Recently we caught up with Master of Public Administration (MPA) student Brittany LaMarr, who participated in a Department of Public Policy (DPP) Youth Car Theft in CT panel. Her involvement came from two avenues. The first was her role as a DPP student who planned to attend. The panels address the policy work she actively engages with, and she wanted to see what role the DPP was playing in the conversation. She was intrigued.
The second avenue came from being a Justice Advisor with the Connecticut Justice Alliance (CTJA), which tracks conversations regarding criminal justice reform. Brittany notes that false narratives on youth car theft have the power to influence policy making in a negative way. She notes,
Although I had studied the data and knew the research, the DPP Car Panels were an opportunity for all stakeholders to come together and for the conversation to become grounded in data, facts, and perspective. That is critical, and every panel has been insightful. CTJA was asked to provide the youth perspective for the third panel and that’s how I became a panelist for the most recent panel.
Through the first or second hand voices of directly impacted individuals, CTJA leads youth criminal justice reform in Connecticut. Brittany’s work with CTJA began with Professor Linda Meyer from Quinnipiac University’s law school, who was her professor while she was incarcerated and taking Higher Ed in Prison courses. After her release, Brittany kept in contact and communicated with Professor Meyer about her educational pursuits and job record. This included her struggle to find a job with her legal record. Professor Meyer put her in contact with Dr. Erin Corbett from Second Chance Educational Alliance, which introduced Brittany to public policy and advocacy for criminal legal reform. Dr. Corbett shared the Justice Advisors opportunity at CTJA. Brittany applied that day.
As a Justice Advisor Brittany attends and has a voice at legislative subcommittee meetings including the Raise the Minimum Age Subgroup. On a monthly basis, she and fellow Advisors rotate attendance at the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee. They use their experiences and perspectives to shape and redirect false narratives to help inform policy decision making. Advisors attend educational trainings, monitor and track youth criminal justice policies, and utilize data and research to support their advocacy efforts. They also hold vision sessions1.
Brittany’s love of public service feels almost inherent to her, and she recalls wanting to help others as a child. Her mother would call her an empath, which at the time she did not understand. Now she understands her empathy and says, “I have such a strong level of empathy and passion that guide and motivate me and I think my many diverse experiences as a young person shaped that.”
Her love of public service is influenced by her father. She explains,
In the wintertime, the heating grate behind the AT&T building on Main Street was the place to go. During the night, when temperatures would drop to below freezing, the heat rising from the earth would be just enough to keep the feeling in my toes and fingers. My father had lost so much weight at this point that getting jackets and blankets for him was always a priority; many of the other homeless people in town chose the same spot, so we had close sleeping quarters.
It wasn’t always like this, though. At one point, we had a home and lived with family. But as my father chased his addiction in and out of jail and onto the streets, I chased him. It took a couple of years before my many attempts to find him and try to “save” him led me to sleeping right next to him. Naïve to all the internal complexities of addiction, I had this nagging yearning to be a friend to my dad with hopes it would be enough love for him to want to get sober. That approach to helping my father was unsuccessful and only led to my own issues with addiction.
Life, for several years, was a choice between food or shelter for the night. I got to know the many others experiencing homelessness in the area, and still with my sense of curiosity and desire to help, I imagined all the ways I could change things to support those in need. But with zero foundation myself, I harbored a helpless feeling of wanting to do more but not being in a position to do so.
While she completed her bachelors degree in Political Science at UConn, Brittany was drawn to the policy aspect of politics. When she started working at CTJA she became involved in legislative subcommittees, crafting and advocating for youth criminal legal reform, and working with a variety of agencies, organizations, and stakeholders on researching and advising policy issues. This led her to seek a career in public policy or public administration.
Public interest organizations changed the trajectory of her life, and Brittany wants to do the same for others. She says, “I personally understand the impact that public interest careers can have for the people and communities they serve – at one point I was on the receiving end.” After graduation she wants to create systemic change.
I want to create systemic change. We live in a society built on systems that have been created by groups of people who aren’t directly affected by the policies or laws they enact; those who are directly impacted have historically not had a say in the matters. If I want to change the way that underserved communities and disenfranchised individuals experience life, I need to address the system as someone who understands the law and be a voice for the disenfranchised.
Though she is not quite sure the exact role she sees after graduation, Brittany says, “I want to lead in an organization that addresses systemic inequities, serves the less fortunate, and embraces humanity through a lens of equality.”
1A vision session is a 1-2 hour time when Justice Advisors listen to youth, families, and communities to hear about their experiences, strengths, challenges, and recommendations. CTJA has also held vision sessions with various police departments, the JRB, and many other stakeholders to get a well-rounded perspective on issues. The purpose of a vision session is to gather input and opinions from those in or impacted by the youth legal system so that their expertise can guide the priorities and work of CTJA, and the decisions of policy-makers at the local and state level (ctja.org).