Organizations like Out For Justice are all too familiar with individuals affiliated with institutions swooping in to “help” by conducting research on them. Like the system they’re part of, these individuals often center their own interests rather than those of the communities who are experiencing harm. But every once in a while, an individual emerges who is willing to engage, evolve, and elevate the voices of the affected to contribute to the transformative vision of a grassroots organization. Elaina McWilliams has embodied this.
Passion, Self-Reflection, and Personal Growth
Elaina is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-C) who is drawn to identifying and dismantling the barriers that separate different types of people. Her volunteerism began at a soup kitchen at the age of 11, and in later years she went on to organize punk rock show fundraisers for rainforest conservation, participate in volunteerism-based clubs, and coordinate service learning opportunities for students and teachers.
These rewarding experiences sparked a desire in Elaina to pursue a professional career in social work. After graduating from the University of Maryland with a master of social work (MSW) in 2006, she began working in community-based clinical settings, supporting individuals struggling to manage issues such as HIV, AIDS, gender identity discrimination, homelessness, and poverty. Through the work with her clients, she recognized the profound connection between her clients' struggles and the criminal legal system.“The majority of my clients were impacted directly or indirectly by the criminal legal system, and it was frequently the topic of conversation in our therapy. We often spoke about persistent mental health and broader life impacts of criminal legal system involvement,” Elaina says. These frequently led to discussions around how to tackle these issues at the policy level, advocacy work that Elaina is so passionate about today.
Simultaneously, Elaina was learning the importance of acknowledging her privilege as a non-impacted white woman working with vulnerable individuals who are primarily people of color. Elaina's combined external and internal experiences shaped her perspective and inspired her to question social systems and norms from a young age. She was raised in a religious Jewish household, attended orthodox Jewish primary school, could not eat non-kosher foods with her friends and was often told that her religion was inferior and that she needed to convert to Christianity. While outwardly benefitting from many privileges as a white, middle-class woman who reads as heterosexual and neurotypical, her internal queer and neurodivergent identities have also fostered a sense of connection to the struggles of those who felt marginalized, excluded, or devalued within the confines of societal norms. These external and internal experiences fostered increased awareness and a motivation to support others who felt excluded; however, the work Elaina did early in her career as a social worker shed light on the harmful impacts that even well intentioned white, non-impacted professionals can have on disenfranchised populations.
After several years working as a social worker in Baltimore City, Elaina began a doctoral program in Clinical and Community Psychology Psychology with the goal of using research to change injustices in the criminal legal system. She also knew she needed to better understand systemic and institutional racism, and engage in self-reflection on her role in it before jumping into something that could potentially cause further harm to traumatized communities. It was while she was taking time to read, study, and participate in anti-racism classes that Elaina met Nicole Hanson-Mundell, Executive Director of Out For Justice (OFJ), at an event. Elaina then volunteered to support the organization. But impacted Out For Justice members and staff, led by Nicole, a formerly incarcerated Black woman, exercised due caution before fully embracing someone with Elaina’s life experience.
Showing Up and Centering Impacted Individuals
What sets Elaina apart from others who had come before her, is that she didn’t assert OFJ’s needs based on her academic training or propose meaningless research projects devised without the input of staff and members. Instead, she offered to do whatever was needed without complaint. From cleaning out the closets to setting up events, Elaina consistently showed up to perform tasks truly needed by the organization. “It wasn’t my space, so it wasn’t my role to say what was needed. I told them the skills I had but didn’t assume what I should be doing. They appropriately used me for the very basics because there was no reason for them to trust me initially,” Elaina explained.
Over time, Elaina came to be known as a trustworthy ally who uses her white privilege to support Out For Justice’s community in an authentic way. The organization’s staff and members grew to develop genuine relationships with her as she consistently showed up, put in the work, and centered the voices of impacted individuals. Elaina used her privilege to support the needs of members and uplift the work they were already doing. Elaina’s academic and professional acumen led to her leadership roles in the Women’s Pre-Release Center campaign and the organization’s overall development strategies.
Through it all, Elaina and Nicole have developed a unique personal relationship that transcends traditional professional relationships. Nicole acknowledges that neither she nor Elaina are perfect; what’s important is their ability to give and receive honest feedback, even when it feels uncomfortable or challenging, without judgment. That openness to personal growth by both parties has also contributed to OFJ’s growth in recent years.
In 2022, Elaina reluctantly decided that the time was right to take a sabbatical from OFJ to complete her PhD program in Clinical and Community Psychology. As much as OFJ means to her, it had become too challenging to fully dedicate her efforts to her OFJ work, her academic requirements, and to her family. While everyone at OFJ misses Elaina, they know their friend and colleague is pursuing her dreams and doing what’s best for her and her family. Upon earning her PhD, Elaina intends to return to the organization with even more skills and knowledge to further contribute to OFJ’s successes. Nicole honors everything Elaina has contributed to Out For Justice, and while Elaina has learned a lot from her and the organization, Nicole values everything she has learned from Elaina as well. And when the time is right, she will be welcomed back with open arms.