Tracy Dompeling: Learning Through Listening
If anyone understands the importance of listening to create change, it’s Tracy Dompeling. Some of the best changes she’s made in juvenile justice have come from listening to the youths she serves and putting their needs first.
For the past 23 years, Tracy Dompeling has dedicated her life to making reforms in juvenile justice. Born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, she knew she wanted to get involved after having a personal experience. “Someone close to me was the victim of a violent crime and was seriously injured.” Tracy had also known the perpetrator from high school and was aware he had challenging behaviors as a youth. “I wondered what could have been done to help this individual while they were younger and prevent a crime like this from occurring.” The experience inspired Tracy to add a criminal justice minor to her social work degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She received an internship position with juvenile probation in Fairbanks and started her career working in probation in rural and urban Alaskan communities.
As a probation officer set on improving outcomes for her clients, Tracy understood she needed to listen to the youths and involve them in shaping the programs to support them. One of her first clients was incarcerated after having continued criminal behavior and gang affiliations after his release. “I was initially apprehensive about meeting at the local jail as requested, but a good friend of mine who was the superintendent at the time encouraged me to hear him out.” She was glad she did. “He provided great insight into what would have worked better for him within the system.” Several years have passed since his release and now, as the director of the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice, Tracy took pride in reporting the progress her division had made by implementing some of his suggestions. She says, “Those changes are now considered best practice.”
Tracy’s paternal grandmother was one of the most influential people in her life, but it wasn’t until after she passed away that she learned they shared a passion for advocating for those with less opportunities. “I learned about the advocacy work she performed in her local community to ensure that her child with a developmental disability could receive services near his home. Her work in helping to develop these services for her child ― to prevent his institutional care ― made a difference not only for her family but to many others.” It also demonstrated the lasting impact that one person can make. “The program has since changed names and focus over the years but continues to provide community-based services to those with disabilities to this day.” Perhaps that’s why Tracy’s favorite quote is: “To the world you may just be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”
In 2019, after two years in the role of agency director, Tracy, her husband and two daughters, traded in their heavy winter jackets for rain gear and Xtratuf boots when they moved to Juneau, Alaska. “We have been loving this new adventure,” she says. The move follows the powerful motivation she’d say to other women: “Set goals for yourself and strive to never stop learning. Change is hard but can have such great outcomes if you just give it a chance.” She adds: “Also, you can’t please everyone! Don’t let negativity bring you down or stop you from reaching for your dreams.”
You might also want to read Tracy’s experiences managing the challenges of the pandemic in her role here.