Friday, May 30, 2014

On Being a Mensch

Yesterday's presentation of the Kathryn McDonald Award at the New York City Bar was a bittersweet affair.  It was a chance to celebrate the many contributions that Alfred Siegel made to improving justice in New York.  But it was also a stark reminder of all that we have lost with Alfred's passing.  He really was a special man.  Irreplaceable. 

This point was made emphatically by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in his introduction of Alfred.  Judge Lippman spoke warmly of his decades-long relationship with Alfred.  He also talked about being in meetings and seeing everyone turn to Alfred for help in understanding confusing situations.  

I have had the same experience on more occasions than I can remember.  This was a point I tried to make in accepting the McDonald Award on Alfred's behalf.  This is what I said:

I miss Alfred every day, but I’m especially missing him today.  I would have loved to have seen his discomfort with being the center of attention.  I also know that he would have had something funny and gracious and self-deprecating to say as he accepted this honor. 

Although he would no doubt have tried to deflect attention from himself, there is also no doubt that this award would have meant a lot to Alfred, particularly given how much he admired Judge Lippman and how much he cared about improving the Family Court and the way that New York City works with delinquent young people.

I’ve talked and written a lot about Alfred since he passed away, trying to process my grief and express what was remarkable about his life.   He had so many wonderful qualities, including a keen intelligence, a sharp wit, and a deep understanding of how this City functions and how to get stuff done amidst chaos and conflicting interests. 

But when I think about Alfred, the first thing that always pops into my head is a Yiddish word.  Because Alfred was first and foremost a mensch. 

Being a mensch meant that Alfred took enormous care with personal relationships.  He was a steadfast friend, father, and colleague.  Unlike many men of his generation who struggle to express such things, Alfred communicated love and warmth easily.  He was well and truly loved in return. 
Alfred’s brand of menschness (if that’s a word) meant that he was a good guy to deal with – he was an honest broker and a reliable narrator.  But Alfred’s integrity was also at the root of his effectiveness as a justice reformer. 

Over the years, Alfred served as a moral compass for hundreds and hundreds of people.  Elected officials, commissioners, even chief judges looked to Alfred for advice because they knew that he saw clearly the right thing to do in almost any situation.  He was no ideologue.  What he was was a true democrat (with a lower case “D”).  He had a rigorous insistence that everyone – regardless of their station in life -- deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.  This was his lodestar. And this is the value that we at the Center for Court Innovation are trying to carry forward in his absence. 

We are doing this in ways both big and small, from the manner in which we strive to interact with our institutional partners to the projects we are trying to advance, including a justice center in Brownsville that was a particular passion of Alfred’s and that will attempt to forge a new approach to young adults in the justice system. 

With the help of Jeremy Travis and John Jay College, we have also created a scholarship fund in Alfred’s honor.  Each year, we will help defray tuition costs for a student who is interested in a career in criminal justice and who has overcome significant challenges on the path to higher education.  Anyone who wants to learn more should check out our website.

On behalf of the Center for Court Innovation and Alfred’s family -- his wife Nancy and his sons Danny and Larry couldn’t be here today because they are on vacation in Italy – I want to thank the City Bar for this wonderful recognition of a truly wonderful mensch. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Report from Wesleyan

I'm just back from my 25th college reunion at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  Despite an ominous forecast, the weather mostly cooperated, allowing me to spend several hours on Foss Hill soaking up the sun and chatting with old friends on Saturday.  

Although reunions tend to leave a melancholy aftertaste (the inevitable focus on the aging process and the comparisons to one's younger self can take a toll on me), I had a good time.  A huge part of my enjoyment was down to my connection to the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education, a remarkable program created by Wesleyan undergrads five years ago.   Built on the model of the Bard Prison Initiative, the program seeks to provide a Wesleyan education to selected inmates at two Connecticut prisons (one for men, one for women).  

I'm proud that my alma mater is the kind of place that encourages students to exercise their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to make a difference in the world.  I'm also proud that Wesleyan is a place that puts its money where its mouth is.  Wesleyan believes so fiercely in the power and importance of a liberal arts education that it is attempting to provide this precious resource not just to the children of the elite, but to everyone across the board, including those who society typically forgets or ignores.  

My sense from visiting the classes in prison is that the education that Wesleyan is providing is changing the way that inmates think about themselves and the world.  The next challenge is to document that this translates into changed behavior and a changed culture within our penal institutions.  I'm optimistic that over time it will.

The Center for Prison Education was a big part of reunion weekend.  One of my fellow board members, Ted Shaw, was selected to speak at commencement.   In addition, the program put together a panel that featured a range of interesting panelists, including speakers from the Brownsville Community Justice Center and the Vera Institute of Justice.  To keep up with what the Center for Prison Education is up to, follow their great Twitter feed.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Near Westside Peacemaking

Yesterday, I spent a lovely spring day in Syracuse touring the Near Westside neighborhood. Only a short walk from downtown, the Near Westside is a community with a reputation for poverty and crime.  It is also a place of rebirth.  In recent years, Syracuse University has made a significant local investment through vehicles like the Near Westside Initiative and UPSTATE.  Amidst vacant lots and boarded-up buildings, there are abundant signs of life in the Near Westside -- beautiful parks, public art, and new development.

I am hoping that in the months to come, the Center for Court Innovation will make a significant contribution to progress on the Near Westside.  With a wide array of partners, we are in the process of planning a peacemaking project in the neighborhood.  The project grows out of our Tribal Justice Exchange, which seeks to encourage the sharing of ideas between tribal justice systems and state courts. One focus of this work has been encouraging local justice systems to adapt peacemaking practices pioneered by Native Americans. We've already got one such adaptation up and running in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  Now, with the support of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, we are attempting to bring the model to Syracuse.

There's lots of work still to be done (among other things, we need to hire staff, find a location, finalize caseload, etc), but I left Syracuse feeling excited about the possibilities. Syracuse is a very different place than New York City, but the Near Westside reminded me a lot of neighborhoods where the Center for Court Innovation has done work in the past -- places like Crown Heights and Red Hook and Brownsville. I'm hoping that we will have a similar impact in Syracuse as we have in these other neighborhoods.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Kathryn McDonald Award

I'm pleased to report that the venerable New York City Bar Association has decided to honor the late Alfred Siegel with the 2014 Kathryn McDonald Award for his contributions to New York City Family Court.   While it is a source of great sadness that Alfred won't be there to accept the award from New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman when it is presented on May 29th, I am pleased that the City Bar has chosen to recognize one of New York's unsung heroes.

As I said recently at the international summit on community justice that we helped put together in San Francisco, Alfred's public presentation didn't exactly scream out "innovator."  He didn't dress like an Internet entrepreneur. And he wasn't cursed with the smartest-guy-in-the-room syndrome.  He didn't feel the need to beat you over the head with his intelligence.  But appearances can be deceiving.  Because beneath his conventional exterior, Alfred was a relentless reformer, driven to tinker and tweak and make things better.  He's richly deserving of the Kathryn McDonald Award.

Friday, May 9, 2014


I think co-authorship gets a bad rap.  Publishers tell me that books with multiple authors simply won't sell. Academics report that their peers and tenure committees don't give them enough credit for co-written work.

By contrast, my career has been built, at least in part, on co-writing books and proposals and essays with other people.  I'm not a huge believer in "writing by committee" -- at the end of the day, I think good writing has to have a singular voice -- but I have enjoyed collaborating with a broad range of co-authors. At the end of the day, writing is hard work. It is nice to be able to share the pain.

I'm not positive, but I think the person that I have co-written with the most over the years has been Aubrey Fox.  I bring this up because last night we formally said goodbye to Aubrey, who is leaving the Center for Court Innovation to head up the American operations of the Institute for Economics and Peace.

If you were building a dream co-author from scratch, I think it would look a lot like Aubrey.  First and foremost, he is a wonderful writer, capable of explaining complex ideas in clear language and introducing a sly humor into even dry topics.  He's also quick -- he can create something out of nothing in just a few hours. But the quality that I admire the most about Aubrey is that he is a fearless reporter, willing to talk to anyone to learn what he needs to tell a story.  In another, alternate universe, he would have been a great journalist.

The biggest project Aubrey and I worked on together was the book Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure that we published a couple of years ago with Urban Institute Press.  I think this is probably the best piece of work we did together, but if you are looking to read something shorter, here are three of my favorites:

I'm sad to see Aubrey leave the Center but I'm enormously proud of all that we were able to accomplish together over the past 15 years.  I'm hoping that I get to co-write with him again at some point in the future.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Passage of Time

Yesterday night marked the opening of a week-long exhibition of photographs by Alain Bourgeois at the Artspace Gallery in Soho.  Entitled Senesence: The Passage of Time, the collection covers a lot of ground -- from Detroit to Havana to Paris to New York City (and multiple points in between).  There are interior shots and landscape photographs, images of people and images of buildings, black and white pictures and color photos.

As the the title of the exhibit suggests, what unites the disparate images is a consistent focus on the effects of time.  There are plenty of signs of decay on offer in the exhibit -- boarded-up buildings, broken windows, and peeling paint. But it would be a mistake to suggest that this is a depressing collection.  Indeed, what I like about the photos are the signs of life that spring up around the deterioration -- a bird flying at the edge of an abandoned warehouse, vibrant graffiti covering up forgotten walls, recently-used cooking utensils in a dilapidated apartment.

I am spending a little time reliving my days taking a handful of Art History classes both because I really like Bourgeois' work and because he has generously staged this exhibit as a fundraiser for the Center for Court Innovation -- all proceeds from the photographs sold at the gallery will benefit the Center.  The exhibit runs through Monday May 12th.