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Trailblazing Alumni Chris McCauley October 06, 2021

Alex LaGanke walking at Railroad Park with Ron McKeithen and Allen Slater.Alex LaGanke (left) walking at Railroad Park with Ron McKeithen (right) and University of Alabama Law Intern Allen Slater (center) after filing a petition for a client who was subsequently released in June 2021.When Alex LaGanke, staff attorney at Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, left her hometown of Cullman to attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she quickly started to see the world through a new lens.

“I moved to UAB and gained perspective—I was surrounded by… so many different people, perspectives, and conversations,” said LaGanke. “I developed a better understanding for how the world works.”

As her worldview expanded, she developed a passion for humanitarian work and decided to pursue a B.A. in International Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

As she approached graduation, LaGanke was determined to find a career path where she could help people meet their basic needs. Thankfully, during her final semester at UAB, she got the chance to work on an innovative pilot program with the Alabama Association of Nonprofits (AAN), a membership-based organization that supports Alabama's nonprofit sector.

During the pilot, AAN matched students with nonprofit organizations that were pursuing the Standards for Excellence endorsement—an endorsement that consists of a series of benchmarks that ensure high ethical standards within organizations. LaGanke was paired with the Court Appointed Special Advocate Program (CASA), a program in Jefferson County which trains community volunteers to provide support and advocate for dependent children involved in neglect or abuse cases. Through this experience, she developed a longstanding connection with CASA, a keen understanding of the value of the AAN’s website (specifically, the jobs board), and a newfound interest in public administration.

“[After graduation] I knew that I wanted to do nonprofit work,” said LaGanke. “I would look on AAN’s jobs site, literally daily. One day, I stumbled across a program coordinator position for M-Power Ministries in Avondale.”

M-Power is a nonprofit that provides education and health services to people impacted by poverty, and, at the time, the organization needed someone to coordinate direct services for learners participating in the adult basic education program. The organization selected LaGanke for the role, and she quickly learned the value and importance of relationship-building.

“I processed 160 students throughout my time there. I realized if I’m going to build relationships with these people, I couldn’t just focus on education,” said LaGanke. “I had to connect people with resources so they could be successful in their education.”

Between LaGanke’s experience with CASA and M-Power, she started to uncover a vision for the future. She knew she wanted to serve the people of Birmingham, and, to do so, she believed she needed to focus on law and policy reform. Her realization led her back to UAB—specifically, the Department of Political Science and Public Administration.

 “I’m such a proud UAB alum,” said LaGanke. “I didn’t apply anywhere else. I didn’t want to leave Birmingham.”

LaGanke enrolled in the Master of Public Administration/Juris Doctorate Dual Degree Program (a partnership between UAB and Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law). While studying in the program, LaGanke learned to analyze and communicate about data—a skillset that serves her well in her current role as a staff attorney with Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit that works to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians.

“My work revolves around Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act,” said LaGanke. “Combatting excessively punitive laws in the State of Alabama is challenging, but UAB’s MPA program has provided me with the basic skills and tools necessary to approach complex policy issues effectively and strategically.”

LaGanke’s casework and research with Alabama Appleseed has sparked life-changing outcomes for four people, including Ronald McKeithen. McKeithen was convicted of first-degree robbery in 1984 and sentenced to life in prison. Through LaGanke’s efforts—and the work and support of many others—McKeithen was released from prison, and, in December 2020, he successfully re-entered the community. Now, he is working with Alabama Appleseed on its re-entry efforts and also creating art, which will be featured in the Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration exhibit at UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.

A detailed account of McKeithen’s journey is available here.

LaGanke also supports community re-entry efforts for people who were formerly incarcerated. Her varied responsibilities include everything from helping people as they get a new Social Security card to replacing a flat tire. In this work, she continues to see the importance of policy reform and the need for additional research and advocacy.

“I’m really proud that our organization is able to funnel resources and time towards helping our clients be successful beyond our legal representation,” said LaGanke.

As she looks to the future and seeks systemic change through casework, research, advocacy, and policy reform, she continues to emphasize an essential skill she nurtured during her time at UAB and with M-Power—building relationships.


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