Beautiful Struggle Janssen Evelyn ’06L uses resilience and intentional joy to find his purpose.
Janssen Evelyn ’06L learned resilience early. He was 8 when he, his two siblings and their parents emigrated from Barbados. For more than a year, the family of five shared a queen-size mattress in an uncle’s basement bedroom in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where culture shocks were frequent at the outset.
For instance, Evelyn has vivid memories of an older white man yelling the “n” word at him from a blue pickup at an intersection in Riverdale, Maryland. He’d never heard the word and didn’t know what it meant, only that he was frightened.
In school, Evelyn and his older sibling were teased mercilessly and called derogatory names. They were initially placed in English as a Second Language classes largely because they spoke English with an accent until his mother intervened “with some choice words” for the teachers.
“My childhood prepared me for what I call the beautiful struggle,” said Evelyn. “Life’s not supposed to be necessarily easy. You grow up and (along the way) you learn resilience and adaptability while maintaining authenticity and knowledge of self. You also need to find joy. I’m very intentional about finding joy.”
At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Evelyn majored in political science, minored in African Diaspora studies, and performed in two mainstage plays. He’d been a member of a performing arts troupe in high school and found theater was a place where he could find his voice and overcome stage fright. “Butterflies,” he said, “are a sign you really care about what you’re doing. That’s been a litmus test for me. If I’m shook before I do something, I recognize how important it is to me.”
His litmus test for a law school was its location. Having grown up in an urban environment and then spending four years on the St. Mary’s River for college, Evelyn wasn’t yet ready to give up the rural environment. Between House Mountain and the Maury River, W&L fit the bill. He also wanted the same kind of low student-faculty ratio he’d had at St. Mary’s.
Once he arrived at W&L, Evelyn found what he called a “hodgepodge of people who became closer than siblings” during his three years. He was one of five Black students in his 1L class, and “we bonded on our first weekend in Lexington, and we still communicate today.” Evelyn even met his wife, Sonya Funna, through his classmate, Sherry Fox (‘06L). She was in town for the Rockbridge Wine Festival.
He found mentors among the faculty, too, and even calls Clinical Professor of Law Beth Belmont “my spirit animal.” He did two summer internships with Professor Belmont’s Community Legal Practice Center along with being a 3L student attorney. “She taught me so, so much — legally and personally,” he said. “Professor Belmont will never, ever understand the impact she’s had on me.”
Evelyn believes the classes that prepared him most for his career were those in which he struggled — especially classes with Professors Sam Calhoun, Lyman Johnson, and Timothy Jost.
“My mind didn’t naturally work the way they taught, but what it did was force my mind to become dexterous,” he said. “Honestly, I think the most important skill that W&L taught me was not even law: it was how to be yourself in spaces where people had divergent political views.”
That skill has helped Evelyn follow his self-described unorthodox legal career. In law school, Evelyn had a particular notion of how his life and career would unfold: he’d join a law firm, earn a partnership, and then become a judge. That’s not how it worked.
His jobs right out of law school did epitomize a traditional path: judicial law clerk in Baltimore, associate with Franklin & Prokopik, PC, in Baltimore, and in-house attorney with Liberty Mutual Insurance. Then his path veered when a friend asked if he’d be interested in working in government.
“You think of government work, and it’s bureaucratic and sometimes you get caught up in process,” he said. “But I got a positive buzz that comes from knowing you’re doing good. I wanted to feel like I was making a difference.”
Evelyn started as an associate county attorney for Prince George’s County where he became immersed in labor and personnel matters, EEOC issues, and police, sheriff, and corrections trial boards. After three years there, he moved to neighboring Howard County as assistant county solicitor. Then he was appointed as assistant chief administrative officer, where he had an extensive portfolio. He served as part of the county executive’s cabinet and, among other assignments, was acting human rights administrator and helped restructure the county’s Office of Human Rights and Equity. He also handled labor negotiations, union grievances and adjudicated employee appeals. And when the pandemic hit, he was part of a team that shifted the county government operations to virtual operations.
“At the time, Howard County had only 1 percent of the 3,500-member workforce able to work remotely, and we had to increase it to 35 percent,” he said.
Outside the office, Evelyn’s service to his community is extensive. Among other activities, he is the vice chair on the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, a member of the Howard County Conservancy’s executive board, and a member-at-large of the Howard County Branch of the NAACP.
One of those places where he’s found “intentional joy” has been his work in the local community garden movement, which not only provides healthy food to needy people but also educates the community. During the pandemic, two gardens he was heavily involved in provided not only food and education but also socialization among neighbors.
In 2021, Evelyn’s path took another turn when he left the government and joined Baker Donelson as counsel and as a member of the firm’s Labor & Employment Group. It proved to be a brief interlude. In early 2022, after reevaluating his priorities, he made his first foray into politics by running for a seat on the Howard County Council.
“A lot of things came together at the same time — the murders of George Floyd and Ahmad Arbury, the pandemic, losing my mom who died in February 2020,” he said. “I thought maybe I just had to dream differently. I needed to show the sacrifices my mom made, the gifts and opportunities she gave me, weren’t in vain. The only way to do that was to create a world that was better for my two daughters and for other children.”
Still, it meant he’d have to leave Baker Donelson after only nine months to commit to a race full-time. It wasn’t an easy choice. His wife, Sonya, a senior program director for the global humanitarian organization ADRA International, recognized his quandary: “She said, ‘Look, I get it. The big firm pays well, but that’s not you.’ I should have listened to her from the beginning.”
He knocked on over 11,000 doors in a spirited grassroots campaign. When the polls closed on July 19, he led the race by 335 votes. But mail-in ballots broke heavily for his opponent, an incumbent, and he lost by a scant 239 votes.
Despite the obvious disappointment, he wouldn’t trade the experience. “There are,” he said, “certain times when you feel you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. No regrets.”
Fortunately, he received a new job offer several days before the election was certified and subsequently became the first executive director of Anne Arundel County’s Police Accountability Board.
“I’d leveraged everything,” he said. “I have a mortgage. I have a wife and two kids. My dad’s living with us. I have responsibilities. When you go out on a limb and chase what you feel is your purpose or your dream and then come up short, it’s tough. This job was serendipitous validation to me that putting all your eggs in one basket was not foolhardy — there are always more eggs.”
Each Maryland county is required by the Police Accountability Bill of 2021 to establish a board to conduct investigations into police misconduct complaints by members of the public. The job was a perfect fit for Evelyn who can combine his experience in local government and handling police discipline with his lived experience as an advocate for police reform.
“I have the unique perspective of living in both worlds,” he said.
Although establishment of many county boards has been slow, Anne Arundel County’s nine-member board was up and running in August 2022, well ahead of many others. The job, he knows, will be difficult and filled with emotion on both sides of the issue.
“I think I have what the role requires, and I attribute much of that to W&L,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t have the best grades there, but I made the experience work for me. I learned to use IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) and critical reasoning to think outside the box, to bring in different perspectives. That’s what this job will need.”
Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this article, Evelyn has been promoted to Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Anne Arundel Country.
If you know any W&L alumni who would be great profile subjects, tell us about them! Nominate them for a web profile.