Lurene Kelley has spent the past 21 years as a journalist and educator in Memphis, exploring the ins and outs of our city. Today, she manages communications and special projects for the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. As adviser to Just City, Lurene works hard to raise awareness about the value of independent advocacy for people in our community who are unable to afford an attorney. Lurene and her husband, Chris Kelley, moved to Memphis in 1995; they were engaged and moving here so she could take a job as a reporter at WREG-TV. Lurene and Chris have two children; she says they “took awhile (9 years after getting married) to decide if we wanted kids; Maddox is now 10 years old and my daughter Cleo is 6, and because of these kids, both sets of grandparents relocated to Memphis!” Today, we’re thrilled to feature Lurene as our FACE of Memphis!
Do you have a mentor or role model?
I’ve had a number of incredible mentors through the years — so many of my colleagues and managers in journalism and higher education have shared so much with me and have contributed a great deal to my professional and personal growth. The most influential mentor has undoubtedly been the former chair of the University of Memphis Department of Journalism, Dr. Jim Redmond. He was a fellow native Montanan and former journalist in Memphis and somehow, we found each other! Not only was he my professor, but also the chair of the dissertation committee and, eventually, my boss. He taught me so much about working in large bureaucracies, management skills and personal life balance. But mostly he taught me about fighting the system and defending your principles. We didn’t always agree on what those fights were, but we respected the need for the struggle.
What do you find most rewarding in your work with the Public Defender? What is the most challenging aspect?
The most rewarding part of my work is the deep education I’ve received about the critical nature of right to counsel. I had always thought myself a compassionate person and progressive in my politics and actions. But I did not have a great appreciation for how deeply the quality of indigent defense affects the criminal justice system and, ultimately, our society. How seriously we take the defense of the rights of ALL people in our community matters. When we have a strong public defense system that is resourced well enough to provide zealous advocacy, it keeps all other systems of the criminal justice system in check. I feel fortunate to now have a deeper understanding of this, and I am rewarded when more people come to internalize this perspective. That’s how change happens.
The most challenging aspect is realizing what an uphill battle it is to convince a critical mass, enough to bring real reform, of this perspective — that the rights of poor people, even those accused of horrible crimes, must be protected and protected well. We are a community that is often hobbled by fear, particularly fear of poor people of color. This affects middle- and upper-class people of all races and ethnicities. It’s this belief that being poor, black and male in this city is a recipe for criminality. And this bias begins so early — even against poor, black children.
What are your favorite local causes?
Aside from right to counsel, my favorite local cause would be promoting public education. My children both go to Peabody Elementary in Cooper-Young, and we do a great deal to fundraise and increase awareness about the school. While there are so many wonderful private schools in our community, my hope is that more people who can afford or are cobbling together resources to send their children to private schools will consider public schools. Shelby County Schools, particularly those in the inner city, need more diversity, both in terms of race and socioeconomics. There are things that middle-class families can do for public school that families just struggling to get by cannot. And our public schools need that influx of families, resources and influence.
You live in Midtown. What do you like best about your neighborhood?
I actually live on the border of Central Gardens and Cooper-Young, but much of our life takes place in Cooper-Young. My parents, Sal and Georgene, live there. My kids go to school there. My parents walk right across the street and pick them up from school. And we can walk or ride our bikes to Memphis Made Brewery, Sweet Grass Next Door, Young Avenue Deli, Mulan and DKDC. The things we love most are all right there in our neighborhood.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
I know this sounds cliché, but it’s my kids. I can’t believe they came from us sometimes. They change each year, each month, each day. Sometimes their moods change every hour. Before we had kids, I thought it would make our lives boring. But it’s made our lives so much more interesting. Also challenging and exhausting, but they teach me things about myself all the time. And I just can’t wait to see what they become.
Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower, it would be …
… to fully function on one hour of sleep each night. There’s always so much more I want and need to do every day. Mostly, I just want more time to do the things I should get done so I can read more Onion articles and make more music playlists, which are my guilty pleasures.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Be patient. I have a tendency to want to figure out solutions quickly and take action. Mostly to move things off my plate, but many things require patience. Some things need to resolve themselves, and there’s nothing I can do but hold on. And I need to be more patient with everyone in my life — my kids, my husband, my parents, my friends. I often like to move fast and have things move fast. But patience requires you to slow down and know you can’t control most things.
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
I can’t live without Bluetooth in my car, because I need it for my music and Google maps. I can’t live without a weekend nap, even if it’s just for 30 minutes. Lastly, if I’m honest, I can’t live without social media. It’s a big part of my work and personal life, and I learn a great deal about people, Memphis and the world from it.
Thank you, Lurene, for sharing a look inside your world with our readers. And thank you to Micki Martin for today’s beautiful photographs.
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