Thursday, June 26, 2014

Alternate Universe



I have written about my admiration for the Vera Institute of Justice and its founder Herb Sturz on numerous occasions.  While many of Herb's accomplishments are well known, one that gets less attention is the novel he co-wrote in 1958.   I haven't read the book (which is called Reapers of the Storm -- look for it on eBay), but I love the fact that he wrote it.  I think it speaks to the kind of creativity that Herb sought to bring to the criminal justice system and the non-profit sector.  

I have tried to emulate this value at the Center for Court Innovation.  In job interviews, I always ask applicants about their outside interests.  Sometimes (not always) this offers a glimpse of their inner creativity.  Over the years, I have worked alongside serious photographers, poets, stationery designers, songwriters, chefs, and musicians (among other disciplines).  I think this is a big part of what makes coming to work fun for me.  

All of which brings me to last night and a wonderful book party to celebrate the simultaneous release of two novels -- The Alternate Universe and The Escape -- by Rob Wolf.  I have had the distinct pleasure of reading Rob's work for the past 15 years.  As the Center for Court Innovation's communications director, he has been responsible for creating many of our best products, including podcasts and films and white papers.  He has won several awards from The National Council on Crime and Delinquency for his efforts to further public understanding of justice issues.  

Rob is quite simply a great writer.  His prose is crisp, clear, and tight.  Now he is bringing his talent not to the task of advancing criminal justice reform but to the challenge of fiction.  His two new books are science fiction stories with a heavy dose of time travel.  If the rest of the books are as good as the excerpt he read last night, which featured a complicated and humorous exchange with a robot manservant, we are all in for a treat. 


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Basketball and Mortality


I was excited to watch Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight, which figured to be intensely competitive.  Instead, I'm watching the Miami Heat have their hearts ripped out by the relentless San Antonio Spurs.  

As it happens, basketball and death have been on my mind a lot of late.   I feel like I have a weekly date with my own mortality.  It’s my Wednesday night pick-up basketball game at a local high school in Brooklyn. 
I get noticeably worse at basketball with almost every passing week.  I also get injured on a regular basis -- over the past year or so, I have broken a finger, pulled a hamstring and torn a calf muscle.  My body is sending me pretty unequivocal message: stop playing.

My ego seconds that emotion.  My skills peaked more than two decades ago.  Now I’m at the far right end of the bell curve in terms of my playing ability, the place where the graph flattens out to zero.  Over the years, I have gone from one of the better guys in my weekly game to one of the worst.

But still I keep going back.  Why?  It is a question I ask myself often. 

Peer pressure is not the reason -- after all, most of my closest friends have already given up the sport, some more than a decade ago.  

Nor am I trying to re-live past glories.  The truth is that I was never much of a player.  I lacked the strength, height and grace under pressure necessary to play the game at a high level.  

But despite this lack of success, I have always thought of myself as a ballplayer.  And I still do. 

Why should my sense of my self be tied up with a children’s game?  Perhaps it is because I fell in love with the game as a child.  Growing up in Washington DC in the 1980s, basketball offered me an identity, a sense of belonging to a community beyond my family, and a means of bridging the racial divide in a highly-segregated city. 

Children are often encouraged to play organized sports because doing so offers important “life lessons.” From playing basketball in my formative years, I learned how to make friends with people of diverse backgrounds.  I learned how to sublimate my ego for the greater good of a team. And I learned how to adapt to the whims of cruel and arbitrary authority figures (also known as “coaches”).  I call upon these lessons almost every day as an adult.

But these days basketball offers me lessons not about life but about death.  My diminishing skills on the court are like a dress rehearsal for the aging process that all of us eventually must face in the real world. Basketball is forcing me to wrestle with my own frailties on a weekly basis.  It may not always be fun, but it does feel valuable.  

Getting Connected


Tonight, the Youth Justice Board, our after-school leadership program that seeks to bring the voice of New York City teens into policymaking decisions, unveiled its latest product during a presentation at the Manhattan Referral Center for High School Alternatives.

In partnership with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, the Youth Justice Board has created a new website dedicated to providing disconnected young people with access to the kinds of resources they need to get back in school and working towards a better future.   This is the same partnership that produced one of my all-time favorite Center for Court Innovation products -- the I Got Arrested!  Now What? comic book -- so there are good reasons to be excited about the new website, which should go online in the next couple of months.

The website is designed primarily to be used on a smartphone and offers answers to common questions faced by young people who have dropped out of school, as well as links to a variety of social service providers.  After a keynote address by the great Tim Lisante of the New York City Department of Education, the members of the Youth Justice Board walked the audience through how a typical teen would use the website.  They were so much more serious and poised than I was at a similar age, it isn't even funny.  The fact that the crowd included high-ranking officials from the Mayor's Office and a range of government and non-profit agencies didn't faze them in the slightest.

Tonight marks the culmination of the Youth Justice Board's efforts to study and combat chronic truancy, which included issuing the report From Absent to Present: Reducing Teen Chronic Absenteeism in New York City.  Next year's cohort will take on a new subject: creating new diversion options for the NYPD.  I can't wait to see what they come up with.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Food for the Soul


I've written about the Sloan Public Service Awards several times in the past, so I won't wax rhapsodic here, but I could not let the annual awarding of these prizes to exemplary New York City officials pass without some comment.  This year was the final year of my three-year term on the selection committee, which is organized by the Fund for the City of New York under the leadership of Mary McCormick.  Each year, the process culminates in a day-long bus trip to the work places of the winners along with a ceremony at Cooper Union with the Mayor.

Anyone who has ever read an upsetting story in the paper about government waste or corruption or incompetence would be well-advised to attend the ceremony.  There is so much good work being done across this vast city by civil servants that goes underreported.  This year's winners of the Sloan Awards exemplify this reality.  When I was a teen, Ronald Reagan famously said that "government isn't the solution to our problem; government is the problem."  Anyone who still believes this should  read the stories of the Sloan Public Service Award winners.  Kudos to them all.