Tillman Scholar Voices: Transforming Trauma into Action with Jennifer Esparza

Blog, Tillman Scholar Voices | 07/31/2020

“Everyone has a role to play. And I hope that we take away from this moment that we really need to learn to value the things that everyone brings to the table.”

Our Tillman Scholar Voices blog and video series amplifies the work of Tillman Scholars who actively work toward equity and justice and showing us every day the importance of leading through action. This week we highlight Jennifer Esparza and her work in law defending human rights and what it means to serve.

2018 Tillman Scholar Jennifer Esparza is on the front lines of the fight for justice reform to help marginalized communities. Throughout her life, giving a voice to the oppressed has been a consistent passion.

Using Personal Experiences as Fuel for Advocacy

During Jennifer’s time in the military, she encountered many incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment without support or advocacy. From her first encounter with a recruiter to “almost every base and perpetuated by a man at nearly every enlisted rank,” Jennifer experienced a pervasive culture of harassment that didn’t just impact her, but the other women around her.

“It wore me down mentally and emotionally until it started to manifest into panic disorder and major depression,” she said. “And while trying to unravel that experience after separating, I started volunteering in spaces that allowed me to advocate for women veterans.”

Supporting other women veterans cemented Jennifer’s drive towards advocacy and creating better conditions for those around her. She transformed her experiences into fuel to speak up for those who aren’t heard, including through grassroots efforts aimed at restoring justice, recently in the wake of Vanessa Guillen’s harassment and murder.

“We’ve used our experiences as women veterans to try to create a grassroots effort to address the injustice that the Vanessa Guillen family is experiencing as an immigrant family and dealing with the Army and the allegations of sexual harassment before she was killed,” she noted.

A Career Dedicated to Justice

As Jennifer transitioned out of the military into a career in law, her drive to support and uplift communities who were ignored strengthened.

With her interdisciplinary background in the military, Arabic and the Middle East, and the law, she found herself interning for a Guantanamo defense team. It was an experience that brought together her passions for justice and her studies, and that serendipitously came through a family connection.

She continued to use her unique education for advocacy.  Her interests are in empowering women, especially those who were disadvantaged when entering the legal system, which led her to another meaningful project, providing legal research and writing courses to women in a maximum security prison.

“It can literally change lives by empowering these women in prison, by providing them the tools, to be able to engage with their lawyers, to be able to engage with their families and fully understand and appreciate what’s happening in their cases,” she said.

Jennifer saw the complex systemic failures that left many incarcerated unjustly because they couldn’t afford an attorney and didn’t have access to basic fundamentals of how the legal system is structured and functions.

“When we put people behind bars, we expect that they will fully understand the laws and the previous cases that are helping them land them into these prisons. But the reality is that they don’t….And lawyers aren’t always affordable. Prisons don’t always carry the resources that they need, whether it’s legal documents or access to different court cases,” she said. “Even something as simple as a course, a volunteer course on how to read and write in the way that courts expect us to really be able to do, is a powerful addition to their lives and can really help them be successful in trying to advocate for themselves or advocate for each other.”

Through this work, Jennifer identifies many opportunities for carceral reform, but her direct work representing clients in the D.C. Superior Court in misdemeanor cases underscored the need for cash bail reform. While D.C. is one of the early adopters of eliminating a cash bail system, it is far from the norm across the country, which poses major threats to the most vulnerable communities.

“Jurisdictions with cash bail systems essentially criminalize poverty,” she said. “If you’re unable to afford bail, then you’re sitting in jail while awaiting trial. And that can be anything between days and weeks or months in many cases.”

Jennifer advocates for moving to release with a presumption of innocence, which would place the burden on the government to prove the need for detention and support communities of color disproportionately impacted by the current system.

“A day or weeks in jail can mean the difference between losing your job or losing custody,” she said. “If we’re honest, when we’re looking at the communities that are impacted by that, that’s black and brown communities.”

Everyone Can Serve

Jennifer’s work helping the disadvantaged and powerless in the legal system brought her into contact with many of the issues confronting the country in light of the killing of George Floyd. As she thinks about a way forward, she sees, at the heart of the matter, the profound power of service to help shape the current world.

“Service to our country isn’t only done by joining the military,” she said. “I feel very strongly about that, especially now, more than ever. We’re seeing salutes to the medical field, to grocery store attendants, delivery folks and small business owners. And I hope that right now, people remember in this moment, they take this time as a reminder, that there are many ways, big and small, to serve your community. And while our military may be a really big defense force abroad, our neighbors are keeping us alive and fed and safe at home right now.”

For Jennifer, the small things are crucial to the country serving all members of society. Her experiences with the U.S. military has made her even more keenly aware of the small acts that can create the conditions for profound hope in all communities.

“I don’t want to diminish the ways that other people choose to serve. There are some people that … serve in other ways, by staying at home and taking care of their families, by raising children, by working, perhaps giving up a higher paying job and working someplace else that may not pay as well, simply because it gives them the opportunity to raise a family or to be close to mom and dad or to brothers and sisters,” she said. “I want people to learn to appreciate the other ways that people serve our country beyond the uniform.”