New foundation chief focuses on change

By Todd Cohen

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — First encountering the N.C. General Assembly in 1981 as a young Legal Services lobbyist, Leslie Winner found that, but for four black lawmakers and their staffs, it was a “totally white institution” that did not “really look like democracy.”

Since then, as a civil-rights lawyer, state Senator and legal counsel for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and University of North Carolina System, Winner says, she has worked to bridge the gaps of race, wealth and opportunity that divide North Carolina.

And starting in January, when she becomes executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, Winner aims to continue her work as a change agent.

“My primary vision has to do with bridging ethnic and economic gaps, furthering environmental sustainability and building community and democracy,” she says.

Tom Ross, who resigned as executive director to become president of Davidson College, says Winner is a “great fit” for the foundation, which has over $470 million in assets and has made over $400 million in grants to projects in all 100 counties in the state since it was founded in 1936.

When she first served in the state Senate in 1993, he says, Winner was “very influential because she’s very bright and is able to work with people from different perspectives.”

That ability, plus her understanding of public policy, an area in which the foundation plays an active role, will be important assets in her new job, he says.

“The foundation has a long history of trying to be a safe place and a safe venue for people who view the world differently,” he says.

Julius Chambers, the civil rights lawyer and former chancellor of N.C. Central University in Durham whose Charlotte firm employed Winner, says she will do a great job at the foundation.

Like former executive directors of the foundation, Winner “wins the respect of people who feel they are being discriminated against or denied opportunities,” says Chambers, director of the Center for Civil Rights at the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Winner says her approach to her new job will reflect lessons she learned growing up in Asheville during the segregated 1950s and in her work as a civil rights lawyer in the 1980s.  

Leslie Winner

NEW JOB: Executive director, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation

AGE: 58

EDUCATION: Brown University, A.B., 1972; Northeastern University School of Law, J.D., 1976.

CAREER: Law clerk to Judge James B. McMillan, U.S. District Court, Western District of North Carolina, 1976-77; staff and managing attorney, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, 1977-81; attorney, Ferguson, Stein, Watt, Wallas, Adkins & Gresham, 1981-92; member, North Carolina Senate, 1993-98; general counsel, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 1998-2000; vice president and general counsel, University of North Carolina System, 2000 to present.

ENJOYS: Book groups, cooking, outdoor activities like walking, hiking, boating, swimming.

BOOKS she really likes: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, and A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell

INSPIRATION: The late Judge James B. McMillan: “He really had the courage of his convictions and, even though he was in a very high position, he remained a truly humble and good human being.”

One of three children of parents who were the children of Jewish immigrants and met in an Asheville synagogue, Winner started working in her father’s clothing store when she was 14.

About that time, not wanting to lay off his long-time elevator operator after having installed an automated elevator, her father offered the woman a job selling teen girls’ clothing, an unprecedented step for an Asheville retailer because she was African American, Winner says.

He also persuaded every other member of the city’s merchants association to agree to hire African-American salespersons.

“That was the end of segregated retail establishments in Asheville,” Winner says.

After majoring in psychology at Brown University and studying law at Northeastern University School of Law, Winner clerked for a federal judge, and worked in Charlotte for Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and then for the law firm Ferguson, Stein, Watt, Wallas, Adkins & Gresham.

Her first big assignment changed her, she says.

She represented black clients challenging the system of at-large districts the state had created for legislative elections, a system she argued simply ensured the election of white lawmakers by the white voting majorities in all voting districts.

A federal district court agreed, as did the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal.

“I just learned a lot on the ground level about what life was really like out there in the state, and about race relations,” Winner says. “And I also learned about myself that I could take on something big and make a difference.”

Equally significant for her was an assignment starting in the late 1980s representing clients seeking to merge the racially divided school systems in Rocky Mount, Nash County and Edgecombe County.

After five years of litigation, mediation, community meetings and negotiation, Winner says, the communities agreed to merge the mainly black Rocky Mount schools with the mainly white Nash County schools.

“It was a good result, but it was a better result because the community bought into it and it had not been forced on them,” Winner says. “I came to believe that, for some problems, maintaining communities is just as important as winning, and may be more important, and even just as necessary as winning.”

So she decided to “quit focusing on litigation and get myself in a position where I could get involved in a more consensual form of problem-solving.”

She won election to the state Senate three times, serving as majority whip and co-chairing the education and higher education committee.

Winner says the foundation should continue to be a “consistent, clear and progressive” voice for the state, investing and acting strategically and collaboratively to foster democracy, build community, improve education, promote environmental “sustainability and livability,”  and spur economic development.

In her new job, she says, she looks forward to working with the foundation’s board and with nonprofits, and expects to apply the big lessons she has learned in her career.

“It really matters how you solve the problems,” she says, “not just that you solve them.”

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