In early 2022, Deksyos Damtew was finishing up his year as CC Student Government Association President, looking forward to graduation, and, like many college seniors, trying to figure out his next steps.
“If you asked me while at Colorado College what would be [my] dream organization to work for, I would have told you the Equal Justice Initiative,” says Damtew. “At the time, I imagined that dream would be, at the earliest, available to me years after law school. However, I’ve learned over the past year to take your opportunities when they arise.”
And, with a lot of hard work, arise they did. While at CC, Damtew interned for Judge Maria T. Fox of the Colorado Court of Appeals. After graduating with a BA in International Political Economy and receiving a Davis Projects for Peace grant to facilitate civics education workshops across Colorado, Damtew worked as a campaign coordinator for Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. Then, in early 2023, he reached the goal he had initially felt was so far away, beginning work as a Project Assistant at the Equal Justice Initiative.
EJI, located in Montgomery, Alabama, was founded in 1989 by public interest lawyer and author, Bryan Stevenson. The organization is a nonprofit that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. The lawyers and staff of EJI challenge the death penalty and excessive punishment and provide re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people. They work with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment and are committed to changing the narrative about race in America.
“As Ethiopian American immigrants, my parents learned quickly that they would be viewed as ‘others’ in the United States,” says Damtew. “As I grew up, my mother helped me become critically aware that despite my education or accomplishments, in this country, race would always play a role in driving outcomes in my life.”
Throughout the initiative I was constantly reflecting and doing my best to make sure I centered the voices of marginalized folks who often have their mental health needs ignored. I was constantly reminded that solving complex problems requires time, collaboration, and an unapologetic affirmation of my values.”Deksyos Damtew ’22
This early teaching pushed Damtew to fight injustice and work for the common good throughout his time at CC and beyond. “Despite this rather bleak lesson, my mother remains hopeful and reminds me to never let others take away my joy. At EJI, we work with folks who have experienced some of the most horrific injustices of our American legal system. Our clients come from communities that have been marginalized by economic and racial injustice. My mother’s lesson of holding onto joy and hope frames the way I approach my work.”
As a Project Assistant at EJI, Damtew provides support for the organization’s various project areas, including their anti-poverty initiative and the organization’s legal intake, as well as representing EJI through various presentations in Montgomery and across the country.
Damtew often finds himself on the road engaging with EJI’s clients and community partners. “I have the privilege of working with clients who, despite their circumstances, hold a capacity for hope that I have not seen anywhere else in my life. I do my best to reflect that hope,” he says.
Damtew knows that his time at CC was a key factor in preparing him for his current role. “As an international political economy major, I took a broad range of classes and had the privilege of learning from thoughtful and critical scholars within their field of study. I spent most of my time outside of the classroom playing intramural sports, competing on the Speech and Debate team across the country, and serving on a committee working on the implementation plan for Colorado College’s new antiracism initiative. My senior year, I ran for student body president and pushed for the prioritization of mental health on campus. The initiative served as a culmination of what my peers, professors, and staff had taught me during my time at Colorado College: ask questions, deeply reflect on how not only others uphold systems of power and oppression, but how you uphold them too, and to speak up in the face of injustice.”
I’m committed to a continuous process of learning and confronting difficult truths. EJI has provided me the opportunity to do both. Working towards a vision where the United States is more fully able to grapple with its history of racial injustice provides me with hope that we can then work towards healing.”Deksyos Damtew ’22
It was this experience that shaped him to take on the challenges he now faces in his new position. “My time advocating for mental health resources, collaborating with students, professors, and staff prepared me the most for my current role at EJI,” says Damtew. “Throughout the initiative I was constantly reflecting and doing my best to make sure I centered the voices of marginalized folks who often have their mental health needs ignored. I was constantly reminded that solving complex problems requires time, collaboration, and an unapologetic affirmation of my values.”
When asked which aspect of the EJI mission he is most passionate about, Damtew speaks to the company’s commitment to truth and reconciliation. “EJI’s public education effort that focuses on telling the narrative of racial inequality in the United States helps me more fully understand the crisis of mass incarceration we currently face. I’m committed to a continuous process of learning and confronting difficult truths. EJI has provided me the opportunity to do both. Working towards a vision where the United States is more fully able to grapple with its history of racial injustice provides me with hope that we can then work towards healing.”
Damtew believes that EJI is one of the most dynamic and innovative organizations in the United States and hopes to continue learning from all the inspiring leaders he gets to work with. “I am grateful for the path that I’ve been on and am learning to embrace the unexpected and to take my opportunities as they come.” He also says his new location is bringing a host of new lessons as well. “With this being my first time living in the South, I am constantly re-examining my biases, and challenging myself to expand my understanding of the United States as a whole,” he says. “Moving forward, I’m committed to a career in public interest law, where I hope to take an intersectional lens to examining the way the law upholds and fails to uphold justice.”