“In the American criminal justice system, wealth – not culpability – shapes outcomes,” reports the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). “Many people charged with crimes lack the resources to investigate cases or obtain the help they need, leading to wrongful convictions and excessive sentences, even in capital cases.”
EJI continues, “Racial disparities persist at every level from misdemeanor arrests to executions. The ‘tough on crime’ policies that led to mass incarceration are rooted in the belief that Black and brown people are inherently guilty and dangerous – and that belief still drives excessive sentencing policies today.”
Ajaya Green ’23 is intent on joining the fight to bring racial equity to the criminal justice system. “I believe this system is just so flawed against marginalized groups,” she explains. “I want to become a defense attorney, and knowing how bad the system is stacked up against minorities will help propel me along my journey.”
For Green, embarking on the path to a legal career began during her first year at Hollins. Her original plan to major in chemistry changed when she enrolled in the first-year seminar “Supreme! America’s Highest Court” and also took a special topic course on mental health and social justice. “I thought, ‘What department is this? I enjoy these classes,’” she recalls, and she subsequently decided to instead pursue a major in gender and women’s studies with a minor in social justice. Assistant Professor of Sociology Jennifer Turner became her advisor and “I tried to take as many of her courses as I could. Her research was very eye-opening to me.” (Turner’s dissertation topic was “#BlackMamasMatter: The Significance of Motherhood and Mothering for Low-Income Black Single Mothers.”)
One of the highlights of Green’s four years at Hollins has been speaking at Roanoke College’s Virginia Conference on Race in both her junior and senior years. Launched in the spring of 2022, the conference features both undergraduate and graduate students from across the commonwealth presenting on topics of race and anti-racism activism.
“The goal is to amplify voices in race studies in our community of critical intellectuals as a way to engage in thoughtful, productive conversations about race,” the conference website notes.
Last year at the conference, Green discussed Hollins’ transgender policy and how she felt it could be improved. “I was nervous about doing it, but luckily my sister came with me. I never think of myself as a good public speaker, but during the Q&A session, everyone had questions for me about the transgender policy and what I thought it should be. That told me I did a good job.”
For 2023, she presented the topic, “The Role of Women in Religion in the Early to Middle Ages.” “A lot of my friends came with me, so I had a good support system.”
Green’s experience with the Virginia Conference on Race inspired her social justice minor capstone project this year. “[Assistant Professor of Political Science] Courtney Chenette asked us to choose a topic that we felt could benefit Hollins after we graduate.” Green says she believes there’s great potential to expand the university’s annual Leading Equity, Diversity and Justice (Leading EDJ) Conference to a larger audience beyond the Hollins campus. “I wrote a paper and also proposed to [Vice President for Student Success, Well-being, and Belonging] Nakeshia Williams that Hollins should issue a call to action to local colleges similar to what Roanoke College does for the Virginia Conference on Race. It would not only build Hollins’ connection with other universities in the area, but also propel our students’ relationship with other college students.”
Green also cherishes the work she’s done over the past two years as the first BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) support and action chair for Hollins’ Student Government Association Roundtable. “I’ve fulfilled a lot of what I expected myself to do,” she says. In the future, she wants to see a more concentrated effort by the university to engage BIPOC student voices. “Every affinity group should be represented,” especially when it comes to putting words into action regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. She cites a cultural cookout that she organized as an example. “I know a particular way of doing a cookout from growing up, but I reached out to other affinity groups to see what they wanted to do. A lot of people cooked and brought food, and it was a large turnout.”
She emphasizes, “Hollins needs to do more activities and events to bring BIPOC students together.”
Green admits she is surprised at how active she has been as an undergraduate. When she arrived at Hollins, her goal was just to “go to class, get a good GPA, make friends, and that’s it. Now, I have been on SGA Roundtable for two years, I’ve spoken at conferences, I built my own internship (working with her cousin’s psychology practice), and I was even on the tennis team at one point.” She definitely feels that she’s grown as a leader and enjoys the responsibilities that come with leadership, “but I don’t like getting credit for it. At my cookout, my friends took over the mic and had everyone thank me. I was just standing there thinking, ‘I don’t know what to do!’”
This fall, Green will pursue a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies with a concentration in sexuality and social justice at Towson University. Then, she hopes to attend the Howard University School of Law. She envisions building a law practice where she can both make a living and help people who want to avoid having an attorney appointed for them, a process that can impede access to justice. “I want to establish a law firm where my fees are reasonable. You can call my practice and I, or someone who works with me, will show up. There have been a lot of instances within my family where they’ve been at the wrong place at the wrong time and were incarcerated for crimes that had nothing to do with them. But we could afford attorneys, and I know the importance of that.”
Ultimately, Green wants to take her commitment to addressing the challenges of marginalized communities in America’s legal system to the highest court in the land. “My end goal is to become a Supreme Court justice.”