As I walked into the State Attorney’s Office I felt my hands starting to shake. Growing up, I saw state attorneys as bad people; I thought they only tore families and communities apart; I thought that the were curt and cold people whose goal was to hand out as much jail time as possible.
Walking into the lobby I was kindly greeted by two security guards and went through a security check in. Once completely checked in, I sat in the waiting area listening for my name to be called out. Sitting there, I began to think about my experience with the court system. I remembered the time I spent in jail. I remembered all the court hearings I attended in shackles, fighting for my freedom. I looked around the waiting room in disbelief. I thought to myself “I’m on the other side now.” I wasn’t going there as an inmate, victim, or criminal. I was going there as a professional. I was going there to interview our State Attorney…
Alyssa: What is one thing people don’t know about you?
Melissa: I am a private person. Getting in front of big crowds scares me. But I have found solace in in the fact that I believe in my message. I think it’s easier to step out, even if you are nervous when you are passionate about what you are advocating for.
A: What is something you wish you knew more about?
M: I want to know about influential women in history. I just started reading this book on Margaret Thatcher and it’s absolutely captivating. I wish I had more time to read and to learn, there really is so much I want to know about. I think being curious is important, so I’ll continue to be curious.
A: What inspires you?
M: My children. My husband. The people that I meet here every day who suffer tragic loss, the lawyers I work with.
A: How would you say being a woman has affected your career?
M: I’m still frequently one of a few women in the room. I was in a meeting earlier today, with probably a couple dozen men, and I was one of two women. So by virtue of being a woman I bring a different perspective to the table. It is so important to have different perspectives, more voices and different voices.
A: What are some common misconceptions about your job?
M: I think people assume that our sole focus is punishment, but our job is far more complex and broader than just that. Our job is to enforce the rule of law, but the ways in which we reach just results are myriad and nuanced. Getting the right result is always our goal and the right result can be very different case by case.
A: Who are some women in your life that have influenced you?
M: My mother has three sisters, and my dad, one. I have two sisters and I have a rockstar grandmother who if were here [in the room] would be the life of the party. These women — my grandmother, my mother, my sisters, and aunts — have been paramount in shaping me into the woman I am today. They have given me the confidence to be true to what I believe. They have influenced my life.
A: What lead you to become a State Attorney?
M: When I was a little girl I loved mystery novels. My dad spent his entire career in law enforcement and I was always fascinated by his work. So when I went to law school I knew I wanted to be an assistant state attorney. I wanted to be a trial lawyer and to work in the field of criminal law. My first job out of law school was working at the State Attorney Office and I thought I would stay my entire legal career, but in 2009 I left to work in private practice. My plans changed, but it was one of the best moves I ever made because I now have a much broader perspective from representing clients. And then the opportunity to run for this office arose. I care about this community and it seemed to me that justice was in imbalance. I wanted to bring balance back. I had the background and relevant experience to seek the job and the passion to lead change. Luckily, I had the community’s support. And now, I am surrounded by a great team.
A: What drives your passion for being involved in the anti-trafficking movement?
M: First, it’s you, the survivors. You all are the most influential in this movement. I Mac Heavener, who is now one of my chief assistants, was prosecuting a trafficker in federal court when I was in private practice and asked me to get involved to represent the young woman who was the victim. That’s where I started to learn about trafficking. I have been inspired by the work Rethreaded does. Mukti was so compelling, the stories of survivors were stirring and hopeful. Because of the work that is being done we are already seeing changes. A mindset shift is being forged as to how we look at girls and women caught in the the cycle. It’s amazing.
A: Why is it necessary for Jacksonville to take part in the anti-trafficking movement and what are you doing to spearhead this effort?
M: Because human trafficking is happening right here. It’s all around and people are suffering. And trafficking intersects with so many different criminal issues. We have to help in ending this cycle. So our role in this movement is being part of changing the mindset. We have dedicated a prosecutor to work in a special division and she is focused solely on human trafficking cases. She is involved in ongoing investigations; she is plugged in with our law enforcement partners and with our nonprofit partners. She is currently researching what we hope to spearhead here in Jacksonville, which is a diversion program for women identified as victims of trafficking. If we can appropriately identify those women and girls who are victims and help them break the cycle, we will have better outcomes for those individuals and our community.
A: Why is it important for people to support organizations like Rethreaded?
M: Because of Rethreaded’s track record. At Mukti, we listened to the stories of success of women who have made it to the other side and who have done so because of Rethreaded’s work. Rethreaded is changing lives, and not just the lives of the women who work there, but also, of the network of people connected to those women. Rethreaded is giving women opportunity and importantly they are giving them the ability to know their value. This is one of their greatest gifts that anyone can receive.
People tend to judge others based off of their personal experiences with them. It’s easy to get caught up with misconceptions and blame people for things they’ve done. Even if they’re just doing the right thing or doing their job. As I’ve walked along my journey, my views of certain people have shifted from negative to positive.
Melissa Nelson has shown me that not everyone is who they are made out to be. She is not all the negative words I used to affiliate her job title with. She is a powerful woman. An influential woman. She is my hero. As I walked out the state attorney’s office, I held my head high. I walked out with confidence and pride knowing that this is the woman who is changing things in our community.
This blog is part of our Influential Women Blog Series. To learn more, check out the rest of the series.