Melodi Green is a Peoria native who worked hard to make her dreams of becoming an attorney come true. She's now the first Black woman to head the Juvenile Division of the Peoria County State's Attorney's Office.
Green recently spoke to WCBU's Tim Shelley about her personal journey, how she approaches her job, and advice for those who might follow in her footsteps.
Tim Shelley: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Are you a Peoria native?
Melodi Green: Yes, sir, I am. I'm born and raised in Peoria, I went to Peoria Public Schools, my entire life, Peoria District 150. And this is my home, I don't know what else to say about that. My family is here, the vast majority of my family's here, and so Peoria is near and dear to my heart. It always has been and it will be. So those are some of the reasons that I want to work here, and live here, and help to better my community.
TS: Tell me a little bit about your career. At what point did you realize 'I want to be an attorney' and go to law school, and do all that?
MG: Honestly, I think I realized that I wanted to become an attorney when I was probably too young to know what that really entailed. I can remember sitting on my mom's lap, watching the law shows, if you will, Law & Order type of shows, and things like that.
And I said, You know, I wanted to become a lawyer. I had no idea what that really meant, how hard it would be to get here, and what it means to actually be here. Once, you know, now that I have here. You know, when I came when I was a kid, I just saw what I saw on the TV. And so that became my dream. And I really never allowed another option. It's to my mind.
It was difficult, though, because I didn't know any attorneys. I didn't know any lawyers. I surely didn't know what they did. [I was a] first generation college graduate, so I didn't have much of a higher education background or references to go to, to actually say, I want to become a lawyer. Help me. From the time I'm a little kid throughout my educational career, so that I can make it there easily. That was not my story.
But I made it anyway. And I think that's the story that, unfortunately, a lot of people have to follow. They find their way as they go. And if we all have more resources ahead of time, we would we would be better off.
TS: So let's talk about that a little bit. What could we do to make that path easier for somebody who might want to follow in your footsteps someday?Any mentorship opportunities, or what might be able to help?
MG: I definitely think that mentorship is, should be centered in in our approach, and that's something that I say to myself all the time. You know, we get caught up in our own lives and what we have going on. I have nine-year-old twin daughters, and you know, I work hard jobs and come home to them. It's easy to get lost in your own life.
But I know now what a mentor would have meant to me at that time. And I'm sure that there were plenty of people who would have been willing, but if you don't know who to reach out to, and you don't have those resources, you just don't know who to reach out to, and you don't have those resources.
So for me, I think mentorship is something that I want to center in who I am, and that I would preach, centering for other people who have sort of made it to a better position, if you will. I also think it's I think it's especially important for me, because of where I come from, Peoria Public Schools. My daughters go to Peoria Public Schools right now. And I see the need for mentorship within the school district.
And so for me, those kids are near and dear to my heart. And those kids are the ones who I want to be able to be there for if they need me. And so I mean, it's a constant, a constant struggle in a battle to do better and do the best that you can, and be there for whoever you can. And we're all just really hopefully doing the best that we can. But yeah, I think that mentorship is all that we can basically start with.
TS: So let's talk a little bit more about your path then. So you graduate from law school, you get through those challenges. What happens next?
MG: Oh, I had challenges before that. You skipped a big, huge chunk. So yeah, let's back up a little bit.
I graduated from high school, Peoria High School. I was all set up to go to the University of Illinois. And I get to orientation. And I'm just like, this is not the place for me. And no slight to the University of Illinois or anybody who went there, but something derailed me from that route. So I came back home. I went to Illinois Central College for one year. That's a junior college, I'm sure you know, the junior college in East Peoria. I went there for a year.
And then I transferred to Kentucky State University. It's a historically Black college and university. And for those who don't know, HBCUs were founded to sort of provide education for African Americans, and people who were not traditionally allowed into traditional institutions of higher learning. And so that was my place. That is where I found that I belonged. And that is where I set my steps into motion.
So I graduated from Kentucky State University in 2004. And the battle was not over. Because I'm frantically applying to law schools. I'm taking a LSAT, I'm not doing very well. And I wind up with no law school to have accepted me.
I actually did a summer program at St. Louis University. And that was sort of a contingency program where they would accept a certain number of students into their incoming law school class. And I was not one of those students who were accepted. I was completely devastated.
But the four year old me had no other dream. So it's like, I had to come back here and pick up, and start again. I came home, back to Peoria. I worked at a gym in the contracts department. I studied for the LSAT. I took it again.
And then I wound up with a scholarship to Southern Illinois University, the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship, actually, so I think that God rerouted me to where I needed to be. After that, I was in law school.
Law school was a struggle for me. Like I said earlier, I didn't know a lot of attorneys, didn't have a lot of resources. I think my law school class had about nine African American students in an incoming class of like, 120, or something. And so you tend to gravitate towards your community when you can. And with those numbers, you can see how difficult that in itself was. And I think by the end of the year, we were down to maybe four or five African American students. The others had, for some reason or another, been released from school for different GPA issues.
And I was not very high up in the ranking myself, so I did struggle through law school. My friend Tionn Fanbro, thank God, is an attorney now as well in Rock Island. But we studied so hard. We struggled together, and we wound up with a graduating class of three of us who started out together. Out of that nine, three of us graduated.
And then it came time to study for the bar exam, and you come to additional issues of finances. It was almost impossible to obtain, it WAS impossible to obtain financing for bar prep. And I don't know if people are familiar with bar prep, but it costs thousands of dollars, and that was in 2008.
So she and I struggled. We were denied for loans. Professor Suzanne Schmitz was a professor at SIU at the time, and she wrote to the bar prep program, and they wound up granting my friend and I scholarships to study for the bar exam. And that's all we did. We studied that entire summer. We stayed in Carbondale. And we took that bar exam up in Chicago, and we were scared as all get out. And you know, at one point I said, if I don't pass this thing, just forget it, I'll do something else. But fortunately, we both ended up passing and so here I am now.
I've worked in public service my entire career. It's just been ingrained in the person I am for some reason. I've always wanted to find the lowest person and see what I can do to pick them up, or identify with them or to let them know that I see them, and that they are just as important as the highest person or who we deem the highest person in our society, you know?
TS: You're a bit of a trailblazer here in Peoria County, probably the first Black woman to hold your position of chief of the juvenile justice department, and you were, I believe, at the city before that. Tell me a little bit about how you've approached this position.
MG: As the first Black woman in this position, I'm new to this position, in this job, but not new to this position in this field. Being an attorney, a Black woman, I've always been, and I think everyone knows this, the legal field is not necessarily set up for people like me. It's still there. The numbers demonstrate that.
I started out at the Attorney General's Office and the Consumer Fraud Bureau. I did that for four years. And then I actually worked at the state's attorney's office before under the late Jerry Brady. And he hired me into the traffic division, I worked in almost every division in that building, you know, and that's how I learned how to be a lawyer and maintain myself in the courtroom and things like that.
But it was difficult, you know? I can't say anything else. It was difficult.I've had starting days where people say, 'Oh, are you the new secretary?' Or, I've been in courtrooms where private attorneys who don't know who the prosecutors are, would rather speak with my assistant, rather than myself.
So there are struggles associated with being a Black woman in this profession that have come before this job, and that will probably persist, and that are constantly being silently fought by people like me. Just to come to work every day is enough.
So with that being said, the philosophy I wanted to bring to this position here is not rocket science for me. Like I told you earlier, I'm from Peoria, my family is from Peoria. I do not have a family of lawyers, or doctors, and things like that. I have a family of everyday people who you would largely see in a traffic courtroom. Or you may see in other courtrooms in the courthouse, or people that I went to high school with, or middle school, with that I still know. And then who grew up in Peoria.
And so for me, it's just a natural thing for me to make contact with people to understand people's situations, to understand that certain portions of society have been historically oppressed and disadvantaged. And that has pervaded almost every area of our society. And I keep those things in mind.
It's not hard to do. It's not hard to keep those things in mind. What becomes difficult is to keep those things in mind and maintain an approach that is equitable and serves the masses at the same time.A lot of times people don't understand where you come from, the same way I don't understand where many of them came from.
So I think, you know, an open mind for me. A non-judgmental posture for me. A willingness to see people's situations. And meet them where they are. And just to give people chances. I work with kids where the goal is not to necessarily punish these kids, it's to rehabilitate the kids. And that's what I want to see.
I have a painting in my office, it's a quote from Frederick Douglass. And he said something like, it's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. And that's something that I keep in mind when I work every day, because it is difficult to see a lot of the things that I see on a daily basis, but keeping in mind that I cannot give up on these kids in Peoria County. I cannot cast judgment and put myself above them because of where I am now.
And I just keep plugging forward. It's hard, though. It's hard to see some of the things I see.
TS: Melodi, for the little girl today sitting there today, watching a law show with her mom, who says, 'You know, I want to do that when I grow up.' What do you tell that little girl to inspire, push her forward?
MG: Oh, my. I tell her to buckle up and get ready. But she can do it. She's powerful beyond measure in ways that she does not even know. I tell her to never give up, to keep on plugging away. And to let her know that there will definitely be roadblocks or things that appear as roadblocks but at the end of the day, they have helped, they will help her become stronger. They will be a part of the things that shape her character. She'll become a well rounded person, she'll be able to function in every facet of society. And I think, you know, if she she sticks to her goals, and she's true to herself, to people in general, then she can definitely do it.
It won't be easy. And once she makes it there, it will not be easy. It's a constant fight every day. But she she'll keep fighting. And that's all she can do.
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