darrin-sims-story2.pngMy granny has an interesting saying: “If you wanna hear God laugh, tell him your plans.” I think this has been true for most of 2020 so far. However, it's been especially true for my summer plans. This summer I had the amazing opportunity to intern for the Georgia Justice Project (GJP) through Candler’s Westside Fellows program. For those who may not know, GJP provides free/low cost legal services for individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system. In addition to providing legal representation, they also pair clients with a social worker and create holistic wraparound services for clients and their families. As someone who actively organizes around anti-recidivism and faith-based approaches to organizing, I felt excited at the prospect of getting some hands-on experience and education by working with them this summer. 

Then Covid-19 hit and all my plans seemed to collapse at once.

To be honest, my first reaction was a selfish one. I wondered if I would still have an internship. Would I be able to do anything meaningful or important? How would I gain experience this summer and what would I do?

While I spent time asking myself those questions, other individuals who were in jails or prisons and those facing serious charges around the world were asking other questions. Unknown to many, Covid-19 has had disastrous impacts on the legal and court system here in Georgia. With courts being shut down for months and back-logged, lack of communication between clients and public defenders/attorneys, rising furloughs and unemployment, and increased policing, returning citizens have been pushed even further into the margins of society. 

As I began to reflect on these things, it became perfectly clear that my problem was significantly small compared to what these individuals were facing. While Covid might derail the ideal internship, for some, Covid was preventing them their constitutional right to a speedy trial, as well as speaking with their families and seeing their children. For others, it has prevented employment upon release and check-ins with parole and probation officers, which is a parole violation and ensures their re-incarceration.

It quickly became apparent to me that just because Covid was slowing down the criminal justice system didn't mean that justice shouldn’t go forth. People in Atlanta needed legal support and advocacy now more than ever. Thus, I walked into my internship anxious, knowing that it would look different because of social distancing and the courts being closed, but excited for the possibility of how God would still show up for people who needed help.

However, what I did not expect next was the wave of social unrest that sparked in Atlanta after the multiple deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks by police and vigilantes. Following these events and looming protest and demonstrations, the Georgia Justice Project made the decision to provide legal representation to protestors and coordinate with other agencies in the area in assisting with movement lawyering and legal observers. It became part of my job to organize and host a webinar with attorneys to discuss and inform people of what will happen if you are arrested at a protest. 

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In short, my summer was full of pivots; moments where I had to adjust from what I was used to for what was needed. I learned to be adaptable because that’s what communities needed. Oftentimes organizations, churches, and other agencies provide crucial services for marginalized communities. When these services stop, it leaves the people depended on these services vulnerable and at risk. Making sure that crucial services continued for incarcerated folks was a key component of my summer fellowship. Assisting GJP with any of the tasks such as providing research on self-advocacy for incarcerated folks, researching access to legal services in rural Georgia, stuffing book bags or leading an office-wide book series on policing and Blackness required me to quickly pivot and to adapt.

For many of us, this current season of our lives has tested us in ways we didn't expect. It has pushed us to develop skills we needed, or birthed skills we didn't know we had. It has challenged us to speak up and answer the timeless question, “If not you, then who?”

Covid-19 has exposed the shortcomings of our society and forced us to reimagine what justice and equity look like. I believe it's in these moments that we can begin to carve out new systems that give everyone a fair chance, especially those who need it.

I leave my fellowship with the Georgia Justice Project knowing that the work must continue. Even when it seems impossible, unlikely, and difficult. These are the moments that define our faith and our calling.

Top photo courtesy of the Georgia Justice Project.
Second and third photos courtesy of Darrin Sims.