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Justice Matters’ lead organizer continues quest for a more equitable world in Douglas County

Camille Debreczeny grew up in California surrounded by extended family taking care of each other as part of an interconnected whole.

The lead organizer for Justice Matters credits that collectivist culture — and her family’s immigrant background — with drawing her to community work.

Debreczeny arrived in Lawrence in August 2020. With a recently earned master’s degree in social work, she came to the Sunflower State by way of Chicago and ready to make change as an organizer with the nonprofit organization Justice Matters (JM), an interfaith group with the goal of ending injustice within communities.

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If saying her last name seems challenging, no worries. The soft-spoken Debreczeny said she was in her 20s when she learned how to pronounce it correctly, so she’s willing to offer grace on that front. It’s “Deh-bret-ZEH-nee,” by the way.

Her close-knit family fosters a unique legacy. On her dad’s side, her grandfather immigrated to England in his 20s during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. In London, he met her grandmother. They married and raised their family in the American South and worked at the University of North Carolina. Her grandfather was a Russian literature professor.

Debreczeny’s mother left her home country of Vietnam on a boat as a refugee in 1975, near the end of the Vietnam War.

Those experiences helped form her passion for social work.

“I think I’ve always had a sense of anger at injustice and inequity,” Debreczeny, 27, said. “I grew up in a world of relative privilege and opportunity being born in California, a U.S. citizen, but I really saw the struggles that my family was going through and had been through and just had a sense that, that wasn’t the way the world should be.”

Working for the AmeriCorps program in a high school on Chicago’s South Side opened her eyes further. Under-enrolled and poorly staffed, the school was later shut down. “It kind of shocked me out of my bubble in some ways. I just saw horrific practices in the schools.”

Still, she witnessed hope. “I saw social workers in that school who I felt were making a difference in the school environment.” 

A master’s in social work from the University of Chicago became the next step of a broad education intended to provide her the skills she needed to address inequities and contribute to causes for which she cared.

Debreczeny took over the role of JM lead organizer from Ben MacConnell, who is working to expand justice ministries across Kansas and Nebraska for the Direct Action & Resource Training Center (DART), of which Justice Matters is an affiliate.

Contributed photo Representing Justice Matters in this photo are, from left, Sarah Balzer, Camille Debreczeny and Ben MacConnell.

She and Sarah Balzer, JM associate organizer, now shepherd the work of the local network’s 400+ members across a neighborhood group and 17 congregations of faith.

Each year, JM votes on its priorities, researches community problems, sets goals and monitors progress while working to hold people in power accountable to change.

Debreczeny credits community members as the true force behind progress. She sees herself as someone responsible for paying attention to the small details and maintaining organization.

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For 2022, the group has prioritized its grassroots work on these ongoing issues: restorative practices in schools, ending homelessness and jail alternatives. The group also will focus on a new issue – eldercare. The group’s recent listening process revealed Douglas County seniors who feel “warehoused, mistreated and isolated” and concerned about quality and cost of care.

Debreczeny said JM welcomes new members anytime. “It’s never too late to join, we have ways for people to plug in all throughout the year. The main way we get people involved is through that annual listening process.”

Ann Hossler, a JM board member, met Debreczeny when she moved to Lawrence. At times, Hossler acknowledged, community work is “really hard” and can feel discouraging; for example, when confronting setbacks or negative stereotypes about marginalized people.

Yet, Hossler believes, Debreczeny is well-suited for the work. She described her as humble and “super kind.”

“You might dismiss her as a leader because she’s just so soft-spoken, gentle, kind and thoughtful. But she definitely has a passion for this work,” Hossler said.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has kept Debreczeny from seeing everything Lawrence can offer, but she has enjoyed living here. “I like the small-city feel of it. And just the connectedness and sense of communities. Lots of good community events happening and programs and organizations doing good work.”

Moving into the People’s Owned and Operated Collective House co-op has helped her connect with others socially and provided her the built-in support system she needed having always lived near family before she came to Kansas.

The housing co-op offers the collective vibe that has run throughout Debreczeny’s life. “We’ve got an interesting mix of people there … It’s been a really good community to be a part of, especially moving to a new place, not knowing anybody.”

Debreczeny said she felt happy in her role with JM as well. “I actually was not looking to come to Lawrence specifically, but I think I got lucky where I ended up.”

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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