By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
GALLOWAY – Yolanda Melville didn’t plan on building roots in the Atlantic City area, but now that she has, the associate attorney with Cooper Levenson and a leader with the Atlantic City branch of the NAACP has embrace it and its history fully.
Melville was born in the Bronx and spent most of her adolescent years in Virginia Beach, Va. After earning her law degree at prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C. she worked at a firm in Haddonfield before coming to Atlantic City.
“If someone told me I would be here, I would have told them you’re crazy,” Melville said. “Now just the level in how people have embraced me here, having people wave at me while passing in their car because they’ve seen in the newspaper or met me something has been heartwarming.
“I plan on continuing my work here and leaning into working more in the diversity and inclusion field, helping companies deal with cultural bias and how to recruit more diverse candidates while providing to diverse clients,” she continued.
Melville, 34, who volunteers as the legal redress chair for the Atlantic City NAACP, recently was one of the inaugural graduates of the national NAACP’s NextGen program. NextGen is a 12-month leadership development training program for young adults between the ages of 21 and 35 to develop civil rights competencies and leadership skills necessary to be active and effective social justice advocates.
Melville was the only NAACP member from South Jersey in the NextGen inaugural class, which included a series of webinar and classroom trainings, case studies and group exercises. The curriculum encompasses leadership development, legislative action, unit administration, communications, fundraising, budgeting, intergenerational relations, ethics in leadership, advocacy, and program planning consistent with NAACP strategic plan: Game Changers for the 21st Century.
She told Front Runner New Jersey while researching her roots, she discovered her family’s legacy into civil rights ran much deeper, making her involvement in the NAACP and civil rights even more meaningful.
Melville found that on her paternal grandmother’s side, she is an ancestor of a legendary female singing group from the 1930s. The Pope Sisters — Una, Odele and Inez – were talented vocalists who traveled the segregated U.S. singing gospel and jazzy music Harlem style.
They were among the first African-American entertainers to perform in elite nightclubs in the U.S., Canada, New England, and along the Atlantic seaboard, shattering the color barrier. Their glamour and talent caught the eye of groundbreaking black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who adding them to the films “Temptation,” “Underworld,” and a short “Here’s the Gang” (1935).
“In view of the race prejudice that exists in most sections, where colored people have little or no opportunity to display their talents, the Pope Sisters have been in constant demand,” Floyd Snelson, theatrical editor of the legendary Pittsburgh Courier wrote in 1933 of the trio.
“During their time, the Pope Sisters were trailblazing, young professionals, just like we are,” Melville said. “I imagine that during the 1930s, my ancestors navigated the uncharted waters of their successes with a keen sense that they were also creating civil rights history as African American leaders.
“Nearly 100 years later, I pay homage to their legacy as a young woman leader among the nation’s best civil rights leaders. To be a member of the inaugural NAACP NextGen graduating class is an honor. We are cultivating some of the boldest, brightest, and fearless leaders of our generation, and I am looking forward to the work we perform for years to come,” she continued.
Melville said she has been able to share her discovery and experience with her mother Jackie, who has participated in events and programs with her in Atlantic City. She moved her parents to Atlantic City went she started working in New Jersey seven years ago. Her father, Allen Owen Melville, died of cancer at 70 in 2015.
“She comes to all of my community activism and branch meetings,” Melville said of her mother. “She said I reminded her of her mother, that that spirit to want to get out and help people. I’ve grown roots that I didn’t anticipate. My commitment here is more than just me now. This community has really taken me under their wing and adopted me and it’s something I’m grateful for.”
As an associate of Cooper Levenson, Melville is a member of the firm’s land use, zoning and planning, education/school law, and cannabis law practice groups. She works on various land use issues, including commercial development, redevelopment, real estate, affordable housing and litigation. She assists the education law department on claims of violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination along with federal litigation matters, including alleged civil rights and IDEA violations.
She serves as general counsel for Bright’s Villa, Housing Authority and Urban Redevelopment Agency of the City of Atlantic City and the Willingboro Township planning board.
Before attending Howard, Melville earned her bachelor’s degree in English and government at The College of William and Mary and her master’s in criminal justice from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Kaleem Shabazz, city councilman of Atlantic City and local NAACP president praised Melville for her work.
“Yolanda has been an energetic talented and focused leader in our branch,” Shabazz said. “Her knowledge of NAACP bylaws and procedures has been valuable to us in her role as our legal redress officer. Additionally her legal background is important for strategy for the branch in making decisions that protect the branch from making missteps.
“Yolanda has also coordinated our NextGen leaders unit encouraging our younger members to expand their efforts. Yolanda has also been productive in getting her firm Cooper Levenson to be a strong corporate supporter of branch efforts. Lastly, Yolanda did outstanding work in our recent voter education efforts with Prince Hall Masonic Family while serving as our co-moderator for our Candidates Night.”
She had served as the Democracy Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City and associate attorney for Bisgaier Hoff LLC in Haddonfield before Cooper Levenson. In 2018, Atlantic City Weekly honored her as one of its 40 Under 40 Award for her work with the law firm and community.
Melville said sometimes just her presence as a young black professional has been enough to help shape young people and inspire them. She said it’s the position as a role model that she takes seriously and hopes to make a difference.
“I tell young people to walk with integrity,” Melville said. “I realized that it’s not what I see, but what I do that makes a difference. People have contacted me on various issues in Atlantic City. That’s tough for an outsider to break in, but many of them have grown to trust me and know I have their best interest. It all started with the local branch and being faithful to the organization.”