Profiles in Practice: Jesse Dong

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By: Nora Huxtable

Formative experiences don’t usually announce themselves. Most are quiet visitors, their subtlety in the moment matched only by their profundity in hindsight. It isn’t until you’re much older that you realize their impact and the gentle ways they shaped your life. 

Jesse-Dong-1Jesse Dong, managing attorney at the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office, recalled one such memory during our recent interview: When he was a child, he and his mother would load into the minivan early on Saturday mornings to pick up “new friends” to go on “trips.” Only later did Jesse realize that the “friends” were recent Chinese immigrants to his hometown of Ithaca, New York, and their “trips” were grocery visits and errand-running for the license-less passengers. Dong would teach the passengers about U.S. customs and culture, sometimes helping them navigate the grocery store or a new currency system. This “rotating cast of people,” as he now calls them, were the beneficiaries of his parents’ kind-hearted ways and religious altruism.

This assistance to immigrants was personal for Dong’s mother and father. As Chinese immigrants themselves, they understood the myriad challenges that accompany moving to a new place. Dong’s father benefitted from some English language education before he came to America to obtain advanced degrees—including two Ph.D.s—at Cornell, where he now serves as a research faculty member. Dong’s mother, who had studied Chinese literature and did not speak English, began in the service industry before working her way up to a lab management position at Cornell. 

Dong followed his parents’ lead and became a diligent, high-achieving student. He discovered not only a love of learning but one of teaching as well; later he joined Teach for America after college and pursued a master’s degree in teaching from Hamline in St. Paul. He sees teaching and mentorship as a way to help people grow and achieve their potential. Today he embraces this passion in his work at the public defender’s office. 

Dong’s interest in public defense began early. His undergraduate thesis focused on sentencing policy, and a summer spent with the New Orleans public defenders solidified his direction. Soon he was studying at the New York University School of Law and moving to Minnesota by way of Florida. Every step of the way, he kept his eye on public defense. 

 “We are all more than the worst thing that we have ever done,” he quoted from Sister Helen Prejean. “And being a public defender is helping other people see that too, about your client.”

When discussing this interest, Dong’s mercy and benevolence shine through. “We are all more than the worst thing that we have ever done,” he quoted from Sister Helen Prejean. “And being a public defender is helping other people see that too, about your client.” In Dong’s view, public defenders can also fight inequity, systemic racism, and a complex system prone to simply churning through cases. 

Jesse-Dong-2“The law is a tool,” he explained. It can be used for good, and, as he employed a Minnesota euphemism, it can be used for “not good.” Therefore, it’s vital that the legal profession continues to care for our community and for one another. It’s also critical to recruit good people into the law and build a profession that fights for the good for general society. 

As a public defender, Dong feels he can form a client relationship with someone experiencing a confusing and often uneven playing field. His duty is clear—serving the client’s interests to the best of his ability. 

Public defense is a notoriously challenging field, with high caseloads, low pay, and daily secondary trauma. “We need to reconsider paying people more [when they] do really, really important things for our society,” he suggested. “Just the drive to give back shouldn’t be the only thing driving people to do [public interest] work.” Indeed, public interest lawyers have sometimes “given back” to their community in a way that has not been healthy for their minds or incomes. Many lawyers have recently reassessed their priorities, carefully weighing their time with family and friends, their pay, and their quality of life. 

 “You need to do whatever you can to maintain hope,” he explained. “Remember the little victories that we’ve had.”

Dong keeps himself healthy and motivated by maintaining hope. “You need to do whatever you can to maintain hope,” he explained. “Remember the little victories that we’ve had.” In Dong’s view, losing hope that there’s something better, or that you can make a difference, will deplete you. He cites Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption as one source of renewal for him. 

Dong also maintains wellness through sports and athletics. He’s an avid participant in Stonewall Sports, a local organization that promotes recreational inclusion for LGBTQ+ people and their allies. If you stop by their kickball or dodgeball games, you’re likely to see him tearing up the field of play. He is also an amateur baker, with a signature “salted egg yolk and Taiwanese sausage biscotti” that he describes as savory, with a sweet bacon-like flavor. 

Jesse-Dong-3Biking, too, has played a major role in Dong’s life. Initially a childhood activity in Ithaca, Dong later used biking to see the country by joining a fundraising ride for Habitat for Humanity. Dong presents his good works so nonchalantly that you almost miss their scope—this bike tour crossed the country. They started at the Atlantic Ocean in Connecticut and ended at Puget Sound in Washington. Altogether, the group raised over $400,000 for Habitat and their affordable living mission. 

Despite his many accomplishments, Dong admitted to struggling with confidence early in his career. He doubted himself, feeling the weight of his clients’ faith in him. Now, as a mentor, he focuses on instilling confidence in others. “Part of mentorship is just listening and providing a space for people to talk,” he argued. 

In a sense, Dong remains the little boy in the van—teaching, mentoring, cajoling, and doling out advice to those who find themselves in an unfamiliar world. Thanks to his parents and the lessons he learned at a young age, he is helping the next generation of young lawyers find their footing in Minnesota’s courts. 

Nora--Huxtable-150Author: Nora Huxtable

Bio: Nora Huxtable is an assistant public defender in the Third Judicial District (Winona). In her spare time, she enjoys running around in the woods, acting, riding her motorcycle, and serving on the Winona County Dive Rescue emergency response team. She wrote a book last year.

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