A World of Difference
The following is taken from for The New Mexico Black Leadership Council’s October 2023 editions of the UpLift Chronicles.
Coming to town this past spring, Sonya Bellafant is expanding people’s access to justice using the strong voice she’s won through experience and tenacity.
Since arriving in April to take the Executive Director position at New Mexico Legal Aid (NMLA), Sonya Bellafant hasn’t found much about the Land of Enchantment not to like. “Except for the dust.” She loves the mountains, the peaceful drive home, the friendly people, the constant sunshine. “It’s absolutely stunning,” she says. And she is excited to do “impactful work” at NMLA.
The agency Bellafant previously worked for, 603 Legal Aid in Concord, NH, “…didn’t do a lot of casework and direct representation. For me, that was very difficult, because one of the reasons I became a legal aid attorney was that there are many people who aren’t comfortable using their voice. When you can’t exercise your voice, having someone to empower you, and to educate you, and to represent you, can make a world of difference.”
NMLA provides outreach, education, advice, and in some cases full legal representation for disenfranchised and low-income New Mexicans. Legal aid attorneys help people understand their rights and access justice in housing issues, benefits, domestic violence and family law, employment, and more.
“All of these things, unfortunately, I’ve faced in personal and professional experience. In all candor, I incredibly value the position I’m currently sitting in, because I can support the legal advocates and stand side by side with them.”
Bellafant recalls the struggles of the family she grew up in, which started her down the road to legal aid work.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that I am the descendant of a woman who did not graduate high school, got married as a teenager, and had three children by the time she was 21.” Legal aid attorneys helped Bellafant’s family achieve a more stable economic status. Her mother got a divorce, an order of protection, and a GED—and graduated college while
Bellafant was in high school. “Every day, I go to work hoping that we are having the same impact on everyone that we serve.”
Bellafant became an attorney, she says, “Because I needed one.” When she learned that the legal field was looking for more women, “I thought, well, I can do this.” Painfully shy, Bellafant discovered that she loved litigation. When her partner in moot court won Best Advocate despite Bellafant doing the bulk of the preparation, she remembers thinking she would “never again allow shyness to prevent me from speaking up.”
Now she uses the voice she won to help others. “Representing people who came from the same economic status I was born into was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.” Bellafant’s agency, NMLA, is accessible online and through community outreach. “We have a host of teleclinics, in-person clinics, and an incredible team that gets out regularly to meet with
“The amount of need in New Mexico by far exceeds the available resources. That is probably the biggest struggle for a legal aid attorney, is we cannot help everyone who reaches out to us. But we do an incredible job at assisting as many people as we can.”