Rochanda Hiligh-Thomas
Executive Director

Rochanda Hiligh-Thomas joined AJE in 2004. She has over 26 years of experience working in the District of Columbia’s legal services community and has diverse experience in the non-profit sector. As Executive Director, Rochanda currently leads the overall strategic operations, program development, and partner development for AJE. As the former Director of Legal Services and Advocacy and Senior Staff Attorney at AJE, Ms. Hiligh-Thomas developed a robust legal program that provides legal assistance to DC families with special education and school discipline matters. She has represented hundreds of parents and students in school discipline, special education, and other education matters. In addition, Ms. Hiligh-Thomas provided extensive training to parents, youth, school staff, and other professionals in these areas. Before joining AJE, Ms. Hiligh-Thomas was the Assistant Director for Legal Operations at the Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP). She began her career at NLSP as a Covington & Burling Howard C. Westwood Fellow where she spent over seven years providing free legal services to low-income D.C. residents in the areas of public entitlement, education, employment, social security benefits, housing, family, and consumer law at the administrative, trial court and appellate levels.

Ms. Hiligh-Thomas is a native of D.C., the proud mother of four children, one of whom had an IEP, and is active in her local community. She has served on various committees and working groups in the DC public school system.  In 2020 she was re-appointed by Mayor Bowser to the State Advisory Panel for Special Education as a parent member, and she chairs the governance committee of a local public charter school.   Also, she served on the steering committee of the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers for nine years (2012 – 2021) and served as Co-Chair for 4 of those years (2015-2019).   Ms. Hiligh-Thomas obtained her bachelor’s degree with honors from Tuskegee University and her law degree with honors from the District of Columbia School of Law.  In 2017 she received the prestigious Jerrold Scoutt Prize from the DC Bar Foundation and the Advocate for Justice Award from the University of The District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law; and in 2022, she was inducted into the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law Inaugural Alumni Hall of Fame.


Maria Blaeuer
Director of Programs and Outreach  

Maria Blaeuer joined AJE in 2016 as a staff attorney and currently serves as AJE’s Director of Programs and Outreach. She has over 16 years of legal experience and has spent most of her legal career in private practice focusing on special education law and the needs of students with disabilities in low-to-moderate-income communities. As part of her practice, she has provided professional development skills to attorneys, teachers, and other service providers in the District of Columbia, Virginia, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Pennsylvania in regard to special education. Ms. Blaeuer oversees the four core components of AJE’s mission: Community Education, Direct Advocacy, Peer-to-Peer Engagement, and Training and Information. She works with schools and families to ensure that students receive the best education possible under the law and focuses on establishing more effective training and family engagement efforts for the D.C. special education and disability community. Maria Blaeuer has taught students with disabilities in the past and had an IEP during her time as a student. Maria’s role as a parent and an attorney has allowed her to introduce a unique perspective when working with special education cases.

Ms. Blaeuer obtained her Bachelor’s Degree with honors from Virginia Commonwealth University, earned her law degree from Howard University School of Law, and is pursuing her Master’s degree in Education Policy. She is a Washington D.C. native and active member of the Montgomery County, MD Commission on Juvenile Justice, and is on the board of a small charter school serving at-risk, over-age, and under-credited students. Maria is the proud parent of three children.


Akela Crawford
Director of Legal Services

Akela Crawford joined AJE in 2023. as the Director of Legal Services, where she manages AJE’s legal services work. Akela has over 13 years of legal experience and has spent most of her legal career providing legal services to the DC Community. In 2012, Akela served for over three years as a compliance case manager with DCPS, ensuring that DCPS carried out its legal obligations under IDEA, including educating and training school-based staff on understanding and implementing special education laws and policies.  Before joining AJE, she was a supervising attorney at the Neighborhood Legal Services Program. She provided program management and supervised staff attorneys, paralegals, and loaned pro bono attorneys in various housing matters at the administrative and court levels. Akela also first volunteered as a pro bono attorney and then served as a full-time staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (WLCH), where she represented tenants and tenant associations and provided legal assistance in public benefits, subsidized housing, shelter, and street rights matters. Also, while working in private practice, Akela provided legal advice and representation in domestic relations matters, bankruptcy, and small business matters.

Akela also brings to AJE her lived experience and expertise in navigating DC’s education system as the mother of a child with special needs in the DC public school system. She graduated from North Carolina Central University and North Carolina Central University School of Law and is an active member of the DC Bar. Akela is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and served as Social Justice Co-Chair of the Washington Bar Association–Young Lawyers Division, a Mayoral appointed public member on the Commission on African-American Affairs, a member of, and a Community Volunteer Circle Co-Chair for Girls on the Run-DC.


Gregory Anthony Dear, Jr.
Community Organizer

Gregory Anthony joined AJE in 2023. He has over 15 years of experience working in movement spaces throughout the country, building capacity for collaborative direct service efforts, and organizing for sustainable social change. Gregory began his career in direct services promptly after graduating from Hampden-Sydney College, majoring in Government & Foreign Affairs with a minor in Rhetoric. Later, he received a call from the Equal Rights Center to join fair housing civil rights testing efforts. Before joining AJE, Gregory worked as a National Voting Rights Program Coordinator throughout North Carolina, Tennessee, and Ohio. He has served on various committees within the NAACP and National Urban League. Also, Gregory attained his Human Rights Liaison certification in 2017 to assist DC residents when encountering human rights violations throughout the district. Gregory is a Prince Hall Mason and a proud member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.


Nkechi Feaster
Executive Assistant

Nkechi Feaster joined AJE in 2022.  She was born in Washington, DC, grew up in South Carolina, and returned to her home city as a homeless resident. Since 2000, Nkechi has navigated services for low-income and homeless residents and has seen the inequities that have shown up in those areas. Nkechi became a Community Advocate who now lends her experiences, expertise, voice, and perception as a board member of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and Diverse City Fund, as a member of the grassroots organization People Power Action, a Community Advisory Board Member for Howard University Research Centers In Minority Program, and a co-owner of Service to Justice, which has provided anti-black racial equity training since 2019. Nkechi understands how true change can only come about with the voices of the impacted at the table and shapes her work to be in those circles.  In addition to her advocacy experience, Nkechi has experience in office administration, operations, and management in diverse settings.  While not advocating, Nkechi is a mother, dancer, lover of great food, a fan of local and creative talents, and a writer who is working on her third published work.


Amelia French
Director of Advocacy

Amelia French joined AJE in 2022 as the Advocacy and Pro Bono Manager and now serves as the Director of Advocacy.  She is a 2nd generation Washingtonian with over 8 years of experience serving the DC Community through community organizing, legal services, and volunteering.  In 2012, Amelia served as a parent outreach intern with AJE on a school pushout campaign, working in the community with both parents and students to elevate and address undocumented suspensions from DC public schools.   Prior to joining AJE, Amelia managed the Pro Bono program and Fraud Prevention Project at Tzedek DC, where she was the Staff Attorney/Victims of Crime Act Fellow.   She served as a Union Leader at Unite Here! Local 25 where she helped to organize workers to address workplace concerns and successfully advocated for the DC City Council to pass legislation to protect the jobs of hotel workers.  Amelia volunteered for a year at the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, representing domestic violence survivors, and while in her law school’s Community Development Law Clinic (CDC), Amelia represented residents of DC housing cooperatives in preventing displacement.  As the lead student counsel in one matter, she successfully negotiated against the DC Office of Tax and Revenue to prevent the tax foreclosure and displacement of a housing cooperative client. As a result of her work in the CDC, Amelia received the Earl H. Davis Award from the Jack and Lovell Olender Foundation for her demonstrated commitment to public interest law and her exemplary performance.

In addition to her professional experience, Amelia brings to AJE her lived experience in navigating DC’s education and health systems.  She is the mother of two children with special needs in the DC public school system and is committed to ensuring that all children receive an education that allows them to flourish into adulthood.  As the Director of Advocacy,  Amelia leads AJE’s advocacy programs focused on building community power to achieve systems change in education and health care.  She is a member of the DC Bar and is a graduate of the State University at Buffalo and the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law.  In 2019, Amelia was appointed by Mayor Bowser to serve on the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board.


Dara Gold
Staff Attorney

Dara Gold joined AJE in 2024. She is a member of the D.C. Bar, and she has worked in juvenile justice and education law in Washington D.C. for over 7 years. Prior to joining AJE, Dara was an education attorney for D.C. parents and children. As an education attorney, she advocated for her clients’ rights to a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and local laws. She litigated and mediated due process cases in the Office of Dispute Resolution, D.C. District Court, and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Dara also helped parents and children navigate school disciplinary policies, procedures, and hearings. In addition, Dara worked for the D.C. Council Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs and interned for two Congressmen. 

Dara moved to Washington D.C. in 2012 to attend UDC – David A. Clarke School of Law (“UDC Law”). When she graduated from UDC Law, she received the Dean’s Cup for Excellent Service. After graduating cum laude, she decided to remain in the District to serve her community. While in law school, Dara completed the Juvenile and Special Education Law Clinic and the Legislation Clinic. She also participated in Immigration Law practicums where she represented women and children seeking asylum. Before law school, Dara worked with children as a camp counselor, assistant teacher, and tutor. Working with children is near and dear to her heart. Dara enjoys creating plays, musicals, and short films in the D.C. performing arts community.


LaJoy Johnson-Law
Project Coordinator – Contractor

LaJoy Johnson-Law joined AJE in 2018 as an Intake Specialist/Receptionist.  She served as a Parent Support Specialist, Training Coordinator, and Outreach Specialist and now serves as a project coordinator-contractor. She is the proud mother of a daughter who has special needs, and she has been engaged in disability advocacy for over 8 years. Ms. Johnson-Law’s daughter helped her realize her passion for advocacy for families that have special needs children. Through her personal experience, Ms. Johnson-Law has acquired a wealth of knowledge in navigating DC’s health and education landscapes for children with disabilities.  Ms. Johnson-Law utilized her personal experience to provide direct services and peer-to-peer emotional support to families of children with special needs and special health care needs.  As a project coordinator, she works closely with management on the implementation of special projects, such as our LEAP Awards.  In 2019, Ms. Johnson-Law was appointed by Mayor Bowser to serve on the District’s Thrive by Five Coordinating Council, and she currently serves on the board of directors at HSCSN and PAVE DC. In 2023, Ms. Johnson-Law was appointed to the PCSB Parent Alumni Leadership Council and the 2023 Boundary Advisory Group.  She holds a Bachelor’s Degree with Honors in Psychology, a Master of Public Administration Degree from the University of Phoenix, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration.


Tamiesha Lawrence
Parent Support Specialist

Tamiesha Lawrence joined AJE in 2022.  She is the proud mother of four children, two of whom have special needs. Tamiesha is an alumna of the Maryland Foster Care system. At the age of 21, she first learned to advocate for herself and other foster care youths, serving as a spokesperson for the Youth Advisory Board of the State of Maryland. Tamiesha worked for a former foster parent who founded Good Children in the Making, Inc., a treatment foster care provider for Bowie, MD area. Ms. Lawrence served as a group home staff member and eventually was made an office administrator of the agency. Tamiesha found her passion in advocacy, which started her journey into special education advocacy over 16 years ago when one of her sons began to show signs of Development Delay at 18 months.  She used this new learning from hands-on experience to develop the patience and determination needed to engage in special education advocacy. Through her experiences and the new relationships fostered, Tamiesha acquired a network of supporters who encouraged her to follow her calling in advocacy by providing knowledge and support to other parents like herself and to be the voice for the voiceless.

Tamiesha is a 2022 graduate of the University of District of Columbia with an A.S. degree in Legal Studies – professional training as a Legal Assistant. What is important to Tamiesha is for all parents to know that “We have a voice in both the herald and defense of what happens with our children’s learning process, and more importantly, we have a right to understand the processes that are involved.” Her favorite quote is-” If it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen.’ -Philippe Kruchten.


Berta Mata
Bilingual Educational Support Specialist

Berta Mata joined AJE in 2001. She is the mother of four children, including one with special needs. Mrs. Mata provides one-on-one assistance, training, and emotional support to Latinx families to ensure their children receive appropriate education and health services. She also leads outreach efforts to immigrant communities to help newly settled families navigate resources and systems of support. She currently leads and operates AJE’s intake center at Mary’s Center twice a week. Mrs. Mata has a firm commitment to supporting children with special needs and their families. She is a native Spanish speaker and has deep ties to the Spanish-speaking community in D.C.  Ms. Mata served as a member of Mary’s Center’s Board of Directors (2016-2019). In 2019, she was appointed by Mayor Bowser to serve on the District’s State Rehabilitation Council, and in 2021, she was appointed to serve on the Developmental Disabilities Council.


Michelle Parrish
Lead Parent Ambassador – Contractor

Michelle D. Parrish joined AJE in 2021.  She is a native Washingtonian and mother of two children both enrolled in public education in the District of Columbia. She “crash-coursed” her way into special education advocacy when her son was diagnosed with a myriad of disabilities impacting his access to education. With AJE as a resource, Michelle was able to learn how to support and advocate for her son, later reaching back to support other families through her personal organizing efforts. She has been a Parent Ambassador since May 2020 and has continued to work with AJE to support families in the District of Columbia. As a career public servant, Michelle holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in the English Language from the University of Maryland at College Park, in addition to a Master of Science Degree in Contracts and Procurement Management from the University of Maryland Global Campus and a Master’s Certificate in Project Management from George Washington University.

Nadiya Pope
Staff Attorney

Nadiya Pope joined AJE in 2024.  As a staff attorney, she will work with families to identify their needs and goals and provide legal assistance in special education, discipline, and other educational matters.  Nadiya started her legal career committed to serving residents of the District of Columbia.  She previously served as a community outreach and education staff attorney at a DC legal services organization, where she represented DC residents in Civil Protection Order cases.

Prior to attending law school, Nadiya received her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from North Carolina A&T State University. She also worked for the United States House of Representatives as a Staff Assistant with a legislative portfolio. Nadiya received her Juris Doctor from North Carolina Central University School of Law (NCCU SOL) in 2023. While attending NCCU SOL, Nadiya served in several leadership positions, including as the Vice President of the Student Bar Association. During law school, she served as the legal intern for the North Carolina Justice Center, whose mission is to eradicate poverty in the South, and as a legislative clerk for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.  Nadiya is licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia.


Nadia Roberts
Family Intake Specialist – Contractor

Nadia joined AJE in 2023.  She has over 20 years of advocacy experience.  Nadia’s advocacy began with her own children. She is a mother of six children and after successfully advocating for appropriate support for her oldest son, Nadia started sharing her story and supporting other parents by helping them to identify resources needed to navigate the DC’s education and health systems. Nadia continues her passion at AJE as the Family Intake Specialist, where she serves as the first point of contact for hundreds of families seeking assistance to address concerns involving the education and health of their children.

Nadia is dedicated to informing the community of available resources along with educating families on processes and procedures to help them achieve their goals.  Nadia has testified at the State Board of Education hearings and has participated in Due Process Hearings.  She continues to strengthen her advocacy skills as she supports DC families.  Nadia is a native of the DC area and envisions a world where all individuals with special needs are treated fairly.