand what the verdict meant but I remember being traumatized by seeing that beating.
My grandmother began to cry aggressively. My mother was upset. My oldest sister was banging her hand on the desk. My other sister was trapped in her dorm room at the University of California, Los Angeles. She couldn’t get out because of the LA riots that followed afterwards.
I remember going outside feeling so powerless and never wanting to see my grandmother cry again.
I’ve always found myself at this level of advocacy, but I chose legal work in particular because of something I once read that indicated lawyers are what we call consummate professionals, meaning that they heal the ills of society. This was an ill that I wanted to heal.
You participated in the Keith Lamont Scott protests as well as others, how does your advocacy tie into what you will be doing in this position?
It was a tough moment in our community. On one side folks were pretty upset with the system and how things were happening. On the other hand, you had officers who were out there just trying to keep the peace, in essence. There was a gap in the middle, that wasn’t being filled. There was a part of our community that really needed someone to help navigate us through this really tough moment. And that’s what I was able to do in that particular moment.
The Advocacy Center is standing in the gap of those that are in desperate need of legal support, information, advice, and representation. Our focus here is primarily on safety, economic security and stability. We’re really trying to help our community members, no matter what side they’re on.
Can you share more about where you’re from, where you’ve been, and what brought you to Charlotte?
My parents were born on the islands. My dad is an immigrant straight off the Dominican banana boat. My maternal grandmother is from Barbados; her father worked on the Panama Canal before he found his way to Brooklyn where I was born.
My parents separated when I was born and my mom moved to San Diego. I moved, flew, and lived between New York and San Diego. I went to a private all-boys boarding school right outside New York City and then came to North Carolina to run track at UNC Charlotte.
I’ve been to a whole lot of places. But you know, the saying is true. There’s no place like home. Charlotte, North Carolina is home to me.
How can people access help from Charlotte Legal Advocacy?
There are a few different venues. There’s the website that folks have, a hotline number that individuals can call, and there’s an intake portion that we work through with legal aid.
We’re going to do some more work around collaborating with different organizations, we’re going to be showing up at different events and symposiums and conferences where we’re able to let folks know about our services.
What more do you want people to know about Charlotte Legal Advocacy?
We’re open to volunteers showing up and supporting us. We have about 500 pro bono attorneys that provide support. We are willing to have volunteers come and walk with us side by side in the community. Invite us out to your centers, invite us out to your churches, to your programs.
There are ways of giving as well. If not time or talent, we could also benefit from the treasure that folks might have. There are ways to give and donate on our website. This is a nonprofit organization that has been serving this community since 1967. And we depend on charitable giving, to be able to do the work that we’re doing.