‘We are On the Right Path’

Prairie State Legal Services Executive Director Mike O’Connor delivered his final “State of Prairie State” address in an organization-wide retreat to employees on January 12. During his address, he announced the organization named Linda Rothnagel as Interim Director. O’Connor reported that he would stay on through March 1 to assist with the transition. Rothnagel will remain in the position to maintain administrative operations of the organization until a replacement is found.

As Prairie State prepares for O’Connor’s departure later this month, executive recruiting firm Anchor Advisors continues interviewing candidates and conducting its search to find the organization’s next executive director.

Rothnagel currently serves as Prairie State’s Director of Advocacy Training and Volunteer Services and has been in that role since January 2008. She previously supervised our Waukegan office for 22 years and the Ottawa office for two years. Her experience includes representation of clients in a variety of family law, housing, foreclosure, consumer, Social Security, and public benefits matters; she has handled cases at the state and federal trial court levels, at the state appellate court level, and before numerous administrative agencies. Rothnagel’s current job duties have been delegated to other staff to move into this temporary role.

In the nearly 45 years since its founding, Prairie State has grown and evolved enormously. Prairie State leadership has spent a considerable amount of time lately reflecting on the purpose of our organization, especially in light of the world around us. That purpose is our clients, it’s why we exist, and we are needed now more than ever. Today, we have a staff of more than 200, with an annual budget projected over $18 million. O’Connor said: “We’ve made great progress and we are on the right path for the future.”

Prairie State’s new leader will have the opportunity to guide the organization through a new management structure. “We are in the midst of profound change in the ways the legal system works, the kind of help our clients need, and how we provide that help. COVID has necessitated huge changes of how we interact with courts, agencies, and with our clients. What we are learning is that those changes are only going to accelerate,” O’Connor said.

During times of significant change, it’s also an appropriate time for new leadership; somebody who can see and understand the changing environment, and most importantly, has a vision in this new world to do our work more effectively and efficiently.

As part of that new vision, O’Connor announced an important step forward in our efforts to make Prairie State a more just, inclusive, and equitable organization. It has been almost a decade since Prairie State started seriously thinking about Racial Justice and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. However, he said, our work has been spearheaded by staff members who have many other obligations and limited training in diversity, equity, and inclusion principles. While we have made progress, O’Connor said it is clear that real progress in this effort will require that we dedicate the resources in a sustained and focused way. Real and significant action is finally underway. Prairie State has hired consulting firm Ebony Law, who will lead and guide our efforts in the coming months.

Ebony Law will undertake a comprehensive DEI audit at Prairie State. They will guide and lead conversations with staff and our board members to help us develop and articulate Prairie State’s specific DEI and racial justice goals, including concrete plans to increase diversity at all levels at Prairie State, including at the senior leadership level. And, perhaps most importantly, they will guide us in creating a new permanent senior staff position that will be dedicated to advancing our DEI efforts on an ongoing basis. This is a significant step for Prairie State that will impact who we are and how we work for years to come.

Since the pandemic began, Prairie State continued to hire staff to meet the growing demand in services. For example, in 2020 we hired 21 full-time and 24 part-time employees and in 2021 we hired 41 full-time and 19 part-time employees. Additionally, the scale of funding has increased for our programs in areas like criminal records relief and pro bono to name a few.

Two areas where the needs increased the most were in eviction prevention and protection from domestic violence. Since September 30, 2021, we have helped more than 4,000 victims of domestic and family abuse and helped secure 2,057 orders of protection. Moreover, since October 4, 2021, we have received 710 new applications and helped 703 individuals facing eviction.

“It is definitely a team effort and none of our work would be possible without our leadership, attorneys, administrative and support staff, and pro bono attorneys,” O’Connor concluded.

Our attorneys and staff rise to the challenge of serving thousands of clients. When we succeed, we stabilize families and thereby the community at large. Thank you for your investment and support of Prairie State Legal Services and civil legal aid. We are so glad you are on the journey with us. Together, we can make a difference.