Duke Justice Project: Exploring Collaboration on the Robertson Express

Jenna & Maggie

“One thing I love is cross-campus collaboration, so I’m always over at UNC.” Jenna Smith is a Class of 2025 Robbie based at Duke, and is Co-President of the Duke Justice Project. It’s an organization dedicated to education and advocacy, aiding children and adults with re-entry to society after interactions the criminal justice system.

“I was about to get on the Robertson Express to head back to Duke for a solitary-confinement event and I think I was carrying about 9 million juice boxes and lollipops for this Duke Justice Project event, and then Maggie asked if she could help me and where I was going – and she was actually boarding the bus to head to the same event!” Jenna said.

Maggie McGinnis is a first-year Robertson based at Carolina, and is now one of the newest members of the Duke Justice Project. “I didn’t even realize Jenna was involved with the Duke Justice Project at the time! We went to this talk on solitary confinement, and we heard from three people about their experiences with it in North Carolina prisons, and I told Jenna afterward, that the coolest thing about the session was that they finally had an audience to tell their stories. They were so eager to have someone listen to them and to feel like they mattered.”

For Maggie, it’s a lesson in leadership. “Getting to hear these stories and the way the stories have an impact on the folks in the audience is an incredible education. And then we’re able to turn right around and use that education as a force for good,” Maggie shared.

“We’re working to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, to the extent that we as students are able to,” Jenna shared. “We have three foundational pillars – education, service, and advocacy and we work with a lot of incredible community partners and local organizations who are doing re-entry work.”  

Jenna and Maggie are both on the advocacy team, an idea Jenna floated to the organization’s leadership when she just a first-year. “I texted the president at the time and said, ‘hey I have this idea that could work, where we focus more on direct service and political organizing around this type of re-entry work. And she said ‘yeah sounds good!’ So last year we put the advocacy team together with about 8 or 9 people, and this year we had 60 people apply,” Jenna shared.

Through Jenna’s leadership the Duke Justice Project has also partnered with the Duke Law School, Duke Divinity School, and several community organizations already focused on this type of work in Durham. “It’s a very collaborative organization, and I think it’s a privilege that we’re all able come together and work on something that has become so robust so quickly. One of our main goals this year has been building our community partner network because we have so many common goals, and its very easy to default into your silos and just focus on your own organization and its pipeline, but we’re much more effective when we’re able to collaborate. So, building networks across Duke & Durham, but also hopefully with schools like NCCU, or State will also help us break out of the Duke bubble.”

In addition to serving on the advocacy team alongside Jenna, Maggie also works on the expungement team with DJP, “I’m working directly with Legal Aid in North Carolina, to take things off people’s records so that they can re-enter society and find work,” Maggie shared. It’s something she’s been interested in since high school.

“The summer before my senior year, I worked in the south side of Chicago and we spent a lot of time researching the school to prison pipeline and how the lack of funding in public schools leads to higher incarceration rates, especially in low-income and black and brown school districts. It was eye-opening to see the statistics, but then when we actually went to meet the people in the communities I heard their stories and the data points sprung to life,” she shared.

Now, at Duke Maggie is applying those lessons. “There’s a time as a leader to step up and to use your voice and lead from the front, but I think there are also times when you need to take a step back, listen, and let others lead the way. As part of the Duke Justice Project, this is one of those times in a sense where the best thing I can do for these communities and people is to listen to their stories and support them, and let them build the path.”

For Jenna, listening as a leader is also key, “Being a part of the Duke Justice Project has taught me so much about leading through listening. We might be coming into a space where we’ve read a lot of research on an issue, but that doesn’t mean we know everything – it means that we’re students who are interested and want to make an impact. But the best way to do that is to listen to the needs of our community. What that looks like thus far is setting up meetings with absolutely every community partner we can find, and asking ‘how can we collaborate? How can we work together to make something really good? Here are the resources we have.’ It’s really showing me that while you might have a vision in your head how you want your leadership to look, truly the best way to engage and be a transformational leader is to listen to those around you, and collaborate, and grow through learning together.”