A Culture of Community and Dignity

In 2017, I was pursuing a Master of Public Policy degree at American University and needed a job. When I entered the university’s administration Headshot of Alexstaff recruiting program, I did not have much in mind beyond editing Excel spreadsheets. However, when an email told me that the Justice Programs Office (JPO) was hiring, I was excited to interview for a center within the School of Public Affairs, where I earned my undergraduate degree. I have always had a passion for public policy and working for the Justice Programs Office turned out to be an excellent complement to my studies. I’d like to share some of my favorite memories from working here.

The first time I realized the importance of JPO’s work was at the Right to Counsel’s Third Annual Meeting at the Justice Department in November 2017. As I was working the conference, I learned about the constitutional right to an attorney in criminal court, the ways in which this right is not being upheld, and the importance of working to ensure equal access to representation. While reflecting on all that I had learned, I struck up a conversation with a few colleagues about the day’s events. It was in this moment, as we chuckled together over some long-forgotten quip, that I first felt like part of a community. Through the next year, as I worked a fulltime job and earned my master’s degree, the JPO community would be with me, supporting and encouraging my growth.

By May 2018, it was full steam ahead in my academic life, and I was trying to finish final papers before graduation. Unfortunately, my workload at JPO peaked at the exact same time. I was mentally drained and felt like I was ready to give up on school and work. I pulled aside one of my supervisors and expressed my stress and exhaustion. Just by listening to me with sincere interest, my boss helped me get through that difficult time. I trusted that JPO was a place I could be my whole self and that I would be treated with dignity.

As advocates for justice, I think it is in our nature to help others. People who enter the criminal justice system are often maligned, castoff, and labeled as the dangerous element. But at JPO, we seek humanity, dignity, and treatment for all. We translate research and compassion into action, so that state by state, and court by court, America’s system of justice can be applied more fairly and more equally.

During my time at JPO, I learned a lot about excel spreadsheets, but more importantly, I was plugged into a network that felt like a community. Our JPO community helps one another through difficult situations, upholding the value of dignity in our daily lives in the same way we work to instill dignity in the justice system. I’m sad to be leaving, but I’m happy to know I am a part of this JPO community.

Alex has been the Program Coordinator at the Justice Programs Office (JPO) for almost two years. He is leaving JPO and the Washington, D.C. area to be closer to his family.