Adeola Ogunkeyede, legal director of the Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program, a new initiative of Richmond's Legal Aid Justice Center (Photo by Samantha Willis)
Last Wednesday, Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, author of the critically acclaimed book “Just Mercy,” and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke these words before hundreds of Richmonders at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center:
“Richmond’s commitment to justice can’t be measured by how you treat the privileged; it must be measured by how you treat the poor and incarcerated.”
Stevenson also shared stories about his grandmother, who lived in Caroline County and whose tight hugs reassured him. He told us how he’d desperately appealed to multiple courts, trying to spare a condemned man from execution, to no avail; the man’s last words to Stevenson were, “I love you for trying to save my life.”
He said his home state of Alabama’s racial history, a past it still struggles to overcome, was as deep and murky as Richmond’s. He told us about the incarcerated children he’s represented, how they are among the quarter million youth tried and sentenced as adults each year in America.
On April 12, attorney, civil rights advocate and author Bryan Stevenson addressed Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University. His book, "Just Mercy," is the school's 2016-17 Common Book. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
In 20 minutes, Stevenson inspired an auditorium full of people to think more deeply about how we treat the poor and incarcerated. It is the treatment of these populations that called another lawyer — Adeola Ogunkeyede — to Richmond earlier this year.
Ogunkeyede never wondered why she had to pass through metal detectors every morning upon entering her middle school, which served mostly black and Latino students. It was part of her routine growing up in Far Rockaway, New York, a small community in Queens.
“It wasn’t until later, when I worked in other parts of the country,” she says, “that I started to wonder why we had those in our schools, and other schools in other communities didn’t. The unsaid message was, ‘You can come to our school, but we think you’re so potentially dangerous that we must screen you before you learn. We’re suspicious of you.’ What kind of impression does that leave on a person?” She’s no psychologist, she says, “but I know that if you treat people a certain way long enough, they may begin to see themselves that way, too.”
Ogunkeyede is the legal director of the Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program, a new initiative of the Legal Aid Justice Center launched in late February.
The Legal Aid Justice Center has provided legal counsel to Virginians in low-income communities since 1967. Ogunkeyede’s hope for the new program, she says, is that it “starts to reveal here in Virginia the connections between people who are low-income and impoverished, and how that often leads to contact with the criminal justice system, or results from contact with the criminal justice system.” According to the latest census data, 24.6 percent of Richmonders live in poverty.
In explaining the term "felon disenfranchisement," a key issue her program will address, Ogunkeyede says, “Right now, there is momentum in the state of Virginia to reverse the legal reality that, if you’re convicted of a felony, you can lose your right to vote forever.” She notes that a widening margin of people — many of them already vulnerable due to poverty — are not able to take part in the democratic process by voting, because of felony convictions that may be decades old.
Many times, the crime doesn’t fit the permanent punishment. “A grand larceny conviction carries a threshold of just $200 in Virginia,” Ogunkeyede says. “For taking something valued at just $200, you can lose out on your right as a citizen, forever. There’s a problem there.”
Having served as a public defender in New York for nine years before coming to Richmond, Ogunkeyede has honed skills essential to her new role: the ability to easily see herself in other people’s shoes and to connect with them on a human level, through the lens of compassion.
“It’s a fine line between everyday citizen and ‘criminal,’ ” she says. “I’ve represented clients and thought many times, ‘That could have been me.’ People make mistakes; all mistakes are actions, and there are often complex reasons behind our actions.”
Ogunkeyede’s father, Ola Jumoke, was born in Nigeria, and in 1974 came to America, where he planted roots in New York.
“My dad grew up under a harsh military regime in his country,” she says. The democratic ideals he didn’t see realized in his home country were critically important to him in America. Her father’s respect for democracy and justice helped shaped Ogunkeyede’s view of the world.
Ogunkeyede (far left) with her sister and father in Nigeria circa 2016 (provided photo).
Her mother, Shirley, was born in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and came to New York as a young child. She met her future husband in community college, before becoming a nurse.
Ogunkeyede, who has three older sisters, says, “My dad drove taxis, he worked for an ambulance service, different things. They were a regular working couple.” They named their youngest Adeola, meaning “crown of wealth” in Yoruba, her father’s native tongue. Naturally curious as child, Ogunkeyede’s horizons expanded when she enrolled in an honors high school in Brooklyn. “I had classmates whose parents were academics and professionals. I met people of many ethnic backgrounds,” she says. Her studies at Duke and Tulane universities, and abroad, set her up for a career seeking justice for all.
In addition to its own initiatives, the Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program aims to join forces with organizations already committed to social justice, civil rights and criminal justice reform.
Ogunkeyede has met with the Richmond Public Defender's office, and plans to connect with Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged, a group whose efforts center on sentencing reform, restoration of rights to former offenders and fair hiring initiatives. To learn more about the myriad legal issues connected to Richmond poverty, Ogunkeyede talked with the Office of Community Wealth Building, and next weekend, she’ll attend Roots Weekend-Richmond, a gathering of artists and activists examining the prison industrial complex through the theme "Creating a World Without Prisons."
Ogunkeyede sees opportunity for education and growth here, which she realized when she first came to Richmond a few months back and ventured to Monument Avenue to see its controversial Confederate statues.
“I came in through the downtown area and planned on driving west through the city. At the exit off the highway, there were quite a few homeless men at the end of the exit ramp holding up signs,” she says; she saw them on every block. “I think, because I was going to look at statues of historical figures, I became acutely aware of the real, live people who lined the streets of Richmond.”
In court, she represented homeless men and women who were arrested for doing what many of us do in the privacy of our homes – sleeping, having a drink, using the bathroom. “[Those activities] have criminal implications for homeless people who do [them] in public because they have nowhere else to go.”
As a newcomer to the city, she wondered if Richmond's homeless population has faded into the background, just like the monuments.
As Ogunkeyede adds her program’s efforts to those of the people and organizations statewide dedicated to supporting men and women recently released from prison; to those who provide a hand up rather than a handout to the homeless, impoverished and disadvantaged; and to those who crusade for every Virginian’s civil rights, it’s fitting to reflect on more of Bryan Stevenson’s words to Richmond:
“It’s the broken among us who will lead us to justice and redemption. Each of us is more than the worst we’ve ever done.”
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