Kelly Simmons knew that becoming a Justice Ambassador was a calling she could not ignore.
It’s my firm belief that one must be a change-maker in existing systems and advocate for new approaches that are just and honoring to all people regardless of their upbringing, wealth, or skin tone.
My fourth-grade teacher planted a seed in me to look beyond myself and to serve as an agent for change.
Mr. M. was a Christian man who used to bring his guitar to class and play it for us. He took part in prison ministry, mostly in the regional jails in our area of West Virginia. One day, he gave us the option of writing to people in prison if we wanted to. And I chose to do it.
Fast forward to 2019. I reached out to Mr. M. to ask if he remembered all those years ago when our class wrote to incarcerated people. I explained to him the impact that had on me and that I had felt called to advocate for one of my former classmates, Charlie, who had been convicted of a crime and sentenced to life without parole shortly after graduating from high school. I explained to Mr. M. that Charlie was serving his 27th year of a life without parole sentence.
Mr. M. began recalling the men the class wrote to, and he mentioned a name that stopped me cold: Timmy J. I had a cousin named Timmy J. who was convicted of shooting and killing my great-uncle. I had heard the stories of my cousin my whole life. I knew my great-uncle was my grandfather’s brother because I had met him when I was little.
As it turned out, Timmy J. had just gotten out of prison because he was released on parole. It was an emotional and even overwhelming moment for me to discover that Mr. M. had been writing and ministering to my cousin for all those years and was part of his reintegration plan. I also began to contemplate the disparity of sentencing between Charlie, a young Black teen, and my cousin, an adult white man in his mid-twenties: the same crime, vastly different sentences.
Shortly after, I read and was inspired by Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, and his work in confronting racial disparities within the criminal justice system, including sentencing. Someone told me, ‘You might want to check out Prison Fellowship®.’ I realized that this was the work I'm supposed to be involved in.
BEGINNING TO SEE MORE CLEARLY
I was raised in West Virginia along the Maryland border, a white girl in a predominantly white, working-class, rural area.
Then, fresh out of high school, I went to the south side of Chicago’s inner city as part of a short-term missions trip.
I went with a friend, both of us white country girls. We lived with three Black girls in an apartment, working alongside Black and Hispanic communities and churches, learning from the leaders about race relations, and supporting summer vacation Bible school activities. It opened my eyes to a myriad of lived experiences and a culture so vastly different from my own.
When I went back home after that, I started pondering how my privilege might have affected my relationships and interactions with my Black friends, colleagues, and classmates.
What could their experience have been like around me? I had been oblivious because I was living in my own little privileged bubble.
SEEKING JUSTICE CLOSER TO HOME
Being a single white mom of three children of color has opened my eyes to ways that I need to educate myself, humble myself, and advocate for my children in different spaces. Sometimes, people say things to me when I'm alone that they might not say if they knew that I had three Black children.
When my daughter had a medical crisis related to lupus in 2018 that had her running up the street in the middle of the night, all I could think was, ‘What if my daughter had been a young man interacting with law enforcement in the condition she was in?’
I don’t know where she would be today or what could have happened to her, considering the disproportionate impact of law enforcement encounters on individuals of color.
Those types of scenarios continued to resonate with me and made me want to do what I could to improve outcomes in our criminal justice and education systems.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE AS A JUSTICE AMBASSADOR
I’ve been a Justice Ambassador with Prison Fellowship for about three years now. Justice Ambassadors are trained volunteers who help raise awareness of justice issues, develop relationships with lawmakers, and encourage support for smarter policies on crime and incarceration.
I started going through the courses and continued to educate myself. My network of people expanded, and I began making connections with multiple individuals. I have also written letters to judges, district attorneys, and the governor.
I completed an Outrageous Justice® study from Prison Fellowship and formed a single moms’ small group. One woman in our group was the grandmother of a victim of a crime. Others are wives, mothers, aunts, and friends impacted by incarceration. We joined together to learn from and pray for one another for healing and hope, and we support one another in advocating for our loved ones.
I also met with Congressman Jason Crow’s legislative office to advocate for his sponsorship of the Law Enforcement De-escalation Training Act, which would provide law enforcement officers with quality training on de-escalation, alternatives to the use of force, and how to better serve men and women in a mental health crisis. I shared his questions about the reforms with Prison Fellowship's policy team so that they could reach out. Ultimately, he ended up sponsoring the bill, which was signed into law by President Biden at the end of 2022.
My goal is to be a part of supporting policies and legislation that are going to change the current process and provide more hope and restoration for families, communities, and prisoners. Perhaps in a small way, I achieved this through the Law Enforcement De-escalation Training Act, but it's just one small step toward promoting justice that restores.
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