Saturday, April 21, 2018

In Appreciation of Arsène Wenger

Yesterday brought the sad news that Arsène Wenger, the manager of Arsenal, has decided to step down after more than two decades at the helm of the club.  Wenger's career at Arsenal has unfolded like a classic three-act drama:

Act 1: Arsène Who? -- He arrives as an outsider. His appointment prompts the newspaper headline "Arsène Who?" as befuddled journalists try to make sense of Arsenal's decision to give a professorial foreigner the keys to one of England's biggest teams.  

Act 2: Arsène Knows -- Skepticism turns to wonder.  Wenger helps to transform both Arsenal and British football generally.  He actively recruits players from around the globe, making his squad an emblem of international cooperation.  He introduces new disciplines of training and diet.  Most important from my perspective, he commits to an aesthetically-pleasing brand of football that emphasizes passing and movement and offensive flair.  And he wins -- a lot.  Three league titles.  Multiple FA Cups. Regular appearances in the Champions League. "Arsène Knows" banners pop up at Arsenal games. 

Act 3: Wenger Out -- After presiding over the most successful period in the club's history, including the move to a new, state-of-the-art stadium in 2006, Wenger sees Arsenal take a step backwards.  After finishing either first or second in the Premier League for 8 straight years, Arsenal goes a decade finishing either 3rd or 4th. A significant segment of the Arsenal fan base turns on Wenger, arguing that the game has passed him by.  "Wenger Out" banners appear at gatherings all over the world. 

Roughly speaking, over the course of twenty-two years in charge of Arsenal, Wenger has gone from unknown commodity to pathbreaking innovator to over-the-hill traditionalist.  I suppose it is an arc that most of us are doomed to follow in our careers.  

I first started following Arsenal in 2002. My brother was living in London at the time; he became a fan and I followed suit.  Those first couple of years were absolutely brilliant, highlighted by an unbeaten season and the graceful play of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.  It has been painful to watch the team's trajectory since then.  This year has been particularly bad -- the team has lost to less-talented clubs and their play has lacked both passion and coherence.  

Even as the team has underperformed, there is still much to admire about Wenger.  He is a smart, dignified public presence.  He never throws his players under the bus when the team loses.  And he sticks to his principles -- he has continued to attempt to play attacking football even as fans and commentators have implored him to improve the defensive solidity of his team. 

I'm not sure what lessons about life or leadership to take from Wenger's story.  It is hard not to conclude that he stayed too long at the party -- he probably should have retired several years ago.  It is also hard not to conclude that his greatness and his weakness are inextricably bound together: the same self belief that enabled him to overcome the doubters during the early years of his tenure made him resistant to change at the end of his reign.  

Watching Wenger as the losses and empty seats and vituperation have mounted has been has been an unpleasant experience.  He deserves better.  Now that he has announced his departure, it looks like he will get it -- the appreciations are starting to pour in from players and pundits alike.  

The best tribute that I can offer to Wenger is that he added to the amount of beauty in this world.  At their best, his Arsenal teams were a joy to watch, full of invention and style and grace.  Unique among his coaching peers, Wenger aspired to artistry.  In an interview a couple of years back he described his work this way: “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”  I doubt sincerely that we will ever see another manager like him.  He will be missed. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

About Alice

Today marks the retirement of Alice Tapia, a long-time community activist from Red Hook, Brooklyn.  Every healthy, functioning neighborhood needs Alice Tapias -- people who are willing to stand up and raise their hand when problems emerge and volunteers are needed.

I first met Alice in the mid 1990s, when I was tasked with putting together an AmeriCorps program in Red Hook.  With the benefit of hindsight, I now recognize that I was in way over my head.  I had to hold together a complicated multi-agency partnership, hire staff, find office and training space (for free), develop ties to the community so that we could organize service projects, and recruit 50 full-time participants -- all under intense time pressure given the necessities of federal funding.  I can't even begin to catalogue all of the mistakes that I made.  Somehow, the Red Hook Public Safety Corps managed not just to get off the ground but to survive and to help plant seeds that would later flower into the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

Any honest assessment of how this happened has to begin with an admission that it was largely due to dumb luck.  We caught a lot of good breaks along the way.  Perhaps the most important was that Alice agreed to be part of the initial class of Corps members.  Alice was a crucial piece in the puzzle because she was already a leader in the community, well known for her work on community gardens.  She gave our nascent program an immediate dose of credibility, signaling to everyone who knew her and looked up to her that they too should give us a chance.  In doing so, Alice was taking a risk, casting her lot with an untested group of staffers, all of whom were younger than her, and an as-yet unproven idea -- that a community justice program could help improve public safety and bolster local confidence in justice.

Over the years, Alice has played a number of different roles in Red Hook, becoming a staffer at the Justice Center, creating Women in Touch, serving on the tenant association, and showing up for countless community organizing efforts.  She also made a small cameo in Good Courts, the book that I co-wrote with John Feinblatt.  Below is an excerpt that describes a housing court case handled by Alex Calabrese, the presiding judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center:

This anecdote is typical Alice -- she does the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes good outcomes possible.  Over the years, she has positively touched the lives of hundreds of people, using her patience, good humor, and good sense to help friends and strangers alike.  I am lucky to have had a chance to work alongside her.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Celebrating Innovators

This past week, the Center for Court Innovation threw a fundraiser honoring innovators from a variety of fields who have helped to make New York a better place.  To supplement the Center's official recounting of the event, I thought I'd offer a few selections from the files of photographer Michael Falco.

Honoree Quardean Lewis-Allen of Made in Brownsville talking with actor Jeffrey Wright, who served as the MC for the event.

Nick Turner of the Vera Institute of Justice with Rachel Williams of Morrison & Foerster and Sarah Williams of Propel Capital.  Sarah and Propel were honored for philanthropic innovation.

Honoree MaryAnne Gilmartin of LL&MAG and Center for Court Innovation alum Amanda Burden, now at Bloomberg Associates.  (That's my mom in the background and Liberty Aldrich of the Center for Court Innovation in the foreground.)

The Center for Court Innovation runs on collaboration.  Thankfully, in New York we are blessed with a number of great judicial partners.  Here are three from Brooklyn: judges Michael Yavinsky, Gerianne Abriano, and Alex Calabrese pose with Amanda Berman of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

We honored New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore for her work to rethink the judicial response to the opioid crisis and her support of providing legal information to unrepresented litigants, among other achievements.  In this photo, she talks with Sherene Crawford of the Midtown Community Court and Ron Richter of JCCA. 

In recent years, we have done a great deal of work with the Manhattan DA's Office, including launching Project Reset, a diversion program that helps participants avoid going to court altogether.  Nitin Savur and District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. were both good enough to come to our event. 

Maybe my favorite photo from the party -- Victoria Pratt of TED talk fame at the podium.

Anyone who has ever put together a party for 250+ guests knows how challenging it can be.  Dozens of people at the Center for Court Innovation helped make the event special.  Here are some of them. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Cost of Good Intentions

The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment was written nearly forty years ago.  It is full of municipal jargon and the names of city bureaucrats that have long been forgotten.  And I found it absolutely riveting.  It makes for cautionary reading for anyone who is interested in expanding government's commitment to achieving social change.

The book's central character is John Lindsay, New York City's mayor for the tumultuous period of 1966-1973. Lindsay was a figure of both probity and charisma.  He successfully attracted a new generation of talented reformers into city government.  He improved the management of many city agencies and helped fight corruption in the police department.  He worked hard to engage New York's black and Latino population; indeed, his outreach is credited with helping New York avoid some of the urban unrest that roiled other American cities in the 1960s.

Lindsay's great strengths were balanced by significant weaknesses.  Some of these weaknesses were characterological. According to Morris:

The puritan's vision of the universe as a constant struggle between good and evil infused Lindsay's first months in office...The New York Times reported his obvious pleasure in conceiving himself as "a lone figure at war with the power structure."...Lindsay's grandiose conception of himself and his powers struck seasoned insiders as fatuous, and certainly arrogant.

Lindsay was hardly alone in seeing the world in stark moral terms -- he was in many ways emblematic of his times.  Morris is sympathetic to the challenges Lindsay faced.  A veteran of city government himself, Morris understands that managing New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s was no easy task.  He also provides important context, framing how New York's performance under Lindsay compared to other American cities of the era.  (Spoiler alert: Not that bad!)

Morris' fair-mindedness makes his ultimate judgement of Lindsay, and Lindsay's project, all the more powerful:

The soaring rhetoric of Lindsay's first administration did not lend itself to easy translation into day-to-day measuring rods of performance and seems to have generated only confusion and hostility among front-line workers.  Not just Lindsay, but liberals generally began to expect very much more from government in the 1960s...the entire battalion of city agencies -- parks, welfare, police, housing, the anti-poverty programs, hospitals, even sanitation -- were to be part of a massive effort at uplift, a final breaking-through of the barriers of oppression and discrimination that prolonged the abject misery of blacks and Hispanics...It was a splendid vision, but one that was seriously flawed, and from a management perspective, positively damaging.  City government is for the most part a fairly dull and mundane business...The sudden call to lofty achievement was, for most agencies, simply muddling.

These are important observations for today's criminal justice reformers.  So is Morris' conclusion that many of the city's well-meaning anti-poverty initiatives "had a strong tendency to emphasize symbol over content, to value structure and participation over program results."  Getting the details of implementation right and winning over the hearts of minds of frontline government practitioners (or at least figuring out how to prevent them from sabotaging new ideas and practices that they don't like)  are essential to any serious effort to reform the criminal justice system.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Dream As Yet Unfulfilled

This photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. hangs in my bedroom in Brooklyn.   Beyond liking the composition of the shot, I chose the photo for a couple of reasons. First, I was attracted to the intimacy of the image.  It does not capture King making a speech or leading a demonstration or meeting with world leaders, but rather hanging out in a hotel room reading the newspaper. For me, this is a reminder of King’s basic humanity; he was, at the end of the day, a normal person called to perform extraordinary deeds.

I also chose the photo for its historical significance.  King is pictured on the cusp of a major civil rights event: a march across the breadth of Mississippi that he undertook in 1966 after James Meredith (the man responsible for integrating the University of Mississippi) was shot by a would-be assassin. 

The Meredith March Against Fear was the subject of my college thesis, which argued that the demonstration was a pivotal event in the history of the civil rights movement – the moment when things began to fall apart.  Stokely Carmichael’s use of the slogan “black power” along the course of the march made national news, helping to expose a fault line between militant civil rights groups and those who were more interested in working with and within existing American institutions.

In many ways, Martin Luther King, Jr. was caught in the middle of this conflict.  King was both a radical and a moderate.  He was a fierce critic of American engagement in Vietnam and economic inequality at home.  At the same time, he never wavered from his commitment to non-violence and what he called “Negro-White unity.”  In my thesis, I wrote this:

King’s ability to avoid a retreat into bitterness and despair is testimony to the power of his idealism.  Throughout his life, King was motivated, in large part, by a sense of the possibilities of American democracy. He dreamed of creating a “beloved community” with a zeal that rivaled the Puritan longing for a shining city on a hill.  Although King would admit that the “the nation is sick,” he never abandoned his vision of American equality.  “In a real sense,” King said,

America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled.  It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream.

These are difficult days for those of us who still believe in the American dream.  Seemingly every day, there is a new assault on core American values like pluralism, tolerance, and civility.  All too often these assaults are coming from inside the White House itself -- the latest being the President’s denigration of immigrants from Haiti and other countries.  Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s rebuke of the President was admirably succinct: “America is an idea, not a race.”

Just a few things I am thinking about on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Crisis Reading List

One of words that I notice being used a lot these days is "unprecedented" (usually with regard to some violation of long-accepted "norms").  I understand the logic, and the emotion, behind this phenomenon. After all, the past 12 months have seen a number of events -- Nazis marching in Virginia, the threat of nuclear conflict with North Korea, attacks on the media and other crucial civic institutions, etc. -- that have felt uniquely destabilizing.

Perhaps for this reason, my reading list for 2017 veered toward non-fiction grounded in crisis.  I started the year with The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. The Undoing Project is an intellectual history of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the two academics credited with creating the field of behavioral economics. Their friendship was forged in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.  Even as he traces the arc of Kahneman and Tversky's career, Lewis takes pains to highlight the context that gave birth to their partnership: the sense of existential vulnerability experienced by Israelis during the early years of the country, which were marked by violence and conflict.

Next I turned to Thomas Ricks' Churchill and Orwell, a joint history of two legendary figures from England.  The context for the book is World War II, but Ricks seems to be writing with at least one eye on our present moment.  He lauds his two subjects for their shared commitment to truth over ideology and their willingness to take on political extremists on the Left and the Right.  In a way, it is a crazy book -- Ricks doesn't unearth any new historical material and his two central characters never actually interact with each other. But I thought the book worked on the strength of Ricks' storytelling and skill as a writer.  After reading the book, I saw that he went out of his way to credit his editor with helping him polish the manuscript.  Good on him.

I've written before about James Forman's Locking Up Our Own, my favorite criminal justice book of 2017, so I won't go into detail about it here, but it too describes a time and a place of crisis: Washington DC in the midst of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

My calamity reading list reached its apogee with Alwyn Turner's Crisis? What Crisis: Britain in the 1970s.  This was actually the second book I read on this topic, along with Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies.  Both books offer a helpful  perspective on the current emergencies in the United States.  The winter of discontent...three-day work weeks...a series of disruptive labor strikes...trash piling up in Leicester Square...declining trust in government combined with a rise in political extremism -- the sense of a country coming apart at the seams was, I would argue, stronger in the UK in the 70s than it is now in the US.

I can't say that I have figured out some grand unifying theory or tidy set of lessons from all of these books.  But I have taken some (perhaps perverse?) comfort.  The times we are living through are challenging to be sure, but they are not wholly without precedent.  I am enough of an optimist to believe that better days are ahead of us if we can, collectively, summon the better angels of our nature. Best wishes for the new year.

Monday, December 18, 2017

At This Moment

Last week we held our annual Center for Court Innovation holiday party.  It was a good moment to reflect on where we are as an agency.  

We have grown significantly over the past several years.  Since 2015, our budget has almost doubled.  We now touch the lives of tens of thousands of people on an annual basis through our youth development, crime prevention, reentry, alternative-to-incarceration, and court-based programs.  The holiday party was a visible symbol of our reach -- there were hundreds of people there representing our programs in all five boroughs plus various points outside of the city. 

Even as we have grown in size, we have attempted to remain artisanal, for lack of a better word.  What I mean is that we have tried to forge an approach to justice reform that is unbureaucratic and homespun.  The holiday party offered a symbol of this as well.  For more than two decades, we have hosted a baking competition as part of our holiday party.  The bake-off is one of my favorite Center for Court Innovation traditions -- there is something powerful and generous (and of course, hand-crafted) about the act of baking.  The entries this year were bananas -- see below for a particularly over-the-top example.

We are coming to the end of a year unlike any other that I have experienced at the Center for Court Innovation.  I cannot claim that this has been one of my favorite years.  The external environment has been stressful, to say the least.  We are living through a time of uncertainty and division.  The outrageous has become commonplace.  

All of this has raised challenging questions for the Center for Court Innovation.  Do we need to adapt to changing conditions in the world around us?  In many respects, we have done exactly this. We have sharpened our focus on racial disparities in the justice system.  We have engaged in an ambitious effort to encourage the City of New York to close Rikers Island.  We have tried to advance the idea of diversion, providing meaningful off-ramps so that many cases never have to come to court at all.  And we have dramatically expanded the reach of our alternative-to-incarceration and alternative-to-detention programs, serving hundreds of additional people each year. 

But even as we have shifted to meet the demands of our current moment, we have also attempted to stay true to the underlying values that have been at the core of our work since our origin.  These include a commitment to working in concert with reformers within government, a belief in the value of incremental change, and a dedication to research and careful, evidence-driven program planning.  

One of our most important values is a faith in the possibility of positive change.  At the Center, we are trying to advance an affirmative vision of what justice can and should look like.  Each day, we are working alongside judges, attorneys, law enforcement officers, probation officials and others to nudge our government closer to realizing this vision.  This work is hard.  It can be unglamorous and messy.  It is almost always full of compromise.  But it is real. And it is desperately needed.

As the director of the Center for Court Innovation, my role in all of this is primarily facilitative and administrative.  I do not provide services to any defendants.  I don't work directly with any young people.  But I am motivated in no small part by my admiration and respect for those who do.  I have written in the past about the importance of love to the daily work that goes on in our programs.  This year, more than any other, I have been inspired by the generosity of the case managers and outreach workers and violence interrupters and other frontline staffers who have chosen to devote their time and energy to the Center for Court Innovation.  If you would like to help support their work, I encourage you to make a year-end donation, as I have. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

A New Look

We recently unveiled a new logo and a new website for the Center for Court Innovation.  

Created by the Brooklyn-based firm Bardo Industries, our new logo provides us with a fresh look as we enter our third decade.  From a design perspective, this was no easy assignment. We asked Bardo to create a logo that was new, bold, and modern.  At the same time, we also wanted to hit a note of continuity, emphasizing that the Center is building on a successful track record.  
Another important design goal was greater flexibility. One of the challenges presented by our old logo was that there was only a single version.  By contrast, there are multiple iterations of the new logo -- it can be adapted to suit a variety of contexts and formats.  Among other things, this will enable us to have a stronger visual presence on social media.

Bardo is no stranger to the Center for Court Innovation. Over the last couple years, they’ve designed posters for the Brownsville Community Justice Center, invitations for the Red Hook Community Justice Center, and postcards for the Center’s 20th anniversary. To develop the new logo, they toured several of our operating programs and held focus groups with a variety of staffers to gain a better understanding of our work and our values.  They also spent weeks researching other logos to make sure that our new mark would stand out in a crowd. 

I'm enormously pleased with the result.  For me, the new logo conjures a host of positive associations -- the opening of a book, the slipstream behind a fast-moving object, the bars on a research graphic...One person I showed the logo to said it reminded her of our work to rethink incarceration -- that we are turning the bars of a cell on their side. 

Bardo is also helping us with the design for our upcoming benefit, which will be held on March 13, 2018 at the Rubin Museum, so stay tuned for more smart graphic design from the Center for Court Innovation. 


Monday, October 2, 2017

Valerie Raine

Tonight, we celebrated the career of Valerie Raine, who helped establish the Brooklyn Treatment Court back in the 1990s.  Val then went on to be a key force spreading drug courts across the state and ensuring that they hit the highest possible standards of excellence. Val is retiring after 20 years at the Center for Court Innovation.

Val first crossed my radar screen in 1996.  Back then, the New York Times ran an article about the  planning of the Brooklyn Treatment Court entitled “Drug Court Seeks to End Revolving Door Justice.”  The piece talked about how great the Treatment Court was going to be and featured quotes from Tim Murray and JoAnn Ferdinand and John Feinblatt extolling the virtues of this new project.  The only negative quote was from Val, then at the Legal Aid Society.

Not long after that, for reasons that are still a little unclear to me, Val decided to join the Center for Court Innovation to lead the very project that she had just publicly criticized to millions of readers.  Nothing I had ever seen in my professional life to that point prepared me for the Valerie Raine experience.  She was an enormous personality. This, combined with the stress that always accompanies a high-profile start-up, made for some dramatic moments.

I mostly sat on the sideline and watched.  Little did I know that I would become Val’s boss, at least nominally, a few years later.  It didn’t seem like a marriage that was destined for success.  From Val’s perspective, I brought precious little to the table – not much knowledge of the justice system, not much management experience, and not much personality. 

In search of advice, I went to my friend Eric Lee who told me that Val’s bark was worse than her bite.  I think I found that notion reassuring at the time.  I also found it not to be true.  Over the years, I have felt Val’s bark and her bite, and I can tell you that both are pretty bad. But I will say this: in my experience, when Val bites, it is always for good reason.  Val is someone with a keen sense of justice and the willingness and the capacity to fight on behalf of the underdog. 

In truth, lots of ex-public defenders are righteous warriors for justice. What makes Val special in my estimation is something that I have always attributed to her background as an actress.  For me, she has the soul of an artist.  She brings empathy and creativity and humor and improvisation to her work.  She’s an amazing storyteller and she uses that gift to make friends and win over enemies. 

That’s why Val was been able to thrive over the course of her career at Legal Aid, the Center for Court Innovation, and the Office of Court Administration.  And that’s why she has been able to shift the entire landscape of justice in New York.  Because, make no mistake, that's what drug courts have done over the past 20 years.  And there simply would not have been a drug court movement in New York, and certainly not a sustained one, without Val. 

It was an enormous honor to work with Val over the past couple of decades.  I will miss her.  And I know our field will too. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Jeff Hobbs

Last night, we bid farewell to one of the foundations of our organization: Jeff Hobbs.  Jeff was part of the original team at the Midtown Community Court.  He is retiring after 24 years of service to the project. 

It took a measure of courage to join the Midtown team back in 1993. There was no track record of success at that point, no proof to document that this new approach to justice would work. But Jeff recognized the potential.  His signing up was an important piece of the puzzle, helping to give life and meaning to what before had simply been some abstract ideas about rethinking misdemeanor justice on a piece of paper. 

From the very start, Jeff was a major presence.  He was really the person who put the "community" in the Midtown Community Court. His sense of humor and can-do attitude helped create a sense of team spirit among staff.  And his gregariousness and ability to improvise helped engage local residents in ways that no courthouse had ever done before.

But perhaps the biggest thing that Jeff brought to the table, which he talked about last night at his going-away party, was a sense of love and respect for those who came into the building as defendants and left as clients and sometimes even friends.  Before anyone here had ever heard of "procedural justice," Jeff showed us what it meant to communicate to the public with clarity and dignity.  We owe him a big debt for this. 

We also owe him a debt for his decision to stick around.  Jeff was one of the very first people to choose to make a career at the Center for Court Innovation. His example showed that the Center was an institution with staying power that could nurture and sustain its staff over the long haul. 

When I first met Jeff, I was in my mid twenties.  I was a newcomer to New York and to the world of criminal justice. He could easily have seen me as a rival or an obstacle or just a pain in the ass.  Instead, showed me kindness, helping to educate me about the realities of life on the ground in the justice system.  I was far from alone in this.  Jeff may have been one of a kind, but I have no doubt that we will be seeing his influence on hundreds of people -- colleagues, graduates of Midtown's fatherhood program, community leaders, and justice reformers around the country -- for years to come.