Where Passion and Purpose Align:  An Interview with Judge Hatchett

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Where Passion and Purpose Align:  An Interview with Judge Hatchett

Glenda Hatchett is best known as the Emmy nominated host of Judge Hatchett, a television court show that aired from 2000-2008 and was noted for its creative sentencing approach to justice. Hatchett developed her unique style as Presiding Judge of Georgia 's Fulton County Juvenile Court, one of the nation's largest juvenile courts. She surprised even herself when she left a lucrative career at Delta Air Lines to enter public service. Today Hatchett serves on the board of Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Atlanta Falcons. She is also national spokesperson for the Court Appointed Special Advocates program and travels widely as a motivational speaker.

Judge Hatchett, you've said your passion for children was inspired by your parents. Can you tell me how their influence shaped your work?

Absolutely. I have been enormously blessed by having the parents that I've had, because they were always there for me. They always cheered me on. They were always nurturing. When I was younger, I thought, "There's nobody stricter on the face of the globe than my parents!"  Of course, as I got older, I really appreciated it.

To answer the first part of your question, my parents were always involved in our community. My dad chaired our local YMCA board, and my mother was an educator. She taught elementary school in an economically challenged part of our community. Honestly, a lot of her students did not have anything to eat other than the lunch they got at school. My mother literally would make extra lunches for the kids that she knew were not eating so that they would have something to take home for dinner. She would repair and recycle our clothes and take them to school. Looking back on this with adult eyes, I appreciate it even more. 

One day when I was maybe eight or nine, my dad was outside cutting the grass. We lived on a steep hill, and this little boy came to our house and literally collapsed at the base of the hill by the street. I was too young to really understand or process what was happening. I just remember my dad running up the hill with this limp kid in his arms, and thinking, "Oh my God, he's dead!"  And it was hot. My dad rushed the kid—who clearly was not dead—in to my mother. The boy was one of her students. He didn't know where my mother lived, but he had an idea of where her neighborhood was. He was on a heavy old rickety bike and had been riding around all day looking for my mother's car.

It was a Saturday, and he hadn't had anything to eat since school on Friday. He literally collapsed from exhaustion. My mother fed him and my dad put him in the bathtub and got him clean. Then my mother got some clean clothes for him. My dad put the bike in the back of the car and off they went to take him home. I look back on that story through adult eyes and understand that this child knew that if he could just find my mother, he would find safe harbor. That's the kind of house I grew up in, with my parents always doing for others, and a lot of what I modeled was from them.

They raised you in a Baptist church. So, were their ethics shaped by their faith, and was that faith then transferred to your own professional integrity?

Oh, absolutely.  My father passed on very suddenly fifteen years ago, but my parents were people of deep faith.  I grew up hearing my parents, particularly my father, pray out loud. It is now what my sons and I do.  We can be at some little restaurant here in Atlanta or at a five-star restaurant elsewhere and we hold hands and pray out loud.  Faith is absolutely the cornerstone, the centerpiece of my life. It's what drives me.  I live by the basic proverb that we've all been taught, "To whom much is given, much is required."  Even when you have a little, you share what you have. I was taught to believe that our blessings are not for us to keep; they are meant to flow through us to bless the world.

You mentioned that when you were a judge, you were quickly made Chief Justice. Likewise, when you graduated from law school, you were chosen for a federal clerkship; then, when you worked for Delta Air Lines, you held dual high-level positions as Senior Attorney and Public Relations Manager.  Did you work your way up to these roles, or was it the case that your gifts and talents are so outstanding and obvious that people noticed?

I think it was a combination of both.  I have always been a very hard worker. When I went to the federal court as a clerk, I was fortunate because it's such a coveted position. And then, at Delta there were hundreds of people who applied, but there were only two positions open in the law department. I was fortunate to get one.  I actually knew the other young lawyer who was also hired, because he clerked for a different judge. So it was rewarding to be there together. I think the combination of hard work, laser-eyed focus, never taking anything for granted, and people paying attention led to my success. Decision makers thought I had something to offer. I was hired as an attorney at Delta, and then I was promoted to senior attorney, which I was very pleased about.  I tried cases for Delta in federal courts all over the country.

And then you became the Public Relations Manager as well. How did these experiences serve you in your later role on television?

Well, it's interesting.  You just don't know how God's going to connect the dots.  At the time, I certainly had no thoughts that I'd ever leave Delta Air Lines.  But a juvenile court judge for whom I had tremendous respect passed away.  People came to me and said, "Glenda, we really need you in this job."  I was thinking, "Oh no, not me," because I really thought that I would eventually become a senior officer at Delta and work there until I retired. That was my plan.  But, as an old wise woman said to me once, "If you get out of God's way, you'll see what wonderful things can happen in your life." 

When this man who I greatly respected came and said, "I want to talk to you about this," I invited my dad. After the meeting, my dad said, "Glenda, do not make up your mind about whether you're going to apply for the judgeship until you've prayed about it."  I did one of those "yo-yo" prayers:  "Lord, what do you want me to do?  Lord, you don't really want me to give up this job, do you?  Lord do you know how much money . . ."

What I have said to people is that if you are sincere, and you really do turn it over to God, you won't be able to take it back. God wrestled with me, Christine. It wasn't an easy decision, because I thought I was set for the rest of my career. I'd had two promotions in two years.  My mentor had been named president of the company 18 months earlier. I was doing well. Plus, it was nice to get on a plane with the kids and go see my in-laws or get on a plane with my mother and go to Greece for a long weekend. I was very comfortable and juvenile court was not going to be comfortable. It was going to be very difficult. I didn't want to go, frankly. But the more I prayed about it, the more I understood that it was what I needed to do, and that if it was where I was supposed to be, I would be appointed.  Sixty-three people applied for the position, and I was appointed.

So there I was in juvenile court, and it was the most difficult job I've ever had in my life. Difficult doesn't even begin to describe it actually, because of the pain and the anguish I dealt with every single day. Children murdering children, and children being left to die in dumpsters, and crack-addicted mothers forgetting to feed their children, and children starving, and children committing armed robbery and rape and all kinds of things. But, I knew in my heart of hearts, without a doubt, that I was supposed to be there, because this is where my passion and my purpose aligned. 

People think I left the bench to go into television. That's not what happened. After eight years, I left the bench because I had gotten divorced, and I needed to go back into corporate litigation so that I could send my children to school.

I took a year off to do some writing and reflection and to recharge my soul. During that year Sony representatives came to me and said, "Would you do the television show?"  I said, "No, no, no, no, no!" because I didn't believe in what I saw on these shows. The producers asked what it would take for me to reconsider.  I said, "I would have to design it." That's why my show is different. There's intervention; there's a family focus; and there is follow-up, because that's the only way I could do it.

You said your passion was solidified when you became a judge. Can you briefly tell me about that? Did you just sense, "This is what I'm supposed to do"?

Yes. I was both diligent and meticulous in my work as an attorney. In fact, in the ten years I was an attorney for Delta Air Lines, I never lost a case. I settled one case and was paid on the counter claim. I succeeded because I worked hard, but I didn't save anybody's life. Nobody got off drugs. Nobody stopped beating their wife. Nobody went back to school because of my work at Delta Air Lines. As a judge, I could see that I was making a difference in people's lives. That's where the purpose and the passion lined up. It's a wonderful blessing to be able to be in a position to be a catalyst for change in people's lives.

In light of your own history of success, how frustrating was it to not be able to control other people's behavior or to not see results?

I had to consciously eliminate the word "frustration" from my vocabulary when I started this work. Yes, I'm human.  I would get disappointed. I would wring my hands. I would pound my fist in exasperation. But, what I also understood was that if I got stuck in the situations that were not going well, I wouldn't have the energy to figure out what to do with the next one. I would have to accept that I could not effect positive change in every situation. This is real life. I had to do the best I could. Once I did the best I could, I had to release it in order to move on to the next case. I don't want to sound callous, because it's horrible to learn that a 15-year old that you've been helping has just tested HIV positive. But on any given day, I might have had fifteen other fifteen-year-olds lined up waiting on me. You know what I'm saying? 

Do a lot of people get stuck in frustration and disappointment? 

Yes, they get stuck there. They get stuck with the discipline. They get stuck in a place called "frustration." And, they get disappointed. It becomes quagmire, and then it becomes paralyzing. 

How did you recharge yourself?

I had a ritual. I allowed myself to think about work during drive-time home and even walking up the steps. But once I put the key in my front door, I had to leave it on that side of the door, because I if I didn't, I wouldn't have enough emotional strength for my own children. Fortunately I learned that in the first few weeks I was on the bench. I had to let things go, because if I was worried about the six-year-old who saw his mother get stabbed to death, then what was I going to be doing for my own five-year-old that night at dinner? I needed some emotional space. 

Also, my parents, my children, and my close friends helped me to recharge my faith.  I was on my knees a lot more in that job, quite frankly. After my first case in which a child was beaten to death by his stepfather, I left the bench and got on my knees and said, "God, I don't know that I can deal with this kind of tragedy every day."  I said, "Would you give me the strength to shift from grieving to celebrating what we can do and when we can do it?"  So, that's what happened.  God honored that prayer and gave me the strength I needed to do the job.

In thinking about the legal and economic constraints inherent in your juvenile court work, I would imagine that television freed you and provided you with resources to do things you couldn't previously do.

The demarcation is that I did have far more resources with the television show. And, what I had not fully appreciated before I went into television is its power and scope. Television can be used for good or foolishness.  I was committed to using it for good. So, when I was dealing with one family or one child and their complex set of problems, I was not only touching that family.  I was touching millions of people every day. People would stop me on the street, whether I was in New York City or Macon, Georgia, and say, "Judge, I love you," or "Judge, my husband was an alcoholic.  He was inspired by you; he hasn't been drinking now for three years."

One time a woman who had been a drug addict came to a book signing and said, "Judge, I'm graduating from nursing school in May." And, I said, "Oh, how wonderful," but in my mind, I was thinking, "What does that have to do with the Q & A?"  Well, she had been a drug addict for twelve years and had lost her four children to the foster care system. One day, she was sitting on the sofa watching an episode of Judge Hatchett about a heroin addict. She said, "When you told that woman that there is hope on the other side of the gap, I really believed that you were talking to me. I made up my mind that day to go into rehab. I've been clean every day since. I have my children back and I'm getting my RN degree in May." By the end of her story, tears were rolling down my face, she was crying, and we were hugging. Grown men in the audience were crying!  It was that kind of thing.

I can tell you story after story like that. Just this year, a freshman at Morehouse College came up to me when I was there for a program and said, "Judge Hatchett, I've been emailing you."  Of course, he was emailing the show and I hadn't gotten his messages. He said, "I want to let you know I'm a Morehouse man because of you." It was the same kind of thing. He had seen an episode of the show in which I had taken a young man with me to Morehouse when I was giving the commencement address and was inspired to get his life together. It's those kinds of stories that convinced me I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

That leads me to another question. Sometimes when I talk to leaders and they're as inspiring and as accomplished as you are, they can sound almost like social Darwinists, as if everybody can achieve what they have achieved. Obviously, working in the judicial system, you've seen a lot of people whose lives are marked by failure on multiple levels. How do you work with people's diverse gifts and limitations? Are there principles that transcend those limitations that can help anyone?

Yes. My theory is simple in a complex world. I would take the juvenile court bench every day operating on the side of hope. I promised myself that on the day that I couldn't operate on the side of hope anymore, I would leave the work. Now, that's not why I left the work, but I live on the side of optimism. Even so, you have to meet people where they are, not where you wish they were. There can be a huge difference between the two.

It wasn't enough for me to want people's lives to be better. I had to empower them to take responsibility for their lives. I began my tenure on the court in "fix it" mode: "I want to fix you. I want you to be fine. Don't you understand how much I care for you?"  Of course, I didn't say that literally, but that was my mindset. And then, I made the critical transition of realizing my job was not to fix people. My job was to empower them, to inspire them, to encourage them to take responsibility to fix their own lives.

You've heard the saying, which is based on an African Proverb, "If you feed a man a fish, he'll eat for a day; if you teach him to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime."  That is the simple approach I take in a complex world. I tell parents, "Every child is not going to be on the honor roll. But, we have to celebrate every child's gifts. A kid may only be able to be a C-student.  Instead, he may be a gifted musician. He may be a gifted athlete. He may have a heart of gold.  We have to see what we can do to encourage and inspire him. Now, if he's just being jive and trifling and not doing what he's supposed to be doing, that's another conversation. But, my mother and father taught me that God only requires us to do the best we can, and if we can honestly say, "I've done the best that I can," then that's enough because that's all God requires.

I did not allow excuses in my court because I can't fix yesterday. If a young person said to me, "Judge, my mother was an addict and my dad beat me,"  I'd say, "That is no excuse for you not to get up every day and go to school."  If I was dealing with a 22-year-old parent who didn't have a high school diploma, I'd say, "You've got this three-year-old that you have to take care of. You can go back and get your GED. You do not need to be at home drawing welfare when you are an able-bodied person. Get up off your behind."

I wrote down a quote from an episode of your show in which you and a young man both got DNA test results that revealed your African heritages. You said, "If we know who we are, it makes us clear about where we're going."  It seemed like a powerful thing for the young man to hear. How do you think that knowledge transformed him?

As you saw, he wanted to be a thug. I was telling him, "If you understood that you come from greatness, you might not be so inclined to throw away your future." And when the actor Isaiah Washington came on the show and told him about his own experiences of having been shot, which he had never talked about to anyone but his wife, it was huge for this kid. It was like, he got it! "I come from greatness!" That's what I told so many kids in my courtroom: "If you just understood your history, that you are descended from a rich heritage, you wouldn't be out here throwing your future away, because you would understand that you are a part of an important continuum in a divine design."

What kind of an impact did it have on you, learning about your own Nigerian heritage?

I just cried, as you saw. My sons and I had gone to East Africa, which is how the whole thing started.  There was a tribesman there who asked me where I was from.  Naively, I said, "America."  He said, "No. Where are you from?"  I said, "Oh, I'm from Atlanta, Georgia."  He got really exasperated with me, and said, "No, no, no, no.  My sister, my sister, where are you really from?"  After that, I promised myself and my two sons, "I will never not know the answer to that question again." And so, there was a lot in that day for me. It gave me a sense of being connected back across the ocean, back to my true roots, which I never knew.  Obviously, I'm an African-American, but I didn't know what part of Africa my family was from. The genealogist talked about the women in the predominant tribe that my ancestors are from, and he said that it was one of the few ancient African tribes in which women held equal power positions. [Laughing]  I was like, "Okay!"  Another thing I learned was that this tribe is also known for its great proverbs. I always state what people call "Hatchettisms." My producer heard that and said, "That explains it. It's in your DNA!" [Laughing]

As an African-American woman, how have you dealt with barriers? 

My parents raised me to believe that being a young colored girl was not a curse, but a blessing. My daddy told me that I could be and do anything in the world that I wanted.  And, I believed him. So, when people called me, "Nigger," or said, "You can't do it because you're black."  I was always like, "Well, that's not what my daddy told me."  [Laughing] I clearly understood the harsh reality of segregation.  I grew up in the segregated South.  But, I also understood that it wasn't fair.  I understood that I had to work twice as hard, three times, ten times as hard to be recognized.  I have been the victim of racism and sexism. It has always made me that much more determined to succeed.

In a speech you gave at the National Black Law Students 40th anniversary celebration, you mentioned that one-third of African-American boys born in 2007 are projected to spend time in jail. Those statistics are so daunting. What can be done?

They are daunting. But, what I have said is, "That is the projection; it does not have to be our reality." Change is not going to happen by us wishing and hoping, though. It is going to take a lot of hard work.  To that end, I am launching a new initiative this fall called "Parent Power Now." The website is parentpower.com. [Note in 2017: The website no longer seems to be active, but you can follow Judge Hackett's activities here.] I invite your readers to log on. Membership is free. The conversation will not be limited to African-American parents.  This is a universal conversation, because we're all connected. When I discuss "parenting," I don't mean it only in the biological-parent sense. I mean parenting in the sense of us taking ownership of our communities. I'm really excited about creating a strategic social network for parents because we can, and we must, do better by our children. And, I think African-American boys are particularly at risk in this nation and in this world. We have to do more than we're doing.

Besides the Parent Power Now project, what are you working on?

I'm writing a new book, which I hope will be out in 2010. It's called Take Charge of Your Forever.  I'm also planning a series of tours after its release. So, please look out for that. I don't have a publisher yet; I haven't even started interviewing publishers.  My goal goes back to what we were talking about earlier.  I can't fix people, but I can inspire people to fix themselves. The book will have 21 chapters because research suggests that new habits can be formed with 21 days of consistent practice. The idea will be to read a chapter and do the exercises every day for 21 days to get on the road to a new life. That's why I'm calling it Take Charge of Your Forever.

You are also national spokesperson for the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) association. Can you tell me about that?  How did you get involved with the organization? 

I became the National Spokesperson after I left the bench, but I was very much a cheerleader for CASA when I was on the bench.  We did not have a CASA program in my juvenile court.  That's one of the first changes I made when I became Chief Justice shortly after I was appointed.  I felt like I had to let some sunlight in and bring some new energy into the court by getting volunteers involved.

In a nutshell, CASA is a national cadre of volunteers with chapters in all 50 states.  We recruit men and women to be a second set of eyes and ears to look out for children in foster care.  The shorthand way to describe it is to say they become mentors to the children.  They usually don't become foster families, although some do. They're there to augment a tremendously overburdened system. There are now some 800,000 children nationally in foster care. With the current economic situation, we are in a crisis. We're seeing new children come into the system at a rate of 800 a day, which is staggering for a system that is already terribly overpopulated and underfunded.

My push is to reach caring men and women who would like to make a difference in the life of a child. We've had remarkable results.  A child who has a CASA volunteer is less likely to be in foster care long-term, less likely to come back into the system, and more likely to finish high school. The high school dropout rate for children in foster care is absolutely deplorable, because they move so much. So, I believe in CASA and I'm passionate about it. 

Changing gears now, you've received a lot of accolades and awards. Which among them have been the most meaningful?

Well, it's hard to isolate, because I have been so blessed. But, the one that really shook my soul happened this year. I received an honorary doctorate from Clark Atlanta University when I was the commencement speaker there. It's my dad's alma mater, so I felt kind of full and was trying to hold back the tears as I spoke. All of a sudden, I broke down, because the award elicited a flood of memories about my dad. My parents met on the Clark Atlanta campus when they were in graduate school, so it meant the world to me. I thought, "Dad would be so proud of me."

When I got my law degree from Emory University, as I was coming off the stage, I saw my dad taking pictures.  I ran to him and gave him my diploma, and hugged him because he and my mother had made tremendous sacrifices for me to go to school. I do not come from a rich family, monetarily, but I come from a wealthy family. We had wealth beyond measure, but a wealth that comes from God that men and women cannot control. I'm clear about that just as I am real clear that I am where I am in my life today because of God's grace and mercy. God blessed me with these incredible parents who molded me and directed me and encouraged me and cheered me on. My mother is still alive and very much a part of my life. And then, God blessed me with two extraordinary sons.  I wanted children. I prayed for children. But, never could I have imagined how miraculous these two blessings would be in my life. I start every day in prayer on my knees. And, in that prayer time, I always thank God for them.

I have one more question. The answer seems obvious, but I'll ask it anyway:  Do you view your work as a calling?

I do. I believe this is my ministry. This is my purpose. I believe this is what God wants me to do.  My constant prayer is, "God, please bless me to be a blessing through my work."  I'm trying to honor what He's given me, not to squander my gifts, but to use them for good. Again, back to the idea that blessings are meant to flow through us rather than being hoarded.