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Powerful Women Let's Talk - 052: Deborah Hughes

Deborah Hughes
Deborah Hughes
Deborah Hughes

Deborah Hughes is the Executive Director of the Legal Assistance Center, a nonprofit legal self-help center. A lawyer, Deborah has a passion for working to assure that everyone is able to get the legal help they need regardless of resources. You'll also find her out in her community working to assure life-changing leadership experiences for girls and women as chair of the board of Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore. We welcome Deborah Hughes to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:

>> Produced by women about women, Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world. Transforming who we are and how we live.


Shelley Irwin: Deborah Hughes is the executive director of the legal assistance center. A nonprofit legal self-help center. A lawyer, Deborah has a passion for working to assure that everyone is able to get the legal help they need regardless of resources. You'll also find her out and about in her community working to assure life changing leadership experiences for girls and women as chair of the Board of Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore and she loves good office supplies. So welcome to our Powerful Women, Let's Talk Deborah.

Deborah Hughes: thanks, Shelley

Shelley Irwin: What office supply is next on your purchase?

Deborah Hughes: Oh, my goodness. I just ordered a new second generation bullet journal because I love dot grid paper. It has some guidelines but, not the straight line. So it just invites you to work outside the box, think outside the box. So that's one of my current passions.

Shelley Irwin: Has this trait been with you since you were a little Deborah Hughes?

Deborah Hughes: It might be law office, law school, right? Your medium is office supplies and if that's what you work in, you need good tools that make you happy and inspire you.

Shelley Irwin: Could be one of your secrets to success. Well, we do always ask for fun facts.

Of course we'll get back to that but, I do want to get into your career journey self-disclosing that you say you were a late bloomer stepping into higher education for your career advancement.

Deborah Hughes: Yeah, you could say I did everything late. I did not go to college right after high school and stumbled into a job in a small law office and over a few years, worked myself up to being a self-taught paralegal and working in courtrooms I realized that I could be a lawyer. There weren't many women lawyers and there were even fewer women lawyers in courtrooms but, I didn't have an undergraduate degree. So, I went back to school part time while continuing to work full time and I did that for 2 years, then I took the big plunge, quit my job and went back to school full time to finish my undergraduate degree. So, I arrived on a campus in my mid 20's along with all the youngsters.

Shelley Irwin: What was your support system? Did you did you have those who supported you to say Deborah you can do this in your mid 20's?

Deborah Hughes: You know, I did and I was so naive that there were some very wonderful people I bumped into someone who said you should apply to the University of Virginia you would do well there and then received a letter explaining what it would cost and thought, oh, my goodness, how am I going to do that? And another advisor said, look, if they let you in, they're going to help you find some financial aid. So, I drove my small little car up to

Virginia and met with financial aid and figured out how I would pay for that college experience myself.

Shelley Irwin: And now the executive director of the legal assistance center obviously some

history in between but, how did you come to find your passion here?

Deborah Hughes: As a practicing lawyer I did a lot of volunteer governance work served on boards, chaired boards and we'll come around to Girl Scouts but, part of that was in Girl Scouts.

So had some tangential experience with that kind of leadership and fund development

relocated to West Michigan with my husband after practicing law in Eastern Iowa for many years and so was making a new start. I got connected with the legal assistance center

and really misunderstood what it was. In my imagination it was a little window where someone handed out forms and when I got there, I saw that it was vibrant and dynamic and interactive and supportive and empowering people with tools and information and just fell in love with it.

I first served on the board and then executive director was retiring and it just presented itself as this opportunity that blended my legal experience with my nonprofit experience and so I applied.

Shelley Irwin: and of course, your passion continues working to assure that all are able to get the help they need regardless of resources. I imagine every day is different for you.

Deborah Hughes: Every day is different. If you use restaurant terms, I'm more the back of the house than the front of the house. I have wonderful program people

who are providing direct service to these folks in need but, as director of a small nonprofit, you're doing many jobs and wearing many hats. So, it's always interesting, always an adventure and always a challenge.

Shelley Irwin: So back to advice to someone who develops a passion perhaps later in life maybe a 20's, maybe 30's, maybe 40's going back to school, moving from corporate to nonprofit. What's your advice?

Deborah Hughes: I would say prepare the best you can and go for it. Right? We're all going to have long careers. You start out someplace in your 20's and maybe imagine that's going to be your work for a lifetime but, certainly the last 18 months have taught us that change is consistent and so we're all going to be looking for new opportunities and I think for many women there's going to be later in life career.

Shelley Irwin: Let's expand your work not only locally but, also statewide efforts

finding comprehensive solutions to unmet legal needs. What the Michigan Justice for All Commission? What is this niche in your life?

Deborah Hughes: This is created by the Michigan Supreme Court and started earlier this year and it is designed to find comprehensive solutions. The need is great. Most people in civil cases, so family housing, guardianship, conservatorship or probate do not have attorneys and they're trying to do these things on their own. So, the Justice for All Commission is looking at multiple levels. How do we get more lawyers for people who absolutely have to have a lawyer? How do we get other kinds of legal help? So, drawing an analogy to the medical community. If you imagined you needed a surgeon for any legal need that would just seems silly to us. right? You can go to the CVS and get your bandages and your aspirin. Well, it's time for the legal community to do something similar and recognize that other kinds of professionals can provide legal services and meet legal need. So, I'm excited to be part of that process and

I'm leading some efforts around self-help centers and making self-help more available across the state.

Shelley Irwin: Why the Girl Scouts?

Deborah Hughes: Oh my goodness, I was a Girl Scout myself. My initial involvement on a Girl Scout board was by invitation but, you know, little girls know they can rule the world.

right. We all know that 6, 5, 7, year-old girl who's just going to be Queen of it all and

as girls somehow, we lose that but, Girl Scouts gives girls the experiences and the skills to rebuild that confidence and create endless possibilities for themselves and I want to be part of giving every girl that opportunity.

Shelley Irwin: You work to ensure life changing leadership experiences for girls and women, as you say. Talk a little bit about your council and maybe an example.

Deborah Hughes: Okay. Currently I'm chair of the Board of Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore, which serves not only the greater Grand Rapids and west Michigan community but, all of the west side of the state and across the mitten over to Alpena and Gaylord and Traverse City and it really gives girls an opportunity to craft their own experience along with dedicated adult leaders. So it's really an open book within some guiding framework to really make things happen. Some seek outdoor experiences, some seek stem experiences. We have great community partners who give girls an opportunity to see things for themselves so they can begin to imagine a future for themselves that might be different from what they've experienced growing up.

Shelley Irwin: So any more badges available than maybe when you were 6?

Deborah Hughes: So now there's badges for everything right? From science, to writing, to you know, when I was a kid it was pretty. Well, yeah, it was starting to expand but, you know, life skills are valuable too. You know, there's some days I think everyone should get an iron and ironing board as a high school graduation present and know how to use them. So, yeah, there's lots of opportunities.

Shelley Irwin: Let’s talk a little about leadership again, you lead a team with the legal assistance center but, you also lead a board of directors. What’s your style?

Deborah Hughes: I would describe my style as collegial. I truly believe that together we can do so much more than we can do individually. So my job as a leader, whether it's at the LAC or with the Girl Scouts or in some other role is to bring bright people together given the tools that they need and the support they need and let them do amazing and excellent work.

Shelley Irwin: Nice. All right. Do you love reading for fun and learning?

Deborah Hughes: I do. It's a bit of an obsession so, I am always reading fiction for fun.

It’s usually at the end of the day and I do a lot of reading around business and leadership and things that can help me to be better in my own work.

Shelley Irwin: Did you live in multiple states?

Deborah Hughes: I did growing up. My dad was an aerospace engineer who was transferred throughout the country not unlike a military family so we moved every few years.

By contrast, my husband is a West Michigan native who still golfs and pals around with people he went to a great school with. I'm not sure I would know my high school class if they were all in the room with us today just because I didn't go to school with them for that long but, it certainly makes you flexible to relocating as an adult to starting a new career, starting over

going to a new community, making new friends and making a home.

Shelley Irwin: I’m wondering if you’ve kept all your license plates?

Deborah Hughes: My dad has many in his garage.

Shelley Irwin: Back to the Girl Scouts, you say you think everyone needs their own

Girl Scout troop these special friends. What's this?

Deborah Hughes: What I've found as a woman and I lived in Iowa for many years before coming to West Michigan I had a group of girlfriends and we would get together about once a month just to chat and laugh and they were the group of people you knew you could call on no matter what you needed and I was pleased to develop a similar group here in West Michigan of friends who just do the same thing and it was someone else who said everyone needs an adult Girl Scout troop. So that's how I think of them, providing that same kind of love and support that girls find in their Girl Scout experience.

Shelley Irwin: You are appreciative of Grand Rapids described as extraordinary and special community. How important is it to well, get involved in one's community?

Deborah Hughes: Critical critical what makes Grand Rapids amazing and I see this happen again and again and again is it's just right. It's not too big and it's not too small and everyone here really is committed to developing the community and things happen here that don't happen other places. One example is the Legal Assistance Center. A group of lawyers began to see people struggling to represent themselves and said we have to create a place where these people can get help and so nearly 20 years later we have this growing vibrant service that helps people and other communities don't have that and part of the reason that happened here is because someone envisioned it and everyone got on board and folks helped to fund it. So whether it's the LAC or the art museum or the various downtown developments. Amazing things happen here.

Shelley Irwin: Why are red golf balls important in your life?

Deborah Hughes: This is just an experience this past weekend. I was shopping with my husband who's looking for a new pitching wedge and I haven't played a lot of golf in the last few years. I can play it but, I tend to be kind of a fair-weather golfer, but we're checking out and there’s this bin of red golf balls and not unlike dotted paper. Right? If you have inspiring equipment. So I bought myself 3 red golf balls. They're sitting on my dresser. Fred's hoping they'll inspire me to golf more.

Shelley Irwin: Besides the authors, do you read any other resources you recommend or is there a motto to live by?

Deborah Hughes: Oh, my goodness. Well, you know, on the fiction side, I love Louise Penny and her main character Armando Martian. I've read John Sanford and Lee Child and CJ Box on the on the business side. I've been reading Adam Grant's Think Again, which basically reminds us all not to believe everything you think and to give things a second look. I've been reading No Ego by Cy Wakeman, which it really talks about how you get out of the way of the people you work with and help them be excellent. You know, in terms of motto or a way of working, my core is to serve with kindness. You know, we're all on team humanity we're all in this together and everyone aspires to be well and healthy and have a family who does well and children who succeed and like other areas together we can do better. Together we can do better as an organization, together we can do better as a community, together we can do better as a country.

Shelley Irwin: Still have any of those little Girl Scout pins?

Deborah Hughes: I do. Somewhere in my home is my sash with my badges. I can't put my hands on it since we moved but, you know, now I have sort of the adult compliment. Right? And everybody should know that too that Shelley too, serves with me on Girl Scouts Michigan Shore to Shore and she has her pins.

Shelley Irwin: Yes. Proud to be involved and certainly proud to share your life story. So thank you for your time Deborah Hughes.

Deborah Hughes: Thanks, Shelly, it's been fun.

Shelley Irwin: Thank you for listening to this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I’m Shelley Irwin.


>> Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let’s Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.


Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The Shelley Irwin Show, a news magazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast at 9 a.m., features a wide variety of local and national news makers, plus special features.