Mary Lynn Stevens always told me that her job as development director for Safe & Just Michigan was the capstone of her career. After all, it brought together many of the things she is most passionate about in her life: her thirst for justice, her love of connecting people to causes they care about and the fun she has making a case for what she believes in. Her work at Safe & Just Michigan relied on her ability to do all of these things, and we were all fortunate that she did it so well. Her effort was an important factor in our growing into one of the nation’s leading state-level, policy-based criminal justice reform organizations.
So it’s understandable that we have mixed feelings lately as we watch Mary Lynn prepare to retire. We don’t want to see her go because we rely on her so much. We’re sad to know our time with her is running out, because her workplace expertise is matched only by her passion for the people we serve. And, frankly, we’re a little nervous, too, because it’s her success at fundraising that built a strong foundation for Safe & Just Michigan to grow on, and it’s hard to imagine what a future without Mary Lynn might look like.
Fears about that last part, at least, have been put to rest. Throughout January, Mary Lynn has been working alongside incoming Development Director Amy Smitter to prepare for a smooth transition. We look forward to Amy continuing the work Mary Lynn began, and we know we’re in good hands.
But Mary Lynn is one of a kind, as anyone who’s met her knows. Our office won’t be the same without her.
When I asked her, Mary Lynn gave two answers to why she became interested in prison work. The first reason links back to the time she worked at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn Campus as the director of corporate and foundation relations from 2001 to 2011. It was there that she met Lora Lempert, a sociology professor who was actively involved in bringing education programs to incarcerated women at Scott Correctional Facility (and later, to Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility). Mary Lynn was asked to help by fundraising to provide books and other materials for the lessons, but it wasn’t until about 2007 that she made a visit to the prison herself.
The second answer, she says, is rooted in her values. Mary Lynn grew up in a devout Catholic family. Though she is no longer a member of the church, she retained what she considers its core values: the messages of love for all people, of not judging others, of responsibility to the marginalized. “If you have that deep within you, you feel the need to live it,” she said.
But for Mary Lynn, that doesn’t feel like an obligation. Meeting with incarcerated people and working with them to reach their goals and become advocates for change is rewarding work — for her as much as for anyone she works with, she says. That was apparent to her from her first visit.
“I was so impressed by the curiosity and intellectual hunger of the women there,” Mary Lynn recalls of that first visit. “I was impressed by how they worked to solve problems. And they really do. They’re working on legal problems, they’re working on policy problems and they’re working on problems within.”
One of the things that impressed Mary Lynn about the people she met at prison was that many of them were working hard to better themselves in an environment that didn’t exactly foster self-improvement.
“I noticed a lot of patterns. There were many people who had very difficult childhoods with limited adult supervision, limited education and limited resources, and they sought what we would all seek: community and acceptance. That led them to people who didn’t always have their best interest at heart, and drug abuse and prostitution. It’s almost a miracle that people find a way despite all those circumstances to dig deep and figure out how to be who they want to be.”
In talking with Mary Lynn, it’s apparent that she holds deep respect for the people meets in her prison volunteer work. She celebrates their victories and worries over their setbacks like they are her own. She insists that this volunteering should be undertaken by people who see themselves as equal to — not apart from or above — the people they meet with.
“This is work we do with people who are incarcerated, not for or to them. We do it together,” she says.
For many years, it was also work she did alone or with one or two other volunteers. But for the past two years, she has volunteered alongside six to eight others from Friends for Restorative Justice – Washtenaw County. And she’s always on the lookout to bring more people into the fold.
“To bring someone an opportunity for them to make the sort of change we’re talking about, that’s a privilege,” she said. “It’s also fun.”
And that’s what made Mary Lynn not just a fantastic volunteer, but a fabulous fundraiser.
She observes that most Americans are giving people — we give to our faith communities, to animal shelters, to political campaigns and causes we care about. Mary Lynn’s talent is finding people who care about the same cause she does. Then, she provides them a way to get involved.
In some cases, that means showing them how to go out to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility with her. Other times, it means getting involved less directly.
Professionally, it meant making Safe & Just Michigan’s case to foundations, corporations, and individual donors.
“I love the exercise of making a persuasive case. It’s about what’s possible. It’s beautiful yet practical. It’s demonstrating to people that we can make this change and showing them how we can do it,” she said. “And we have wonderful funders and donors who are passionate about reform and generous about supporting it.”
Mary Lynn has never taken all the credit for her fundraising success. She’s always pointed to her colleagues for SJM’s accomplishments, whether it’s the policy know-how and strategic thinking of our Executive Director John Cooper and Policy Analyst Josh Hoe; the community organizing efforts of Outreach Director Troy Rienstra; the research chops of Member Services Specialist Dena Anderson and Research Specialist Anne Mahar; or the encouraging support of Financial and Data Specialist Elsie Kettunen, Deputy Director Kate McCracken and Office Manager Veronica French.
But those of us who’ve worked with her know better. Mary Lynn has been a large part of the reason that Safe & Just Michigan has been able to grow and accomplish as much as we have in the past four years, and why we’re positioned to continue that growth with our new Development Director Amy Smitter — someone Mary Lynn identified as having the same blend of passion for people and love of fundraising that she herself has.
It’s because Mary Lynn helped find such a suitable successor for herself that we’re slightly less sad to say goodbye. But Mary Lynn certainly deserves her time. She spent 15 years working for the University of Michigan system, both as the director of corporate and foundation relations at the Dearborn campus and as the development director for the university’s Center for the Education of Women. Before that, she was with the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn for a decade, working in several roles as varied as curator and director of program development.
Retirement doesn’t mean she’ll be inactive, though. She plans to continue her work with people who are incarcerated and is particularly interested in changing policies regarding life and long sentences. She also wants to travel with her husband, Ed. And if I know her, she’ll save some time for her garden, too.
Happy retirement, Mary Lynn. We wish you the best!
~ Barbara Wieland