As the first member of her family to be born in the United States, Lisa D’Souza said she gravitated to public interest work in order to ensure the opportunities afforded to her would be available to everyone.
“I always felt this responsibility to make most of what I had been given,” she said. “… I just felt called to return to advocacy work and take part in making some strides in inclusion and equality.”
D’Souza was born to Indian immigrants in St. Louis and moved to Texas just before entering high school. She earned her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Texas A&M University in 1993. Three years later, she earned her law degree from Harvard Law School.
D’Souza then held legal positions in Texas, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., before returning to St. Louis in 2013 as a health law and policy fellow at Saint Louis University.
“I got to do this policy work, which was interesting and a little bit novel for me,” D’Souza said of that position, which included working on Medicaid-expansion policy.
In August 2014, D’Souza joined the 8th Circuit Office of Staff Attorneys as a staff attorney. In September 2018, she pursued an opportunity she couldn’t resist: filling the Hon. Richard B. Teitelman Chair for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.
The chair is devoted to the kind of high-impact systemic advocacy that characterized the career of the late Teitelman, who served as LSEM executive director before becoming a judge and later chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
“I just saw this sea change in advocacy opportunities in a way that I was waiting and hoping for, and a realization in our community of inequality and lack of access to resources that low-income African American families just don’t have in the way that [other families] do,” she said.
She now works on issues related to public housing in Wellston, northwest of St. Louis. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials announced in 2018 that the agency planned to eliminate 201 units of public housing in that community, permanently displacing more than 500 people.
D’Souza said losing so many residents would devastate the already-underserved area. She also learned from those families that displacement wasn’t a new story to them —they had lived through it before, and they wanted to stand up to save their housing and community.
For her, this case is all about on empowering those people to make their own situations better.
“In terms of impact and learning, things I’ve tried to carry through my case [are] centering the clients and empowering them — not fixing their problems, but lifting communities. That is important to me,” D’Souza said.
When asked what advice she would give to her younger self, D’Souza thought for a moment.
“I mean, I would tell her you’re not always going to win, and losses hurt most when you care deeply about the issues and clients you are working for. But the fact that you lose doesn’t mean it wasn’t a fight worth taking on,” she said.
“So you shouldn’t measure your success on how many cases you win, but how many times you were willing to take on a client who needed you to fight for them.”