Growing up, Davetta Cooke Lee had three career goals: to be a doctor, a lawyer, and Miss America.
In the end, the calling to become a lawyer won out, but not before Lee earned an undergraduate degree in biology from Xavier University and “dabbled” in enough pageants to help pay her way through school.
“When I enrolled in law school, Pat Evans, the dean of admissions, told me she thought I might have been the first person to attend MC Law on a partial pageant scholarship,” Lee says with a smile.
Lee was drawn to a career in law not by dreams of a comfortable lifestyle or becoming a superstar in the courtroom, but by an overwhelming desire to help people. Lee grew up in Texarkana, Texas, a close-knit community in which she played the role of a “village child,” encouraged by her family, her neighbors, and her church community to aspire to great things. Lee’s father was a pastor; her mother was a school counselor who sometimes brought children in need home with her for dinner, then sent them home wearing clothes from her own daughter’s closet. It was an upbringing that inspired Lee to pay it forward.
“I was humbled. I lived a blessed, comfortable life,” Lee says. “I had so many people who poured into my life, who expected great things from me and encouraged me to pursue them. That support made a tremendous difference for me. Now I want to be that village for other people.”
Today, Lee serves as the executive director of the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission, a position that allows her to be that village for low-income families. The commission was created by the Mississippi Supreme Court to expand access to the justice system, particularly for low-income families who cannot afford to hire attorneys. The commission members are appointed by the Supreme Court and represent not only the legal system, but also the clergy, business community, educators, and all walks of life.
As the commission’s first executive director and only full-time employee, Lee works with legal aid providers across the state, addressing laws, court rules, and policies that limit access to the judicial system for the poor. She researches, develops, and implements new policies; promotes collaboration among multiple agencies serving similar groups of people; and performs outreach and training to Mississippi attorneys to encourage pro bono participation. Lee also fields calls from the public, referring people in need to the appropriate sources of help, including the Mississippi Center for Justice, Mission First, and other legal services providers.
"Davetta is an important component of access to justice in Mississippi. I’m proud to claim her as an MC Law grad and pleased that she was selected as our Young Alumna of the Year."
-MC Law Dean Jim Rosenblatt
“If I could wave a magic wand and instantly change policy for the better in my dream areas, those areas would be mental health and education,” Lee says. “Mental Health issues affect the whole state and are reflected throughout the legal system, especially in the family courts. I’d love to see policy changes that would help with early detection and treatment of mental health issues.
“The second area would be education. As a child, I was taught that getting a good education was the most important thing I could do. Education is just the only way. It’s the thing that lifts people out of poverty. Too many children come from a home life with low expectations, and attend a school with low expectations. I’d like to see changes that result in an atmosphere of encouragement and high expectations.”
Changes in policy come in small steps rather than in dramatic, sweeping victories, but Lee has learned to celebrate each of those small steps as a positive change. For example, the commission helped introduce a system that allows people to generate basic forms and handle simple legal issues, including divorces based on irreconcilable differences, name changes, and other straightforward matters, without hiring an attorney. It might sound like a minor development, but for people who cannot afford legal counsel, it could be life changing.
Lee’s previous positions also stemmed from her desire to help others. She came to the commission from Young Williams PC, where she served as a staff attorney assisting with the privatization of Mississippi Department of Human Services cases involving unpaid child support payments. Prior to joining Young Williams, she worked as a program and policy analyst at Hope Enterprise Corporation/Mississippi Economic Policy Center, where she focused on hurricane recovery and consumer protection policies that impacted low-income families, including policies related to mortgage loans, student loans, and payday lending.
“I’m proud to say that my whole career has been about helping people,” Lee says.
The desire to serve is shared by Lee’s husband, Jonathan Lee, and was the catalyst for his decision to run for mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, a move that also put Davetta Lee on the campaign trail.
“When Jonathan originally talked about running, I was reluctant,” Lee says. “We lived a private life. But after listening to his pleading and realizing how important it was to him, I said, ‘Okay. Let’s do it.’”
Once Davetta Lee was in, she was all in. She loaded the couple’s three-year-old daughter, Morgan, into a little red wagon and took her door-to-door campaigning for votes.
While Jonathan Lee lost the mayoral election by a slim margin, both Jonathan and Davetta say the campaign was largely a positive experience for them as a couple.
“Davetta was critical to my mayoral campaign, and she was critical to helping me bounce back after we lost the election,” says Jonathan Lee. “Before I ran for mayor, I never really understood how much of a family effort a campaign is. Nowadays, there is no separation between the political candidate and the family. It requires a partner who is willing to go all the wawy with you, and it can be very, very difficult. I could not have done it without Davetta in lockstep providing support. She gave it 120 percent.”
“The high points were working with families, seeing new energy and excitement for Jackson, and meeting so many people who believed in Jonathan,” Davetta Lee says. “Losing the election was a disappointment, but you pray without ceasing and get back up and put one foot in front of the other. Jonathan and I are both still active in civic work. He is the same loving husband and father and I am the same doting wife and mother. We accept that sometimes God wants you to have the journey. So many great things came out of running. We sometimes laugh and say, ‘Can you believe everything we went through?’”
The election loss didn’t quench Davetta Lee’s desire to serve. In addition to her professional work, she is a member of the Junior League of Jackson, chairs the community service committee of the Urban League of Greater Jackson Young Professionals, serves on the board of directors of Youth for Christ, and is active in the children’s ministry at Anderson United Methodist Church.
Her drive to be that village for others both professionally and personally has its high points and its low. Lee’s philosophy for dealing with setbacks is found in Jeremiah 29:11, a passage she holds so true that it hangs on the wall in her daughter Morgan’s bedroom. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
“I have meditated on that scripture a great deal,” Lee says. “God’s plans have always been better than mine. His will is better than anything I can come up with. I’ve always asked God to order my steps, and no matter where those steps have led, the journey has always been beneficial.”