Originally posted on June 8, 2020.
Almost 20 years ago, as I worked on my Public Defender caseload, I started to ask myself and my colleagues whether a different model of justice might be the better model of justice for many of our clients. I had heard rumblings about something called Restorative Justice and began to read about how a person’s life trajectory could be changed if restorative, not retributive, justice principles and practices were put in place. So, when the MU School of Law sent out a flyer about its LLM (Masters of Laws) program in Alternative Dispute Resolution, I called then-director and good friend, Len Riskin, and asked if I could enroll in the program.
Len told me about the program and the new ways of looking at dispute resolution to which I would be exposed. I was sold. Then, Len asked, “But aren’t you still working full time as a Public Defender?” Well, yeah. In fact, I was carrying a full caseload, almost exclusively handling death penalty appeals. And, because I had to work, quitting or even going back to school part time wasn’t an option. Then, Len said, “But we’ve never had a part time student.” When I asked why I couldn’t be the first, Len responded, “You’ll be so tired. This is a lot of work.” I responded that I would be tired, whether or not I enrolled in the program but, if I were allowed to enroll, at least at the end of two years (not one), I would have learned a lot and would have the degree. Len relented. I was tired. But I learned even more than I anticipated. Sometimes we just need to take a chance.
Earlier this year, in what seems to be another time and another space, I attended the Annual Legislative Conference for the National Association of Counties (NACo) in Washington, D.C. Because of my former colleague and friend, Karen Miller, who had served as the President of NACo several years ago, I became involved in NACo early on after first being elected as Boone County’s Northern District Commissioner. That involvement led to Boone County becoming one of the first counties in the country to join the Stepping Up Initiative, which seeks to reduce the rate at which individuals living with behavioral health issues are detained in our county jails.
Boone County was named one of a select number of counties chosen to become part of the Pritzker Foundation’s Pre-Natal to Three early initiative and became part of the Kreske Foundation’s Leadership Lab project, which allowed us to further the work being done on the Stepping Up Initiative. It also led to my being named the Chair of the Juvenile Justice Sub-committee of NACo’s Justice and Public Safety Committee.
At this year’s conference, between meeting committee obligations on the Health Advisory Board and Justice & Public Safety, I saw another learning opportunity. NACo has joined with the Professional Development Academy to create its Leadership Academy, for which General Colin Powell is not only a spokesperson but an advocate. A twelve-week program full of learning opportunities was combined with a scholarship from NACo, which dropped the tuition to less than a hair under $500. With the green light from Dan Atwill, Boone County’s Presiding Commissioner, I wrote a personal check and started the coursework.
We are now in the midst of the second module in the work and, like the LLM program, sometimes finding the time to fit that work in on top of everything else is a challenge. But it’s worth it. The group that I joined includes elected officials and others in government leadership roles from throughout the Midwest—from Alabama to Minnesota.
Every week we remotely discuss principles of leadership, like listening, taking responsibility, sharing and acknowledging to whom credit is due, praising publicly and criticizing in private, and acting with integrity—in a world that seems to shift and change daily. So, if Len is listening or reading, yes, I’m tired. But I’m learning and it is so worth it!
Sometimes we just need to take a chance.