Sunday, November 20, 2011

My Uncle Warren

My uncle, Warren Gelayder, passed away yesterday. Warren grew up with my mother in Newark, New Jersey and spent most of his life in the jewelry business. I will remember him mostly for his affability. He never took himself too seriously and always seemed to be in a good mood. I think his sense of humor was one of the things that made him such a good father. He was truly a family man -- I always admired his commitment to his wife and kids. He will be missed.

Even before he fell ill, I often found myself thinking of Warren when I visited Newark Community Solutions. Mostly what I thought about is how our individual lives intersect with the lives of the cities we inhabit.

My family's story on my mom's side is fairly typical of the American Jewish experience. My grandmother Loretta moved to the U.S. as a small child. She came with her family from the town of Lwow, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (after a brief spell as part of Poland, the city is now part of the Ukraine and called Lviv). Like many Americans, their immigration had roots both economic (the search for a better life) and political (the search for a life not defined by anti-semitism).

My grandmother, who became a U.S. citizen in the 1950s, ended up marrying Max Gelayder. (As an aside, the family name "Gelayder" is apparently an Americanized version of the Russian "Galaida.") For many years, my grandfather presided over a jewelry store at 519 Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn. My uncle Warren followed him into the business. The picture above captures Warren in front of the store in the 1960s.

Alas, the family business in Brooklyn didn't last forever. Nor did the good times in Newark: like many Jewish families, the Gelayders ended up moving to the suburbs. If the forces of history pushed my uncle out of Newark and Brooklyn at the end of the last century, those same forces are pushing me in the other direction: I find myself living in Brooklyn and working in Newark (albeit only occasionally). I enjoy the symmetry. And I wonder what my daughters' relationship will be to these places that have helped to define our family, for both good and bad, for nearly 100 years.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Trip to Prison

I spent the bulk of the day today at Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut. I visited because I recently joined the advisory board of the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education, an initiative that offers college-level courses to incarcerated students. Today's class was a political philosophy seminar devoted to Albert Camus' "The Rebel." Much of the conversation focused on a passage towards the end of the book in which Camus writes that the task before humanity is "to learn to live and to die, and, in order to be a man, to refuse to be a god." From this jumping off point, the students discussed religion and the nature of justice, bringing in earlier readings from Nietzsche and other philosophers. It was a pretty typical Wesleyan class: an interesting professor challenging a room full of highly engaged, thoughtful students. The only thing different really was the setting: we were behind bars in a windowless classroom and the students had all been convicted of serious crimes, including murder. I left feeling proud of my alma mater for sponsoring such a program -- and with my faith in liberal arts education, and its ability to teach both context and empathy, bolstered. For more information on the Center, check out this New York Times article.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bronx Defenders

Last night, I attended the annual fundraiser for Bronx Defenders. Great event, great organization, and great honoree -- the event honored Herb Sturz, who helped establish the blueprint for innovative criminal justice non-profits when he founded the Vera Institute of Justice a half century ago.

Institutional partnerships between non-profits can be a challenge given the realities of politics, personalities, and the competition for limited resources. That said, we have been fortunate to establish a long-standing, mutually-beneficial (I hope!) relationship with Bronx Defenders. We aren't on the same side of every issue, but there is a basic foundation of respect and understanding between the two agencies that has enabled us to work together on projects like Bronx Community Solutions and the Center for Holistic Defense. We've also tapped Robin Steinberg, the head of Bronx Defenders, to be on numerous task forces, including our initiative to improve communication in criminal courts.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Video Roundup

Interrupting Violence in Crown Heights from NYC in Focus on Vimeo.

I spent the end of last week in Washington D.C. speaking to an inter-agency gathering of federal officials with an interest in substance-abusing offenders that was convened by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. While I was gone, several videos featuring Center for Court Innovation projects started making the rounds:

The above video, which describes our anti-violence work in Crown Heights, comes from NYC In Focus.

Last week's Brownsville Youth Court graduation was captured on film by one of the participants' parents. The results can be seen in this You Tube video.

The good folks at NYC Community Cleanup have created a neat time-lapse video of a graffiti removal project.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Daily News

Two recent articles in the Daily News caught my eye. The first, about gang violence, includes this quote from Brookyn DA Charles Hynes about the Red Hook Community Justice Center: “That court helped transform Red Hook from a place you wouldn’t enter without the 3rd Marines into one of the five safest neighborhoods in New York.”

The second, an op-ed about violence in Brownsville, cites our research into community attitudes about crime and highlights the efforts we are making to address gun violence in Crown Heights.

Still More From England

Reviewing my notes, here are a few selected moments that struck a chord with me from the US-UK criminal justice summit that our Centre for Justice Innovation put together with Policy Exchange last week:

Nick Herbert, the minister of policing and criminal justice, saying that it is time for the UK to break out of "stale thinking" about crime and that he welcomed the creation of the Centre for Justice Innovation to aid in this process.

Kit Malthouse, MP and deputy mayor of London, nodding toward our trial and error work, saying "we have to recognize that part of innovation is failure."

New York City Probation Commissioner Vinny Schiraldi, highlighting the differences between the US and the UK in terms of how government policy is made and how that may help to stifle innovation: "You can't fail small in the UK, you have to fail big."

Chris Watler of the Harlem Community Justice Center, encouraging criminal justice reformers to be more aggressive in getting their messages out to the public and the media: "We are a storytelling species."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

More From England

I've returned to New York after half a week in London. As part of the release of From the Ground Up, we helped to organize a two-day summit on criminal justice reform that brought together a select group of American and British innovators. About 100 people attended the public portion of the event, which was held at London City Hall. These included a mix of frontline practitioners, national bureaucrats, foundation people, and academics.

I think the report and the event helped us to solidify our role in England. After more than a year of exploratory work, it has become clear that our niche in England will be to promote criminal justice reform by aiding and abetting demonstration projects in a variety of fields -- probation, courts, corrections, etc. This will take several forms: research, convening, technical assistance, and behind-the-scenes advocacy with central government.

While there are numerous capable non-profit organizations in the UK, I am pretty confident that our Centre for Justice Innovation can make a real contribution. One of my principal takeaways from the summit has to do with the differences in the playing fields between the US and the UK. Because of the nature of the government (national as opposed to federal), the politics (crime is a top national concern and a key partisan issue in England), and the media (i.e., relentless national tabloids), it is much, much harder to be creative and test new ideas in the UK than it is in the US. In this environment, criminal justice reformers need all of the help they can get. I hope in the days ahead that we will be able to help strengthen the hands of both frontline practitioners and policymakers who are interested in doing new things.

Culture Roundup

A few things I've been enjoying of late:

Everlast's guerilla street art video for "I Get By"

"Attack the Block" -- easily the best horror/sci-fi/social commentary/comedy film I've ever seen

A new compilation of Billy Bragg downloads called "Fight Songs" includes several songs that rank with his best work

Taylor Branch takes down the NCAA in a lengthy, but entertaining, Atlantic Monthly story

Friday, November 4, 2011

From the Ground Up

I'm in London this week for the release of From the Ground Up, a new publication that our London office put together with our friends at Policy Exchange. The book is basically a meditation on the value of demonstration projects as a reform strategy. As part of the book launch, we convened a two-day event that brought together innovative criminal justice officials from England, Wales and Scotland with their counterparts from the US. I will try to write more expansively when I get home and have access to a proper computer, but for now I will just say that the gathering was a huge success and really underlined how far we have come in a relatively short time in the UK. Much praise is due of course to Aubrey Fox, who has been leading our London efforts. Aubrey has had a fair amount of help of course. Credit is also due to Policy Exchange (particularly Blair Gibbs), the Young Foundation (particularly Anton Shelupanov) and Gavin Lockhart, who co-wrote From the Ground Up with Aubrey.