Profile by Storey Wertheimer

Jatoia Potts had just spent eight months behind bars for an abuse and neglect charge she vehemently denied. Even after she was exonerated and all charges were dismissed, she remained unable to see or contact her children in foster care. She felt that her public defenders had neither the time nor energy to fight for her.

Then she met Elizabeth Simpson.

Simpson is the Strategic Director at Emancipate NC, a Durham-based legal nonprofit. When she learned that Potts had been charged with abuse with little evidence, she took on the case, despite her limited experience with child welfare litigation.

Through Potts’ case, Simpson learned about a part of the legal system that uniquely impacts Black, low-income parents. Simpson says the system separates children from their families as a purported solution, but in reality, exacerbates trauma and harm.

Potts was constantly surprised by Simpson’s compassion and humanity. Simpson’s colleagues say they lost count of how many times they heard Simpson sob while working on the case. “Not cry. Sob,” says Dawn Blagrove, the Executive Director of Emancipate NC. “She fights for every client like they are a part of her family. She is unwaveringly brave, even when she is afraid,” Blagrove says.

Simpson says her job is exhausting. At times, it’s heart-wrenching. But it’s also deeply fulfilling. “This is life-giving work,” Simpson says. “To see a system that is so dehumanizing and so harsh on people and then actually build relationships in spite of it.”

Simpson, 42, wears large gold hoops, pink knee-high socks with combat boots, and a shirt that says “Do it Like Durham.” Though her hair is long and blonde, in the past, it’s been bright purple. Her arms are adorned with justice-related tattoos: a skull reminds her of the precarity of life; the Spanish quote “sé justo” encourages people to “act justly”; birds escaping a cage represent freedom. She chuckles, pointing to the cage on her bicep. “This one is pretty ugly,” she admits. “But I got it during my lunch break, so I didn’t plan it.”

At first glance, you might expect her to be outspoken and boisterous. Her fearless track record might also give you this impression. She sued Donald Trump on behalf of undocumented activists targeted for deportation. She was arrested during the “Moral Mondays” protests, protesting North Carolina’s reversal of progressive laws. She has been described by clients as a “firecracker” in the courtroom.

But despite her bold actions, Simpson is soft-spoken and understated. Her friends say she is conflict-avoidant and allergic to self-aggrandizing. She’s a natural leader, as long as you don’t remind her she’s in a leadership position. “She’s never going to tell you how amazing she is,” Blagrove says. “She’ll just drop little things in the conversation and you’re like ‘Wait, wait, back up!’”

Simpson, once a shy child, found the legal world daunting. However, her empathy for the underdog and desire for change propelled her forward. Following her graduation from Yale Law School, she embarked on her litigation journey. Each time she argued in court, the job got easier. It was her own exposure therapy.

In 2019, Simpson heard that her former colleague Dawn Blagrove needed assistance running a legal nonprofit. She gave Blagrove a call, and Blagrove hired her on the spot. Together, they crafted the organization’s mission statement, focusing on community education, litigation, and storytelling to emancipate North Carolina from structural racism and mass incarceration.

Blagrove says that in a world of darkness, Simpson’s superpower of empathy is everything. Simpson says, “A lot of my clients haven’t had a lawyer who really cares about them or sees them as full human beings as opposed to just another one in their caseload.”

Simpson worries that we’ve set up our society to rely on the use of force rather than approaching volatile situations with compassion and care. “The system feels inevitable,” she says. “It seems like, ‘Well of course we need that many people locked up to be safe!’ But we can tell stories to draw attention to places where this reasoning is weak.” Emancipate NC calls this “narrative shifting,” and strategically selects cases to highlight flaws in the system and challenge common misconceptions about individuals involved in crime.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, most were worried about their own health and safety. But Simpson was more concerned about what was transpiring behind closed prison doors. “What happens in darkness? What happens in secrecy? That’s where they can take advantage of people who have no resources whatsoever,” she says.

Simpson began inspecting prisons in January of 2021, and her worst fears were confirmed. She encountered “horrific” conditions, interviewing sick prisoners who’d been thrown into quarantine dorms with 35 other inmates. Guards would drop off food once daily and re-bolt the door. Incarcerated people told her that they were dying without access to treatment or contact with their families.

The silencing concerned Simpson the most. “Not letting people tell their story is the worst thing you can do,” Simpson says. “Lock me up, whatever. But if you won’t let me share what happened, I lose all hope.”

A few days after her prison visits, Simpson contracted pre-vaccine COVID-19. She was terrified every time she’d become short of breath, wondering whether she’d make it through the night. But she had Tylenol, Liquid IV, a comfortable bed, and a family to take care of her. She thought about the prisoners, isolated without medical help. “They felt like they’d just been forgotten,” she says. “Like they were going to die in there and nobody was looking.”

Partnering with the ACLU, Forward Justice, Disability Rights NC, and the National Juvenile Justice Network, Simpson filed an emergency lawsuit and secured the early release of 4,500 prisoners, marking the largest litigation-based prison release during the pandemic.

The idea of a mass prison release might conjure images of jailbreak-style pandemonium. In reality, though, most people released were non-violent, elderly, and at high risk for illness. Simpson says it’s easy to cast people aside, label them “a problem”, and lock them away. “But that means we don’t release a lot of people who’d be safe,” she says. “That’s why you have a prison population that’s geriatric and aging.”

Simpson believes change starts on an interpersonal level, with compassion, humanity, and empathy. “There’s no need to lock up all these people,” she says. “Our job is to paint that future and imagine how we can get closer to it.”

In August 2022, Simpson appealed Jatoia Potts’ child custody case. Although the judges at times appeared sympathetic, they ultimately upheld the district court’s ruling. Simpson thinks Potts never stood a chance against North Carolina’s welfare system. When DSS seeks parental termination, they nearly always win.

Potts says that although she lost her appeal, she knows Simpson fought as hard as possible. “If I’d had Elizabeth at the beginning of my case, I’m pretty sure I would’ve been able to get my children back,” Potts says.

Now an organizer for Emancipate NC, Potts travels around Durham sharing her story. She hopes her two sons will find her once they exit the foster care system.

One month ago, Potts gave birth to a baby girl named Journi. Journi has two godmothers. One is Potts’ best friend. The other is Elizabeth Simpson.

To Potts, Simpson is not just a lawyer. She’s not even just a friend. “She’s become family to me,” Potts says.