From supporting people with HIV/AIDS to seeking justice for children to fighting for tenants’ rights, Emily Dreyfus is working for others because it’s the work she loves.
The 58-year-old New York state native has been an area resident since 1989 and serves the Legal Aid Justice Center as community education and outreach director and leader of its JustChildren program.
Dreyfus started with the center in 2000 after working with the former AIDS Support Group and with The Arc through the 1990s. As of late, she is helping to shape the area’s debate on affordable housing and holding elected and government officials as accountable as possible.
“You may not know her name, and that is because of her organizing style of helping people find their own power and bringing them to the bargaining table so their voices can be heard,” said Elaine Poon, a managing attorney with the Charlottesville office of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “When Emily walks into the room, community leaders seem to grow several inches [taller] and their voices sound a little more sure.”
Poon credits Dreyfus with fighting bureaucracy by helping residents of public and subsidized housing to organize and present their cases. She notes Dreyfus’ work with parents on special-education issues, as well as her assistance to the Public Housing Association of Residents and other organizations.
“Most recently, Emily was one of a handful of people who created the infrastructure for aid as soon as the pandemic hit the country,” Poon said. “She helped build the necessary logistics, including volunteer management and structure building, to get as much out to people quickly and effectively.”
Poon credits Dreyfus with helping to create a local eviction watch program in which volunteers knock on doors to check with residents and watch the local courts to make sure tenants find eviction prevention resources.
Dreyfus has a long history of lending support to causes some would consider all but lost. For her, it’s just who she is and what she does — she comes by it naturally.
“I think the main thing that influenced me to do what I do was the family I belonged to,” Dreyfus said. “My family put in a lot of volunteer work. My dad’s was political but mom’s was on issues that were not really popular causes back then. They had the mindset that we need to contribute and make the world a better place.”
She grew up in Cross River, New York, and attended the College of William & Mary. Upon graduation, Dreyfus set about finding a job in the nonprofit world. She worked with a tenant organization in Massachusetts and again in Washington, D.C., before coming to Central Virginia as a reporter for a now-defunct newspaper.
“It was a unique way to get into the community and it’s where I met Joy Johnson with the Westhaven Tenants Association,” she recalled. “I was immediately impressed with her insight for what could happen in the community.”
The media job was short-lived. Advocating was more than her avocation — it was her profession. She joined the regional AIDS Support Group in the early 1990s as a services coordinator at a time when AIDS and HIV still carried a strong social stigma.
In 1994, she left the support group when her son, Max, was born. Max has Down’s syndrome and that put Dreyfus in connection with the local chapter of The Arc, a community-based organization advocating on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
“I did some part-time work for ARC in community education. It was very part-time,” Dreyfus said. “It was a great experience for me at that point because I was learning so much about people with disabilities. I felt the work I did with community education was really about helping people learn how to be advocates for their kids. Understanding the way to use your skills in the system to realize the best for your children can be a unique path.”
In 2000, she joined Legal Aid’s JustChildren program. There, she worked with parents, students and school districts on the practice of restraining or secluding students who have emotional or behavioral issues and disrupt classes.
“To me, that was not right,” Dreyfus said. “It’s a traumatizing practice. Both restraints and seclusion have caused severe trauma to children.”
Now she focuses on affordable housing, writing grants and helping residents with little experience with government to be heard. Her efforts with local organizations to address gentrification of traditional African American neighborhoods led Charlottesville to study the matter and affordable housing options.
“This year, she helped produce a massive report that combined data, historical information and real-life stories to show how displacement has played out in the city of Charlottesville,” Poon said. “She sees the need and acts immediately and effectively. Charlottesville is incredibly lucky to have her.”
For Dreyfus, a career as a nonprofit soldier, working with and for people in an effort to help them improve their own lives, is worth any money she may have missed by not working in for-profit private-sector firms.
“You may not get rich in nonprofits, but it’s all about what you’re doing and working with people to find their voice and their power,” she said. “I’m still going strong. I just can’t imagine doing anything else.”