Columbia Legal Services Names Equity and Justice Champion Merf Ehman as New Executive Director

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Columbia Legal Services Board of Directors this week named Merf Ehman as the new director of the statewide advocacy organization after a three-month long national search. Ehman, previously a staff attorney in the Institutions Project at Columbia Legal Services (CLS), has deep experience with multi-disciplinary advocacy through partnerships with local community-based organizations, educational institutions, governmental agencies, and national research groups to employ-cutting edge approaches in the quest for equity and justice. Ehman’s work is also informed by her past lived experience as a legal aid client and a person living in poverty.

“After an exhaustive, inclusive, and competitive national search, Columbia Legal Services found its strongest leadership candidate right here at home—a person with a proven advocacy and community-building track record. Ehman will strengthen Columbia Legal Services’ ability, as an integral part of Washington’s equity and justice movement, to serve as an advocate for the poorest and most marginalized communities in our state through its full-range, multi-forum advocacy,” said Ada Shen-Jaffe, race equity and leadership coach and former director of CLS and Evergreen Legal Services, who directed the search process. “Together, a Staff Committee, external Advisory Group and Board Selection and Interview Committee recommended someone with the adaptive servant leadership skills to carry the Columbia Legal Services vision forward at a time when everything we have stood for is under direct threat of being undermined and dismantled. The high level of engagement in and commitment to the integrity of this hiring process and its transparency by all was unparalleled.”

Ehman, who begins her new position on June 1, 2017, is an acknowledged anti-poverty leader in the effective and successful use of multi-disciplinary advocacy approaches to protect and advance social, racial, and economic justice for individuals and communities most adversely affected by discrimination and unfair practices and policies. As a CLS attorney, Ehman focused on removing barriers to housing and employment for people with criminal records so they could successfully re-enter society, including the Certificate of Restoration of Opportunities Act (CROP) which became law last year. Throughout her career, Ehman has trained numerous lawyers, students, volunteer lawyers and other advocates on how to work with clients from diverse backgrounds, including people with limited capacity; she aims to continue CLS’s focus on race equity as a justice imperative.

“I am humbled by this opportunity and look forward to leading Columbia Legal Services into its next chapter. My enthusiasm for Columbia Legal Services has never waned since I first served as Law Clerk assisting clients with child support and disability issues in 1997,” said Ehman. “Columbia Legal Services is a courageous, cutting edge, continuously evolving organization that strives for excellence and humility in its quest for social justice. I believe that we can create positive systemic change through community based advocacy within local, state, and federal government legislative and judicial systems.”

Ehman takes on an organization whose strong foundation was built by its departing executive director Aurora Martin, who has served in multiple roles at CLS since she started as a Law Fellow in 1999. In addition to overseeing an organization that has earned a national reputation for effective and innovative equity and justice work, Martin lead a strategic and mission-driven rebranding and internal reorganization now being emulated by others nationally, while helping strengthen its financial health. She explored new technologies and partnerships to expand access to justice and boldly responded to a need to incorporate a racial equity analysis into the heart of the organization’s structure and mission.

At a time when our communities are under attack, CLS will continue representing individuals and entire communities who would otherwise be left out of our justice system, aiming to ensure that the promise of justice is real for everyone, and not just for those who can afford it.