Everett Mitchell ’10: Building the Beloved Community

Everett Mitchell at Inclusion Forum

After completing his bachelor’s degree at Morehouse College, the all-male, historically black liberal arts school in Atlanta, Everett Mitchell considered staying in the South. Then he read a speech by the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. describing a vision for a “beloved community.” As King saw it, the beloved community is not only a place desegregated by law but one that is integrated in spirit, a place where people from all walks, all beliefs, and all races live and work peacefully, side by side.

According to Mitchell, “My world at that time was all black: black school, black churches,
black restaurants. In Atlanta, you can live without ever seeing a white person if you choose. But I didn’t like that I didn’t have diverse friendships. I started thinking, as a human being, what kind of world do I want to construct?”

So the Fort Worth, Texas, native left Georgia for New Jersey to earn master’s degrees in divinity and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. “I took that leap to further explore my theological underpinnings in a new place because I wanted to build that sense of a diverse community,” he says.

Now the 2010 UW Law School graduate makes his home near Madison, Wisconsin, where he holds two jobs: as a “man of the crest,” he directs UW-Madison’s community outreach efforts; and as a man of the cloth, he pastors at Christ the Solid Rock Church on the city’s east side.

The Brand for All Wisconsinites

In his UW role, Mitchell works with local leaders and organizations to build ties between the university and the community. He believes in the power of education to change lives and speaks persuasively on the importance of the university’s mission and its crest.

“Often certain communities solely pay attention to football games and Final Fours as the brand of UW. But there are daily, intricate changes being made on this campus — because researchers and staff and students are investing their whole selves into that crest, into that W,” he says. “And those resources belong to everybody, not just the wealthy or the elite. This is the brand for all Wisconsinites.”

Mitchell says that bringing people together — people whose paths might not ordinarily cross — is his favorite part of the job. He was instrumental in launching the new UW South Madison Partnership, a collaborative space in Madison’s Villager Mall that brings the university closer to where people live and work. Neighbors can hold community meetings in the space, take courses, get health information, and learn about UW admissions. UW Law School’s Neighborhood Law Clinic, which handles housing and employment disputes for low-income residents, is based there, too.

The goal is to increase access and understanding between the university and the neighborhood while working together to resolve community issues. As he sees it, the UW crest, displayed prominently  at the South Madison Partnership offices, serves as both a guide and a testament to the university’s work: “Now people in south Madison see the university helping out with legal issues, helping out with health issues, helping out with education. This is not just a university program. It’s the University of Wisconsin in their neighborhood,” he says.

The Church Where Everybody Is Somebody

As lead pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church, Mitchell works just as hard to make his religious community a welcoming one, and he challenges his parishioners to do the same. From his pulpit, he examines the relationship of the church to social issues such as poverty, mass incarceration, and sexuality.

Everett Mitchell at Baptist Church - LGBT

Two years before the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage, Mitchell took up the issue of marriage equality in his church.

“If we’re going to be a church where everybody is somebody, which is our motto, that means everybody needs to be included, regardless if they’re broke, rich, homeless, gay, straight,” says Mitchell, who started preaching as a teen in Fort Worth. “It just doesn’t matter. We accept all people.”

Christ the Solid Rock, like many American churches, leans conservative when it comes to LGBT issues. The long process of reckoning his congregation’s civil-rights understanding of marriage
equality with its theological understanding took some patience, Mitchell says. And his legal training helped. “We had a series of conversations around biology, conversations around history. When we framed the conversation from a legal perspective — slave states making laws to define black bodies, and using the Bible to justify it, for instance — some people began to make the adjustment.”

Though Mitchell didn’t win unanimous support from his 400-member congregation, last year he officiated at the wedding of two female parishioners who had been together for 45 years. The event makes Christ the Solid Rock the only member of the Madison African American Council of Churches to recognize same-sex marriages.

Mitchell says he’ll persevere on matters of social justice within his church and his community. “Are we using religion as a tool to oppress or as a tool to liberate? That’s what concerns me. As a church, we don’t participate in systems that deny and oppress,” he says.

A Pivotal Law School Moment

In law school, Mitchell thought he’d pursue a career in public defense, representing those too poor to hire an attorney. That was before Professor Michele LaVigne pulled him aside one day to suggest he reconsider: LaVigne, who directs the Law School’s Public Defender Project, was hoping Mitchell would instead apply for a job with the Dane County District Attorney’s office.

“The fact that my public-defender teacher was encouraging me to become a prosecutor? I promise you, I thought I had severely failed the whole course,” he recalls. “But that moment was pivotal in my law school career.”

LaVigne says Mitchell would have excelled as a public defender, but she felt the community needed him as a prosecutor even more. “We need prosecutors who understand the complexity of the human condition,” she explains. “There’s this quote from a well-known death-penalty attorney who says, ‘Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. And because of that, there’s this basic human dignity that must be respected by law.’ Everett believes that to his very core and lives it.”

At that point, Mitchell began to think about the discretionary power that prosecutors wield: sorting through allegations to decide whether or not to press charges, and making decisions about bail, plea agreements, and sentencing. “Before, I had viewed the DA’s office as adding to the disparities, filling up the prisons with all these black and brown bodies. Now I could see myself in a position to make decisions about whom to charge and whom not to, whom to go after and whom to protect. I realized that this could  be something I could use differently,” he says.

He competed for a position as assistant district attorney in Dane County during his final semester  in law school, won the job, and started a week after graduating. But he says that the passage earlier that year of Wisconsin’s Act 10, which restricted state employees’ collective-bargaining power, worsened working conditions in the already understaffed and overworked office. Eventually he applied for his current position with the UW, this time at the urging of his wife.

Though he no longer earns a paycheck as a lawyer, Mitchell keeps his bar license active so that he can continue to take pro bono cases, one at a time. And even before law school, he was making regular trips to Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, where he still leads nonviolent-communication groups for sex offenders. He calls this his most essential, most transformative work.

“This is my way of giving back to the community. I firmly believe that if you can touch the lives of individuals before they come back out and assist them in that process of rebuilding their lives in a positive way, that makes our whole community safer,” he says.

Making a Home in Wisconsin

Finding a diverse, beloved community to call home — the one that Mitchell has strived for since he first read King’s speech in Atlanta — has not come without consequences. His two years in Madison before law school were lean ones: even with two advanced degrees, he struggled to find employment. He wound up working at a call center for a while before taking a job at the Madison Area Urban Ministry as a prisoner reentry coordinator.

“By the time I enrolled in the university, I had lost everything,” he recalls. “I was a single father going through a divorce. I was homeless. All I had was my little baby, a two-year-old at the time, and a letter in my hand that said, ‘You have been accepted into the University of Wisconsin Law School.’ That’s all I had.”

With the university’s help, he found housing and childcare, enabling him to pursue his studies. He worked his way through school, all the while continuing his commitment to service. As students, he and a classmate developed Tying Your Tie, a program to prepare jail inmates for the workforce. He led Bible study and taught Sunday school.

Eight years after starting law school, Mitchell counts his blessings. He remarried — his law school classmate Mankah Zama Mitchell ’10 — and with her, he’s raising two children, ages ten and two. In and outside of his jobs, he’s known as a community leader on social justice issues, and he’s racked up a number of awards in recognition of his service and commitment.

And even as Madison and Dane County struggle with growing racial disparities in health, child welfare, criminal justice, and income, Mitchell has chosen to put down roots and to continue working to make his community better. He has earned a reputation for saying what he thinks, which occasionally lands him amid controversy. He knows, though, that hard conversations about race and poverty don’t lend themselves to sound bites, and that peace is not the absence of conflict.

“I am where I am because I got a letter that had that UW crest on the front. I still have it at my house. I look at it every now and then, and I just reflect on where I was eight years ago,” he says. “I don’t think if I was in any other place, in any other city, that I would have the opportunities I’ve been given here.” ◆

In His Own Words

As told to Tammy Kempfert

Everett Mitchell at march

When a Madison police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager earlier this year, community tensions ran high. Tony Robinson’s death at the hands of Officer Matt Kenny spurred weeks of protests. A local group called the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition led the demonstrations, and Everett Mitchell, who has served as the group’s mentor and guide, could often be seen at the front.

Here, Mitchell discusses the shooting and its aftermath, when Dane County district attorney Ismael Ozanne, a 1998 UW Law graduate, announced that the officer involved would not face criminal charges.

I was home with my wife when I got a call telling me that a police officer shot a boy down on Willy Street. Later came another call saying two brothers, friends of Tony Robinson, had been taken to the police station, and that my help as an attorney was needed. Now the rest is about to be history.

I go down to the jail. The police won’t let me see the boys, and I said, “I’m an attorney. This is my bar number. I’m an attorney, and they called me. I need to talk to them.”

Time after time, I was told, “No.”

Now everyone knows that when you ask for an attorney, they let you have your attorney. Everybody knows that. They gave Officer Kenny three days to get his story straight, but for four or five hours, they held those young boys. What are they trying to hide when they denied us the opportunity to make sure those boys were okay, after their young friend had just been killed by a police officer? Something is wrong when we can’t even do law-and-order kind of justice.

Phones popped out, and people started recording. They were recording from different angles, recording everything the officers said, what the boys’ stepfather said, what I said. Then, lo and behold, the community flooded the Dane County building in protest.

The kids were angry about Tony. Our community was angry, and rightly so. Young, Gifted, and Black responded: “This is how we’re going to give our youth a voice. We’re going to lead a march, and we are going to let them come out of school, and we are going to be able to take them to a place, to the capitol.” That’s all directed energy.

People said they worried about violence. I said, “The rhetoric has been violent, but the only person who has been killed is Tony. Everything else has been peaceful.” If there had been no Young, Gifted, and Black, I don’t know what this city would have turned into. They’re the ones who gave structure to anger and passion. And we were present. You can’t do nonviolent action from a distance. You have to be right there in the middle of it, and you have to be willing to guide it, and embrace the negative and the anger, and begin  to push it in a way that leads toward progress.

I obviously think the DA could have come to a different  decision.

As a former prosecutor, I know sometimes you have to charge, sometimes you have to put the case together and let the jury make the decision. In this particular situation, the explanation was that we only charge cases where we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and there’s nothing in this particular case that the justice system could have proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The question is always, “Is that a question of law, or is that a question of fact?” If it was a question of law, the DA was within his purview. If it’s a question of fact, then that’s a jury question. And I believe there were enough discrepancies in Tony’s case that it should have been a jury question.

There were many different options, such as pulling a grand jury together to see if there was enough evidence to move forward with a criminal complaint.

And there were many pieces to the puzzle. For instance, whether or not you have criminal liability is different from whether or not you have departmental police review, and that review process says the officer did everything right — that yes, it’s unfortunate, but he followed procedure, and tragic things happen in the line of duty.

That just doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t feel right. And that’s because it isn’t right. Where’s the value in these lives when they can say the officer followed procedure, and he can come back to work? I don’t even know who the man is as an individual, but we have failed in our community when he follows procedure and this is what happens. ◆