The Longest Email Goodbye Ever
Here it is, the obligatory goodbye email. As I say farewell to Legal Aid, I also step away from direct services work (I’m headed to the Innocence Project). So I shall use some of the brownie points I’ve earned along the way and offer you a more thoughtful reflection of my time in this work.
I became a public defender because of my love for black people, because I am a helper, and because I had this burning desire to be a litigator. My people were disproportionately suffering in this racist system and trials fascinated me. I envisioned myself a mash-up of Maxine Shaw, Claire Huxtable, and my favorite Auntie.
There was just one thing. I was terrified of actually doing the job: meeting my clients where they were, standing up to prosecutors and judges, and speaking in front of strangers. Yet, I pushed through and I applied for my first job with all the earnestness you might expect, flying down to New Orleans to see whether I could really do this thing. My prospective new boss gave me a tour of the office and then ushered me over to arraignments. Instead of heading to a courtroom, we breezed past the courthouse to the parish jail. Inside I found what looked like an elementary school cafeteria: white cinder block walls that appeared dingy in the glow of the buzzing fluorescent lights and neatly arranged rows of multi-colored plastic chairs facing a large flat screen television. Soon enough, out came the men and the women: all of them black people, each and every one stripped of their own clothing, cloaked in orange jumpsuits, shackled at their wrists and ankles. I became possessed of a distinct bewilderment, sadness, and rage all at once. It was clear to me what I had to do. And as the brilliant Audre Lorde once said, ”when I dared to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” I was doing this thing.
I went about the work with vigor there in New Orleans, later in Harlem, and now here in Brooklyn. Quiet as it is kept, the work is just as difficult and rage-inducing in every corner of this country. This work has made my knees shake and my voice quiver. This work has torn my chest open, snatched at my heart and lungs, and left me breathless. This work has plunged me to the depths of despair, chased me away in shame, and then lovingly enticed me back again. This work has gifted me some of my most cherished friendships, centering me in a tribe of people who see me and support me. This work has given me confidence and power, grace and humility.
And what of the fear? It has been there from time to time throughout my days as a public defender. Over the years, it has taken up less space, making room for some pity, disgust, and the ever present rage. I have learned to lean into these feelings, this discomfort when I feel it and I have found that this is where the power lies. Where the love abides.
What a job. What a time. What a life. I’ve been privileged to stand beside every single one of my clients. Every single one. Every day that I walked into court, I strived to be a beautifully brilliant and strong warrior woman protecting my people from the oppressive power of the state. Thank you for standing with me. I am so grateful to have known you and worked alongside you. A special shout out to the beautiful folks in cluster one who welcomed me with open hearts and minds. And in that spirit, I want to encourage you with the 4 lessons that have helped me the most on this journey.
1. Be more empathic. Be quiet and listen a whole lot more. Endeavor to have a conversation each day where the sole purpose of the interaction is for you to learn more about the other person, completely putting away your need to educate, inform, or persuade them.
2. Redemption is for everyone. Sister Helen Prejean says “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.” This has to be true, right? Think about the worst thing you've ever done in life. Picture that moment. Remember how you felt. Breathe in the ways that you’re better now. That’s redemption, the clearing of the debt and the forward movement, the ability to stand in your truth without being defined by it. As human beings, we are all entitled to redemption.
3. Be bold and courageous in all that you do. One of the things about this work is that we can’t just think the right thoughts, feel the crushing weight of the injustice, or wish that the system worked better while doing nothing. In order to do the job effectively, we’ve got to ACT. We’ve got to say something (anything when the state requests a crazy amount of bail that you know your client can’t make. We’ve got to research the law and file that motion urging the judge to follow the law. We’ve got to stand up in front of the twelve strangers who don’t know us or our clients and get them to care.
4. And we’ve got to care more about the people we serve. When we feel like to shrinking back, hurrying along, or tuning out, we’ve got to find the will to lean in, to get closer, and see who is in front of us. We’ve got to recognize the profound privilege we all have to do this work and always put the needs of the client first.
Being a public defender is one of the best things I ever did and I don’t care what anybody says, I will always be a public defender. Empathy, redemption, and action are available to me every day. And to you. You’ve got it in you, I know you do.
See you soon.