Anita Santos-Singh, Founding Executive Director of Philadelphia Legal Assistance and legal services advocate for 34 years, passed away on Saturday, January 13, 2024, at the age of 59. Anita was one of the brightest lights of the Philadelphia legal community, laser-focused on bringing life-changing legal assistance to low-income and vulnerable Philadelphians.
Originally from Brownsville, Texas, Anita came to Philadelphia in 1982 to attend the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate student. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1989, she returned to Philadelphia, where she would devote her legal and leadership talents to those most in need and least able to afford an attorney.
Anita began her legal career as a housing attorney at Community Legal Services in 1989, protecting homeowners facing mortgage foreclosure and the loss of their homes. Widely admired by her colleagues, Anita was tapped, at the age of 32, to become the founding Executive Director of Philadelphia Legal Assistance in 1996, a new organization created to serve Philadelphia’s poor with federal funds.
“For more than 25 years, Anita shaped Philadelphia Legal Assistance to be on the front lines of confronting oppressive race and income disparities, protecting individuals and families, and striving for the greatest community impact possible”, according to Lou Rulli, Anita’s long-time mentor, colleague and law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. In addition to Anita’s deep commitment, she brought many talents to her daily work: intense drive, vision, wisdom, and inclusiveness. Never satisfied with the status quo, she sought every opportunity to expand PLA’s reach and services. She forged vital collaborations with community organizations, non-profits, governmental entities, and grassroots communities to reach people where they were and to empower them to successfully navigate the difficult and sometimes life-threatening challenges they faced.
During the recession of 2008, Anita answered the City’s urgent call and launched the Save Your Home Philly Hotline to help Philadelphia homeowners facing the loss of their home. She responded again in 2021 when called upon to staff the Eviction Diversion Program Tenant Hotline, which provides a vital safety net for tenants facing eviction. She built a highly successful Medical Legal Community Partnership with attorneys embedded in public health centers so that Philadelphians could obtain legal help in their communities to receive medical care. And, under her leadership, PLA provided critical support to expand legal help to migrant farmworkers, partnered with pro bono assistance on consumer bankruptcies, and created Philadelphia’s first low-income tax clinic.
Anita received many prestigious awards. She was recognized by the Philadelphia Bar Association with its Bending the ARC Award and by SEAMAAC with its 30th Anniversary Mosaic Unsung Heroine Award. The Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania honored Anita with its La Justicia Award, and she received excellence awards from Latino
students from the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations recognized her for her community service and commitment to the civil rights of all Philadelphians.
Maureen Olives, Interim Executive Director of PLA shared: “Anita will be especially remembered by her colleagues as a collaborative and dynamic leader who curated, mentored, and led a team of talented professionals who were likewise deeply committed to the mission of legal services to the indigent and promoted a culture of serious work, blended with humility and humor.”
Anita was a lover of live music, travel, knitting, and Rafael Nadal. She loved to laugh out loud, to dance and to enjoy good food. She was thoughtful, kind, inquisitive and loving. She was a role model, mentor, coach and innovator.