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VOL. 128 | NO. 219 | Friday, November 8, 2013

Kelley Shares Memphis Stories as Public Defender Assistant

RICHARD J. ALLEY | Special to The Daily News

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Lurene Kelley loves to tell a good story. These days she’s sharing some important stories that often go unheard in her role as special assistant for organizational communications in the law offices of the Shelby County Public Defender.


She is involved with organizational and external communications for the office, as well as internal planning on special projects and public outreach.

One of those recent projects is Street Court for those with outstanding court debts to have them forgiven. It’s a second chance for them to get on with their lives and become productive citizens.

“It seems like a small thing,” Kelley said. “They can pile up into the tens of thousands, and the people that we’re helping are indigent. … It holds these people back.”

Kelley grew up in Butte, Mont., and went to Gonzaga University to study television journalism. As a reporter and anchor back in Montana, she met her future husband, Chris – then a minor league baseball player – and moved to Knoxville, where he was a student at the University of Tennessee. In 1995, when it came time for another move, she looked for work in four Southern cities. Memphis was the first to call.

“We came on the first day of Memphis in May,” she said. “It was the most fun time to move to Memphis, the weather was great and all the stuff going on. So we just kind of immediately fell in love, and we’ve been watching Memphis continue to change and evolve in a lot of ways.”

She went to work for WREG-TV as an on-air journalist. When the late-night police beat became too much, she began looking elsewhere for work and had to make the decision between a similar beat in a different city or returning to school.

She went to the University of Memphis and earned a doctorate in organizational communications. Teaching journalism at that level is a highly competitive field, and there was only one such position in Memphis at the time.

As her luck would have it, her professor – the holder of that one job – was retiring. She learned of the opening as she waited to walk at graduation.

“I thought this would be something good for me, for my family, but also I thought it was a new way to help Memphis.”

–Lurene Kelley
Special assistant for organizational communications in the law offices of the Shelby County Public Defender

While teaching in the journalism department at the university, Kelley began MicroMemphis, a program that takes students out of the classroom and into a defined neighborhood to gather stories and share them on social media. It was a way for her to share her love for storytelling in a real-world capacity.

“I loved teaching,” she said. “I loved being at the university. I loved working with students and thinking of new programs.”

Despite that enthusiasm, when she got a call from Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush to act as consultant for the office, she jumped at the chance.

“He had a vision for how he wanted to see public defense change in Memphis,” she said. “It was just a really compelling story and, as a journalist, how could I not want to be a part of some of this?”

Her plan was to help with a little of the planning as they developed the best way to get their story out and educate the public on what they do. It worked out well, and in January, the office was able to find a permanent part-time position for her.

“I thought this would be something good for me, for my family, but also I thought it was a new way to help Memphis.”

Kelley spreads the word through the media and the blog justcity.org. Shelby County is one of the few offices in the country seeking to educate the public with such a platform. She points to San Francisco and the Bronx as others.

“There are a few that do a little bit, but we actually are probably one of the leaders in trying to get the word out about what we’re doing on a local level.”

While there is good done as a college professor, and she remains in close contact with her students, watching them as they rise through the university and into careers, there is the understanding that they are “on the right track, they’re doing pretty well already.”

In her new capacity as advocate, she’s able to do work for “the voiceless.”

She and Chris, now executive director of the Barret School of Banking at Christian Brothers University, have two children, Maddox and Cleo, and she is an active participant with the PTA at Peabody Elementary.

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