Fighting for justice

Advocate for affordable housing, struggling workers returning to roots.

By Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. [04.05.04] — As soon as the board finds a replacement, Bill Rowe will be leaving his position as executive director of the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit dedicated to achieving economic justice for poor people and communities.

But he won’t be going far.

After almost three years as executive director, Rowe has decided to set aside his administrative duties to focus on his true passion.

“My heart really lies with the advocacy work,” he says.

Rowe will stay at the Justice Center, devoting himself to the areas of affordable housing and employment for struggling workers.

A native of upstate New York, Rowe has been an advocate all his professional life.

Fresh out of college, be served as a VISTA volunteer in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

Working for the Carolina Brown Lung Association, he advocated for sick textile workers, helping them get worker’s compensation and working to make the mills safer.

The experience inspired him.

“It showed me you can do a lot for folks – individually and on a macro level,” he says.

It was at the Brown Lung Association that Rowe decided to pursue advocacy as a career.

And it was there he met his future wife, Susy Pollitt, also a VISTA volunteer.

He also learned a bit about the South.

“I discovered barbecue is a noun, not just a verb,” he says.

Both committed advocates, Rowe and Pollitt stayed together through law school at Northeastern University in Boston, an institution with a focus on public interest law.

After graduation, Rowe returned to North Carolina as an attorney for various Legal Services organizations in Charlotte and the Raleigh.

He also served two rotations as a stay-at-home dad for six months after the birth of each of his sons.

Pollitt worked the shifts until the each boy was six months old, while Rowe took over for the next six months.

During this time, he became a housing and employment law specialist with the N.C. Legal Services Resource Center, serving as a resource to other Legal Services advocates.

But in the mid-1990’s Congress restricted federal funding for some of Legal Services’ most critical activities, including lobbying, filing class-action suits and representing undocumented citizens.

Rather than give up these critical activities, Rowe’s organization kept its mission and gave up the money, merging with the N.C. Client and Community Development Center on July 1, 1996, to form the Justice Center.

In 2001, Rowe took over the helm.

During his tenure, the “financial status of the organization has improved substantially,” says Victor Boone, board co-chair of the Justice Center. “He made sure the organization lived up to its mission.”

With the organization on stable ground, Rowe is ready to get back to the trenches.

“What gives me satisfaction is being in the middle of issues around advocacy,” he says.

And while the Justice Center is losing an executive director, it’s keeping a die-hard activist.

“I can’t imagine working anywhere else,” Rowe says.

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