As time ticks away, Joe Tafelski spends long hours behind his desk, plowing through emails and sifting through the heap of paperwork surrounding him.
He is tethered to his desk by the whirlwind of responsibilities that must be addressed before his impending departure. Mr. Tafelski, 71, a Toledo native, will retire next week after serving as the executive director of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality for nearly four decades.
Joe Tafelski is retiring as executive director of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.
For more than half of his life, Mr. Tafelski has dedicated himself to ABLE, a nonprofit that provides legal services for low-income people.
“We’re here to help people that can’t afford legal representation,” he said. “That’s why we exist.”
He joined ABLE in 1972 as a staff attorney. He left to work for the Fair Housing center in 1976, but returned as executive director in 1980.
Throughout his tenure, Mr. Tafelski and ABLE have been honored with dozens of awards for the agency’s advocacy efforts. ABLE has represented a range of people, including mental health patients, domestic violence victims, migrant farm workers, and homeowners risking foreclosure during the 2008 housing crisis.
“On a national basis he’s recognized as one of the top legal aides in the country,” said Kevin Mulder, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Inc. “When you go to national conferences they recognize his name and the work he’s done over the last 40 or 50 years. “
The world has changed since Mr. Tafelski first joined ABLE. He no longer relies on a typewriter and Wite-Out to write documents. And the iPhone tucked away in the pocket of his dress shirt didn’t exist when his tenure started.
ABLE’s advocacy efforts have also shifted over the years, from dealing with discrimination in the Toledo police and fire departments in the 1970s to more recently focusing on assisting immigrants and refugees, he said.
But ABLE’s overall mission never changed.
“We’re here to protect human rights,” he said. “Our clients can’t go down the street and hire a private lawyer. If it’s not us, people have nothing.”
Under his stewardship ABLE expanded from a regional organization to now operating in 32 counties. Last year Able, in partnership with Legal Aid of Western Ohio, had more than 17,000 requests for help, and worked on 9,052 of those cases, according to a 2016 report from both agencies.
But Mr. Tafelski understands there are people behind the numbers. The more he learned about those people, the more he understood the gravity of his work.
“He’s so good at what he does but so compassionate,” said Patricia Wise, the president of ABLE’s and Legal Aid’s boards of trustees.”He’s the lawyer that everyone should strive to be. He has so much passion and empathy for the people serving in poverty.”
Whether it’s the migrant farm worker receiving a settlement check after not being paid minimum wage or an undocumented immigrant with four American-born children being deported, Mr. Tafelski felt the weight of each case.
“It’s been proven that we can have a significant impact on people’s lives,” he said. “We’re able to help people in a number of situations that can be pivotal in their life.”
Today Mr. Tafelski is a different leader than he was when he first started at 33 years old. Over the years he has made a concerted effort to become better at managing his employees. On the corner of his desk sits a book entitled “1001 Ways to Reward Employees.”
“What’s unique about legal aid is that you have a group of people that come together with a common mission,” he said. “We want to make sure people are treated fairly, equally, and that there’s equity. So we come together and band around that mission.”
With his retirement only days away, Mr. Tafelski said he’s comfortable with the direction of the agency but the goal of justice will never fade.
“I felt like it’s a good time to pass the baton to new leadership,” he said. “But justice is like peace. You always have to work at it.”
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