Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, Antonella Nicholas ’23 was worlds away from rural areas of the state. That’s part of why the University of Virginia School of Law student was struck by the educational and social inequities she has catalogued around the state in her work with Professor Andrew Block. The two recently teamed up to write a paper on how to address those challenges.

As part of Block’s State and Local Government Policy Clinic last year, Nicholas worked with clinic client Del. Carrie Coyner to increase funding for a health department in the westernmost regions of the state.

“That experience opened my eyes to some of the challenges rural counties face,” Nicholas said. “Living in a rural area makes everything harder on almost every level — less access to broadband, geographic isolation, rural residents are on average lower-income, they have less education, and their economy has been decimated for several reasons. So I was thinking about those questions last year, and Andy asked me if I’d be interested in being his research assistant this year working on these issues for a paper he was asked to write.”

The University of Richmond Law Review’s symposium editor, Kelly Boppe, had called Block and asked if he could write a paper analyzing Virginia’s rural issues for the law review’s February symposium, “Overlooked America: Addressing Legal Issues Facing Rural United States.” Boppe tapped Block because he and the clinic had prepared a 2022 state report that documented the challenges facing racial minorities in rural communities in Virginia.

Antonella Nicholas
Nicholas discusses her co-authored paper at the University of Richmond symposium “Overlooked America” in February. Courtesy photo

It’s not an accident that the rural regions of Virginia struggle under the weight of so many different issues, such as deteriorating educational infrastructure, lack of connectivity and poor health outcomes, Nicholas said.

“It’s the result of public policy and the choices we make,” she said.

Nicholas helped present the paper, “Those Who Need the Most, Get the Least,” at the symposium on Feb. 17.  The paper will be published in the Richmond law review.

The paper argues that solutions will be effective only if they are approached holistically. Poor health outcomes, for example, are related to high rates of poverty, a shortage of health care providers, and even the lack of broadband in rural areas, which limits residents’ access to telehealth appointments.

“We noticed that while the state has attempted to implement solutions, negative outcomes persist,” Nicholas said. “They’re so interconnected, they should be viewed holistically with connections between these issues in mind.”

And the same solutions may not work for all of Virginia’s rural areas, Block said, because of geographic and racial differences, and the different causes and effects of poverty in the various regions. “That’s why we spent so much time in our paper on demographics,” he said.

Their paper notes that many of the residents in rural areas of Southside Virginia and Western Tidewater are African American, while those in the western part of the state are largely white.

Other topics at the symposium included access to justice in rural America, water resources in indigenous communities, the coal industry’s degradation of Appalachian communities, electoral system reform to enhance rural representation and pharmaceutical companies’ roles in perpetuating the opioid epidemic.

“The responses we got from conference attendees were positive — they affirmed our idea that you can’t solve any of these problems without thinking about them as a whole and creating the right government structures to respond,” Block said.

While working on the 2022 report about racial inequity, Block was simultaneously serving as vice chair of former Gov. Ralph Northam’s Commission to Examine Racial and Economic Inequity in Virginia Law. Before joining UVA Law’s faculty (for the second time) in 2020, he led the state Department of Juvenile Justice and is largely credited with major reforms that include reducing the number of youth in state facilities by almost two-thirds, closing two state correctional facilities, and increasing community-based services for youth and their families. 

Block and Nicholas made several recommendations in their paper, including studying the funding mechanisms for core services, such as education and health, and reforming those structures as necessary to better serve their rural communities.

Because Virginia’s response to rural challenges is fragmented, and involves numerous state agencies and secretariats, their main recommendation is to create a cabinet-level position dedicated to rural issues with the power to coordinate activities in other agencies and secretariats.

But, Block said, it’s not as simple as it sounds. “You’d have to figure out how to exert authority over other agencies and functions and make it administratively coherent with the way Virginia runs,” he said. “Not only do you need the right government structure, you need the implementation plan.”

Another goal of the paper was to show that addressing the challenges facing rural residents should be a priority for both parties.

“By showing that rural Virginians are racially and politically diverse, we can hopefully make a rural office a matter of importance for both parties, showing problems side by side and framing them as interconnected,” he said.

The State and Local Government Policy Clinic is about policy, not partisanship, Block added.

“We work with Democrat and Republican legislators, local government officials, and agency staff, to help Virginia help its citizens. Once the paper is out, we hope that there will be an opportunity to get people interested.”

Nicholas was one of just two student presenters at the symposium.

“Because of my prior work with the State and Local Government Policy Clinic and my other skills courses at the law school, I already knew the value of preparation for these presentations,” she said. “I enjoyed watching the attendees ask questions and make comments to the presenters, and watching the speakers respond to their questions or challenges That back-and-forth is valuable because it comes up in all kinds of scenarios in law — responding to a judge or opposing counsel during trial, for example.”

“People were, not surprisingly, incredibly impressed with Antonella at the conference. She was great,” Block said. “One of the best things about my job as a teacher is being able to partner with amazing students like Antonella, and put them in positions to be peers with other members of the legal profession. ”

Nicholas hopes to pursue a public interest career after graduation, but first she will clerk for two years for Judge Lisa Lorish ’08, a Virginia Court of Appeals judge who is based in Charlottesville.

“Right now, I’m interested in pursuing public defense,” she said. “UVA has a great reputation for public service, which is one reason I chose this school. I see myself living in Virginia and being a public servant after my clerkship.”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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