Melissa Fitzgerald on restorative justice and healing for veterans

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

There are two parts to every journey: the inner reckoning, and the outer action it inspires. MELISSA FITZGERALD’s story is no exception. Her journey from a successful actor best known for her seven-year stint on THE WEST WING to a full-time role in the non-profit sector with JUSTICE FOR VETS speaks to the wild, unpredictable nature of uncovering one’s authentic path.

For her most of her adult life, Melissa, born to activist parents, seamlessly sewed together her social justice work with her career in film, theatre, and television. Trusting that her gifts as an actor could help magnify voices and support vulnerable populations, Melissa created the non-profit VOICES IN HARMONY, and pursued documentary film-making that advocated the end of the civil war in Uganda.

Slowly, her acting career began to feel more hollow while her activism buoyed her soul. For a woman who lives by following the inclinations of her heart, it was finally time to decide. When her agent shared how demoralizing it was for her team to set up auditions that Melissa was too busy for because of her passion projects, she realized it was time to embrace her heart’s work.

Our clip begins with Melissa sharing the moment she made her leap of faith to join Justice For Vets. And fittingly, it was Silver Star recipient and Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Sgt. Tommy Rieman who helped give Melissa the nudge she needed.

Like most life leaps we’ve shared at 3-Minute Storyteller, this one was equal parts terrifying, enlivening, difficult, purposeful, and synchronously timed. And in making that leap, Melissa’s passion is now in telling the stories of the people she helps serve.

Our conversation takes place at her Washington, DC office, where Melissa now directs the Justice For Vets program. Based on the Drug Court model, these veteran treatment courts are a bright spot in our criminal justice system, but largely unknown to the public.

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. Private, for-profit prisons have increased more than 500 percent in the last 20 years. Even though violent crime rates in the US have fallen by more than 50 percent since the early 1990s, the corporations building our prisons are profiting at staggering rates.

A vital part of this American democratic experiment is asking the right—and the hardest—questions. How does our society want to handle folks when they mess up, especially folks who have given so much of themselves for their country? How can justice best be restored? How do we grapple with our punitive criminal justice system? What could a vision of integrating addicts, trauma survivors, and the mentally ill back to being contributing members of society look like? What methods bring the most healing and wholeness?

Melissa’s life is about courageously grappling with hard questions. Reckoning with them brought her discomfort, transformation, and inspired her to make life changing, disruptive choices. Good questions do that. The best ones are kind of dangerous. Melissa shows us the beauty that unfolds when we dare to ask them.

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