Today I am visiting with Melissa O’Dell, the Executive Director of Defy Ventures Illinois. Melissa has been on the Defy Ventures team for the past six years, most recently in the role of Vice President of Programs nationally. Although currently residing in Chicago, she originally grew up in New York. Melissa is a person driven by fulfilling her sense of purpose in this world and to that end was led her to pursue her BA from Franklin and Marshall College in Government and Women’s Studies as well as a Master’s from NYU in Social Work and Public Policy. During our conversation you'll hear all about her years spent working at the Center for Court Innovation to provide new opportunities to individuals involved in the criminal justice system and increase the efficacy of the judiciary and how that directly impacted her current role with Defy Ventures. That is just the tip of the iceberg of Melissa's resume which is decidedly impressive. But even more impressive to me is Melissa's authenticity, her quest to do and be the good in this world, and her relentless drive to help change a broken justice system. She speaks with authority, knowledge, experience, and compassion. This is the soul behind Defy Ventures.
All I can say is that I'm so thankful for the Melissa's of the world. Those people who work tirelessly for the underdog, who clearly see the system that failed them and valiantly aim to fix those broken structures. Melissa's pronouncement of the need to address the root causes of why people go into the system in the first place is paramount to reforming it. She and others that are like-minded are creatively seeking ways to give power back to those who were never given a fair chance in life through the self- education and entrepreneurial training that Defy Ventures offers. And not only are they empowering the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, they are actively working to create an inclusive economy by trying to shift the mind of the business owners to see the untapped talent pool in the population they serve. It's all about a purposeful and subversive shift in thinking that eventually changes the choices and actions of individuals, business leaders, volunteers, and communities. This slowly seeps into society at large and challenges the perceived assumptions we've all accepted as "normal" and thus begins the evolution of thought that transforms a broken system one life at a time. We each discover our shared humanity.
The quote that comes to mind when I think of Melissa is from another great purveyor of justice, Bryan Stevenson. He says, "... simply punishing the broken--walking away from them or hiding them from sight--only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity." I see Melissa as someone who is connected to the incarcerated through our shared humanity and aims to bring out the best in those who are ready to transform their thoughts, lives, and actions. May we all choose this radical vulnerability that draws us closer together...just as Melissa has.
Melissa's Quote: You may write me down in history with your bitter twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still like dust, I'll rise. - Maya Angelou