Rising to New Heights
Friday, July 1, 2022
by: Chris D. Daniels, MPA, CAE

Section: Executive Director's Remarks

Chris Daniels, MPA, CAE AJA's Executive Director

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is the opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. This phrase immediately came to mind as I was considering the focus of my column because it describes a time characterized by extreme opposites occurring at the same time. At AJA, we mark time by the conference year—not so much the calendar year. When I consider all that transpired between May 2021 and May 2022, it’s not hyperbole to refer to it as the best of times and the worst of times—for our nation, our jails, AJA, and even for each of us individually. 

Digging Deep
We all shared a moment of frightening realization when we either thought we had COVID or were diagnosed with COVID. It’s probably safe to say that we all lost someone to COVID—a friend, a family member, or a colleague in corrections. We felt the impact of the pandemic in many other ways: staff  shortages, supply chain issues, inflation, and divisions over mandates—all of which resulted in financial challenges and a whole lot of additional stress. It was indeed the worst of times.

So, how was it the best of times? As is often the case, when we get pushed out of our comfort zone, we rise to new heights. We dig deep to make things happen. We innovate, and often those innovations are an improvement over the status quo. Across the nation, our jails rose to the occasion because of the tenacity of their corrections staff  to serve their communities. Likewise, the volunteer leadership and the headquarters staff  at the American Jail Association had to dig deep to ensure that the association remained viable and, in fact, excelled. Our membership numbers closely followed the downward trajectory in the corrections workforce—made worse by the pandemic. AJA had to cancel the 2020 Conference & Jail Expo, and we held a virtual conference in 2021. For a brief time, our training seminars transitioned to a webinar format. In short, we had to adapt and innovate. 2021 was AJA’s 40th anniversary. Looking back, you could say the association was reborn.

New Heights
Because we listened and responded to the unique needs of our jails during the pandemic, we learned how to bett er serve our members. AJA’s online presence became more robust. We enhanced the content on our website, and our social media activity increased exponentially. Our online discussion forum, iConnect, became a conduit for our members to continue to network and share best practices. Our membership numbers grew by 10%. We formed new partnerships to enhance our professional development opportunities and supported jails by providing technical assistance through grants from the BJA.

We mastered how to provide valuable educational content via webinars. Then, as the mandates slowly decreased, we ramped up our in-person training across the country, having conducted 28 trainings over the past year. American Jails magazine continued to serve as an important source of information. We launched a digital version of the magazine and expanded AJA’s reach by harnessing the power of search engine optimization and ad-retargeting technology. Our impact has been measurable—reflected in the number of new certifications we issued and the number of attendees and exhibitors at our conference. We even added another large meeting—our Fall Summit. More importantly, AJA rebounded quickly as the grip of the pandemic lessened. It was a year of unprecedented growth brought about by very trying circumstances.

Stay safe.
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