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Dianne E. Dixon was happy enough working for New York Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer in the Civil Rights Bureau. But then came what the boss told her was the opportunity of a lifetime. “Eliot was very supportive,” said Dixon, appointed early this year as the first executive director of the Access to Justice Center, initiated by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye. “He respects Judge Kaye, and he was my cheerleader in coming to this job. “And it surely is the job of a lifetime,” said Dixon, 44, a graduate of Princeton University and the New York University School of Law. “It involves issues I’ve been passionate about since college — justice for poor people who can’t afford lawyers.” The greatest difficulty of her new job is also its greatest opportunity. “I’ll have a lot of input, that’s for sure,” said Dixon. “But a lot of what this [Justice Center] is going to be involves my design, my vision.” For Dixon, who is black, the vision of justice began with stories told by parents who grew up in the Jim Crow south — “stories that made my blood boil,” as she put it. “They came to New York to get work, and to get help at getting educated,” said Dixon of her parents, Charles and Venobia. “And also with the mindset that you have to help your neighbors.” Dixon’s mother came north with a sixth-grade education. After years of working as a domestic servant in New York City, Venobia Dixon completed high school, after which she obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree and became a school teacher. Charles Dixon retired as a laborer in a Brooklyn soda factory. “I grew up with them telling me there’s no such word as ‘can’t,’” Dixon said of her parents. “They considered themselves blessed, and they instilled in me and my siblings that it’s not enough to sit back and say thank you for being blessed.” Dixon will surely need such spirit in the task ahead: convincing private lawyers in the city and state — more than half of whom do no volunteer work for the poor whatsoever — that the need for pro bono publico is urgent. She said 20 other states have either a formalized pro bono structure in place, a requirement for reporting pro bono hours or some manner of initiative to help poor people get legal help they need in civil matters. Of New York state’s effort in this regard, “We’re sort of the latecomers,” Dixon said. “But the will is there, especially since 9/11. And that’s an admirable thing,” said Dixon. “People do understand the importance of giving back, of doing something beyond what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. They’ve seen [since Sept. 11] how this has a direct impact on people’s lives.” Dixon has long dealt with such direct impact. In addition to her work in the attorney general’s office, she has been a Legal Aid Society lawyer, general counsel for the Center for Law & Social Justice, and deputy commissioner for the New York City Commission on Human Rights. “I’m the crusader in the family,” said Dixon. “That’s what my sister says.”

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