By Kiki Whartenby
Kiki catches up with alumna Adira Polite after her visit to campus.
Photo courtesy of Bowdoin College.
1. What motivated you to pursue a career in criminal justice? How long have you planned to pursue this career path?
When I was in middle school, I attended a summer law program at Georgetown. There, I heard an ex-offender testimony that pretty much blew my mind. This man was convicted for a murder charge at 17 years old and spent the majority of his life behind bars. Unlike many, he was given the opportunity to grow and evolve while inside. When he was released as an adult, he started an organization to help other ex-offenders transition into life after prison. His story permanently altered my perception of criminality and eventually birthed my first research project on incarceration, which I began during my sophomore year of college. That project led to another, which gradually evolved into my current research and job.
2. What would you say has been one of your greatest professional accomplishments?
My article, titled "To the Roots and Wounds: The Case for Restorative Justice in the Juvenile Correctional System,” was recently published by Harvard University’s Mellon Mays Undergraduate Journal. This piece is a heavily trimmed version of a final paper that I wrote for my senior seminar. I feel very strongly about my thesis, so I’m excited that the work is out there!
3. How did your SMS experience prepare you for a career?
I think about this often. To begin, SMS gave me confidence. As a lifer, I’ve been heavily encouraged since I was three years old. I also know where my weaknesses lie. Our teachers have the time, resources and training to correct us, gently, in a manner that doesn’t break our spirits. That is important. SMS also encourages students to ask for help. So, unlike many of my peers, I was comfortable going to office hours in college, which put me on the fast track to academic success. Now, as a newbie in the workforce, I need a lot of guidance from my boss and coworkers; as an St. Mary’s girl, I have no problem asking for that.
4. You attended a PWI from early childhood all the way through your undergraduate. Did this experience play a role in shaping your current outlook?
Yes, and it informs my research quite a bit! I understand implicit racial bias very, very well. It runs deep in the SMS community and it’s all over my college campus. I’m guilty of it, as well. The trouble with PWIs is not just race, but class. I grew up with that same, tired good-neighborhood/bad-neighborhood dichotomy. Before college, I could count my non-white friends on one hand. Of course, each of those friends belonged to a highly educated, middle to upper class family. I really internalized the notion that we were at a place like SMS because we deserved to be there; it follows that we were somehow morally superior to the poorer, less educated people who looked like us. This idea that poor people at underfunded schools in dilapidated neighborhoods are there because of their own moral failure is dangerous. Though the biases that exist at SMS appear harmless, those same biases justify the withholding of resources, over-policing, etc.
In terms of race alone, PWIs have made me fairly patient. I am used to hearing microaggressions from liberal, adamantly non-racist people. I believe it gives me an advantage because the nonprofit legal sector is very white. I like to think that I’m a little bit hardened.
5. Can you offer any words of wisdom or encouragement to students who want to make a change or pursue an activism-oriented career, but worry that they won’t gain enough momentum?
Try to overcome the desire for instant gratification. I really struggle with this. I think that it’s especially difficult for our generation. We want quick results! Social media will have you believe that activists are ushering in swift, sweeping changes. In reality, activists are swimming against the current, so change is slow and oftentimes, painful. But, I like to believe that even the most apolitical people are currently paying a little bit of attention. Now is a pretty grand time to be fighting for something.
6. You touched on the concept of redemption: would you mind expanding on why this is so important to you?
As a Christian, I believe that Jesus overcame death. In Christ, there is no condemnation. I’ve received God’s forgiveness and I’ve been (and am still being) transformed into a new being. Ephesians 1:7 reads, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” There’s more to that, though; I don’t just get to take and take. If I want forgiveness and newness for myself, I must be willing to extend that same grace to others. Scripture says “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14). I am not defined by the worst thing I’ve ever done, and I refuse to define others by their worst acts.
As for crime, redemption is essential. Renewal should be the goal, but it isn’t, and the criminal justice system fails as a result. We stigmatize ex-offenders and strip them of their rights. They struggle to gain employment, housing, and social connections. We make it nearly impossible for them to lead a new life and then we scoff when they reoffend. It’s backwards. Fortunately, the public is catching on.
7. Would you mind discussing your time with Hope prison ministry?
I spent the best summer of my life at Hope Prison Ministry. It was the summer of 2017, and I had no idea that ministry even interested me until I heard myself responding to “What do you want to do for the summer?” with “I think I want to find a prison ministry.” It was a very God thing. This friend *just so happens* to be family friends with one of the organization’s leaders. On another God note, I’d visited Cape Town earlier that year and had been dreaming about returning for the summer. Where is Hope Prison Ministry based? Cape Town. A very God thing.
I was terrified upon my arrival, but I quickly found my place. The staff is made up of people from all over the world. Many are ex-offenders. We spent the majority of our time leading bible studies in Pollsmoor and Drakenstein, two of the country’s most notorious prisons. Our goal was mentorship, in the most basic sense, and the spread of the Word. We also spent a few weeks facilitating a restorative justice course. With that, we aimed to help offenders confront the reality and results of their crime. In doing so, we hoped to repair the damaged relationships between offenders and their families, as well as offenders and victims.
I saw God move in crazy ways. My favorite story involves a young man who was serving time for murder. He was a hitman for “the Number,” a prison gang that controls most of the centers in the area. It goes without saying that our students were afraid of him, with reason. He intimidated students out of leaving the gang and kept many from sharing in class. In short, he was causing our team many problems. One day, one of our leaders instructed the team to pray for him, on our own, after hours. So, we did. I kid you not, the very next day that guy stood up in class, renounced the gang, and accepted Jesus. One day, he’s taking lives for the gang; the next, he’s telling others to leave it. Redemption is the name of the game!
We also spent a lot of time worshipping together and pouring into one another. There is so much love in that place. I was on fire, daily. I plan to chase that feeling forever.
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