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Healing Justice founder, award winner Jennifer Thompson named 2024 commencement speaker

by Chris Hilburn-Trenkle

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work will honor its 2024 graduating class of master’s and doctoral students on Saturday, May 11, at noon in Memorial Hall. 

Healing Justice founder and 2016 North Carolinian of the Year Jennifer Thompson will serve as commencement speaker for School of Social Work graduates.  

“As they enter and work in the field, I hope the students understand the deep need to connect with crime victims and survivors and others who have been harmed by our justice system to help form communities for those individuals, so that those harmed can then begin to find a sense of belonging, a sense of safety, and a sense of healing,” Thompson said. “That is really what we all need. We live in a world that is so focused on ‘othering’ one another that we forget that we are all more alike than we will ever be different.”    

As a survivor of sexual assault who endured the added trauma of the wrong man being convicted of the crime, Thompson is aware of the widespread harm caused not only by violent crime but also by criminal justice failures that result in wrongful convictions. As she knows far too well, there are simply not enough resources available for supporting anyone in these cases, particularly the crime survivors who feel left behind and forgotten.  

In 1997, Thompson met the man — Ronald Cotton —who was wrongfully convicted of her sexual assault and exonerated after 11 years in prison. Thompson became a pioneer of restorative justice in these cases through building a friendship with Cotton, and they co-authored the bestselling book, “Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.” The pair later received the Special Courage Award from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime in 2015, after which Thompson founded Healing Justice. 

Thompson has received countless accolades over the years: she served as a commissioner on the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission from 2013 to 2018; she’s an award-winning public speaker; and she’s testified on behalf of crime survivors and victims for criminal justice reforms before state legislatures and the United States Congress — yet she still felt she was taking a leap when she made the decision to found Healing Justice in 2015.    

Jennifer Thompson, Healing Justice founder and UNC School of Social Work 2024 commencement speaker

Prior to founding the organization, Thompson worked with other national restorative justice leaders to create a model for bringing crime survivors and exonerated individuals together to engage in restorative healing in the wake of wrongful convictions. 

More than eight years after its founding, Healing Justice is a leading force in addressing the harm caused to all impacted by wrongful convictions and preventing future harm. Through its healing programs, Healing Justice offers opportunities for collective and individual healing to crime survivors, the exonerated, both sets of families, and others. In its justice programs, specialized training and assistance to criminal justice professionals is provided to expand and improve support and services for crime survivors. The March 17, 2024 episode of CBS News’ 60 Minutes featured the personal stories of Thompson, other victims and crime survivors, as well as Healing Justice’s healing retreats and its work in changing the criminal justice system.

As Thompson describes, this unique model of intersecting programs results in transformative justice, through both transforming the lives and communities of those harmed and leveraging their experiences to transform the justice system. 

“When I hear the stories from the people we serve — and hear how Healing Justice has helped them — it means everything,” Thompson said. “It could be an exoneree trying to recover from 10 years in solitary confinement, or a mother whose child was in prison and whose family was not able to celebrate holidays for 20 years. It could be a murder victim’s family member who says, ‘Before we came to Healing Justice, we could not even mention our loved one’s name, it was just too painful. Now, after Healing Justice, we can share memories and stories about her and laugh as a family again.’ Or rape survivors who, after working with us, start to love themselves again and finally develop agency in their life choices. It is these individuals and families, their stories of survival and healing, that Healing Justice is about.”  

Thompson, who received her bachelor’s degree from Elon University, has multiple connections to Carolina. Two of her brothers attended UNC; her husband is a current UNC-CH professor; Healing Justice’s director of healing programs, Brittany Shefter ’17 (MSW), is a UNC School of Social Work graduate; the organization is a practicum partner for the School of Social Work and its board of directors includes Associate Dean for Advancement Kandace Farrar.

“To say that we are looking forward to Jennifer Thompson’s commencement address is the understatement of the year,” said Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson.

Denby-Brinson added that Thompson herself embodies the power of healing and restorative justice.

“Her passion, skill, and commitment to helping individuals and communities grow and move forward to reclaim their life and power is worthy of emulation,” Denby-Brinson noted. “She demonstrates what we hope for our social work graduates — that they will help others overcome barriers, hold systems accountable, and model for those that they serve what it means to thrive in life.”

While it is her first time as a commencement speaker, Thompson is no stranger to speaking in front of large audiences. She hopes that students will understand that every person is carrying their own story and will not make assumptions about others around them. 

“Being able to work with young people, men and women, who are choosing social work as their profession, their vocation, and knowing the work that they’re going to be doing out in the world with people who are carrying stories of their own, personal traumas and their own harms, to be able to talk to them and impart whatever wisdom I have throughout my journey to help them move into this next phase of their journey, to me it’s just such a huge honor,” Thompson said. 

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