After spending a decade as Jennifer McClellan’s chief of staff in the General Assembly, helping to pass more than 350 bills, Abbey Phillips was all too aware of how difficult it is to navigate the state’s labyrinthine political system.
“Some people can afford to hire lobbyists,” says the 36-year-old co-founder of the Advocacy Lab, who also served for six months helping to facilitate end-of-term pardons as Gov. Ralph Northam’s assistant secretary of the commonwealth. “Some people reach out to their legislator, but there’s a lot of people that are facing challenges and barriers on how to get into the system and navigate state resources to get their problems addressed.”
Advocacy Lab serves as a sort-of lobbyist for the people, a corrective resource that offers free and sliding scale services. “It’s not just the General Assembly,” she says. “If someone needs to apply for a pardon, or is trying to figure out about a state grant, we can help them navigate that. It’s kind of like what I was doing for Jenn [McClellan]: constituent services.”
Philips also co-founded Collective 365, a philanthropic group where members pay a membership fee to collect $10,000 a year that goes to special community grants. “We don’t just fund nonprofits, but activists, artists, businesses, and organizations investing in Black or brown communities.”
For more than a decade, Philips has also been a court appointed special advocate (CASA), earning the 2009-2010 Henrico CASA volunteer of the year award. “It’s a volunteer that a judge appoints to custody or foster care cases,” she explains. “The job is to help uplift the voice and interest of the children in those cases. We see the child, visit the school, and get a holistic picture of what is happening in their lives.”
All of this is in addition to her fulltime work as director of policy at the Legal Aid Justice Center, which partners with communities and clients to fight for racial, social, and economic justice. Somehow this amateur pianist also carves out time to catch live music; her spouse is professional saxophonist, John Lilley (Bio Ritmo, Afro-Zen All-Stars), whom she met at VCU while pursuing her master’s degree in social work administration, policy and planning. The couple love hanging out with their 6-year-old son Benjamin, and conducting runs at James River State Park’s Buttermilk and North Bank trails.