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Interview with Tammy Seltzer

May 2016

Recently, CCE policy analyst Emily Tatro sat down with 2016 Justice Potter Steward Award recipient Tammy Seltzer, director of the DC Jail & Prison Advocacy Project (JPAP) for Disability Rights DC at University Legal Services (ULS). Emily, previously a legal fellow for JPAP, asked Tammy about her many years as a champion for people with disabilities.

Emily (ET): For people who don’t know anything about JPAP, can you tell us what the project does and what its goals are?

Tammy (TS): The DC Jail and Prison Advocacy Project was founded almost 10 years ago, to help DC residents with serious mental illness who are returning to the community from jail and prison. We really see ourselves as working to remove obstacles for people with mental illness who are returning to the community. I always think about that quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels, and that’s the way I see reentry for people with serious mental illness. They have to do everything and face all the barriers that we know are facing people coming out of jail or prison as well as deal with mental illness. They’re often homeless, lack a support network, they’re unfamiliar with the community that’s changed while they’ve been incarcerated, and yet they have these additional challenges ahead of them because of their mental illness and often substance abuse disorders as well.

(ET): I’ve never heard it put that way. So how did you first get into this type of legal work?

(TS): I actually started off in the disability rights field in special education. I had a sister who was born with spina bifida. I was younger, and at the time she was born, there were really no services available at all. She went to a day program a few times a week which she loved. She was only able to go when the local ambulance was available to take her because there was no accessible public transportation, my parents didn’t have an accessible vehicle, and for most of her life she was not even able to use a wheelchair. She really needed to be transported in a hospital bed. And she died when she was 8. I think that really inspired me to get involved in special education. I actually wrote a paper. The first special ed law was passed in 1975, and I was 12, and I wrote a paper about it for school. Then I volunteered in special ed preschool classes. I thought I was going to become a teacher. But somewhere along the way, I lost traction for that idea. I just saw a lot of the bureaucracy that teachers went through, and thought, “That’s not for me.” Kind of ironic now with what I do.

My mother always told me to go to law school, and I never did what my mother told me to do. Who does? But eventually I decided she was right. But when I went to law school, imagine my surprise when there was a class that was about both special education and juvenile delinquency! I didn’t even know that kind of law existed. And that is what really got me into it. I saw so many young people in the clinic at UDC who were in the juvenile delinquency system because no one had identified that they had mental health or other learning issues or that they had been identified as having those issues, but nobody had addressed them properly. So that’s how I got started and then that work translated into an Equal Justice Works Fellowship at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and it was while I was doing disability work there that we really realized the plight of adults in the criminal justice system who had mental illness and how they were getting arrested more often for behavior that other people weren’t getting arrested for and they were staying longer in jails or prisons and trying to figure out whether we could make a difference.

(ET): I didn’t know you had done the clinic at UDC and that’s how you brought all that together. That’s interesting.

(TS): It’s a clinic that nobody wanted to take because the professors had a reputation for making people cry, and so I didn’t list it as my first choice. But the first day, I guess I didn’t really know what the clinic was going to be about and they started talking about special ed law and I was like, “I know this!” It really felt like I was coming home to something I knew and something I was very passionate about. I had no idea I could put that together in a legal career.

(ET): Other than teaching, is there anything else that you would have pursued had you not ended up at law school?

(TS): I was working after college at an organization called Food and Friends which at the time was delivering meals to people with HIV and AIDS. Now they deliver meals and groceries to people with any kind of a life-threatening illness. I was very passionate about doing the social service work and having that individual, one-on-one connection with people who were not otherwise being treated with dignity and respect. It just enabled them to have some energy to do other things in their lives. And I enjoyed the direct service but at the same time, I kept seeing people who were doing amazing things. They were all lawyers, and a lot of the amazing things that I saw were being done by people at what is now the David A. Clark School of Law at UDC. When I started, it was the DC School of Law. So I had always said I’m not going to go to law school but if I ever did, I would go to the David A. Clark School of Law because of their focus on public interest and the people in the community in DC because I really wanted to make a difference where I lived.

(ET): So now you’re at Disability Rights DC at University Legal Services. What do you like best about working there?

(TS): Disability Rights DC is a wonderful place to work because everybody there is committed to the mission of providing legal services in a client-centered environment to people with disabilities. It’s probably one of the most supportive places I’ve ever worked, and I really appreciate that the values of the organization align with my own personal values about the way people with disabilities should be a part of the community like anybody else and should be treated with dignity and respect. Working with the Jail and Prison Advocacy Project, I’m most proud of the comments that we get from our clients about how we listen to them and how we treat them with dignity and respect and that they don’t feel judged by us for what they’ve done in the past. I think that’s because we’re focused on their potential and the future. Rather than what they’ve done wrong, we look forward as to how we can help support them to reach their personal and professional goals. Their number one goal usually is staying out of trouble with the criminal justice system. We can help them do that and the recovery is not a linear process at all. That’s particularly true with someone who has been involved with the criminal justice system. When people do relapse, we don’t give up on them. We keep supporting them and trying to problem-solve with them about “what’s another way that we could approach this so you’ll have a better chance of success?” So a lot of times the reaction I get to my work is “Wow, that’s intense,” which I think a lot of people mean “is depressing.” But I don’t see it that way at all. I actually see it as very optimistic work, believing in the potential of people when other people may have given up on them.

(ET): I agree. Having worked there myself, some of the days were “intense,” but I think for the most part you get to have moments of joy with people who haven’t necessarily had many of those in the many months they’ve been locked up. It’s so nice to build those relationships and just share those experiences.

(TS): For some of our clients, they have had decades of trauma and failure in their lives. They haven’t been able to get or keep a job, their relationships with friends and family are in tatters, they don’t have a stable place to live, and are often homeless. But for the first time, they may have their own apartment. They are sober, and they have hope. They may be in a job training program. It’s incredible to see the before and after, once they’ve gotten supportive services or gotten benefits or whatever combination of things that help them get to the other side. I think of one client in particular who had cycled in and out of jail and prison because he could not comply with the conditions of his release. It wasn’t until after, when the Jail and Prison Advocacy Project had negotiated accommodations for him, under supervision, did he finally have a different life. He’s now been in the community for over two years! He had his supervision terminated early because of how well he was doing. And that was really just a matter of looking at his mental illness and how it impacted his behavior and ability to comply with the terms, and say, “Well how do we make changes that can help him be successful?”

(ET): Those accommodations, were they big things? Obviously they had a big impact on his life, but did they change the essence of the supervision or were they smaller tweaks that helped him?

(TS): The accommodations for him were as simple as not requiring him to come to the office every week at a certain time and make him wait in the waiting room. Instead, the community supervision officer agreed to call his day program or to drop in occasionally on his day program, which was run by his mental health provider, where we knew he would be five days a week. So in a lot of ways it was actually easier for his CSO to do that rather than to have this gentleman show up on the wrong day, wait in the waiting room for five minutes and then leave not knowing where he was or what he was doing. I think the accommodations were not only in the best interest of the client, but they really made the job of the community supervision officer a lot easier and made him feel a lot more comfortable about public safety because they realized the client was actually doing well. He just had been having a lot of trouble going to the CSO’s office and waiting in the waiting room.

(ET): So between the moments of joy and the moments of “intensity,” what keeps you going?

(TS): I certainly don’t do this work for any awards or appreciation from clients. The greatest joy I have is seeing somebody who has been homeless for their entire adult life get their own apartment, or somebody who has never had a job for more than just a few days at a time go to college and take classes, or successfully complete a culinary training program and follow their path. Just seeing our clients reach their personal goals and really find their true potential – when they’re supported – is the greatest satisfaction to me from what I do. When a client calls me to say, “I got my apartment,” it's just really a great thing.

(ET): Who has served as a mentor to you during your career?

(TS): I would have to say that the most influential person in my career was one of my law professors, Gay Gellhorn at UDC Law School. She supported me when I was a law student and I worked for her as well. I remember she tried initially to get me to go work for a firm so I could get training, but I definitely wasn’t firm material as far as I thought. But I was trying to decide what my first job after law school was going to be and looking at the fellowship possibilities. I thought maybe I was going to work on LGBTQI issues because I had done work on that before, or maybe HIV/AIDS. But she asked me one day where I thought I was needed the most. Who needed me the most? Who was in dire straits? And when I thought about that I realized that it was, at that time, young people with emotional behavioral problems who really needed me more. There were so many advocates who were working on issues that turned out to be same-sex marriage and things like that. It would have been really exciting to be a part of that and yet at the same time I feel like I did go where I was needed more and it has been more meaningful for me.

I know you’re going to ask me about young people in the profession. I was just thinking about this. What an amazing time to be going into public interest law! I think about the president, conservatives and liberals, all talking at the highest levels about criminal justice reform. I think about Black Lives Matter and what they’ve done to bring racial justice to the top of the conversation. It’s really incredible how much energy there is around critically important issues and if you want to make a difference, you can. I can’t think of a better way to spend your career and time than to do something that can really make a difference and something you can feel passionate about. Every day think, “What can I do to contribute?” I just think it’s truly an amazing time.

(ET): So other than telling people, “Do it. Take that leap. Get in,” do you have any advice for them once they’re in the public interest arena?

(TS): I have law fellows every year – two, one-year fellowships. And people ask me a lot, “Why don’t you just raise enough money so you can make these permanent staff positions?” We’re very fortunate to have generous support from Georgetown and the DC Bar Foundation to fund the fellowships. So one of the reasons I do the fellowships is that I love to have new energy and new ideas that law fellows bring, because everybody brings a fresh perspective every year. A year is so short. It goes by really quickly. I was fortunate to have a two-year fellowship when I started out. But one year goes by very quickly. It’s hard to break into public interest work. It’s another reason why I really like that JPAP has these fellowships. Because I think it’s important to help people who want to break into public interest to have that opportunity to gain the experience that will enable them to go to other organizations. That experience is the critical piece. In that one year or first two years of public interest work, get as many experiences as possible. Find out what you like; find out what you’re good at; find out what you need to work on more. That’s the time, when you’re new and you have the hours to put in, to really find out where your passions are and where your special strengths are, where you can contribute them the most.

(ET): More broadly, I know you’ve lived in the area your whole life, so as a long-time DC resident, what are your favorite spots here?

(TS): I have so many favorite spots, it’s really hard to narrow them down but I love that the Disability Rights DC office is right by Union Station because I’ve always loved the trains coming in and out and thinking about where people are going every day. I’ve brought my kids to Hopscotch Bridge and watched the trains leave the station. So that’s one of my favorites.

Rock Creek Park is another favorite. It’s one of those spots where you can be in the city and yet feel like you’re many, many miles away. Peirce Mill is especially one of my favorite places to go, especially now that they have it up and working again. It connects us to the history of the city. So I like being out in nature. The Arboretum is definitely another favorite spot. With every season there’s something new to see. It’s a place where you can walk, ride a bike, learn to ride a bike, have a picnic, it’s just a really wonderful space. And a hidden place that a lot of people don’t know about in DC, which surprises me, is the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. A lot of people know about the Arboretum but they don’t know about the Aquatic Gardens, which are very different and beautiful and if you take the nature paths, you’ll see all kinds of wildlife on the Anacostia River that you wouldn’t believe would be in a city. You’ll see a great blue heron, egrets…. It really shows you that there’s a lot of nature that’s just right here in the city. It’s an especially good place to take kids. They see things you don’t see in these ponds and I think it has to do with the height difference. They’re right down there and they see frogs and tadpoles and all kinds of things. By the time we adults lean down to see what was there, it’s gone. So it’s a really neat place.

(ET): Alright, best question of the day. What books are you reading?

(TS): As a parent of young children, it’s a miracle if I ever get to read a book. But I used to really love comics when I was young, and I did go back to reading comics like The Dark Knight, the Batman series because it was something I could read a little bit at a time. But I did just complete a novel: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s a twist on a typical time travel story, about people who are born and die and are born again but as the same person and at the same time, and this happens over and over again, and the implications for being born again into the same life with 700 years of experience about what’s going to happen. So it was very interesting. I think it's important to have fiction on my bedside table because given the intensity of the work we do, I have a difficult time reading nonfiction. I think that my brain is really looking for a way to relax and go someplace else for a little while, and a great novel can really take you places.

(ET): So how do you do it?

(TS): What do I say to parents of young children trying to do public interest work? I won’t lie. It’s a huge challenge to balance parenting young children and public interest work. And I happen to be in a double nonprofit marriage; my wife works for the Red Cross and I’m with Disability Rights DC, so we’re both very passionate about our jobs. But there’s a lot of negotiating that goes on. It’s really about being present when you are with your kids. Really taking the time to put the phone down and give them your full attention. You’ll enjoy it more. Fifteen minutes of undivided attention is worth more than an hour of trying to do two things or three things at one time. I think another key is to lower your standards about a lot of things. It would be impossible to be a perfectionist about a clean house, about cooking organic meals from scratch all the time, although I do try. These pressures we have these days as parents, what we’re expected to do is just unrealistic, certainly not what our parents did for us. So I think when we let go of that quest for perfectionism as parents, then our jobs become a lot easier.

My wife and I are actually taking a parenting class right now and the philosophy is encouraging your kids. When they talk about encouragement, it means not doing things for them that they can do themselves. So it’s a lot more responding, really listening to their feelings and listening to their problems, but not trying to jump in and fix things; encouraging them to learn how to do things and be more independent around the house. The result is a much more helpful atmosphere. And you find that in that atmosphere, you’re spending more time together, doing things that need to be done rather than the stress of, “I have to get this done while this child wants my attention,” and it’s a really great approach. I’m already seeing changes from it. It’s really cool. Also, I couldn’t do it without the patience and understanding of my staff and my coworkers. There are times when the kids are sick and there’s no place for them to go and work still has to get done. The people around you need to be understanding and supportive of that and I definitely get that.

(ET): Thank you so much for your time and everything you do to help our community. Congratulations on receiving the Justice Potter Stewart Award this year.

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