Ethan Bishop-Watt, Georgia Justice Project
I had the great fortune to work at the Georgia Justice Project (GJP) this summer in Atlanta, Georgia. An incredible organization with a strong commitment to social justice, GJP is very active in the Atlanta public interest community and has strong ties to the poor urban communities in which it works. Its primary mission is to heal urban communities that struggle with poverty and crime. It does this by attacking the problem from multiple angles. For some clients, the organization provides a combination of criminal defense representation and social services. Other clients are helped to remove arrests from their official criminal records. GJP also does a lot of work in changing state laws and policies involving the criminal justice system. As an intern, I got the opportunity to work in all of these areas. In everything that the Georgia Justice Project does, it strives to maintain a strong connection with the community, and its current and former clients. This is the only way to truly heal communities, because GJP is helping to alleviate the root causes of crime. As a result, recidivism rates drop and reintegration is made easier for individuals with criminal records.
On top of all of the great legal work that the Georgia Justice Project does, it also hosts two big events throughout the year to celebrate its clients and give back to the community: the Christmas event and the Back to School event. As a summer intern, I was lucky enough to get to be involved in the Back to School event, and my experiences there greatly affected the way I view public interest work. The purpose of the Back to School event is to get clients, their kids, and their grandkids (if they have any) together to celebrate the end of summer, and to give each child in attendance a backpack filled with the necessary schools supplies for their grade level. As part of organizing the event, GJP always tries to involve other organizations and companies who wish to help. As a result, we have food, games, volunteers, and backpacks/school supplies that are donated or funded by donations from community members.
The actual event is difficult to describe. In one of the photos, you can see me playing with some of the kids and a giant parachute, but the scene was even larger than that. Try to image a large gymnasium filled with bouncy inflatable obstacle courses, enormous ball tosses, face painting, arts and crafts, giant Jenga, bingo, giant Connect Four, an ice cream sundae stand, and a photo booth with fun accessories (the second photo is of me and the other interns in this very booth). Now, image that room full of over 100 laughing children, parents, and grandparents, all running and having fun. The other interns and I each got positioned at different stations to play with kids and make the event run smoothly, and suffice it to say, it was some of the most fun I’ve had in years. The second-best part was watching all of the kids and parents, who originally came to GJP in the worst of circumstances, forgetting all of their worries and having unadulterated fun. This is the point of the entire event: to give parents the chance to relax, and to give kids the opportunity to enjoy activities that they might otherwise never get to do. The absolute best part of the day was seeing the kids’ enormous smiles as they received their backpacks full of supplies, and knowing that none of those kids will have to feel the anxiety and uncertainty of starting the first day of school without everything that they need.
Toward the end of the event, I had a very powerful moment of understanding. I was walking in from outside, and as I came through the doors, I got a full look at the entire gymnasium. I saw the children running and playing. I saw some of the younger parents playing with their kids, and some of the older parents and grandparents talking with volunteers and playing bingo. There were spouses of clients currently in prison, clients who had just recently been released from prison, and clients who had been helped many years prior. I saw some of the teenagers whom GJP had helped keep out of prison, and whose lives were back on track because of the help they were able to get. There were at least three generations of clients in attendance. I saw interns from one of the top law firms in Atlanta working alongside interns and volunteers from several public interest organizations. And I thought to myself, “This is what it means to care about the community; not mere legal counsel or social services, but true understanding of what an organization can do to make its clients’ lives better.” The Georgia Justice Project does not have endless resources; it cannot throw money at every problem and every client in an attempt to save the world. Instead, it has to be clever; it has to find efficient and effective ways to spend the small resources it does have. By providing the assistance that it does, and by hosting events like this one, GJP has created a unique and unparalleled solution to this problem. I have never seen an organization make an impact on its community quite like I saw GJP make on Atlanta.
That is the biggest lesson that I took away from my summer experience: creative thinking and understanding are significantly more influential than money when it comes to helping people. The best solutions often will involve less money and fewer resources, but will combine that money and those resources in ways that the world has never seen before because the idea is formed from a position of empathy and understanding. Seeing public interest work and community involvement in this way will help me in my quest to make a difference, and has emphasized for me the importance of insight. If you cannot appreciate the struggles of a particular community, if you cannot see through the eyes of those you wish to help and truly grasp what they need, then you will never be able to maximize the return on your financial and resource investment in a particular cause. And since so many organizations run on a limited budget, I’m hoping to take this lesson and use it to increase the effectiveness of every movement I take part in.