“It’s that mind-heart connection that I believe compels us to not just be attentive to all the bright and dazzling things, but also the dark and difficult things.” -Bryan Stevenson
My name is Erin Broderick. I’m a summer intern at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center and a rising sophomore at The Ohio State University. I write in order to share how I started interning at OJPC. Unlike some of my fellow interns, this wasn’t always a clear path.
Last summer, the book Just Mercy was assigned to all incoming freshmen. This book describes the work of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative. This nonprofit strives to give legal aid to people on death row. He wrote about the many clients he got to know and represented. His life work centers around the idea that no person is defined by their worst moment, and everyone deserves mercy.
The impact of that book was compounded by what I learned as an intern at Starfire, another nonprofit in Cincinnati. Starfire connects people across Cincinnati to help build relationships, enrich communities and discover ways each person can end the isolation they may find in their lives, specifically people with developmental disability. My days were filled with traveling from one small community in Cincinnati to another — Anderson to Lower Price Hill to Colerain Township — to discover the people and places there that were assets to the community as a whole. One day, I volunteered at a rooftop garden alongside children in the downtown area. Another day, I found myself interviewing a man who wanted to document the lives of his neighbors in East Walnut Hills through photography. I sat in every locally owned coffee shop and bookstore, every community center, public park and civic center. This job made me see all the beautiful parts of Cincinnati and the wonderful people who live there.
However, people with developmental disabilities do experience severe isolation, and seeing this firsthand made me realize the importance of Starfire’s work. I traveled with my fellow interns to places where people sat all day, cut off from loved ones, doing menial tasks for little to no pay, sometimes even paying to be there, hidden from the rest of society.
It became very easy to draw similarities between the healthcare system and the criminal justice system; so many are trapped in a life of “services” and isolated from genuine human connection. I saw levels of isolation that I couldn’t believe existed, all only minutes away from my childhood home. I learned stories of people left to die in “homes,” they weren’t allowed to leave, because their families couldn’t support them.
It became clear to me that many people today want to ignore or hide away “the dark and difficult things in life,” and that I even did so for many years growing up. But these experiences while interning made it clear to me that the community I had grown up in wasn’t flawed due to a lack of love and support that grew there, but because only some select people could access it.
When I left for college, I was determined to find ways that I could continue advocating for marginalized people and forming connecting with them.
A couple months into my freshman year, Bryan Stevenson came to speak. I was blown away by his ability to tell stories that were beautiful and intersectional. Every part of his clients’ identities and life experiences mattered. Never have I felt such a stirring to do more for others. I wanted — really, needed — to be exposed to his type of work.
That’s when I decided to text an old classmate.
I had first heard of OJPC last summer through a fellow intern at Starfire. A fellow intern — a student at Xavier — was participating in a summer intensive about social justice, where each person was working at a different nonprofit in Cincinnati. Someone in her program was interning at OJPC. At the end of the summer, I went to hear all of them speak about their experiences. After hearing Bryan Stevenson speak, I knew I had to apply for the internship.
Flash forward another few months, and here I am.
All I can say is the work done here is crucial to the betterment of our society. It has not only opened my eyes further to the disparities that exist within the criminal justice system, but it has given me another life motto: “We don’t write people off.” No matter what someone has done, where they are from, what they look like, or what side of aisle they are on, I won’t write them off.
For Bryan Stevenson, it was about mercy. In order to keep people in our lives, in order to not write them off, don’t we all need mercy? At Starfire, the motto was, “Go hard on the problem and soft on the people.” Be kind people, even if they are the antithesis of what you stand for.
Looking for that “mind-heart connection” should be the central part of any social justice work, as it clearly was in the places I have been exposed. I hope to carry that sentiment through not only my summer here at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, but throughout my life.