HARWICH — A warm greeting and familiar face will be noticeably absent from the community center as Emily Mitchell trades her seat at the front desk for one at Cornell Law School.
Mitchell has spent a lot of time in the community center going back to her days attending Halloween parties, participating in recreation programs and even attending her Junior Prom. The building played a central role in her life growing up in Harwich.
Mitchell graduated from Harwich High School in 2011 and went off to Providence College, returning each summer to work the front desk at the community center. After college graduation she set about traveling for several months before returning home in November 2015 and taking a part-time job at the center.
Working at the front desk, she had a warm greeting for everyone who came through the door. But on Friday, she completed her work and began packing and planning a new chapter in her life. She was scheduled to leave for Ithaca, N.Y. on Wednesday.
“It's a huge jump and I think I am ready,” Mitchell said of the transition. “I'm excited and I'll be jumping in feet first.”
She will also be missed tremendously by the people who frequent the community center. On Thursday people were coming by to extend a farewell.
“I like it here, I meet cool people. I'm a lucky girl,” she says to one farewell wisher.
“I like the conversations I have here every day,” Mitchell told The Chronicle. “People are cool and interesting and I get to talk to them a lot. I'll miss them, actually.”
“She has a big following here,” Community Center Director Carolyn Carey said of Mitchell. “I'm sad she's leaving, but I'm happy for her. She certainly elevated the experiences people get when they come into the community center. She set the bar very high. I think you're very lucky to work with someone who can teach you while you're teaching her. She will be missed.”
“Carolyn is amazing, a powerhouse,” Mitchell said of her former boss. “It's cool to learn from her.”
After graduating college in 2015, Mitchell said she decided to travel and took advantage of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, living in Norway for two months and working on a medium size farm which produced organic and bio-dynamic produce. She worked eight to 10 hours a day for room and board.
“I fell in love with a cow there, Ricarla, and I wish I could have taken her home, if I could get her on a plane,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said when she went to Providence College, she was not a very political person; she was planning to study neuroscience and go to medical school. She ended up studying sociology and women's studies.
“The undergraduate experience was an awakening for me,” Mitchell said.
Providence College is a very good school with a strong liberal arts program, but it was also “very conservative and very Catholic,” she said. She was not anticipating that climate and had a strong reaction to it.
“It pushed me to put the work into what I value and vocalize that and embody that even when it was at odds with the environment around me,” she said.
Mitchell is the daughter of longtime Harwich Police Department Lt. Barry Mitchell, who retired nearly three years ago. Her mother, Lisa Mitchell, is the superintendent of the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, a unit of the state Department of Corrections.
“I came from a very pro-law enforcement background,” she said.
Mitchell said she had many discussions about the criminal justice system with her parents and started doing research and organizing activism related to treatment of incarcerated LGBT people. She focused on medical treatment for LGBT persons in prisons, respect for gender and general treatment. She got involved with community activism in Providence through Black and Pink, a volunteer organization that connects LGBTQ pen-pals and advocates for specific prisoner needs while working to abolish the prison industrial complex.
“There is a lot of work going on, challenging that right now and it's being done through litigation,” Mitchell said. “Law school will give me the education to approach it with all the different angles.”
Mitchell said she applied to doctorate programs in sociology at eight schools and applied to 10 law schools. She chose Cornell Law School because it has a strong public interest program, while many other law schools focus on directing students toward corporate jobs.
“I like that they do a lot of clinical work under the direction of the professors,” Mitchell said.
She also said she likes the small town setting and the fact that it is within driving distance of home.
Where law school takes her only time will tell, she said.
“I don't know if I'll come back, and I like that flexibility,” she said. “Post graduation will likely take me to the city for the specific work I'm interested in.”
But Mitchell admits there are opportunities that could draw her back home. One day, she said, she would love to serve as town moderator.
“I have a deep love of town meeting and I credit Mr. Houston for that,” Mitchell said of Harwich High School (now Monomoy High School) government teacher Richard Houston, who required his students to attend town meeting and write papers.
“I like the process of direct democracy because everyone has an equal chance to talk about how the issues affect them and an equal say in how it affects them,” Mitchell said. “I wish we could have town meeting every week. I love it.”
Mitchell said she likes the role of the moderator, keeping control but allowing people to speak. She also praised present town moderator Michael D. Ford, adding he has a calming voice. She said she will miss town meeting this year, but Channel 18 will be live streaming it and she will be watching from her apartment in Ithaca.
“This will always be my home, but I expect I'll have some traveling and experimenting before I revisit my roots here,” Mitchell said.