Four elected judges in Dallas are working to create a community where they eventually see fewer defendants and plaintiffs that look like them in the courtroom. The non-profit organization Pipeline to Possibilities, founded by Judge Shequitta Kelly, Judge Amber Givens, Judge Lisa Green, and Judge Stephanie Huff, is dedicated to teaching the most vulnerable Dallas youth everything they need to know to become leaders in their communities.
These four Black women created P2P after an eye-opening experience watching ‘13th,’ a documentary by Ava Duvernay highlighting the connection between slavery, incarceration, and racism in the U.S.
On Aug. 25, the four judges will be featured in an Apple TV documentary episode, “Dear Ava,” featuring Duvernay, who will read a letter written by the judges on how she inspired their work.
The Signal spoke to Judges Stephanie Huff, Lisa Green, and Shequitta Kelly on inspiring and pouring into Texas youth, representation in the criminal justice system, topics covered in P2P, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is representation in the criminal system, which can be traumatic and painful for many Black people, so important?
Judge Huff: “I think it’s huge. So many things have happened in the community that has given us a distrust in the criminal justice system, and rightfully so. And I think when you see someone that looks like you, it puts you at ease. So when you have judges like us that are younger, look like them, and also have experiences similar to their background, we can relate. So when I see people in front of me, I’m reminded of my brothers and my cousins. We can’t be so far removed that it doesn’t impact some of our rulings. Some people don’t have that experience in their background, so it’s hard for them to sympathize or empathize with people that appear in front of them.”
Judge Kelly also told the Signal about an interaction with a white male judge who couldn’t culturally understand a Black female’s testimony.
Judge Kelly: “He said when she testified, part of her testimony was ‘well he called me out my name,’ and he couldn’t understand what she meant by that. He was clueless as to what that meant. And at that moment, that’s when I realized I’m so glad I have this job. Because my people need to know that someone on the bench understands when she says that I know [the defendant] called her a derogatory name. I’m not sitting there spaced out trying to figure out what’s going on; I’m right there with you. So it’s really important to have people that look like us on the bench. That small little part he didn’t understand could have been very detrimental to her. I think us being in these seats and taking them seriously greatly impacts our community.”
Judge Green: “I do believe that without our experiences, there is a disconnect with the general public that comes before a judge. We get people who come before us from different walks of life, those who have never been in trouble before with the criminal justice system, and those who have experienced the criminal justice system who feel like they have been treated fairly or not. We have that listening spirit, a spirit of discernment. I think that African-American females have this mother wit about them that can’t be duplicated. So when we have people that come before us and look like us, I see a smile; they are just so proud.”
Notably, all four judges have deferment programs in their courts that rehabilitate defendants instead of issuing jail time, but creating P2P was about taking the extra step to reach youth so they never have to enter a courtroom in the first place.
All three of you could’ve gone to school, got your degrees, and become a judge, which would be enough. But you decided to do something more for your community. Can you tell me how Pipeline to Possibilities was created?
Judge Kelly: “The funny thing is we all knew each other, but we weren’t exactly friends. Judge Huff and I have always been friends from the prosecutor’s office. And I knew Judge Green during my time as a public defender. I knew Judge Givens a little. We knew each other and embraced each other as sisters but never really hung out before this. But Judge Givens and I were at her church because the pastor was going to show an appreciation to elected officials. So he played a clip of the ‘13th’ by Ava Duvernay, and I happened to be sitting next to Judge Givens, and she turned to me and whispered, ‘we need to do something with the kids.’ So from that point, we end up calling each other and contacting Judge Huff and Judge Green. And all of us just sat in my chambers for a couple of hours and brainstormed.”
And thus, P2P was created, and an emphasis was placed on decreasing the school-to-prison pipeline. A cycle of incarceration is more accurate than ever in a place like Texas, where minority youth are overpoliced in higher numbers than their white peers. And Texas’s mass incarceration rate has ranked higher than any other democracy on the planet for years.
According to reports by the Prison Policy Initiative, most Texas prisons are over capacity, with Black people representing the majority of inmates stuck in the privatized and profit-driven system.
What was your reaction to this documentary, and how did it affect you?
Judge Green: “[The ‘13th’] confirmed everything I would see as a public defender. I would see African-Americans in and out of the system. I would have the same clients in different courts year after year. I mean, it’s like a revolving door. Once they take a conviction, obviously, it creates an obstacle when they’re looking for jobs, housing, and if they’re trying to get into school. So I think it is like their chattel and a second form of slavery. That’s why I’m pumped to do everything I possibly can while I’m on the bench to ensure our young people are aware of the criminal justice system and they use [that knowledge] to where they are empowered. Not come into it but come out as leaders and our future lawyers, judges, and advocates for the next generation.”
As an organization, what are some things you all center around to ensure the youth understands in this period of uncertainty?
Judge Kelly: “The most important part of the program is for them to feel needed, motivated, and accepted. I think a lot of times, the youth feel overlooked and unappreciated. I feel like they feel boxed in, and when they leave our presence, I want them to dream bigger.”
Judge Huff: “The thing about Pipeline that makes it so unique is that we don’t just focus on the criminal justice system; we talk about everything. We had a gynecologist come in, and a urologist came in. We challenge them to think outside the narrow window they have in front of them.”
Judge Lisa Green: “Everything that we do in the program, we try to make sure that they learn life skills. We have professional mentors come through the program to talk with them. The boys learn how to tie a tie. The girls learn how to make up their faces. We have a makeup artist come to show them how to appropriately apply makeup for their age. They will remember many relatable things for the rest of their lives. And to understand they are not limited by their circumstance.”
Other topics P2P cover includes mental health, gun violence, human trafficking, sexual assault, teenage dating violence, and more.