"I just had to keep believing in myself, stay focused and not give up on my goals," she said.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on May 28, 2021. It has since been updated.
Alexis Hawkins was expelled from Ballou High in Southeast Washington in 2008. She had been involved in a fight again, despite being let off with a warning multiple times before. A girl from a rival neighborhood had stabbed a friend from her Congress Park neighborhood and when the incident sparked a brawl involving over 20 girls inside the school, the then-15-year-old joined them. Five girls, including Hawkins, were kicked out. "Congress Park girls were known to fight — and Alexis was a fighter," Edwin Buckner, a D.C. police officer who was assigned to Ballou at the time, told The Washington Post. "She was also an A student and never bothered anyone. But she would not back down from a fight if it involved her neighborhood."
Hawkins spent the next six months "doing nothing but getting into more trouble." However, this time in her life also brought about an attitude shift and she committed to getting an education. She enrolled in the Woodland Job Corps Center in Laurel, earned a GED, and set her sights on pursuing a career in law. After working, saving, and borrowing enough money, Hawkins got into Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, where she majored in criminal justice.
Earlier this month, 13 years after she was kicked out of Ballou High, Hawkins, who is now 28, graduated with a degree from Howard Law School. "I just had to keep believing in myself, stay focused and not give up on my goals," she said. This inspiring story of how Hawkins turned her life around stands in sharp contrast to the worrying trend of more and more youngsters, especially girls, getting involved in crime.
Just weeks ago, two D.C. girls, aged 13 and 15, were charged with murder and carjacking. In Prince George's County last month, a 13-year-old boy was stabbed and wounded while another was shot and killed at a marketplace where at least 100 preteens and teenagers were present. A 12-year-old boy was charged with murder in connection to the incident. He is the eighth youth to be charged with murder in Prince George's County so far this year, already surpassing the six juveniles charged with the crime all of last year. "It saddens me because... some of my friends have been the victims of homicide," Hawkins said. "A lot of us are living in poverty and come from homes that are not always supportive."
Hawkins is well aware of how easy it is for teens growing up in neighborhoods plagued by crime to take a wrong turn. After being raised in what she says was an unstable home, she spent years in the District's foster care system before eventually being adopted. "We band together for protection. We fight out of loyalty and friendship, right or wrong," Hawkins explained. "The result is just more trauma that goes unaddressed."
It was the memory of a week-long civil rights tour she took in the summer of 2008 that ultimately played a big role in sparking her recommitment to self-improvement. The trip, organized by D.C. anti-violence group Peaceoholics, took girls from feuding neighborhoods in the Southeast to historical sites throughout the South and to meet civil rights activists. During a stop in Selma, Alabama, Hawkins got to meet Annie Lee Cooper, who told the girls about an episode that occurred in 1965. Cooper recounted how after hours of waiting in line to register to vote, Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark prodded her in the neck with a billy club and ordered her to vacate the premises. In response, she punched the sheriff in the face and knocked him to the ground.
"And that touched me because I'm a fighter," Hawkins said. "I have a warrior spirit, too. Annie Cooper made me realize that I was fighting the wrong people. I was fighting people who looked like me, Black girls who came from the same community, who had gone through the same hardships. She made me understand that I should be using my mind, my energy to fight racism and dismantle systems of oppression that create underserved neighborhoods and school-to-prison pipelines." Hawkins received constant support from Buckner, who had accompanied the students on the civil rights tour, as well as Peaceoholics co-founders Ron Moten and Jahar Abraham. They let her know that their support for her would not waver, irrespective of whether she was in school or out.
"I would tell her all the time, 'You are a survivor. You can overcome any obstacle,'" said Buckner, who assumed the role of a father figure in Hawkins' life. Her degree from Benedict got Hawkins a job as a legal assistant at the D.C. Superior Court. Her hard work caught the attention of Sherri Beatty-Arthur, then an administrative judge on her way to becoming a magistrate judge. When Beatty-Arthur learned that Hawkins had considered going to law school but had let self-doubt stand in the way, she gave the young woman the push she needed to pursue her dream. "I wanted Alexis to know that I was cheering for her," Beatty-Arthur said. "I wanted her to imagine a world where Black women cheered for each other and did not get manipulated into fighting one another. I wanted her to know that I would help her, and all I asked in return was for her to do the same for someone else."
Now, Hawkins' time and energy are focused on passing the bar exam. She might be in for a clerkship at the D.C. Superior Court when she does. After that, she plans to become a public defender and later, a judge who attacks systemic racism from the bench while finding ways to help Black girls realize their dreams. "Although my accomplishments are rare for where I came from, I will work to make sure that is not the case for long," Hawkins said. "I want girls like me to have even more opportunities than I had, even more support, and I will always be reaching back, giving back, and pulling them forward."