|By Ret Boney
RALEIGH, N.C. — Living as a homeless woman in Orlando and enduring all the associated indignities, though by choice and only for a weekend, cemented Rhonda Raney’s commitment to helping disadvantaged people.
“That’s probably the most profound experience of my life,” she says. “It gave me even more of a determination that I would work where I could to assist people from having to feel that way.”
Raney brings that personal knowledge, plus professional experience fighting for social and economic justice, to her new post as executive director of the N.C. Justice Center, a Raleigh-based advocacy group that works to improve the lives of poor people and communities throughout the state.
Her weekend on the streets came while Raney was working for a private law practice and providing pro bono work for area shelters and the local legal services office, for which she started an evening intake and advice organization, allowing clients to get access to services without missing work.
“In my pro bono service, I did a lot of work with a homeless shelter, but I was seeing that life from one side,” says Raney. “It’s very difficult to really understand the issues, needs, concerns, plights of the people you’re working with if you don’t face the issues they face.”
Raney’s devotion to those less fortunate, and her desire to become a lawyer, was instilled by her parents, she says, who not only told her that her mission should be to improve the lives of others, but demonstrated that on a daily basis, sometimes paying for hotel rooms for homeless people with funds collected from friends in the community.
Job: Executive director, N.C. Justice Center, Raleigh, N.C.
Born: 1962, Newport News, Va.
Education: B.A., sociology, College of William & Mary; J.D., William & Mary School of Law; graduate work in education, Virginia Fellow, Virginia Tech
Family: Husband, George Wesley Raney III; son, James Wesley Raney, age 10
Hobbies: Active in church; snow skiing; teaching aerobics
Just read: “Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas” by James Patterson
Book to recommend: “Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools” by Jonathan Kozol
Inspiration: Weekend spent homeless
|“I realized early on that some of the strategies that are used to provide better opportunities for disadvantaged people needed the assistance of a strong legal strategy,” she says. “I saw the law as a means of rectifying lots of problems and righting many injustices.”
Now, Raney is bringing her skills and passion back to the Justice Center, where she spent four years early in her career.
“I feel very much at home,” she says, “not just with the familiarity with the organization and the people, but with the issues and the magnitude of the impact the organization has had on the people it works with.”
After getting to know the staff better and familiarizing herself with the center’s activities, Raney says, she hopes to raise the organization’s presence in the community, where the group’s component parts, such as the Budget and Tax Center and the N.C. Health Access Coalition, are often better known than the center itself.
“She brings a fresh enthusiasm for the job,” says Victor Boone, co-chair of the center’s board. “I expect her to do very good things with the organization. With the staff members she’s got, the organization will do very well.”
Originally from Newport News, Virginia, Raney made the switch from private law practice to the nonprofit world in the early 1990’s when she joined the center’s predecessor organization, the N.C. Legal Services Resource Center.
She was the center’s first staff attorney for the Education and Law Project, a program she helped launch to improve public education in the state so it better serves poor and minority children, an effort that continues today.
She then served as president and CEO of the N.C. Association of Community Development Corporations, helping CDC’s throughout the state better assist underserved and underrepresented families.
Before joining the center in July, Raney served as assistant executive director of the N.C. Bar Association.
“If you don’t have the passion for it, it’s hard to do it every day,” she says of her work. “Even when it comes to working downtown, that’s real life for me. That’s where all kinds of people, representing who we are, come together.”