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Jason St. Julien: “We’ve reached the tipping point on race relations.”

We, as human beings, created the concept of race and therefore we can deconstruct it and create something new.

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Photo by PhotographyG.com
Photo by PhotographyG.com

In my series on people who are making a difference, I interview Jason St. Julien, an Assistant United States Attorney in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver, Colorado.  If you want to listen to a wonderful interview with St. Julien, I highly recommend The Colorado Bar Association’s Podcast where hosts Mallory Revel and Linda Moss talk about the important people and events that shaped St. Julien’s path including memorable moments as a schoolteacher, minor league baseball player, pianist and federal court clerk.  St. Julien’s recent race relations op-ed in the Denver Post put him in the Black Lives Matter national conversation.

Thank you so much for your time! I know you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what early experiences brought you to your specific career path?

 Of course.  My path to being a federal prosecutor in Denver was a bit circuitous.  Here’s how it went down. 

When the door opens, walk through it.

I was supposed to clerk for Chief Judge Ralph E. Tyson in Baton Rouge, Louisiana after law school.  He passed away a week before I took the bar exam.  Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon in New Orleans, Louisiana was generous enough to take me on after Judge Tyson’s passing.  Before I began clerking for Judge Lemmon, I reached out to mentors to figure how to retain another clerkship.  My trial advocacy coach, Jude Bourque, reached out to Judge Alfred C. Harrell in Denver, Colorado.  Judge Harrell then reached out to Chief Judge Wiley Y. Daniel in Denver.  While clerking for Judge Lemmon, I had breakfast with Judge Daniel when he was in town for a conference.  Judge Daniel eventually offered me a clerkship position.  I had never been to Denver.  I accepted the offer.  Blind faith, right?  Two years later, I became a federal prosecutor. 

So what’s the point?  I didn’t script this.  I didn’t plan on being a federal prosecutor.  Now, my world is a bigger place since I arrived in Denver almost nine years ago.       

When the door opens, walk through it.  You’ll be surprised at what you find.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you in your career or education?

I lost my voice during fifth period the first day I taught 7th grade.  Apparently, I had growled at 120 students for the past four hours and was not sufficiently self-aware to notice it.  Imagine the shocked look on students’ faces when my voice cracked for the last time.  I coughed – to revive my voice.  Nothing.

Embarrassed, gripped by panic, and sweating through my dress shirt, I internally admitted defeat.  Ironically, that point marked the arrival of my greatest teaching lessons.  I was forced to communicate with 180 students without a voice.  I learned to write directions so clearly that the students began to teach themselves.  I began to teach only with gestures, head nods, and inquisitive looks.  I learned that my non-verbal communication will forever eclipse and outlast what I say.  Most interestingly, I became the student.  My students taught me how to communicate with them, how to support them, and how to trust them.  For that, I am forever grateful. 

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting out on your career? What lesson did you learn from that?

I was clerking for Judge Lemmon in New Orleans and turned in a memorandum.  She made several edits and handed it back to me.  I included the edits in a new draft and tore the original to pieces then trashed it.  Several days later, Judge Lemmon asked me for the original draft to look at one of her comments.  My heart sank beneath the floor and I almost threw up!  I raced back to my office and prayed that no one had emptied the trash.  Hugging the trash can on all fours while thinking I would be fired that afternoon, I found the original in about 30 different pieces scattered in various parts of the trash!  I tiptoed into her office and murmured, “Here it is.”  She smiled, looked through the 30 pieces, and found the comment.  As I sauntered out, she said deadpan:  “Hey, don’t do that again.”

I never tore up another memorandum.   

What are some of the most interesting and exciting community projects are you working on now?

My good friend, Earl Johnson, and myself are working on a three-hour program called the “At Last!” project.  I created it as part of my coursework in the “Self Expression and Leadership Program” I took from LandmarkWorldwide.com, a corporation offering professional development courses in 21 countries. (Interesting fact: more than 100,000 community projects, like mine, have been created in Landmark’s courses around the world!) In my project, “At Last,” we go to a local prison and facilitate two conversations and one exercise with incarcerated persons. 

In the first conversation, we demonstrate that we usually don’t listen to anyone without attempting to respond, agree, or disagree.  That’s not listening.  That segment ends with participants looking at what is possible if people they speak with have the experience of being heard and understood.  In the second conversation, we ask participants to consider that we all have the same basic concerns, they just show up differently based on our life experiences.  That conversation ends with the idea that we, as human beings, don’t ever have to do, get, or have anything else to be connected with each other:  we are forever connected by the mere fact that we are human beings.  The program ends with an exercise where people simply practicing being with each other.  I first heard about this exercise at Landmark. Here’s how it goes.  Participants partner up and stand across from each other with hands at their sides.  They then silently look into their partner’s eyes for several minutes.  At the end, participants report back that being “seen” and “seeing” another person is a life altering experience.

COVID-19 has halted the program and we are figuring out what it looks like in the midst of a pandemic.                 

What are 5 things you would tell your younger self?

  • Love yourself.  All.  The.  Time.
  • Do the thing you fear.
  • You are the only one in your way.
  • Stop looking over your shoulder for approval, you don’t need it.
  • Exercise love and compassion with everyone, because behind the shell is a human being just like you.

You are a successful person. Can you share some tips on how young people today can get ahead?

Pursue what you want, not what anyone else thinks you should want.  Too often we give in to others’ notions of who we should be and what we should be doing.  There is no freedom in that.  The choice is yours.  Always.  You can never go wrong by being you.

Create a team of trusted advisors.  Consult with them when making decisions.  My team includes family, friends, mentors, a law school professor, judges, and current/former colleagues.  They are straight with me and call me out when I am not being my highest self.  They bring a wealth of knowledge and life experience that I cannot account for by myself.  Their insight and perspectives allow me to make the most informed decision possible.        

They say the new influencer is a #Givefluencer — how are you paying it forward with others in your life?

I am bringing people along with me.  For example, it is possible to facilitate the At Last! project by myself.  That said, I get nowhere incredibility fast when I go at things by myself!  That is why I asked Earl Johnson to join the project.  I trust him with my life.  He is charismatic, poised, and there was no one else I wanted with me in the prison other than him.  I basically told him I was not doing this without him!

I also publicly acknowledge those that have impacted my life.  The perfect example is my answer to the question below.  I met Thao Ho 14 years ago and her book recommendation changed my life.  The world needs to know who she is and the difference she made for me.  The world also needs to know that a gesture as simple as a book recommendation can forever alter someone’s life.  That’s the power we have as human beings.       

Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  My friend Thao Ho introduced me to the book about 14 years ago.  The book’s central theme, as I see it, is clear:  at all times, the Universe is conspiring to help you achieve your personal legend, i.e., what it is that you are to do in life.  That message gives me a sense of peace.  When life doesn’t go the way I want it to go, I remind myself that despite what I “think” is going on, the Universe is working in my favor – even though it may not necessarily look, sound, and feel like it.  Also, like Santiago finds out, perhaps the treasure I seek in life may very well be right here under my nose, not in some far off and distant place.

Because of the role you play in the community, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire “good news” what would be your headline and 3 talking points?

The good news is about race relations and the headline is:  “We’ve Reached The Tipping Point!”  The three talking points are: 

  • We have a critical mass of people, world-wide, who are no longer willing to accept status quo as it relates to race relations;
  • We, as human beings, created the concept of race and therefore we can deconstruct it and create something new; and,
  • This is entirely up to us, including you the reader, because no one is coming to save us.

How can people connect with you?

You can find me on Facebook:  Jason St. Julien. https://www.facebook.com/jason.stjulien.7

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