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At NCSC, we’re proud of the research we do, the advice we give and the education we provide to our colleagues in the courts. And we’re proud of the people who do that work.
Meet the analysts, researchers, consultants and others who make NCSC a great place.
Title: Principal Court Research Consultant and Director of the Center for Elders and the Courts
Areas of Expertise: Elder issues, domestic abuse, problem-solving courts
Office Location: Williamsburg
Started at NCSC: October 2001
"My big break came in Atlanta, where I got a job working for the Atlanta Police Department as a crime analyst (in 1997). Before that, I had been living in abject poverty."
Brenda considers herself a passionate person who “sometimes acts first and asks for forgiveness later.” And some of her passions can be found in the window sills of her office: A statue of former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre represents her love – “a fanaticism really” -- for the Packers. A beautiful candlestick she turned from a stick of mahogany represents her desire to pursue her interests and not wait for a day that may never come. And a photo of her daughter Alexandra, who she adopted from Ukraine 13 years ago, well, that’s obvious.
You grew up in Wisconsin? I’m the daughter of a dairy farmer. I can milk a herd of cows. My brother runs the farm now, and my mother still lives in the family farm house. The farm has been in the family for 160 years.
You went to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and then to Syracuse University for your graduate degrees. Why Syracuse? I didn’t have any money, and they had a respectable program and gave me a full ride. The only debt I had when I graduated was $3,000, the cost of an IBM 286 computer and a dot matrix printer. (Laughs.) After Syracuse, I went to Berkeley as fast as I could. I didn’t like Syracuse. I hate the cold. Hate it.
What one thing changed the course of your life? My big break came in Atlanta, where I got a job working for the Atlanta Police Department as a crime analyst (in 1997). Before that, I had been living in abject poverty. I had a PhD, but I couldn’t get a job. That was a time when universities were laying people off. I was downsized out of my position at the University of California. …I am forever grateful to the lieutenant – she was one of the first female police officers in the Atlanta Police Department – who hired me.
When you say abject poverty, I have visions of you sleeping in your car? Well, everything I owned was in my little Honda CR-V. Right before I went to Atlanta to stay with my sister, I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. I was an adjunct professor making next to nothing, and one day I fell down some steps, and I remember thinking, “You better be able to get up because you don’t have health insurance.” In Atlanta, I slept on my sister’s couch for a couple of months. I also lived in a cockroach-infested, basement apartment in downtown Atlanta. I worked at Target for $6 an hour at night. The American Dream was gone, as far as I was concerned.
Were you in Atlanta for a short time? Yes, that position led to a wonderful job at the Institute for Law & Justice in Alexandria (in 1998). …I was evaluating the law enforcement and prosecution components of a Violence Against Women Act grant program, and Susan Keilitz was evaluating the technology component for the National Center for State Courts. That’s how I heard about the National Center. I saw a job opening. Susan left the Center, and I stepped into her position. I didn’t know anything about the courts, but I applied. I loved the idea of Williamsburg. I’m a small-town girl, so that appealed to me. Williamsburg sold me before the National Center did.
What do you like most and least about Williamsburg? The least is the slow drivers. Sometimes they’ll just stop in the middle of the street and point at something. But my appreciation for the Williamsburg area has really grown. I became a Virginia Master Naturalist, (a program dedicated to the preservation of natural resources). As a Naturalist, some fun opportunities have come my way, such as gaining access to Jamestown Island to identify wildlife sounds at night, encasing a six-foot-long Mastodon tusk in York County, and kayaking down Powhatan Creek to identify flora and fauna. I’m pretty weak on the identification of nature, but I love being outdoors.
How did you get an interest in that? We had a wonderful librarian here – a great person -- Joan Cochet, who died suddenly (in 2015). Her death made me think, “What am I waiting for?” There were things I thought about doing after I retired. But Joan’s death hit home. There’s no guarantee that any of us will make it to retirement. We tend to want to wait until we accumulate so much money, until our kids get older, until we retire. Why?
It sounds like her death really changed your outlook on life? Yes. In a lot of ways. …I decided not to wait to travel. I went to Machu Picchu, (one of the new Seven Wonders of the World), in Peru (in 2015) with a friend who I heard was going. (She has a framed photo of it on the wall of her office.)
Was Machu Picchu the most exotic place you’ve visited? I wouldn’t call Ukraine exotic, but it was certainly the most memorable and challenging place I’ve visited. I went to Ukraine (in 2004) to adopt my daughter. That was a pretty big deal to do that by myself. I’m very independent, and I liked the process that was in place at the time. Rather than being paired up with a child through an adoption agency, in Ukraine it involved a visit to government agency in Kyiv and going through a book of children who were available for adoption at the time. This leaves the adoption open to chance, but it also meant that I could select a child based on my own feelings. It was a fast process. I went there in January and brought her home in July. (Brenda’s daughter, Alexandra, is now 19.) I wrote 10 Steps to Successful International Adoption following my experience.
What do you like best about what you do at the National Center? I feel like I can make a difference. How many people can really say that?