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Anita Santos-Singh was just 32 years old when she was named Executive Director of Philadelphia Legal Assistance in 1996, the first in agency history.
On Jan. 13, 2024, Santos-Singh died of ovarian cancer. She was 59.
Maureen Olives, the now interim executive director of PLA and a close friend, said thousands of Philadelphians felt the impact of her work.
“She shepherded and nurtured and grew a program that has been around for 20-some years,” Olives said, adding that because of her leadership, “People have been able to live in their homes. People have been free from abuse from intimate partner violence. People have received critical benefits and sources of income that have kept them from being homeless, or [having to] live in a situation that wasn’t safe [for] them. The list goes on and on and on.”
Olives said Santos-Singh’s work was built with the core values of dignity and respect. She remembers her late friend as an “enormously funny person” and “wonderful teacher.”
Santos-Singh moved from the border town of Brownsville, Texas, to Philadelphia for her undergraduate law degree at the University of Pennsylvania. After earning her graduate degree at the University of Michigan Law School, she returned to Philadelphia.
In one of many public remembrances, she was called a trailblazer for Latina attorneys in the region.
“Anita was a tireless advocate for access to justice who dedicated her life to helping Philadelphia’s most vulnerable populations meet critical needs including economic, family and physical safety and stability,” read a statement by the Philadelphia Bar Association. “She loved to laugh out loud, to dance, and to enjoy good food. She was thoughtful, kind, inquisitive and loving.”
One of her mentors, Loui Rulli, of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, said Santos-Singh was never satisfied with the status quo.
“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,” Rulli said in a statement.
Colleagues and friends said Santos-Singh forged the path for vulnerable communities such as low-income migrant workers. One of her first roles was as a housing attorney in the Homeownership and Consumer Rights Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia in 1989, where she worked for seven years. The organization shared a statement on Facebook:
“Many of us at CLS had the honor of knowing Anita and working side-by-side with her for many years to fight for justice. She was a wonderful colleague and friend. We will miss her tremendously.”
Throughout her career, friends and colleagues said her goal was to ensure everyone could access legal help.
The Philadelphia Legal Assistance shared a list of her accolades over the years in a press release.
Santos-Singh won the “La Justicia” award from the Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania, the Bending the ARC Award from the Philadelphia Bar Association and 30th Anniversary Mosaic Unsung Heroine Award by SEAMACC. The Hispanic Bar Association called her “a trailblazer” for Latina attorneys.
She was one of a few Latina executive directors in Philadelphia.
“Anita was a fixture in and treasured member of our community,” the HBA said in a statement.
In response to the 2008 recession, she launched the “Save Your Home Philly Hotline” for homeowners who risked losing their homes. Similarly, in 2021, she helped staff the “Eviction Diversion Program Tenant Hotline.”
She was also responsible for numerous new programs to help people with low or limited incomes access legal representation. For instance, she built the first low-income tax clinic and supported the Medical Legal Community Partnership, which streamlined patient access to attorneys in public health centers.
During her leadership, the PLA strengthened legal help to migrant farmworkers, refugees, immigrants and low-income people.
Santos-Singh leaves behind her mother, Anita Santos, sisters Cristina and Veronica Santos, and brother-in-law Joe Rodriguez.
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