Meet Mitchelle Woodson
Today we’d like to introduce you to Mitchelle Woodson.
Mitchelle, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I am a second generation American, born and raised in San Diego. Growing up, I had a relatively unstable childhood. I am a product of parents who fell victim to substance abuse and the fast lifestyle that accompanies it. As a result, my family was directly impacted by the criminal justice system and I witnessed first hand the gaps in the system that fail to protect families such as mine. As a youth, I moved around quite a bit, looking for stability wherever I could find it. I attended three different high schools and by my junior year, I transferred to an adult school to quickly begin my adult life.
The college had never been in the cards for me. It had never been something I thought was possible for someone like myself and families like mine with parents who had not even completed high school education. Then, at 18, I became pregnant with my daughter and it changed everything for me. I often say that this was the single most pivotal moment of my life. I was not sure where my life would lead, what career path I would eventually pursue, but I knew for certain, that I had to do more for her. I knew that at the very least, I had to find a way to provide an opportunity for a better life for my daughter.
I enrolled myself in the San Diego City College, with no plans on where my education would lead. I was fortunate enough to meet professors who would help to shape my educational journey and fuel my passion for social justice. I eventually transferred to UCSD and graduated with distinction with a bachelor of science in political science. I then attended law school, welcomed my son during my second year, and finished my last semester on the honors list.
I joined the Think Dignity as the Staff Attorney for the Homeless Youth Legal and Advocacy Project, where I directly represented homeless and at-risk youth in their criminal defense matters while also providing holistic support in connecting them to social services to meet their needs. It was my dream job because I had the opportunity to both represent youth with similar experiences as I had growing up and I was able to play a role combatting the damaging effects of the criminal justice system, that I knew all too well.
I now serve as the Executive Director and Managing Attorney of Think Dignity. As the Executive Director, I oversee the daily management of Think Dignity’s operations, including the Transitional Storage Center, the Mobile Operations of Dignity and the legal department. As the Managing Attorney, I oversee the Homeless Youth Legal and Advocacy Project, the 8 Legal and Referral Advocacy Clinics and the Know Your Rights campaign that aims to empower individuals with knowledge of their legal rights.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
My journey has been far from smooth but the obstacles I have faced along the way have helped to fuel my passion for social justice and advocate for marginalized populations.
I recall a moment that truly served to ignite my drive to accomplish my goals. As a young mom working my way through community college, I applied for County benefits for additional assistance in helping to provide for my daughter. At the time, social workers would do unannounced home visits to check on the welfare of the child and ensure the home was a safe environment. A social worker came by to check on my living arrangements and asked me how I planned on providing for my daughter. I excitedly exclaimed that I just enrolled myself in community college and I had dreams of eventually attending law school. The social worker looked at me a said, “You should probably find another path, something more realistic because there are no lawyers on welfare.” I remember feeling so utterly defeated but I would not allow this woman to see the pain in my eyes after she diminished my dreams with one swift sentence. I cried that night and so many nights after. Yet, this moment solidified my determination to turn my dreams into reality.
As a young woman of color in a profession that is dominated by white males, I am often in spaces where I am the outlier, the exception. I am often questioned about my education, my credentials, my work and challenged on whether or not I deserve to be in the same spaces. I’ve learned to take ownership of my story. I place value on my life experiences and I now see them as my superpower because it is these very experiences that make me a good advocate for others. I unapologetically take the space that I deserve and use that platform to give space to others and help to uplift their voices. I believe in building up communities, the value in providing people with opportunities to flourish and the magic that happens when you trust in the power of people to heal our communities.
Tell us more about the organization.
Think Dignity is a local homeless advocacy agency with a mission to inspire, empower and organize the San Diego community to advance basic dignity for those living on the streets. We embrace a vision where basic dignity is understood to be a universal human right; where everyone has a voice; and where those that suffer from a lack of services have a safe place from which they can be heard. TD provides homeless San Diegans consistent, sufficient and safe access to services that provide stability and allow them to begin the transition out of homelessness.
Since 2006 TD has embraced and expanded its role as an advocacy agency committed to advancing basic human dignity through the following programs:
Beginning in May of 2012, TD stepped in to assume management of the Transitional Storage Center, where over 400 homeless individuals safely store their personal belongings while they work, attend classes, job hunt, or obtain medical care. Since then, more than 500 individuals have benefitted from the stability the TSC provides.
Our Fresh Start Showers, the first of TD’s Mobile Operations of Dignity (MOD) Squad, is a 2-shower mobile trailer the brings basic dignity to our unhoused neighbors by providing access to safe shower facilities in various communities throughout the County. Think Dignity offers more than showers by partnering with hairstylists, barbers, social service providers and more to create a holistic, hospitable experience for our participants. Since 2016 we have provided more than 3000 showers to our unhoused communities.
The Street Boutique, the second MOD Squad program, is aimed at providing homeless individuals with access to brand new, unused undergarments, menstrual hygiene and incontinence products. This program helps to restore basic dignity while also preventing long-term health concerns. Since 2017 we have provided more than 3400 menstrual hygiene kits and more than 600 undergarments.
The Street Cafe, the latest of the MOD Squad programs, provides access to healthier food options and resources. This program was developed to address nutrition insecurity, as many homeless individuals experience serious health issues that are exacerbated by a lack of access to healthier, nutritious options that are in line with individual dietary restrictions. Since 2018 we have provided more than 1500 nutritious meals.
Since 2012, TD has been providing access to justice for San Diego’s homeless community. TD hosts several weekly Legal Referral and Advocacy Clinics (Clinics) to empower the homeless to take the first step towards addressing their legal issues in an atmosphere where they feel safe. Since 2012, we have assisted nearly 900 individuals with a multitude of legal issues.
As an expansion of our Clinics, in 2017 TD began a unique, one-of-a-kind program: the Homeless Youth Legal and Advocacy Project (HYLAP). HYLAP provides direct representation to homeless and at-risk youth ages 14-27 in their criminal defense matters while also pairing up each client with an advocate who connects them to social services to provide a more holistic approach to addressing barriers in their pathway to success. Since 2017 we have directly represented more than 160 homeless and at-risk youth in their criminal defense matters and have saved over $500,000 in court fees and fines. Our client successes include overcoming housing insecurity, gaining stable employment, enrolling into four year universities, and most importantly, pursuing their passions.
TD’s Survival Supply Distribution is a semi-annual event that brings the community together to collect and provide essential supplies, such as sleeping bags, warm clothing, hygiene items and pet supplies, to the unsheltered population during the summer and winter months.
Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I believe that I was fortunate in my journey to have had moments in my life that provided me the opportunity for growth. My life experiences, both good and bad, have helped to contribute to the person I have grown to be.
I hesitate to use the word luck because I have worked hard to achieve my version of success. Nonetheless, I cannot underscore enough how fortunate I feel to have been catapulted into a career where I feel, and know, that I am contributing, every day, to leaving a better world behind. I am appreciative to work for an organization that trusts in my vision and alongside colleagues who value my leadership. My colleagues are incredible individuals that work hard every single day to bring light to the darkest places. They are powerful and they do good, always, and for that, I guess you could say that I am incredibly lucky.