Champion of Justice Award

Each year at our Celebration of Courage event, we present our Champion of Justice award to those in the community who have made a significant impact on the mission of Ascend Justice and uphold the values we have set as an organization.  This special award is a reflection of our great appreciation to those whose work significantly and positively impacts the lives of those we support with the work that we do.

Recipients are thoughtfully chosen each year by Ascend Justice staff and volunteer leadership and are presented with a personalized award as gesture of our gratitude.

2024 Recipients

Crystal and Nevaeh Martinez

Crystal Martinez is an amazing mother of five children, loving daughter and granddaughter, and a change agent. She is a fierce advocate for women and girls everywhere, starting with advocating for herself.

Starting at the age of 14, Crystal experienced horrific trafficking and often recalls an experience that set her life on a whole new path.  She was escaping from a dangerous sex buyer who she feared would kill her and a woman saw her running down the street.  That woman gave her the cab she had hailed and paid the driver to take Crystal anywhere she needed to go. At that moment, Crystal vowed to pay that act forward to protect other women and girls.

Years later, Crystal saw a woman being beaten on the street and – remembering what it was like to be beaten and have no one stop to protect her – she heroically intervened and told the man to stop, warning him she had a concealed carry license. When the man, instead, charged at Crystal, she shot him and she was sentenced to prison for her actions in protecting another woman.

During her time in prison, Crystal constantly advocated for herself and other women.  She vowed to use her voice to speak for those who were powerless. Even when she encountered injustice inside of prison, she fought for what was right.  Crystal’s future goals include spending as much time with family as possible, opening her own catering business, and making change in the world.

Crystal’s oldest daughter, Nevaeh Martinez, takes after her mother in being a strong advocate for those around her. She is a loving big sister to her four siblings and is devoted to her mother and grandmother. She is a fantastic student, brilliant writer, and a courageous young woman. At her mother’s resentencing hearing, Nevaeh bravely stood in front of a packed courtroom and testified of behalf of her mother – her words moving dozens to tears. Her bravery in standing for children of incarcerated parents is a model for people everywhere.

Kirkland & Ellis Pro Bono Counsel for Crystal Martinez

Michael Black, Zac Ciullo, Maria Karras, Monse Martinez, Kelly Meyer, Danielle O'Neal, Jenna Stupar

The Pro Bono Team at Kirkland & Ellis, comprised of Michael Black, Zac Ciullo, Maria Karras, Monse Martinez, Kelly Meyer, Danielle O’Neal, and Jenna Stupar, exemplifies the pinnacle of legal advocacy in their representation of Crystal Martinez. Their dedication to her case serves as an inspiring example for attorneys everywhere.

With an unwavering commitment to justice, the team invested countless hours of their time and expertise in fighting for Crystal’s freedom. They meticulously prepared and mooted to ensure they were thoroughly equipped to handle every aspect of the case.

Going above and beyond, the team made multiple in-person visits to Crystal at Logan Correctional, spending full days traveling to provide her with the support and guidance she needed. Additionally, they held regular calls with Crystal, offering emotional support during challenging moments.

Their exceptional bond with Crystal, noted by a Domestic Violence expert, highlighted a level of trust seldom seen between attorneys and clients. Leveraging this trust, coupled with innovative research and creative approaches, they constantly sought new angles to advance Crystal’s case.

Throughout their tireless efforts, the Pro Bono Team at Kirkland & Ellis consistently acted with unwavering passion and care, leaving an indelible mark on Crystal’s journey towards justice. Their collective dedication stands as a testament to the transformative power of legal advocacy in making a meaningful difference in the lives of those in need.

State Representative Kelly Cassidy

As an organizer, a legislative director, and a mom, Kelly Cassidy has spent the past 20 years living her values. Whether fighting for the rights of women and the LGBT community as an activist, working for a smarter criminal justice system within the state’s attorney’s office, or ensuring that her three boys have safe spaces to play in our community, she has devoted the last two decades to making government more accessible, efficient and effective.

Those experiences, both inside and outside the system, have afforded her great insight into how to be a better, more responsive, and effective State Representative for the 14th district. Highlights of her tenure included legalizing cannabis in Illinois and same-sex marriage. She currently is chair of the Illinois House Reproductive Health and Dobbs Decision Working Group which this past year passed landmark legislation that would shield reproductive and gender-affirming health care patients and providers from legal action originating across state lines.

State Senator Robert Peters

State Senator Robert Peters has a deep passion for public service cultivated by numerous events throughout his life that left a profound impact on him and the people he cares about. He is a proud South Sider and an even prouder Chicagoan.

As a community organizer, Peters successfully fought to require Cook County judges to set affordable bail amounts for all defendants, leading to a substantial reduction in the Cook County Jail population since it took effect in July 2017. As a state senator, Peters has continued to advocate for the people in the 13th District and beyond, such as seeing his gender-based violence re-sentencing legislation through to becoming law. This law helped Crystal Martinez, a survivor of domestic violence, win early release and will undoubtedly have a positive impact on hundreds of survivors across Illinois.

Peters is committed to criminal justice reform, creating clean energy jobs and fighting for quality public education. He is passionate about his work and his community and takes pride in being a community-driven public servant.

Past award recipients

Judge Grace Guerra Dickler (Ret.)

Judge Grace Guerra Dickler graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 1978. She worked for the Cook County Legal Assistance Foundation (now Legal Aid Chicago), in private practice, and as a supervising attorney with Travelers and Immigrants Aid. Judge Dickler’s 39-year judicial career started in 1982 when she became an Administrative Law judge for the Illinois Human Rights Commission. In 1986, she became a Federal Immigration Judge, and in 1988 she was appointed as an associate judge in Cook County. In 2006 she ran and was elected out of the 12th judicial subcircuit and was retained Countywide in 2012 and 2018. In January 2010, Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans appointed Judge Dickler to be the first presiding judge of the newly formed Domestic Violence Division, and in 2011 she was appointed the presiding judge of the Domestic Relations Division.

During her tenure as presiding judge of the Domestic Relations Division, Judge Dickler was responsible for the creation of the Incarcerated Litigants call, a remote call that helped incarcerated people access the courts for crucial civil cases such as divorce and parenting time. Judge Dickler also restructured the division to create equitable treatment for parties regardless of their marital status. Judge Dickler retired from the Circuit Court of Cook County on September 25, 2022.

Judge Dickler is the immediate past President of the Jewish Judges Association. She was appointed by the Supreme Court to the Illinois Judicial Conference formulated to strategize for the future of the Judicial Branch. She has served on the Board of the Illinois Judge’s Association and was co-editor of the Association’s newsletter, The Gavel, for many years. She also served as co-Chair of the Language Access Committee of the Access to Justice Commission of the Illinois Supreme Court and as chair of the Domestic Violence Court Committee. She has served on the Illinois Bar Association’s Family Law Section Council for many years. Judge Dickler is married with two adult children; one is an attorney and the other a Cook County Circuit Court Judge.

Alison Carrizales

Alison Carrizales is a principal in Goldberg Kohn Ltd.’s Commercial Finance group and focuses her practice on secured transactions and commercial finance.  Alison’s pro bono practice focuses on refugee/immigration and women’s issues; over the course of her career, she has partnered with various legal aid organizations dedicated to providing access to justice for these communities, including, among others, the National Immigrant Justice Center, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the International Refugee Assistance Project and Kids in Need of Defense, and of course, Ascend Justice. Over the course of the past year (2022), Alison has been one of the most reliable volunteers for the Order of Protection Clinic, taking shifts nearly every month. Alison has also stepped in to fill in last minute shifts on several occasions, ensuring that our hybrid walk-in / telephonic clinic can continue provide emergency legal services.


Maya Dukmasova

Maya Dukmasova is a senior reporter at Injustice Watch covering judges and the courts. Before joining the organization in 2021 she was a senior staff writer at the Chicago Reader, where she began working in 2016. She is a 2022 Studs Terkel Award winner and her work has been recognized by numerous local and national journalism fellowships and awards. Maya was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of nine. She’s lived in Chicago since 2013. Her freelance writing has appeared in The Appeal, Places Journal, In These Times, Slate, and The Trace.

Over the past year (2022), Maya has played a leading role in shining a light on challenges facing the Domestic Violence Division, hosting community gatherings that brought attention to concerns of advocates and litigants.


Kelly Garcia

At the time of her award, Kelly Garcia was a staff writer for the Chicago Reader. She was the first staff writer for the Reader’s new Racial Justice Reporting Hub and Writers Room. Previously she was a summer reporting resident for Injustice Watch and a Civic Reporting Fellow for City Bureau. She covers a wide variety of topics including politics, education, labor and police.

In January 2022, Kelly published a longform article, researched over the course of many months, about allegations of misogyny and mismanagement in the court’s Domestic Violence Division.


Melissa Hernandez

Melissa Hernandez is the founder and outreach specialist of The Puerto Rico Project. She is also a member of the Reclamation Project at The Women’s Justice Institute, and a Community Navigator for the Safer Foundation.

Melissa grew up in Humboldt Park and her childhood experience was of pain and suffering, including drug use from the age of twelve and incarceration in Cook County Jail seventeen. Melissa, who was also a trafficking victim, escaped this life at the age of 19 and founded The Puerto Rico Project in 2015.

Melissa specializes in overdose prevention, education and awareness. She provides direct aid to individuals experiencing chronic homelessness and drug use. Melissa assists people maneuvering a system that she was once a part of, utilizing her challenging experiences that she has since transformed into tools of knowledge, love, and compassion.

McDermott Will & Emery

McDermott Will & Emery has consistently demonstrated a strong commitment to pro bono work and enhancing access to justice for marginalized communities. Over the years, their pro bono attorneys have successfully represented numerous parents facing false allegations of abuse or neglect. This includes survivors of domestic violence who were unfairly blamed for the actions of their abusers, a single mother coping with postpartum depression and anxiety, as well as various mothers, fathers, and a grandmother facing unfounded child neglect accusations despite no actual risk or harm to the children involved. These efforts have effectively removed barriers to family reunification, employment, and financial independence for our clients. Through their pro bono partnership, McDermott Will & Emery has significantly expanded our ability to assist a greater number of families in need.


The Pro Bono Network

The Pro Bono Network has partnered with Ascend Justice since 2012. In 2018, they extended their support to our Independence Project, assisting victims of gender-based violence in preparing and filing for U-Visas. These visas are designated for individuals who have endured significant mental or physical abuse while in the U.S. Such clients necessitate additional time and sensitivity, particularly in building trust. The volunteer attorneys from the Pro Bono Network have approached our clients with utmost care and attention, offering invaluable support and guidance. As a result, clients express deep gratitude to the Pro Bono Network for believing in them, standing by them, and aiding them in articulating their experiences.


State Representative Maurice West

At the time of our 2021 event, State Representative Maurice West was serving his second terms representing the 67th House District in Rockford, Illinois.  A Rockford native, Representative West, at the time, was serving on the Higher Education, Mental Health and Addiction, Restorative Justice, Public Utilities, Revenue and Finance, and Judiciary – Criminal Committees of the Illinois Legislature and was appointed to the Legislative Ethics Commission.

In partnership with Ascend Justice, Representative West led a statewide working group to examine the issue of collaborative, interdisciplinary reviews of fatalities that are linked to domestic violence.  The working group studied examples of domestic violence fatality reviews from around the country and developed interdisciplinary support for the creation of a domestic violence fatality review process in Illinois.  In the winter of 2020, Representative West introduced House Bill 3161 that would create a domestic violence fatality review initiative in Illinois.  With Representative West’s leadership the bill received bipartisan and bicameral support.  After our Celebration of Courage event in August 2021, the bill was passed, creating opportunities for learning, systemic improvements, and ultimately, a reduction in domestic violence fatalities.

Representative West is an invaluable partner in the work to support survivors of gender-based violence.

Ashley Cano

At the time of her award, Ashley Cano was a Labor & Employment Partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP and has been an active volunteer with Ascend Justice’s Pro Bono Project since 2013.

Ashley is always one the first to answer our calls for volunteers and has helped countless clients seeking an Order of Protection navigate the court system.

Leading up to the event, she most recently helped a client, Alyssa, get a Plenary Order of Protection against her husband that included maintenance support so Alyssa didn’t have to worry about how she would continue to support her family.


Mary Catherine Gibbs

Mary Catherine Gibbs is a partner at Wire Gill LLP, a land use and real estate law firm based out of Alexandria, Virginia.  Mary Catherine began volunteering with our Orders of Protection clinic in 2017 after moving to Chicago.  She is one of our most consistent volunteers, coming in multiple times a month for clinic shifts. 

Mary Catherine’s calm demeanor and knowledge of the legal system helps put clients in the midst of a crisis at ease, helping them start the journey to keep them and their families safe.


Dentons is a truly global law firm with (at the time of receiving their award) 175 offices and over 9,000 attorneys around the world, yet its pro bono impact on the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic (DVLC) has been tangible and personal.

Dentons was a founding member of DVLC’s Pro Bono Project and over the years has handled 24 cases for survivors seeking Orders of Protection. It was their involvement in an Order of Protection case filed by DVLC – and its unsatisfactory outcome – that led to the founding of the Appeals Project, a collaboration among Dentons, Legal Aid Chicago and DVLC.

In addition to representation of individual clients, Dentons provided extensive pro bono guidance on policy issues in 2018, with multiple attorneys from Dentons’ Boston office advising a local coalition of advocates on issues related to the availability of emergency Orders of Protection.


Rachel O’Konis Ruttenberg

Rachel has spent her entire career in public service with work in youth services, government and education. She joined the Family Defense Center (FDC) in 2015 and served as its Executive Director from 2016 until 2019. In that time, Rachel made significant improvements to the FDC’s operations and infrastructure and prioritized developing FDC’s talented staff. Over the past several years, Rachel has taken a thoughtful approach to fulfilling FDC’s mission and growing the organization’s impact. During her tenure, Rachel built a collaborative approach to reform of the child welfare system at the same time maintaining FDC’s historic strength and expertise in litigation. Notably, Rachel was instrumental in the FDC’s development of a project that uses collaboration to advocate for and implement changes in child welfare interventions for families experiencing domestic violence.

In 2018, with the support of the Family Defense Center Board of Directors, Rachel took the courageous step of seeking a partnership that would sustain the Family Defense Center’s activities and mission for many years to come. The Domestic Violence Legal Clinic’s partnership with the Family Defense Center would not have been possible without her selflessness, diligence and expertise.

  • Kirkland & Ellis
    • Vinu Joseph & Kevin Frank
  • Trinidad Birrueta
  • Family of Tom Kirby
  • Christine Bass
  • Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP
  • Caitlin Swieca
  • Greenberg Traurig, LLP
  • Larry Lieb
  • Perkins Coie
    • David Gold, Jordan McCarthy, Furqan Mohammed
  • Chelsea Ashbrook McCarthy
  • Patrick Schoolcraft
  • Rae Leann Smith
  • Leah Schleicher
  • Carmen Torres
  • Michael Wycklendt

get help now


if you are in immediate danger


24/7 Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline


(877) 863-6338

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