The Importance of Community
Recently, I had the pleasure of spending a week working with and surrounded by a top notch faculty, as well as a group of approximately 30 energetic, passionate, client–centered public defenders from around the State of Louisiana; talented, energized, and eager to learn.
Shoeless Joe Jackson: Is this Heaven?
[William Boggs]: No it's [Woodworth, Louisiana]
As I sat in the airport waiting for my flight home, I reflected on the week–long program. The time I spent in Louisiana reinforced what I have come to truly understand the past several years, but more so the past few months—the importance of community to the work we do and the lives we lead as indigent defenders. Community is something rarely spoken about in the world of criminal defense. Even in indigent defense circles, its gets very little focus or attention. When the idea is raised, many quickly shoot it down as a sign of weakness. People believe it is akin to lawyers standing in a circle holding hands or singing Kum–ba–ya. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, community development is just as important to indigent defenders as trial skills, if not more.
The Louisiana Defense Training Institute (DTI), at which I was so very fortunate to be invited to participate as a member of the faculty, was run and organized by William (Willie) Boggs, the indigent defense training director for the State of Louisiana. Willie did a wonderful job of putting together a program that provided the attending public defenders instruction in trial skills and the importance of client–centered representation. What impressed me as much as the program and instructors Willie brought together, was the focus he placed on developing a strong indigent defense community. It seemed as though every decision Willie made, focused not only on developing skills, but also community. His aim was true and he hit the mark on all of his goals. When I spoke to the young defenders throughout the week, you could hear his goals taking effect. Not only in the budding of courtroom skills, but also the participants’ desire to both receive support from this community and provide what they could to their fellow classmates. It was inspirational to see how Willie reached the hearts and minds of these new public defenders.
Community, ………. If you asked me ten years ago about the importance of an indigent defense community, I would have been well entrenched in those negative masses. I gave it very little thought and even less importance. That was until I met Jonathan Rapping and had the great fortune to become part of Gideon's Promise community. Through my work with Gideon’s, I have experienced first–hand how a strong, supportive, encouraging community can benefit the work and lives of its members, both in and out of court. Through both Gideon's and the National Association of Public Defense, I have come into contact with many amazing, passionate, and supportive lawyers and other professionals, committed to this work, this movement, and the people we serve. Many times it feels as though the support and encouragement I get from people I have never met, far exceeds that which I receive from anywhere else. The one exception that should not go without mention, is the amazing support and encouragement I receive from my incredible and amazing wife, who is always telling me to go into the courtroom everyday like a Bull and Fight when I am on trial. Too many times when we talk about the sacrifice and dedication of those in the trenches of public defense, we forget the incredible strength and support of our families. Families, who make just as many sacrifices quietly in the background, without any fanfare or attention. Families, loved ones, without whose support we never could never succeed. This community of support and encouragement sustains and inspires me to constantly push forward and keep fighting, even when the forces of opposition fighting so hard to knock you down.
I have personally benefitted from the support of these communities. Benefitted in a way that enabled me to keep fighting, even when I did not feel I had the strength to continue. After a devastating and draining trial loss (about which I wrote previously) I truly lacked the belief in myself. To make the situation even more difficult, I had a very difficult murder trial approaching and did not know if I could stand tall for the young man I was representing. Prior to starting that trial, I spent the week working with the new attorney training program run by Gideon's Promise. While there, surrounded by that supportive and encouraging community, I was given the strength to open up and share my pain, my fears. Being able to open up to the Gideon's Promise community, knowing that I would not be judged, was a cathartic experience that allowed me for the first time to start the healing process. The genuine support and encouragement I received from both the students and the incredibly talented faculty gave me the strength and belief in myself to carry on. Listening to others discuss their own battles, struggles, and fears helped me realize I was not alone.
When I left Gideon’s and got on the plane to return to Rochester, the fear and doubts started to resurface. As I passed through the gates of the arena in which the Murder trial would be fought, the voices of fear and doubt started to scream loudly in my head. I again started to believe I did not have the strength for this fight. However, instead of internalizing my fears as I had done so often before, I channeled the strength and passion of all the amazing students and faculty from Gideon's Promise. By drinking from the wells filled by that community, I was given the strength to fight on. Where before I was in fear, now I had strength. Where before I had doubt, now I had confidence. I had followed the road to Oz and had been given the strength of the lion to carry me into that coliseum, filled with passion, courage, and strength. We pushed forward and gave it a hell of a fight. I know I never would have been able to give that to the young man I was representing, without the encouragement and support of the Gideon's Promise community. I know how lucky I am to be a part of such an amazing and supportive community. Due to the amazing and supportive community that Jon Rapping has developed, I know I will never be alone.
Where I have been given the gift of membership in this community, I realize there are so many other passionate and committed indigent defense providers who fight alone. That is why it was so wonderful to see the focus Willie Boggs placed on developing the same type of strong and supportive indigent defense community in the State of Louisiana. Hopefully more leaders in the indigent defense world follow the vision of Jon Rapping and the lead of groundbreakers like Jeff Sherr and Willie Boggs in bringing this same community to more areas. In 20 years, I believe we will look back on these times as the beginning of the new age of public defense. When we look at the strong, passionate, client–centered, and supportive public defense community that exists around the country, we will look at the groundbreaking work of these leaders who started to clear that path.
How do we bring this community to the entire Country ? It is not easy. However, we will never get to that destination unless we all join in and follow the path they have started to clear. It starts with each of us, in our own jurisdictions. From that foundation, we can build the bridges that bring this supportive, client–centered public defense community to the entire country. This is an incredible opportunity to become involved in the salad days of this amazing movement. Join in. Build a supportive, client–centered community in your own areas. Keep fighting. Don’t back down to the resistance you will face. As Gandhi once said about leading a movement, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you, ……….. Then you WIN !!!”. If you take this challenge. If you keep fighting and stand tall in the face of opposition and resistance, you will persevere. If you do, I believe you will one day look back and be truly happy you did. You, the lawyers who join you, and the people we represent will all greatly benefit from your efforts.
For a list of 30 ways you can contribute to the community see Making a Difference Through NAPD by Jeff Sherr