Lift as You Climb

Lift as You Climb

Jasmine Twitty, College of CharlestonLate last summer, Jasmine Twitty ’10 generated quite a bit of buzz when she was appointed to the bench in Easley, S.C., and became one of the state’s youngest judges and yet another example of millennial audacity.

by Mark Berry
photography by Gately Williams

She stands in front of the mirror. Everything is quiet. Eyes down and in a soft voice, almost in a whisper, she says, “You want it? Here it is.” Slow breath in. Pause. Slower breath out. She can feel a presence in the mirror, like someone else in the room with her, just inches away.

She says it again, a little louder: “You want it? Here it is.”

The feeling of a stranger – an intruder in her space – fades away. She raises her chin, her gaze locked on the brown eyes staring back at her: “You want it? Here it is.” This time, her voice has a force behind it and rings with decisiveness, like a gavel striking its sound block.

She says it again and again. Finally, the intensity of the figure in the mirror seems to soften, and there’s a slight smile – the subtle, yet confident smile of a warrior preparing for battle.

Shoulders back, she smooths the front of her Nine West suit jacket, adjusts her puffy sleeves and checks the length of her A-line skirt. The look, in her mind, is modern yet edgy and sophisticated – she can do anything in this outfit.

“You want it? Here it is.” The voice is in full command now. Turning from her reflection, Jasmine Twitty ’10 is ready to conquer the world.

Jasmine Twitty, College of CharlestonAlways in Style
Hollis France leans forward in her chair, thinking of Jasmine Twitty. Professor France’s space on the third floor of the political science building on Wentworth Street seems more like a tucked-away roosting place than an office. The walls slant in at an acute angle, almost like a structural embrace. This room, like the others on this floor, is really just a centuries-old Charleston attic retrofitted for office space. Stacks of student essays, manuscripts, books, magazines and faded academic newsletters from around the world are precariously perched on France’s desk, chairs, couch, coffee table, really any space available, for that matter – like plucked campus scraps to make a nest. If there is order to this paper chaos, it is indecipherable to an outsider’s eye. As it is for many academics, clutter is king.

But the room is still warm, comforting and inviting. That’s how Twitty found it as a political science major studying with France. Twitty’s first academic experience at the College started with France, who led her freshman learning community in the area of contemporary political issues.

“Dr. France is phenomenal,” Twitty says. “I took her multiple times, from my freshman year to my senior capstone project. I loved what she brought to the table. She was the professor that required the most. It wasn’t busy work. There was always a purpose behind it. She challenged you – not just in lectures, but in the materials and assignments. I kept binders of all those readings, and I still have those binders with me today.”

But perhaps Twitty’s favorite part of her coursework with France was the community service requirement. It struck a chord with Twitty, who, throughout her college career (all of her life, in fact), volunteered with church and community groups to advocate for literacy.

“I believe in giving back,” Twitty explains. “It’s not about charity. You should devote time to those who represent your passion. For me, I know how to read a book, so I did that with kids so that they could see firsthand the importance of an education, they could see that someone actually cares about their minds. My personal mantra has always been, lift as you climb.”

In that first-year course with France, Twitty’s student group chose to work with a local soup kitchen in downtown Charleston.

“We’d head off toward the bridge and walk there every Sunday morning,” Twitty recalls, “and do the meal prep and serve those coming in. It was a way for us to be a part of the city, to be citizens of Charleston and not just transient students.”

France now smiles thinking of Twitty as a bright-eyed freshman from Greenville, S.C., and her transformation over several years: “Jasmine was very shy in that first class, and you could see her trying to sort her way through this experience,” says France, a soft Caribbean lilt betraying her childhood in Guyana. “As Jasmine found her footing, which she certainly did, she became dynamic. By her senior year, Jasmine was always out front and center, the one leading the questions, doing what you hope all students do by taking real ownership of their learning.“

But that’s not all that made Twitty tick. Yes, she had a heart of service and a passion for learning, but she also had a mind for fashion.

“From when she was a freshman,” France chuckles, “Jasmine was one of the best-dressed girls in class. She was always very well put together.”

Indeed, shopping on King Street was an important part of Twitty’s college experience.

“If we had a rough week in class, or had just finished exams, or had been up all night studying,” remembers friend Candice Coulter ’11, “we would hit the boutiques.”

Albeit on a college budget. For Twitty and her friends, it was just as much about the hunt as it was the actual find.

“The thing about King Street,” Twitty says, “there is every style. You can see everything that is trending. And a lot of the stores are college friendly in their pricing. For someone like me, who hated washing clothes, it was sometimes easier to pick up a shirt than have to wait around and do a load of laundry. But more important, shopping was a great way to take your mind off of studying, hang out with friends and just blow off some steam.”

Jasmine Twitty, College of CharlestonFull Steam Ahead
After earning her degree in political science early in December 2010, Twitty, who had just turned 21 that same month, returned to Greenville to begin a different sort of hunt, the one every college graduate faces with a mixture of dread and excitement: the job hunt.

On some level, Twitty was a little disappointed to be returning home. She had always pictured herself in a larger city. And perhaps she would get there, but she needed a little time – mainly, because she had graduated a semester early to save money on tuition and fees. But something about Greenville kept her there. Maybe it was her closeness to family, or her familiarity with the area or perhaps how quickly the Upstate was growing and changing. So, she, too, worked to change her mindset: “In those first months home, I had to remind myself that it doesn’t matter where I go, but what I bring with me.”

And Twitty brings a lot with her: a drive, determination and seriousness that belies her age.

By that following summer, she landed a job as the night clerk at the 24-hour Greenville County Bond Court. Fortunately, Twitty, a self-described night owl, found a position that suited her strengths.

“I love it,” Twitty says. “It’s very fast paced. I never imagined myself doing a job like this because I didn’t know a job like this even existed.”

From Monday through Thursday, Twitty checks into the bond court in the evening and leaves the following morning. In those late-night and early-morning hours, Twitty is a ringmaster keeping everything moving: working two phone lines at once, helping people in the waiting area of the lobby, coordinating the docket with the jail, assisting any media or lawyers and making sure the judges have everything they need.

During those hours, Twitty witnesses the highs and lows of her beloved community. Every crime imaginable is paraded in front of her desk, and she has had to learn to handle it.

“We live in a world where unfortunate incidents take place,” Twitty admits. “Years ago, I made the decision not to take work home with me. If I did, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Yet, in that work climate, Twitty has blossomed. Ever the student, she has quickly learned the ins and outs of what everyone does, from the sheriff’s team to the judges. And in her study within this very unique classroom, she mapped out a plan to further her career in an unexpected way.

Jasmine Twitty, College of CharlestonA Most Honorable Profession
To be honest, Twitty hadn’t dreamed of being a judge. It wasn’t until she worked in the 24-hour court that she saw the path clearly.

“In talking with the judges around me,” Twitty says, “they would share their stories, and I would ask them how they had gotten where they were. Then, I realized that this was something that was obtainable for me. You didn’t have to have a law degree. The requirements vary from state to state. And so I became intentional about pursuing it.”

Intentional is one of those words that Twitty uses quite often in conversation. It frames her life, in fact. In middle school, she knew she wanted to study political science because she was interested in social issues and how they affected the community. When it came time to pick a college, she was intentional in her selection. Twitty reviewed course catalogs of various schools and found that the College’s political science program and faculty aligned best with her own interests in social justice. Now, in her early 20s, she applied that same focus, that same intentionality, in researching how to become a South Carolina judge.

“Really, what I wanted to do was make a difference in my community,” Twitty says. “I’ve always been involved in trying to give back and this was just an extra step to serve the community. I feel that I bring an important experience, another perspective to the bench.”

After four years working as a night clerk, Twitty had built a résumé that addressed many of the skills an associate judge needs: courtroom experience, community service and an understanding of the seemingly endless and constantly changing state laws and codes. In the summer of 2015, Twitty met with an interview panel from nearby Easley, S.C., about a vacancy in their bond court.

“Honestly, I was a little intimidated walking up to City Hall that day. But I was also prepared. I had been giving myself pep talks in front of the mirror and during the entire car ride over,” Twitty recalls. “By the time I sat down with them for the interview, my confidence was there because I knew their courtroom system, I had done my homework. And by working in one of the busiest courtrooms in the state, I had something to talk about.”

A week later, Twitty was offered the position. And just a little over a month after that, on August 22, she was sworn in as an associate judge of the Easley Municipal Court, becoming the newest member (and one of the youngest at 25 years old) in the S.C. Judicial Department. But this role wasn’t something to quit your day job over (or, in Twitty’s case, her night job). Her new position actually complements her night clerk job. Judge Twitty is on duty every other weekend and every other holiday.

Her role is a little different than the stereotypical judge presiding in television and movies: a hoary-headed figure banging a gavel behind an elevated oak desk declaring “innocent” or “guilty” and doling out punishment.

“In bond court,” Twitty explains, “the defendants are there, usually within 24 hours of their arrest, and the judge’s role is to approve or deny bond on criminal and traffic offenses.”

While bond court may lack the elevated tension and emotions of a big-screen courtroom drama, Twitty is proud to serve and fulfill this essential duty in the judicial process. That pride of making a difference, especially so early in her career, goes well beyond the job. And, in many ways, she sees herself as a standard-bearer for her generation.

“I think millennials are pretty special,” she says. “On the whole, we are more open minded because we have seen tremendous paradigm shifts in American culture. We grew up in that change. Back in the day, there used to be pretty much one route to success. But now, we know there are 10 different ways to get there – and we actually take them. That’s what I did. I found my own path.”

Within days of her appointment, Twitty also found herself the center of attention. True to form, her peers took to social media to praise her achievement, and soon #jasminetwitty was trending (more than 300 tweets reaching nearly 1 million people). And then the rest of the world caught up, with local news stories and even an interview in the pages of Essence magazine.

While the exposure is nice, Twitty concedes, it has nothing to do with the job. That work: That’s what she takes seriously.

“I am here to uphold the law,” Twitty says, “to protect the rights of the defendants and the victims and to protect the community. I believe to be an effective judge, you can’t put your personal beliefs first. And as a pubic servant, you must keep an open mind in your courtroom because everyone there brings a unique experience.”

Whether you’re a millennial or a member of the Greatest Generation, it’s that kind of thinking – Twitty’s faith in fairness and justice – that will never go out of style.