When justice is personal, real change is possible

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For Amy Campanelli, restorative justice is more than just a passion. It's a legacy.

LCLC’s new Vice President of Restorative Justice, who comes to us from having spent the last six years as the Cook County Public Defender, brings with her an impressive resume centered on bringing humanity and transparency to an impersonal and deeply flawed criminal justice system. Throughout her career, Amy has been a passionate advocate for a more personal justice – a justice that sees whole people, whole families, whole communities, and moves in ways that honor their wholeness. 

We sat down recently with Amy – LCLC’s newest status-quo-disrupter – to chat about where her passion comes from, how she hopes to see it put to work here at Lawndale Christian Legal Center, and her belief real change begins with relationship.

Amy, you’ve been doing this work a long time, and it hasn’t always been easy. Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted a career defending others in the justice system?

Amy: There were all the obvious things – reading books that matter, seeing lawyers in movies. I loved Kramer vs. Kramer, I loved The Verdict, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird. Roots, the miniseries came out when I was a preteen, and I remember watching it and thinking “How could this be? How could we treat human beings this way just based on the color of their skin?” 

From Roots miniseries, 1977

But the defining story for me was even earlier when I was 8 years old. My mother took me to a meeting at my elementary school, St. John of the Cross Parish in Western Springs, Illinois. I’m not sure why she brought me with her that night – I’m the sixth of seven kids – but she did.

We lived in an all-white suburb – there was one family from the Philippines, and that was it for racial diversity in Western Springs. That night, my mom took me to the school gym, and I remember it like it was yesterday – the Priest made an announcement that the diocese in Cook County had decided to bus Black children from the south and west side of Chicago to come to school with us.

I’ve always said God had a plan for my mother that day. 

There was a man sitting next to us – he stood up and said a word I’d never heard before. He said, “If you bring those n____ to this school, I’m leaving.” And then other people started to stand up and say similar things.

My mother, with her flaming red hair, didn’t even hesitate. She stood up and said “Shame, shame on you.” The meeting went on, and eventually people started to leave. I remember how angry my mother was as we went to the car, so angry that she was practically pulling me along. 

She said, “Amy, did you see what happened in there? That was hate. Don’t you EVER let me see you hate like that.”

That night our house got egged. My parents lost friends. And those children from the south and west side came, and they stayed at our house on the weekends when they had basketball games, or volleyball games and couldn’t get the bus back. They became my brothers and sisters. They became family.

I was incredibly lucky that I had a mother and father who believed in doing the right thing. They didn’t care that people they’d thought were friends no longer wanted to be friends with them. They didn’t care what others thought about them. It was simple: “Of course we’re going to do this. Of course, those kids can stay with us.” That changed me. That raised me.

That small, intimate justice movement that took place in my home was the most important thing that happened to me in my life. It made me think, “Well, I am going to follow in those footsteps. I am going to be change where change is needed.”

My mother was an incredible woman. She never hesitated. It takes courage to step up when you hear something ignorant. 

That’s what I tried to do as the public defender. And, of course, there has been pushback every step of the way. 

It’s obvious that you bring a lot of personal passion to what you do. What are some other attributes that you bring to your work for justice here at LCLC?

Amy: I bring my experience in the system, my knowledge of what’s wrong with it, and my ideas about how to change it. I was a public official, not a politician, and there’s a difference. To create the change that was needed as a public defender, I had to recognize and own what we were doing wrong. When people in power can’t admit that something is wrong, nothing changes. 

Of course, I make mistakes. I’m probably going to make more – I’m a human! We’re going to keep right on learning from our mistakes and moving forward, because Cliff’s vision here with LCLC is spot on. There is no question that this is the right way to change our very broken public defense system. And I believe that once you know what the right thing to do is, you have a responsibility to do it. 

As you continue to fight for criminal justice reform, do you believe real change is possible?

Amy: The clients I’ve had over the years have changed me. They’ve made me who I am today. They’ve taught me empathy. They’ve made me think about things like racial bias. They’ve made me remember why I wanted to become a lawyer in the first place — to help people that our culture has decided don’t deserve help, aren’t worthy of societies’ support. 

Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash

I think we all forget from time to time what we’re called to do in this world. We forget to see people as whole people. But I have faith in human beings. I have faith in human potential, human capital, human compassion, and human empathy. I believe all humans are worthy of support, and I believe in our ability to make each other feel worthy. I think that’s where all real change begins.