Atlanta, GA – For the first time in the organization’s 17-year history, Gideon’s Promise looks forward to having a non-founder take the reins. For the initial 16 years, Ilham “Illy” Askia led “GP,” relinquishing her role as its founding Executive Director last year. I have spent the past fourteen months serving as the CEO while we searched for the ideal candidate to succeed Illy. I am thrilled to announce that Zanele Ngubeni will step into the role of Executive Director on January 1st. The future of Gideon’s Promise could not be brighter.
Arguably the greatest challenge facing any non-profit is the transition past a founder-led organization. While Zanele is an obvious choice in my eyes, I could not be more impressed with the care and diligence the Board took in making this selection. For several months after Illy’s departure, the Board engaged in a national search for the ideal successor. While there were many outstanding leaders to consider, there was one essential quality that was hard to find: a deep understanding of our mission and a genuine love and passion for the organization itself.
It became abundantly clear that our next leader had to have “lived” Gideon’s Promise. Many leadership qualities can be learned, but a deep-seated commitment to GP, and the community that defines it, is only forged through experience. This led the Board to look internally. Once that perspective shift occurred, we (the entire Board, as well as Illy and me) immediately knew that Zanele was the best person to step into the Executive Director role.
Zanele has literally grown up in Gideon’s Promise. I met her when she was a law student, interning for a public defender office in Georgia. As the first Training Director for Georgia’s new state-wide public defender system, I began building the model that would become the foundation for Gideon’s Promise. It included a summer law clerk program to teach law students the principle of client-centered defense and to inspire them to consider serving in resourced-challenged jurisdictions where they were most needed. Zanele was a standout member of that first group of law students.
When I went to New Orleans 18 months later to join the leadership team that was rebuilding the public defender office there in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Zanele was the first law student I called to join us. Zanele became one of ten public defenders from across the nation to make up the first class of defenders recruited to the reimagined Orleans Public Defender. Those ten lawyers were also members of the first Gideon’s Promise class in 2007.
When Zanele later moved back to Georgia to be closer to her family, she joined the Fulton County Public Defender Office, the second of the original Gideon’s Promise partner offices. As an alumnus of the three-year “Core” program for new defenders, she remained deeply involved with the community. Zanele served as a mentor to new defenders and blossomed into a talented member of our faculty.
When Gideon’s Promise launched its first statewide partnership in Maryland, Zanele agreed to move to Maryland to join its leadership team to help build the Gideon’s Promise/Maryland partnership. She later returned to Fulton County to run its misdemeanor practice, before becoming a full-time staff member at Gideon’s Promise. For the past three years. Zanele has run the Defender Development Division, leading the charge to recruit, train, and mentor the public defenders in the Gideon’s Promise community. She has become an essential part of our national faculty and an invaluable member of the Gideon’s Promise leadership team.
For the past year, Zanele has worked side by side with me as we have led the organization in the wake of Illy’s departure. The respect and admiration our defender community has for her is obvious. As our Board has had a chance to work closely with her, its enthusiasm for her as the next leader has only grown. Funders and supporters who have had an opportunity to meet with Zanele, have roundly expressed approval for this transition.
Danny Engelberg was one of the ten members of that first Gideon’s Promise class to go to New Orleans with Zanele. He is now the Chief Defender for the Orleans Public Defender. Like so many of our alumni, he has become a leader in the national public defense movement. When I told Danny that Zanele would become the next Executive Director of Gideon’s Promise, he was not surprised. “Zanele’s talent for leadership of Gideon’s was obvious from the start,” he said. “From the beginning we all knew that Zanele was the ‘one.’ We could all see her dedication to our clients and community and knew that she was a born leader for this work.”
There is no one who understands, loves, or lives and breathes Gideon’s Promise more than Zanele. In fact, if nineteen years ago, I were tasked with molding the ideal leader for the organization Gideon’s Promise has become today, I could not have proposed a blueprint more ideal than the one Zanele wrote for herself.
I am honored to introduce our national community of supporters to the next Executive Director of Gideon’s Promise.
Co-Founder l Gideon’s Promise