Kori Ashley practices public interest law with Legal Action of Wisconsin because she is passionate about guiding
people in the city of Milwaukee through the criminal
justice system, and helping them find their way out of it.
Photo: Kevin Harnack
You are the third member of your immediate family to become a lawyer – and another is taking the LSAT. Why the law profession? What do the four of you have in common?
The four of us are incredibly devoted to our families. We have strong opinions about almost everything, and we are not afraid to share them. In the law, we found an amazing vehicle to maximize those shared traits. My uncle, the Hon. Carl Ashley, and my aunt, Carol Ashley, were my role models for attending law school and becoming an attorney. I am blessed to have them, and my overall family environment of intelligent, driven, and loving people who encourage and invest in my dreams.
My reasons for going to law school were far more practical than my reasons for my current advocacy work. I have always been an avid reader, and have always enjoyed engaging in zealous debates about public policy. I saw law school as a way to sharpen my skills for what at the time I thought may one day be a career in politics.
I currently practice public interest law because I am extremely passionate about guiding people in the city of Milwaukee through the criminal justice system, and helping them find their way out of it. Public interest law gives people the opportunity to become self-sufficient and empower themselves, their families, and their neighborhoods for positive growth.
You were born and raised in Milwaukee, but attended college in Chicago. You didn’t expect to return to Milwaukee. Why did you?
Employer: Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc.
Years in practice: Five
Law School: University of Wisconsin Law School, Madison
Favorite Book: If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin
Favorite Movie: Primal Fear
Favorite Food: Shrimp and grits
Favorite Milwaukee Summer Festival: Wisconsin State Fair
I hate to admit that I was one of those kids who left Milwaukee and swore never to return. I wanted to live in a bigger city, see the world, and do all the things that people who swear never to return to Milwaukee say they are going to do. I loved my time in Chicago, but I deeply missed my hometown. I never connected with Chicago. I always came home to vote, I always read the local paper, and I always felt like I had a responsibility to participate in the discussions and events that transformed our city into what we see today.
During this time, my nephew was born. That blessing confirmed my longing to live and work closer to my family, and ultimately led to my decision to attend the U.W. Law School. Afterwards, I returned home, and accepted a job with the defense bar in Milwaukee.
In my opinion, Milwaukee and Chicago have less than stellar reputations nationwide. In order to truly appreciate the beauty of these two cities, you have to live in them and experience their residents, their businesses, their restaurants – their people. That is especially true of Milwaukee. And while there is always room for improvement in our city, I am honored and happy to engage with the parts of our city that are truly growing, thriving, and developing into a positive and fruitful community. I am indeed very happy to be home.
Growing up, you had a very special relationship with your grandmother Louise. What did she teach you about navigating through life, while staying in touch with your roots?
Many of my favorite childhood memories involve my grandmother – whom I miss dearly. She raised eight children after my grandfather died and was still able to instill the importance of hard work, education, and family in each of her eight children and seven grandchildren.
When I was young and not ready to start pre-school, my grandma retired from her career at the Department of Child Welfare services to take care of me during the day while my parents were at work. I spent so much time with her at her house. We played endless games of Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. I sat patiently with my grandma while she watched her “stories” (soap operas) on television. She taught me how to answer the phone properly, and how to take proper messages when she was not available. I hung out with her, and listened to conversations she had with what seemed to be a never-ending community of friends and family that came to visit her every day.
My grandmother was my first best friend. She taught me to believe in myself. Like many people in the world, I was teased as a child because it was difficult for me to “fit in.” She always reminded me that what other people thought of me mattered far less than what I thought of myself. I carry that lesson, and all the lessons my grandma taught me while I was young today.
You live near Sherman Park, a community that recently observed two anniversaries – the 2017 unrest after an officer-involved shooting and the 200 Nights of Marches demanding an end to housing discrimination. Why this community?
It is important for me to live and work in the city where a majority of my clients live and work. This helps me understand the intricacies of Milwaukee that my clients experience every day, and increases my ability to deliver highly-effective advocacy work on their behalf.
My husband and I bought our first home in Enderis Park. It’s pretty close to Sherman Park, and directly across the street from my former grade-school – Mother of Good Counsel (MGC). My niece and nephew currently attend school there. I live on an awesome block near my family, and I have a fairly easy commute to work.
My parents purchased their first home in the Sherman Park West community on 50th and Auer. So I know first-hand that Sherman Park is not the negative images we occasionally see on the local news –it is not monolithic. I lived there from the time I was born until I was about 8 years old. My Sherman Park neighborhood was rich in diversity and culture. No one race, ethnicity, or socio-economic class dominated the neighborhood. My dad was the block captain, and he coordinated the “block parties” that everyone in the neighborhood attended each year. I have fond memories of him and my mother helping my brother and I decorate our bikes to participate in the annual 4th of July parades in my Sherman Park neighborhood.
My memories of Sherman Park are not salacious enough for a newspaper headline, or the evening news. But my memories of growing up in Sherman Park are very real. I don’t have to believe “the hype” because I actually lived there. I know that Sherman Park has strong families and good neighbors – just like my current Enderis Park neighborhood. I believe that for any community to thrive, we need to learn from the strong businesses and families that live there, uplift the ones that may need a little extra help, and recruit new families and businesses that add value, both fiscal and human, so that the community can stand together to mitigate the blight, erosion, and neglect that can destabilize any neighborhood. My experiences in the Sherman Park and Enderis Park neighborhoods make me want to run to them – not from them.
Tell us about your early career choices. In hindsight, what worked for you, would you do anything differently?
Before joining the team at Legal Action of Wisconsin, I worked in private practice with Alex Flynn and Associates. There, I practiced criminal defense and civil litigation throughout the state of Wisconsin. I had an excellent team of mentors who taught me the due diligence of courtroom procedure, legal defense preparation, and trial performance.
I liked the solo practice environment. The pace and atmosphere suited me well. I had the luxury of working with a great team of professionals who guided my transition from recent graduate to practicing attorney. It was my experiences in criminal defense that made me begin to think more critically about the policies and the laws surrounding expungements and other record-related issues. My observations of the intersections of public policy, state laws, and law enforcement ultimately led to me joining Legal Action of Wisconsin to pursue my current career in advocacy.
I am not sure if I would do anything differently. Working at Legal Action allows me to be in the courtroom, work as a litigator, and advocate for fair treatment on behalf of disadvantaged people who live and work in some of Milwaukee’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods.
When you first joined Legal Action of Wisconsin your work focused on youth. You managed its Juvenile Reentry Assistance Grant Program that provides legal representation to minors living in public or rent assistance housing. What experiences drew you to this type of work?
My parents strongly encouraged my brothers and I to be active in our communities from a very young age. My mother was the executive director of the City of Milwaukee Housing Authority for several years. She grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, and always credited the public housing system, the public education system, and the United States military with her unique opportunity to escape poverty to her current life.
I started volunteering for the LaVarnway Boys and Girls Club when I was 9 years old. I spent the next 15 years of my life learning and leading activities at the club that taught kids, and other volunteers, the value of self-worth, hard work, and a great college education – often coming home from college for summer and winter breaks to continue my volunteer work. These early volunteering experiences, combined with my career as a criminal defense attorney, made a lasting impression on me.
Guiding young people through the criminal justice system has opened my eyes to how unforgiving our current justice system can be. Justice is not blind – especially when it comes to young people of color. I have learned how misleading it is to think that you can make a mistake, pay your debt to society, put it behind you, and join the rest of society as a productive citizen. Expungement is a civil proceeding in Wisconsin, which means you do not have the constitutional right to an attorney to represent and guide you through the process. Youth cannot reasonably be expected to know when to request court documents, how to request court documents, or even where to request court documents for expungement. Yet this is what is required of young people to enjoy the benefits of clearing their criminal record.
There are countless collateral consequences for a young person after being adjudicated or convicted of a criminal offense. These consequences can result in them and their families being removed from public housing, being classified as ineligible for student loans, being denied the ability to obtain occupational licenses, or even losing their right to vote. The majority of the young people I work with are in no way able to even comprehend the significance of these penalties, let alone the lasting impact of these barriers on the earning potential of their lives, and their ability to positively contribute to the growth of their neighborhoods. This is what drives me to do this work. I firmly believe in the value of a second chance. For young people of color in Wisconsin, getting that second chance is easier said than done.
You are pulling together a team of Milwaukee high school students to compete in the statewide mock trial program. Why is this important to you?
Some of my fondest memories from law school are when I participated in the mock trial programs and tournaments. I was fortunate enough to have excellent coaches and incredible teammates. My experiences in mock trial solidified my desire to become a litigator.
I had the pleasure of judging this year’s semi-final matches of the State Bar of Wisconsin High School Mock Trial Tournament. I was blown away by the talent of these brave students, but I could not ignore the lack of racial diversity among the participants. After the competition, I reached out to my fellow members of the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL) and proposed that we build a mock trial program with a local high school in Milwaukee. I am grateful that my fellow WAAL members have responded to the call.
Mock trial provides a number of skills, life lessons, and professional experiences for its participating students. It helps high school, and law school, students develop their confidence and poise. It also helps them develop their public speaking abilities, persuasive writing skills, teamwork skills, and in some cases it offers the opportunity and ability to travel outside their hometown. I want high school students from all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds to have the opportunity to reap the benefits of a mock trial program.
You are active in a variety of leadership positions. You’re a mentor, an active volunteer worker, and you serve on the Board of Governors for the State Bar of Wisconsin. How do you find the time? What is the most important message you give your mentees?
My time management skills are very important to balancing my work life and my personal life. I know it is 2018, but I am “old-school.” I still carry a paper personal calendar, and I don’t plan on getting rid of it anytime soon. The most important rule of time management, other than scheduling, is knowing when to say “no.” I make sure to only volunteer for positions that I can fully commit myself to, and I make sure that those positions are in areas that I find genuinely interesting.
Mentoring youth is very important to me. I benefit tremendously from people in my life who counsel me, write recommendation letters for me, and share their life experiences with me. As far as the most important messages I tell all of my mentees – I tell them to work their butts off, regularly write down their goals, regularly review their goals and the steps it takes to achieve them, and most importantly, enjoy their childhood!
How do you make sure you’re taking care of yourself amid the demands of an active professional and personal life?
I’m pretty good at shutting it down when I need to – and by that I mean unplugging and watching an obscene amount of television. I am in my “happy place” when I am on my couch engrossed in a full season of something action-packed or crime-related. I also spend a good amount of time in my yard working on my garden.
You just returned from Paris. What do you most enjoy about your travels? What else do you like to do with your free time?
I am not as well-traveled as I would like. Paris was my first trip to Europe. I am a bit of a history buff, so touring the museums in Paris was definitely the highlight of the trip. I have now been bitten by the “travel bug,” and I hope to visit Ghana and Kenya in the near future.
My husband and I are new homeowners. So much of my free time is spent at the hardware store, and working on projects around the house. I really enjoy being in our yard, gardening or landscaping, far more than I imagined.
What is on your bucket list?
I want to live outside the United States for at least a year so that I can immerse myself in another language and culture. I also want to attend all four grand-slam tennis events.