Friday, June 17, 2011

Notes from Newark


Over the course of the 17 years (!) that I've been doing this work, I've been blessed to participate in some memorable public events. I was there when US Attorney General Janet Reno toured the Red Hook Community Justice Center. I was at the award ceremonies when the Center received the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation and the Prize for Public Sector Innovation from the Citizens Budget Commission. I was at the Harlem Community Justice Center when Mayor Rudy Giuliani held an impromptu press conference about his love life. I was at the Midtown Community Court's 10th anniversary breakfast when the lord chancellor of England and Wales came to tell Mayor Michael Bloomberg that Britain would be emulating our community court model.

To these powerful memories I can now add a new entry: yesterday's opening of Newark Community Solutions. There sre many reasons why Newark's opening will stand out in my mind. First was the remarkable turnout: a standing-room only crowd that filled the City Council chambers with government officials, non-profit executives, clergy, community groups and a fair number of Center for Court Innovation staffers from across our different operating projects.

Then there was the keynote address by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whose reputation for eloquence turns out to be well-deserved. Among other things, Booker saluted the "heroes" that work at Newark Community Solutions and other criminal justice experiments in Newark. He connected their work to the history of American reform movements, including the efforts to pass civil rights legislation, to abolish slavery and to declare our independence from England.

As compelling as Booker was, he was nearly matched by the other speakers at the event. In particular, I will long remember the remarks of Judge Victoria Pratt who talked about being able to see the impact of Newark Community Solutions on a daily basis in the faces of the defendants who come before her having made real progress in transforming their lives.

It has taken a little while for Newark Community Solutions to get off the ground. Initial planning began about five years ago. But as with the Red Hook Community Justice Center (six years in planning, for the record), the wait seems to have had some positive, if unintended, benefits. Namely, it has allowed the project to develop and solidify relationships with a broad range of local partners. In my experience, the kind of community spirit in evidence yesterday afternoon can't be faked. It also doesn't happen overnight. Massive credit goes to Jethro, Adam and the rest of the team at Newark Community Solutions for putting in the hard work and long hours to make it happen.