“Everyone that I have encountered while at OJPC—be it staff members, fellow interns, returning citizens, victims of sex trafficking, etc.—gives me hope.”
Coming into this summer, I didn’t know what to expect. Here I was, a privileged white girl who had faced very little adversity in her life and knew little to nothing about the struggles that minorities face on a daily basis, working at a site that helped individuals with criminal records. Wow, was I in for some shocking revelations!
During my first two years at Xavier University, I rarely ventured into Downtown Cincinnati. I happily lived in my Xavier bubble, blissfully unaware of the horrors that existed a mere couple of minutes away from me. On the few occasions that I went into the city, I put on my metaphorical blinders. When homeless individuals asked me for money, I looked down and ignored them. When black men with tattoos walked behind me, I held my purse tightly in one hand, wielding my keys in the other as a weapon. When arguments broke out around me, I hoofed it to my location, all the while looking for possible escape routes if need be. To put it frankly, I was a judgmental nightmare.
When OJPC offered me a job, I was extremely excited. As a person who plans on becoming a lawyer, I couldn’t wait to see what a real law firm was like. Having heard wonderful things about OJPC’s mission, staff, and overall working environment, I was looking forward to my summer. While I didn’t really know what my job would encompass, I was optimistic. As there are very few law firms that take on undergraduates, I considered myself to be very blessed. And oh boy was I right!
OJPC is incredible. I have never before experienced so much genuine enthusiasm and passion for social justice. The conversations that the staff members at OJPC have, the work that they do, and the clients that they help make me want to be a better person. I wake up everyday excited to go to work. At work, I witness every staff member working tirelessly to help individuals that society constantly condemns. Before OJPC, I would have put myself in the condemner category. I looked at people with criminal records as dangerous individuals, ones who could not be trusted. To me, they were ex-convicts/ex-felons. After working at OJPC, however, I have a completely different mindset.
The clients that I meet with and talk to are awesome. They all have a story, a reason for the way they act, talk, and live. These individuals that society puts down are so much more than their criminal records. While it is extremely tempting to automatically write someone off—because she has multiple theft and assault charges, she must be a terrible person—you cannot do that. Who knows what that person was going through at that time? Not you. Just a few days ago, I met with a woman who had passed three bad checks in the span of a few months. Why did she do this? What was happening in her life? She wrote these bad checks because she didn’t have enough money to provide for her two children and maintain her house. She worked a part-time job with minimum wage. She sent her resume out twice a week for two years. She didn’t want to take money that wasn’t hers. But her situation made her feel like she didn’t have any other choice. And right when she got a full-time job, the issue was resolved. She never committed another crime. She hasn’t had another offense in seven years.
OJPC’s clients are not dangerous ex-convicts. They are people and deserve a second chance. Everyone that I have encountered while at OJPC—be it staff members, fellow interns, returning citizens, victims of sex trafficking, etc.—gives me hope. Every single person maintains an optimistic, open mindset that implores you to leave your judgmental attitude at the door. Better yet, get rid of it!
I no longer ignore homeless individuals or fear black men with tattoos. Sure, I am still cautious. I haven’t yet gotten rid of my unconscious biases. I do, however, make a much greater effort to acknowledge individuals who have made me uncomfortable in the past, smiling at them and telling them to have a great day. I know I have a long way to go, but I firmly believe that I am on a good path. The people at OJPC helped me take off my metaphorical blinders and see the error of my judgmental ways.
Maria Raciti, Xavier University