Empower, advocate, conquer: The journey of Roz Overstreet-Gonzalez
By Madeline Hartley
Youthcast Media Group®
Many journalists say that they “found their people” when they first entered a newsroom or worked with other reporters – whether in high school, college or beyond. Youthcast Media Group Board Chair Roz Overstreet-Gonzalez says she found her people “in the trenches” of the public defender’s office in D.C, where she’s been practicing for 30 years.
It was the similarity in the missions of her office and YMG’s that drew her to join the board as founding chair in 2019, she says. Like many of the people she defends in court, young people of color in under-resourced communities often battle against circumstances beyond their control that make it exponentially more difficult to succeed, she says.
“They don't think that their voice matters. Being in a position to sort of inspire young people and tell them that… they can make that change and helping them to see that, realize that and actually bring that to fruition is what motivates me,” she says.
Overstreet-Gonzalez, 61, who lives in Northwest D.C., spoke to YMG intern Madeline Hartley about her career, her hopes for the organization, and her plans for retirement next year. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Can you tell us more about your background as a public defender and what motivated you to represent people who can’t afford a lawyer?
I come from a family that has had some contact with the criminal justice system in the person of my brother. We [came from] a two-parent family… my sister's a professional. I'm a professional. So just knowing that my brother went down that path made me want to learn more and learn how to see that coming, if you will, and sort of cut that off in the past. My brother was born three months early, he had educational deficiencies, and the school system that we were a part of, is, in my opinion, only now recognizing differences in learning styles and whatnot… So that was part of it…to get to the bottom of that I needed to be in the system so that I could investigate and then educate the lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and probation officers, that people don't just want to do wrong just to do wrong. There are factors. That was my motivation.
What challenges do individuals with mental illness face when navigating the legal system, both as defendants and upon reentry into society?
Society even now — even though we're making some strides— considers mental illness a crime. I have become so much more aware. And it's really helped me to think [about] the services and the outcomes that my clients need, just by knowing that they're not intentionally acting out. Schizophrenia is a real thing. If you don't have medication and you don't have a stable living environment, so that you can feel comfortable, take your medication, and know that it's okay, you're going to constantly be in this revolving door.
A YMG student interviewed you during one of our first journalism workshops and wrote a story about your experience as a survivor of sexual abuse. What motivated you to share your story publicly, and what message do you hope to convey to others who may have experienced similar traumas?
I came to realize it was something that was always always there. But I was moving and shaking, and I really had no time to sort of deal with that, if you will. And then there came the pandemic, and I had nothing do for like weeks on end. There was nothing to fill the space of my mind… And it just sort of kept creeping, and just kept creeping, and just kept creeping. And before I know it, I was talking to [YMG CEO] Jayne [O’Donnell] one day about stories about survivors and… it just came out. And it was really a weight of release.
So families, particularly Black [families]… they don't talk about things that happen. They tell you, you know, if we go to church, we can pray, you'll be forgiven, you know, or he'll be forgiven, you'll move on, which, you know, it's the farthest thing from the truth.
In all areas of trauma whether… your house was invaded, a robbery, that car accident— you really, really do need someone to help you shake that off.
Because I talked about [it], it helps me to help someone else, if they're harboring some stuff that they think is their fault. That really is my motivation.
You’ve competed in and completed Spartan training – a functional fitness exercise program designed to build strength and endurace – as a way to stay in shape and conquer goals. What inspired you to pursue Spartan training, and how has it impacted your life?
Back in 2018, I had a severe medical problem where my lower intestines ruptured. I wound up going to the hospital and staying in the hospital for six weeks, coming out with a colostomy bag that I had to wear for a year before they did surgery to reverse it. I've never really wanted to run a marathon, but I've always been athletic – I played baseball, softball, all that stuff. And I was like, ‘I want to do this.’ I wound up meeting this woman who had been in the Navy, a personal trainer, and a retired boxer. I told her I wanted to get in shape after surgery, and she said, 'Great, I'll do it with you!’
It was phenomenal. I felt so good. I felt so proud. I could carry all this stuff like a tarp over walls, I could do everything that was required, you know, and walk away with my medal, you know? That was probably the best thing I've done in a really long time.
Rumor is you have some BIG dogs! Can you tell us about them?
There’s Pluto and Draco – a three-year-old Great Dane and a one-year-old. I chose Great Danes because I grew up with them in California and they have a wonderful temperament. You know they're there. They don't require a whole whole lot. They're very loving.
The three-year-old is ours, and when my youngest son moved into his own place he thought he wanted to get a dog until it bit his couch. And then he evicted him. So I now have two!
After 30 years working in the public defender’s office, what are your plans for the future?
I am going to retire in a year– December 31, 2024. I am going to continue to do my work by mentoring young people. Me and my sister started a nonprofit that we call The College Trunk – we provide dorm room essentials for first-generation students so they don’t have to worry about anything. I’m really excited about that!
What advice would you give to students/youth who are interested in a career like yours?
I would say try a number of things. And then as you begin to look for your career, I believe your career will choose you… I wasn't even going to go to law school. I was supposed to be a Spanish teacher.
Try a bunch of different things so that you will know what you like, but also what you don't like and what likes you!
Get yourself some mentors who will be honest with you and will tell you the honest truth about what they're doing, if it's an area that you think you want to go into.
And don't be afraid to volunteer to work to go that extra mile because you don't ever know what you have inside you until you really push to figure that out.