My Name is Frederick M. Spight Jr. and I am elated to be joining Alabama Appleseed as the new Policy Director. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to create broad reaching changes and reforms that positively affect the most vulnerable in the state of Alabama. My approach to the work is informed by a myriad of experiences as an attorney, educator, parent and life-long Southerner.
I am a native of Marietta, GA and received my undergraduate degree in history with a concentration in philosophy from Morehouse College. As a history major we were always told (particularly by those outside of the field) that you either go into teaching or law. I was keen on neither, but in a twist of irony I would go on to experience both.
While working in a packing plant during my college years I came to the realization that law can be a tool to help the most marginalized and voiceless in our society. It was here that I decided to go into the legal profession which took me to Winston-Salem, NC.
I graduated from Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, NC. While there I interned abroad at a Hungarian NGO, studied human and civil rights law in Austria, worked with Legal-Aid of North Carolina and the Community Law and Business Clinic while also serving as an Executive Editor of the Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy. Not to mention, I met my lovely wife while there. My constant goal was to find the best, and most effective method of advocacy that could bring broad-reaching and lifelong change to lower income people and the communities in which they live.
Eventually, my perspective changed and this led me into education where I followed the charge of Frederick Douglass who said, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” My goal in education was to reach a younger generation of students and to inspire them the way I had been inspired at Morehouse College. With the intended effect of instilling with them the knowledge to avoid many of the traps that I had seen from low-income clients at my time in Legal Services organizations. One of my fondest memories came from a student who many would describe as “troubled”. He was severely behind on virtually every metric and had significant disciplinary issues. In trying to get him to do his work I found that the key was not to let this student have any down time. I made sure to always give him more work and even would sneak in more advanced work for the challenge. One day he came to my desk and said: “You know, Mr. Spight, all of these subjects are interconnected and build off of each other.” He then went on to explain the interplay between language arts, social studies, math and the sciences and how the skills from one directly and indirectly translate to others. I told him that he has grasped what many adults who are making educational policy have failed to understand and maybe he should be the one at the table. I’m always grateful for this experience and I probably learned just as much from my students as they learned from me.
After teaching, I came back into the legal profession and to the state of Alabama via the John Lewis Fellowship at Legal Services Alabama. I focused on public benefits law, consumer issues and education law. I was able to successfully represent several clients in unemployment hearings before the Alabama Department of Labor wherein they received over $10,000 in back pay. Furthermore, I was able to use Mckinney-Vento, a federal act that allows homeless children to stay at their school of origin regardless of the district in which they might currently be living, to keep two cousins in a school after one of their mothers died and the other’s father was missing. They were both being raised by their older sister/aunt who was also a single mom of two young children at 21.
Also, I was able to create the JLF Community Growth Project wherein we focused on helping small businesses, nonprofits and other community centered organizations with their basic legal needs. To support the work I supervised a community asset mapping project conducted by several law students and also did research surrounding payday lending. This was a multipart project in that it aimed to create specific information that could be used to directly target services into communities with the highest concentrations of poverty while also identifying anchor institutions in these communities for outreach and relationship building in the future. Payday lending became an ancillary project as I realized that it wasn’t enough to help foster economic growth in low-income communities without addressing sources of resource extraction, such as payday lenders, from these same communities.
After the Fellowship I transitioned to the position of Court Debt Project Attorney where I focused on Fines and Fees work statewide. In this position, I was able to get an intimate look at oftentimes overlooked issues confronting justice-involved people. Practicing state wide allowed me to witness first hand the diversity of this great state. It also showed me how, regardless of perception or political affiliation, there are many actors who seek to reform the criminal justice system, while also battling with entrenched forces that would prefer it to stay the same. Once again, I saw this as an opportunity to address not only the economic strain on my clients, but also the strain it put on their families and communities in which they lived. I was able to get thousands of dollars of court debt remitted throughout the state. During this period I also became more aware of Appleseed’s initiatives as they focused on a lot of the issues I was focused on from a policy perspective, whereas my role brought me into courtrooms throughout the state.
As I reflected on these experiences, one of the constant forces that negatively impacts low income individuals is unfavorable legislation. For instance, as a Fines and Fees attorney the main mechanism by which I aimed to remit or reduce an individual’s court debt is based on judicial discretion. This means that regardless of an individual’s ability or likelihood of being able to pay their debt to the court, the decision to remit is largely and oftentimes based on other considerations such as an individual judge’s subscription to one theory on crime and punishment over another. One of the more painful situations I experienced was a woman who served over 10 years in prison and has been unable to find a steady job since her release. Even still, she works a variety of odd jobs to support herself. She pays what little money she can to the court, even though she frequently has a household deficit in relation to her income. To this day the court still compels her to come to court, under threat of issuing a warrant (which will most likely result in her arrest) as it tries to increase her monthly payment arrangement.
In joining Alabama Appleseed, as the new Policy Director, it is my goal to let my experiences influence good policy initiatives that will positively impact the citizens in the state of Alabama.