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The 2021 Partners for Justice Conference finished its virtual week-long gathering Friday with a presentation by Access to Justice Commission Director Reena Shah and a powerful keynote speech by author, artist, and social justice advocate Chris Wilson, sentenced to life without parole at age 17.

Wilson’s journey to reclaim his freedom – and a greater sense of purpose in life – is the subject of his book, The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose. During Friday’s presentation, Wilson was introduced by the Honorable Cathy H. Serrette, the Maryland Circuit Court Judge whose decision to reduce his sentence eventually enabled his release.

Wilson’s keynote address wove a deeply personal, moving tale of growing up amid public and private violence. He shared his heart wrenching childhood experiences of his mother being assaulted by her partner, an unethical police officer, and the fear of living in an environment where friends and relatives were lost at an alarming rate. He also spoke of his one ray of hope, a beloved grandfather, whose loss devastated him, but whose presence inspired him to be better – even when facing life without parole.

Wilson described his focus on improving himself during his incarceration and his development of his “master plan” to move forward with a meaningful life. He hopes his work, encapsulated within his book, will inspire others to find the hope and strength to develop enriching lives when they are released from prison.

Wilson described how he loved when incarcerated persons read his book and challenged him, declaring, “I’m going to do even better than you! Wait til you see my master plan!”

Wilson’s powerful storytelling is a prime example of the goals of the panel in which A2JC Director Reena Shah, along with Sam Scarrow of Voices for Civil Justice and Caitlin Brown of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, participated. The final presentation of the day, the program was entitled, “Tools and Best Practice for Effective Storytelling and Communications.”

During the presentation, panelists discussed how legal services organizations can select personal stories for broader media coverage, and work successfully with the press to raise issue awareness while still protecting one’s client. A2JC’s Reena Shah discussed her commission’s new Maryland Voices for Justice project and the A2JC Dispatch, which both aim to share stories of the civil justice system and help the public better understand what terms like “access to justice” mean and why it such an important issue. Shah also gave participants a quick tour of the Story Map created by the Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force. The tool, which is the first of its kind, allows legislators, researchers, community stakeholders, and the public to access facts and figures related to the civil justice issues around  Maryland.

Held annually, the Partners for Justice Conference brings together elected officials, legal services staff, human services agencies, members of the judiciary, the public and private bar, and others dedicated to the work of improving access to justice in the Mid-Atlantic Region. This year’s virtual event featured panelists and presenters from over two-dozen organizations. Other program offerings ranged from discussions of sexual harassment in fair housing to tech tips and legislative updates.