Harvard honors Jacobs
- Published: March 27, 2008
If you ask local attorney Ellis Jacobs if he usually wins his cases, you might find him, uncharacteristically, at a loss for words. After a pensive few moments in a recent interview, he came up with a response he deemed acceptable.
“My clients,” he said, “are usually able to accomplish their goals.” This month, Jacobs received national recognition for his work when he was honored by the Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review for his “outstanding work in the public interest” and for “exemplifying outstanding commitment to social justice.”
What clearly matters, to Jacobs, is not his own accomplishments, but the accomplishments of those he represents. And those accomplishments are noteworthy because his clients are among the most disempowered members of American society who are up against formidable corporate interests. And yes, he usually wins.
This month, Jacobs received national recognition for his work when he was honored by the Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review for his “outstanding work in the public interest” and for “exemplifying outstanding commitment to social justice.”
According to a press release, Jacobs was honored for “helping small groups to do big things to achieve environmental justice, for working tirelessly to protect the right to vote and for winning precedent-setting cases to increase access to telecommunications services in low-income communities.”
Jacobs was nominated for the award by Lela Klein, the daughter of Julia Reichert and Jim Klein, who grew up in Yellow Springs and is now a second-year student at Harvard Law School
In her letter of recommendation, Klein stated, “When I was thinking about who to nominate for this award, I wanted to choose an attorney who worked outside the traditional role of representing individual clients or advocating within the legal system. I pictured nominating someone who does more, who couples that work with progressive organizing, community mobilization and creative activism. And then I realized that the reason my ideal model of a progressive lawyer includes all of those things is because I know Ellis Jacobs.”
As well as for his accomplishments, Klein nominated Jacobs for his spirit, she wrote.
“Fighting for civil rights and justice across many years, and usually taking on opponents that seem unbeatable, Ellis has stayed remarkably positive,” she wrote. “He’s always funny, modest and a little sly. I’ve never seen him get either disheartened or self-righteous. He inspires the rest of us to be as dedicated, strategic and hopeful as he is.”
What he most enjoys about his work, Jacobs said, is “working with community groups and helping them solve their problems.”
Those problems have been formidable. As a senior attorney with the Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc., in Dayton, Jacobs in recent years represented the low-income neighborhood of Edgemont in Dayton, whose residents took on Ameritech in a struggle for better services and lower rates. Jacobs (described by the Dayton Daily News as “Edgemont’s slingshot” in their David and Goliath struggle) negotiated a $3.2 million settlement, which was used to fund computing centers and training in underserved Ohio communities.
He also represented former residents of the historic African-American community of Longtown, who prevailed over a corporation that planned to locate a factory farm on the site. Also, he represented Trotwood residents who turned back a plan to locate a “giant landfill” near a densely-populated, low-income area.
And, according to Klein, Jacobs “had the pleasure of taking Donald Rumsfeld to court and winning,” when he represented the Dayton minority neighborhood of Drexel in its fight to keep the Defense Department from locating a hazardous waste site in their community.
What excites Jacobs most is not winning (although he likes that, too), but participating in the empowerment of those who for too long have had little power. For example, the Drexel community group continues to be active and to take on new challenges.
“They feel so empowered. They feel they beat the U.S. Army and they can do anything,” Jacobs said. “And they can.”
To Jacobs, the value of citizen groups feeling empowered goes far beyond the specific issue that brings them together.
“Our political system has been seized by big money interests and we have to get it back,” he said. “These local grassroots struggles will point the way.”
Jacobs can draw a straight line from the values that inform his current work back to his growing up in Dayton in the 1960s. The son of a Wright-Patt engineer and an artist (former Yellow Springs resident Eve Jacobs) Jacobs became, as a teenager, deeply involved in the progressive struggles of the time, including opposition to the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the awakening of feminism. He especially remembers (along with getting kicked out of high school for passing out antiwar pamphlets) being influenced by Dayton civil rights leaders such as Dave Gilbert, Elizabeth Robinson and Bob Shanklin.
Growing up in the Jewish community also contributed to his interest in progressive politics, Jacobs said.
“In the Jewish community, there’s a feeling of not being fully accepted,” he said. “It breeds solidarity with those in the country who experience far more discrimination.”
After college, Jacobs attended law school at the University of Dayton, then began his career, during which he has worked at the Montgomery County Fair Housing Center, Dayton Legal Aid and the Montgomery County Public Defenders Office. He and his partner, Desiree Nickell, who teaches English at Yellow Springs High School, moved from Dayton to Yellow Springs 17 years ago with their son, Sam.
As the years pass, the lessons he learned from the Dayton civil rights leaders resonate even more strongly, according to Jacobs.
“What I learned from them is that you have to be prepared to fight, to fight hard to accomplish things,” he said. “But it’s also important to nurture relationships, to be more gentle. It’s easy to get too shrill, too harsh. You need to have a certain perspective.”
It’s a lesson that Jacobs, who when hanging out in downtown Yellow Springs seems to be everyone’s friend, has learned well.
“I like people. I find them unfailingly interesting,” he said. “If you’re in the business of fighting for social change, there will be a lot of people on the other side, and I don’t want to shut off having relationships with them. Learning how to fight and how to work with people — these two things have been equally valuable.”