A Journey Abroad And Beyond: Jasmine McGhee’s Travels As An Eisenhower Fellow

Jasmine, a Black woman with black hair, wears a pale grey sweater and a black jacket. She is smiling and standing with a long road, green foliage, and large trees behind her.Jasmine McGhee is Special Deputy Attorney General and Director of the Public Protection Section with the North Carolina Department of Justice. A native of North Carolina, McGhee earned her undergraduate degree at UNC, graduating with honors and distinction. She moved to New York to attend Columbia Law School, where she was a member of the Columbia Law Review and a Paul Robeson Scholar. Following her graduation from law school, she worked as a Law Clerk for Andre M. Davis in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland and as Counsel with WilmerHale in Washington, D.C., before returning to the Triangle in 2015 and working in private practice. She joined the North Carolina Department of Justice under Attorney General Josh Stein in 2017.

From 2020-2022, McGhee led the staff for the Task Force on Racial Equity commissioned by Gov. Cooper and co-chaired by Attorney General Josh Stein and Associate Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court Anita Earls. Because of her interests in racial justice and equity and criminal justice reform, she became curious to explore these issues through a global lens. Meeting and engaging with others around the world as an Eisenhower Fellow was the perfect way to dive further into her research and engagement with these issues.

After she learned about it from a mentor in state government, she decided to apply for the inaugural Eisenhower Fellowship USA Justice program, and in 2022, she was one of thirteen individuals selected for the program. Her colleagues hailed from across the United States. In December, McGhee traveled to Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Ghana as part of her work in the program. In this interview, she describes what led her to pursue this fellowship, her research interests in racial justice, and how this experience broadened her horizons in both new and unexpected ways.

McGhee asked that we provide the context that we conducted this interview before the recent killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn.

One conversation can make a lasting impact on a leader. Glimpsing a new perspective or approaching a concept from a different angle can empower that leader to find novel paths for improving communities. As a result, lives can be changed.

What if leaders could spend a focused amount of time having these conversations while learning about different cultures and meeting others who are keen to better the world?

This is the experience that the Eisenhower Fellowship program makes possible for participants.

It was an experience such as this one that NCBA member Jasmine McGhee hoped to have when she applied to the USA Justice Fellows program, a new Eisenhower Fellowship established in 2022.

The Eisenhower Fellowship program, created in 1953, was established to identify and connect mid-career professionals by bringing them together for an opportunity that is one of a kind. Fellowship participants travel for several weeks, meet past and present fellows, and engage in conversations in the U.S. and around the world.

The USA Justice Program offers attendees the chance to travel abroad, widen their perspectives, and have critical conversations that will help them in advancing their efforts to improve the world. The 2022-23 cohort included participants who are leaders in various fields, such as law enforcement, health care, economics, education and law.

The Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland, photographed by McGhee during her fellowship.

In 2022, McGhee was nearing the end of her tenure as the staff lead for the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC).[1] As this phase of her work was drawing to a close,[2] she was reflecting on how to make progress on the work brought about in response to the events of 2020.

“2020 was a challenging year – in the midst of the pandemic, we saw incident after incident of Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. So many people were thinking and talking about this issue, and it gave us the opportunity to bring new people into long-standing conversations and talk about real solutions. Now, three years later, we’re in a different moment. Our challenge now is to figure out how to move the ball forward on progress and equity, even if it’s not as front and center for a lot of people as it was in 2020. Because attention spans are short. How do we still promote culture and systems change? That was kind of the big-picture question I was asking going into my fellowship.”

“We [TREC] were tasked with looking at the criminal justice system as a whole. Obviously, policing was the reason that Governor Cooper decided to create a task force via executive order, but the mandate was really to look at everything from the beginning – from law enforcement, recruitment and retention and training, all the way through reentry.”

While the task force has been a major focus of her role at the DOJ over the last three years, McGhee shares that all the issues that she and her team work on deal with how to protect and improve the lives of people in North Carolina. She works on public safety and civil rights matters, as well as sexual assault policy, domestic violence policy, and human trafficking.

She says that her role has given her a background on many different issues and the ways in which they intersect.

“I think that that work of the task force and our work at DOJ allow us to really have a broad perspective on what public safety means, what fairness means, what equity means and just trying to bring a wide lens to those questions.”

The opportunity to converse with other global leaders about racial justice and criminal justice, as well as to connect with other fellows interested in improving their communities, were two of the reasons Jasmine McGhee applied for the Eisenhower Fellowship program.

She was honored to have been selected as a USA Justice Program fellow, especially as a member of the program’s first cohort.

Her travels ended in December, and over the last few weeks, she has been thinking about all that she learned.

“To have the experience that I had was really wonderful. I think throughout the selection process and since, it’s been apparent that the best part of it is really the network of fellows and the connection to the people who have come before you. There are a number of folks here in North Carolina who have been nothing but welcoming to me, and I’m really looking forward to being a part of this group for years to come.”

McGhee sits with ten people around a table. Artwork is seen behind them.

Eisenhower Fellows eat dinner together in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

McGhee’s journey began in the Isle of Ireland, where she met with leaders in the justice system and former fellows who welcomed her to the country with warmth. She spoke with, among others, the Secretary-General of Ireland’s Department of Justice Oonagh McPhillips and Assistant Secretary Neil Ward. Both are also Eisenhower Fellows.

The atmosphere of hospitality was evident in each place she visited there.

“Ireland is a beautiful country, in both the south and the north. We walked into every single meeting and there were cookies, and biscuits and tea, and coffee. We are lucky have water in many of our meetings here in the U.S., and so I thought, we need to step it up.”

She describes how important it was to recognize some of the differences between Ireland and the U.S.

“I think that Ireland and probably much of Europe have different cultural contexts than the U.S. on criminal justice issues, and so for a lot of conversations, it felt very much like apples to oranges – like ‘That will never happen in the U.S. the way that happened here’ – but of course, you want to make space for the interesting ideas that we ought to try here, if there were the political or public will. But one of the things that stood out the most about the Ireland experience, even more of the specific practices and policies, is that their race context is so very different than ours here in the United States.

“They’ve only had immigration for the last 20 years. Prior to 2000, Ireland was essentially all white. And so when I talk about apples to oranges, you can’t really talk about criminal justice and racial equity without recognizing that context. At the same time, we saw them starting to struggle and see some of the same issues that we see in this country in terms of racial disparity, in terms of particular immigrant communities having higher interactions with law enforcement, or feeling like they were being profiled.”

Ireland had recently had a high-profile officer-involved killing of a Nigerian immigrant, George Nkencho, who was going through a mental health crisis. McGhee met a young second-generation Black Irish lawyer (a real rarity) who was a friend of George’s, which drives home how important it is to not just talk to policymakers, but also directly impacted people. McGhee also sat in a Police Listening Session in an immigration community.

Following the visit, McGhee has been thinking about Ireland’s approach to resolving these issues.

“What was interesting about it is that they were centuries, even decades, ahead of us in trying to address racial disparity [or “equality” as they called it]. We would say to them all the time, we think you really have a lot of opportunity here to try to get this right and try to be really intentional about disparity and trying to eliminate it out when you can, as soon as you can. That was the thing that stood out the most about the experience. Oftentimes, here at home we would still be arguing about whether there was a disparity and whether we would do anything about it.”

She had meaningful conversations with local leaders, and she also visited with former fellows while adventuring in the beautiful Irish landscape. One Eisenhower Fellow, Mary Walsh, invited her to stay in their home as a guest and to embark on a hike with her and her husband.

The emphasis upon personal connections makes the program unique. Participants become a part of an expansive network of fellows all around the globe.

“It really has, you know, created a really robust network of friends.”

Following a week in Ireland, McGhee journeyed to Derry and Belfast in Northern Ireland, where she spoke with Derry Mayor Sandra Duffy and members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Although Northern Ireland was not very racially diverse, McGhee observed similarities between the racial context in the U.S. and the Irish/Catholic context in Northern Ireland.

McGhee, wearing a white blouse and black suit, stands with fellows and Duffy, who wears the livery collar with a green gemstone.

McGhee, second from left, is pictured with other Eisenhower Fellows and Derry Mayor Sandra Duffy during McGhee’s visit to Northern Ireland.

From her discussions, she had conversations about the difficulty of building or rebuilding relationships between key stakeholders in the aftermath of conflict – and oppression.

“They have had ‘an issue’ – that is an understatement – with Catholics and Protestants, and they have only had about 20 years since ‘the Troubles’ ended.  And they have had and are having conversations like, ‘How do you diversify law enforcement? How do you hire the right kind of officers that want to be a part of the new type of Police Force they are trying to build post-Troubles?’ At one point, 97 percent of the Northern Ireland police force was Protestant. And they had what they call ‘positive discrimination,’ their interesting term – what we call affirmative action – to get more Catholics in law enforcement and in Northern Ireland.

They are having conversations around trust between community and law enforcement, about the systems beyond law enforcement that need to be in place to promote community safety in under-resourced neighborhoods. How does law enforcement police a community that may have serious questions about trust because they are seen as a tool of the oppressor, and how does law enforcement build that relationship and that trust so that there’s a shared responsibility for public safety? They have these questions in a religious and socio-economic context as opposed to a race context. But the conversations felt very familiar to me.”

She continues, “I didn’t necessarily recognize the machine gun when I walked into the Derry police station – shout out to ‘Derry Girls,’ a great show and a popular one over there.”

After spending a week in Ireland, and some time home with her family, McGhee made her way to the final stop in her journey as fellow: Ghana.

Traveling to Ghana was personally significant.

“As a Black American, to be in West Africa was already just such a life-changing, bucket-list experience. And what stands out to me the most has to be going to the Cape Coast Castle, and Elmina Castle, where so many Africans were held, and the last place where they were put on ships to be enslaved.

“That was an incredibly emotional experience. It is hard to fully describe to you how privileged I felt to be able to have that experience, but also how difficult it was. It was also an incredibly welcoming place in a different way. You would have people who would come up to me and say, ‘Welcome home, sister.’ That was wonderful. I enjoyed being able to travel around and see different parts of Ghana.”

Two black cannons are on the edge of a white railing, where the coast and town are visible in the background.

Elmina Castle in Ghana.

While in Ghana, McGhee met, among others, with Dean Raymond Atuguba, professor at the University of Ghana School of Law; Angela Dwamena Aboagye, who established the Ark Foundation, an organization created to help resolve issues related to gender-based violence; and Sheila Minko-Premo, an attorney specializing in domestic violence policy.

McGhee summarized her takeaways regarding the racial context and criminal justice system in the country.

“It’s a Black country, but there are issues related to poverty and criminal justice, as you would imagine, and there were issues related to ethnic groups and bias, which shows itself in different ways there than it does here. And of course, there is the impact of colonialism, which has generally led to a harsher criminal justice system.

“There’s a lot of work to be done. There are many people working to improve criminal justice. I met a warden in the women’s prison there. She told me she was traveling around the world basically having experiences like mine trying to learn how to improve things. There are really significant challenges related to equity and fairness.”

McGhee illustrates one of those challenges, which is how to help the population of individuals who have been incarcerated for long periods of time because they lack access to money or cannot afford representation. Prisons are often overcrowded, and services are limited  – all issues we face in this country, but with much fewer resources, and even political and public will, to respond to them.

McGhee, wearing a golden blouse, stands outside with several teachers in Ghana who are Black.

McGhee with a Local Assemblyman/School Leader Hon. Daniel Acheamfour and teachers at a school in Asiwa, Ghana.

As she learned about these concerns, McGhee became invested in conversations about how to improve the criminal justice system in Ghana.

“It was tough to hear in certain cases. I told some friends that when you have an experience like this, you go into it thinking, ‘I’m going to bring all these ideas back home. Maybe there’s something that will stick.’ But you also get pulled into where you are, and you want to help, and you want to think about ways you can give back and provide something to the people who are being so generous with their time.

“At one point, I remember a Ghanian law enforcement officer that I was meeting with said, ‘Oh yeah, we need help with this, and we can’t wait to hear what you’re going to recommend to change it.’ I said, ‘Oh, me?’ You sort of feel like a part of the culture that you are visiting and you’re trying to learn about, which is a great experience, but also somewhat daunting.”

Her Eisenhower Fellowship trip has concluded, but she sees it as only the beginning. Now, she is even more committed to her work here at home. Her continuing work is to find ways of incorporating all that she has gleaned into her everyday work to advance equity and protect the people of North Carolina.

“The beauty of the opportunity we have here at DOJ is that we’re always looking at ways that we can be helpful to make things better for the people of North Carolina. But we aren’t always the people who are implementing the specific program or idea, and so I think what this means to me is that I’m always on the lookout for new ways that we can be helpful to those who are closer to the problem, to the challenge, and are able to implement the solution.”

She is thankful to be connected to the community of Eisenhower Fellows and is especially grateful for the people she has developed friendships with along the way. The conversations have sharpened her ideas and will have an impact on what she does in the future.

What was her greatest discovery during her travels?

“What stands out the most is that you can’t fix everything in one fell swoop. Even when things seem incredibly daunting, the work that people are doing to promote equity, to improve quality of life, they are making a difference and they are making change. A friend of mine likes to say, sometimes, it feels like we are preaching to the choir, but ‘the choir still needs to be fed.’

“I had an opportunity to talk to so many people who were all doing what they could from where they sat, to try to improve their communities. Seeing that work, seeing people continue to do work in really challenging circumstances and have real commitment over years-long periods to try to improve their communities is probably what stands out most.”

A waterfall with foliage is shown, and rainbow is visible over the lake that is under the waterfall.

The Wli Waterfall in the Volta Region of Ghana.

McGhee is one such individual who is doing all that she can to improve her community.

Beyond her work with the DOJ, another way that McGhee has made an impact is through her membership and service with the NCBA.

McGhee joined the NCBA in 2015 to meet and connect with other professionals in the area. After practicing law in Washington, D.C., for seven years, she had recently returned to the Triangle to work in private practice and was eager to become involved in the legal community.

“The NCBA was really critical to my own professional development and being connected with other lawyers in North Carolina, and so I’m incredibly grateful and thankful for that experience and have remained involved.”

Since 2020, McGhee has served on councils for two sections, the Criminal Justice Section and the Government & Public Sector Section. She is the 2022-23 chair of the NCBA Awards and Recognitions Committee after serving as co-chair last year.

She is a member of the Minorities in the Profession Committee, where she served as the co-chair from 2019-2021 and chair of the Legal Legends of Color Subcommittee from 2017-2019. For two consecutive years, she helped to plan the Legal Legends of Color event at the Annual Meeting.

“Legal Legends of Color is a special, special thing, and it was an honor to be a part of it for so long, and I cheer it from the sidelines now. Every year, it’s one of the best events in the annual meeting. [Make sure you submit nominations for this year’s LLOC by March 3!] I have enjoyed my time on both section councils. I have had opportunities to plan CLEs and social events and to stay connected with members of the bar.

“Working to support lawyers and law students of color in the profession is very important to me, and there’s a real sense of community in Minorities in the Profession, in particular, in the NCBA.

“I think that’s why so many people stay involved year after year.”

Jessica Junqueira is communications manager for the North Carolina Bar Association.

[1] Gov. Cooper established the Task Force For Racial Equity in Criminal Justice on June 9, 2020.

[2] Governor Cooper extended TREC via Executive Order 273. Attorney General Stein remains a member, but Secretary Eddie Buffaloe joins Justice Earls as a co-chair.