They are high school students attending one of the most prestigious private schools in Memphis. While St. Mary’s is proud of its generations of high-achieving students and alumnae, the Episcopal girls’ school also encourages civic involvement.
That’s why a group of 18 girls took part in the school’s week-long “Service Plunge,” which included a stop at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.
Assistant Chaplain, Susan Whitten, coordinated the service/learning camp — students researched and discussed a topic area in the morning and connected with a related service organization in the afternoon to learn more or volunteer. The theme for this year’s camp was “access” — access to quality food, housing, education, health and justice.
“If people don’t have access or the knowledge of how to access those services or to get help, they really do fall between the cracks,” said Whitten. “That’s really one of the big ways we can change things in Memphis, is if we can help people have the knowledge of those services and for them to be able to access them.”
The access to justice component of the plunge included watching a video about the Jericho project, a jail diversion program for those living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders.
Josh Spickler, Director of the Defender’s Resource Network for the public defender’s office, also gave a presentation that focused on mass incarceration statistics, as well as the systemic inequities for poor criminal defendants in Shelby County — the same people who are charged in the more than 30,000 cases handled annually by the Shelby County Public Defenders.
“The young women in this camp asked excellent questions about our justice system,” said Spickler. “They seemed to really struggle with why so few resources have been devoted to such a tremendous need in our community. That’s a question our lawyers struggle with everyday.”
Rising Sophomore Rachel Caldwell is on St. Mary’s mock trial team. She aspires to be a doctor, but she’s fascinated with what she’s learned about the public defender’s office.
Caldwell said she believes teenagers are ready and open to learn about difficult issues, such as racial disparities within the criminal justice system. She believes not enough professionals think to share this kind of information with people her age … and Caldwell things they should.
“We are the future. We are old enough to know. We’re not necessarily old enough to do something about it now, but we’ll be there someday,” says Caldwell. “If we have the correct knowledge and understanding to address the problem early enough, then we can do a good job.”
And that’s exactly why Chaplain Whitten coordinates this camp each year.
“I’m hoping that when they hear from people like Josh [Spickler] that they’ll be inspired and think, ‘I can do that. I can be a public defender,'” says Whitten. “Getting the word out about these types of programs and developing these kinds of programs, like the Jericho project, like the kinds of great things that Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush is doing … that they’ll think, ‘I love Memphis and I want to come back. I want to do something like that.’ We have to show them a model and show them it’s possible. Then they can dream to become it.”
You can read about the other organizations these St. Mary’s campers visited in this Commercial Appeal article.