Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose — and inspire others to do the same.
As president and CEO of the Public Welfare Foundation, Candice Jones strives to do more than just start a conversation about what’s broken about our justice system — she wants us to visualize what a working justice system might actually look like, then get to work towards making that vision a reality.
But in order to take the time necessary to bring about that radical, affirmative change, you can’t also be chasing the spotlight.
NationSwell spoke with Jones about transformative justice, and what staying connected to purpose-driven work means for her — and perhaps more importantly, what it doesn’t.
This is what she had to say.
NationSwell: Tell us a little bit about the work you do at Public Welfare Foundation. 
Candice Jones: Public Welfare is a national foundation that does grant making primarily in youth and adult criminal justice. The organization has existed for over 70 years now, but in the last few years, we’ve narrowed our focus to really looking at this idea of transformative justice. Can we get to the place in America where we push past thinking about criminal justice reform as an antithetical statement, in terms of what we don’t want to see? What if we actually start to envision, as a nation, what justice really means to us — what we would like to see in the affirmative in the communities that are hardest hit by crime and violence?
And that means transformative justice. We’re really trying to build all of our efforts around seeding a vision for that in the future for this country. We think it’s critically important.
NationSwell: Can you tell us about a time in your professional or personal life that you made a difference by putting purpose into action?
CJ: I was a White House fellow years ago in 2012 and 2013. It’s an old fellowship program that’s all about developing leaderships from multiple sectors and all over the country. They bring you together in Washington. They place you in a job, and they allow you to lead on a public sector issue.
And I was pretty excited. I was an attorney by training. I had done a lot of youth and criminal justice work up until that point. It was pretty sure I would end up in a placement at the Department of Justice, where I thought I was uniquely qualified to bring value at the time. And I ended up instead in a placement at the Department of Education, which was not originally what I had envisioned for myself, or what I thought was a natural fit.

“When you look at people who you really believe are doing the work, they don’t have time to tweet about it at the end of the day.” — Candice B. Jones

And I really had to make a choice about whether or not I was going to be frustrated about how things had shifted, or if I was really going to focus on the potential good that could be done. And what I really thought about is, while there were tons of people who were willing to think about the youth and adult criminal justice system at the Department of Justice, interestingly enough, there weren’t a lot of those people at the Department of Education because so many of those folks there felt like that wasn’t their core issue — they were there to think about education and education systems.
So it gave me a unique opportunity to have a good discussion in the Department of Education about how their choices could lock people out in the youth and adult criminal justice systems. And so I really used that time to start to focus that conversation, work with partners there and grow support for what ultimately became a plan to reinstate access to Pell for youth in juvenile justice facilities across the country; and on the adult side, what was the creation of experimental grants to test whether or not we should be reinstating Pell on the adult side, which became a larger project around Second Chance Pell.
It was a good learning lesson for me early on in my career. I come back to that story a lot because it would’ve been very easy to just be like, “Oh, I should be where a lot of other people just like me are probably greatest,” and it turns out the best use for me was to be in a place where actually everybody didn’t think like me. Because then I could actually engage in some real discussions.
NationSwell: What advice do you have for others on how they can better act with a clear sense of purpose?
CJ: I think the thing that we all struggle with as humans is that we have to divorce our personal interests from our potential purpose. Can you prioritize the thing that you purport to be doing in this world over whatever it’s going to mean for you personally?
I think we’re seeing a lot of that in the way people approach the civic sector and public service leadership. I would always say public service should feel more service than public. It’s not about celebrity. It’s not about the spotlight. When you’re doing it right, when you’re doing it with a lot of intent and humility, it usually feels more like a slog.
Maybe you aren’t the first one in line to get the magazine interview or coverage of yourself personally, but if you’re focused on the purpose that inspires you to serve, your ability to impact the substance of the work and to get other people to trust and partner with you becomes much greater. If you could just suppress some of the other things that are maybe driving and motivating you and really make sure that it’s about the purpose, I think that’s a game changer for people who are driven by a social sector mission.
When you look at people who you really believe are doing the work, they don’t have time to tweet about it at the end of the day. They’re doing the work, not for fanfare, not for visibility. They’re doing the work because they care about the work. I meet a lot of young people all the time, and they want to have these incredible careers. They want to be the next Bryan Stevenson. Bryan Stevenson wasn’t what he is now at 28. Like there were decades of dedicated service and a ton of humility that went into the shaping of the moment that he’s having now. Not enough people acknowledge that.

At a time of extreme tension and uncertainty, people are losing confidence in traditional institutions’ ability to solve bigger problems facing our communities and environment. To fill the vid, leaders and organizations are expected to make a commitment to a purpose that benefits all stakeholders.
NationSwell’s Summit West will bring together a diverse group of impactful leaders and organizations. Together, we will learn from the people practicing purpose every day.
Candice Jones is a member of the NationSwell Council. To find out more about the NationSwell Council, visit our digital hub. And to learn more about Summit West 2020, visit our event splash page