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Public Justice Center celebrates alliance with music

At its 20th anniversary gala in 2005, the Public Justice Center knocked the ball out of the park by snagging billionaire philanthropist George Soros as the keynote speaker.

For its 25th year-plus one event this week, the nonprofit legal advocacy organization is taking a different tack — hosting a concert of musicians/social advocates at Goucher College.

“We had a very successful 20th celebration with George Soros,” recalled PJC development director Jennifer Pelton. “So from the moments the lights dimmed — we only have a gala every five years — we started preparing for the next one.”

That included figuring out what made the 2005 event a success.

“We had a great speaker and had created incremental momentum,” Pelton said. “But the real key was the enthusiastic audience. The event created a powerful momentum. We forged relationships with new donors and built new partnerships.”

The Soros event also raised the bar for the PJC — a law firm founded in 1985 to expand the rights of people living in poverty or suffering from discrimination.

When staff and volunteers began planning for the 25th anniversary celebration, there was a lot of talk about how the PJC fits into the context of larger social change, such as reform movements that include labor, civil rights, equality and children’s rights.

Then the light bulb went on in Pelton’s head.

“I had a secret life in the past,” she confided. “I worked with singer/songwriters and booked tours. I was connected to singers who themselves were connected to social movements and who were paid by unions to sing at rallies.”

Over lunch with local singer/activist Lea Gilmore — who has regularly packed houses in Europe singing a mix of gospel, folk and blues and who has also worked for the ACLU, campaigned for gun control and worked with the Maryland Black Families Alliance — Pelton suggested that Gilmore join the two parts of her life.

“Lea is a tremendous organizer,” Pelton said. “I said it would be cool to marry those two parts. The idea mushroomed because we both instantly thought of other singers influenced by their work in social change.”

The result is “Celebrate Justice — Alive @ 25+,” a benefit concert for the PJC on Wednesday, May 11, at Kraushaar Auditorium (on the campus of Goucher College in Towson).

“Every performer on stage that night is a change agent in their own right,” Pelton said. “Many of them have rallied on particular issues such as poverty, homelessness, school reform, equal rights and labor. They’ve written songs and marched on the frontlines. They have lives as social activists and the music ties them together. And they’re really cool people.”

The acts include:

-Singer/songwriter Gaye Adegbalola, who has performed around the world solo and as a member of Saffire — The Uppity Blues Women. She was recently selected as one of the OUTstanding Virginians of 2011 by Equality Virginia.

-Lea Gilmore is a blues, gospel and jazz singer and civic activist who has lent her voice, literally and figuratively, to advocacy for the underserved of the world. She was one of the first recipients of the James Baldwin Medal for Civil Rights Award.

-Tom Hall will serve as one of the narrators of the evening. He has served as the executive director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society for 30 years.

-Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Walt Michael is founder and executive director of Common Ground on the Hill, which promotes interracial harmony through the traditional arts. He is a roots musician whose work spans over 40 years.

-Singer/songwriter Dave Nachmanoff wrote his first song at 9 and a year later performed with folk legend Libba Cotton on The Mall in Washington, D.C. He has toured as lead guitarist and opener for Al Stewart for the past 10 years.

-Sparky and Rhonda Rucker’s music includes a variety of old-time blues, slave songs, spirituals and civil rights songs. Sparky got his start singing in the civil rights marches and Rhonda’s background as a physician provides unique insights into numerous social problems.

-Joyce Scott, a Baltimore artist, performer and activist, is an acclaimed beadwork artist who will serve as narrator. In 2010, Scott won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Arts Caucus.

Beyond music and social activism lies another thread.

“The way this concert brings together social justice and music is representative of how the PJC has approached social justice advocacy for the last quarter-century,” said PJC Executive Director John Nethercut. “The PJC threads together various social change strategies. We work in the courts, in the agencies, in public education formats, and we collaborate with a wide range of allies to make it happen.

“PJC accomplishes nothing in a vacuum,” he added. “So having a collaborative concert makes sense to us.”

Plus, music changes people.

“When you’re swept up in a fabulous venue, you can’t help but be moved,” Pelton said. “We want people to come along with the story and feel they’ve got what it takes to take action. We are powerful together.”

The PJC’s list of accomplishments includes recent collaborations that “have had a huge impact on the poor, including the victorious lawsuit against Maryland that is correcting delays on applications for emergency benefits,” Nethercut said.

“The PJC worked with local and national nonprofits and teamed together with the private firm of Kirkland & Ellis on this case,” he continued. “It was a great public/private partnership that had significant impact.”

The PJC also founded and leads the Rental Housing Coalition, which spearheaded successful legislation to protect tenants from landlord retaliation when they exercise their rights.

And the PJC leads a national partnership to secure the right to counsel in certain civil legal cases — a “civil Gideon.”

“The PJC founded this coalition with other national leaders six years ago, and now we have members from 35 states participating in the work,” Nethercut said. “It’s a mix of public and private lawyers, retired judges and law schools.”

Pelton summed it up: “We have a history of collaboration in many projects. And we’re bringing it all to the stage.”

The evening starts with a pre-concert dinner reception for sponsors and premium ticket holders ($125). The concert is at 7 p.m., followed by a dessert reception for all guests ($75). For tickets or information, call 410-625-9409 or go to www.publicjustice.org and click on “News and events.”

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is jsurkiewicz@mdlab.org.

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