“I find that a lot of the work that really needs to be done to change that system is outside the four walls of my court building. So, I’m very intentional about the work that I do outside of the court in the community and really try to engage and interact with young people before they come in contact with that system.”
Lonnell was elected in 2018 as Davidson County’s first African American Juvenile Court Clerk. He grew up in North Nashville and says he’s grateful to be able to move back into the community that raised him and contribute to it in a significant way.
“My goal is to try to work with the judges, the magistrates and the entire criminal justice system to bring a more restorative practice.”
He says education is one of the biggest issues facing the community he serves.
“The foundation of that is literacy,” he says. “I believe that literacy is the tool or the key to really building educational and economic success for developing generations.”
According to the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, white male students are three times more likely to be reading proficiently in the fourth grade than their Black peers. The statistics are even more startling for children of color from low-income families, with just 10 percent of male Black students compared to 25 percent for their white peers.
These are staggering facts that Lonnell won’t settle for. That’s why he helped start Books Brothers, an initiative of the Blueprint for Early Childhood Success, alongside My Brother’s Keeper, the Nashville Public Library, United Way and Ingram Content Group. Books Brothers brings men of color to the classroom as reading role models through pre-recorded videos. Volunteers read a range of age-appropriate texts for kindergarten through third graders including books that allow students of color to see themselves in the pages.
Lonnell says he also driven by the way economics affects his neighbors.
“Not just dealing with intense levels of poverty in certain communities, but also just economic opportunity, financial empowerment and making sure that those opportunities and access are available for all.”
Lonnell said he never had any intention of running for office. In fact, he was an accounting major. A friend from college pulled him aside one day and asked him to consider running for Metro Council in Nashville.
“I was 26. I was young and naive, and I eventually believed that he was onto something. So, I threw my name in the hat. It was the opportunity to serve the community that had invested so much in me growing up here. I’m a Metro Nashville Public Schools graduate. I was part of several youth sports organizations and Boy Scouts and other organizations. And there was a lot of investment to making me the person that I have become.”
But a year before he decided to run, Lonnell lost his brother to gun violence.
“Those influences really prompted me to take action to help other families—both who have experienced some of the things that I experienced in life growing up and to prevent families from experiencing some of the things in life that I did. And I just want to make my community a better place.”