Category Archives: Podcast

The Red Cross was an Integral Part of the East Harlem Emergency Response

In the wake of any disaster, emergency response typically includes the American Red Cross, whose recognizable logo signifies a first stop for help. Volunteers respond quickly to set up communication centers, coordinate medical attention, arrange shelter for displaced people, provide food, and offer general support. This wide range of services requires tremendous coordination, which is particularly remarkable for an organization that is primarily staffed by volunteers. The explosion in East Harlem was no different. Red Cross volunteers went to work immediately and their work continued for a month afterward.

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According to a follow up report on their blog:

  • The Red Cross Emergency Operations Center was in operation and fully staffed 24/7 from the time of the collapse on March 12 through Sunday, March 23.
  • More than 338 adults and children were comforted and assisted by Red Cross caseworkers at NYC resident service centers.
  • More than 200 volunteers from across the Greater NY Region responded to the call to help those affected.
  • Over 20,000 meals, snacks and beverages were served to residents and first responders.
  • Between March 12 and March 14, more than 70 residents overnighted at the Red Cross operated shelter at the Salvation Army facility (for a total of 121 shelter stays; i.e., some of those 70 residents stayed more than one night).
  • Dozens of children received solace and safe haven at the Red Cross shelter, with a little extra help from the Good Dog Foundation therapy dogs in conjunction with the ASPCA.
  • Nearly 500 blankets and personal hygiene comfort kits containing soap, toothbrushes, face clothes, toothpaste, deodorant and additional items were distributed.
  • Red Cross Client Assistance staff connected with over 20 families in need of mental health and/or physical health support.

One experienced volunteer, Mary O’Shaunessy, spoke to us at a community conversation held at the CUNY School of Public Health on April 26, which brought together residents and community groups to discuss what happened following the explosion and how to better prepare for future emergencies. She shared her experience following the disaster:

My name is Mary O’Shaunassey, I am a Response Manager for the American Red Cross of Greater New York. On the day of the explosion on Park Avenue, I was actually at work at my day job as a technology manager for a legal services organization that helps low income women.

As part of response management at the Red Cross, I receive four-hour reports on general activities. Regular fires, evacuations of unsafe apartments, and other small disasters. I received special messages from the Office of Emergency Management and the Red Cross management regarding this explosion. As soon as I could leave work at 5:30 or so, I headed to the Red Cross where we have an emergency operations center. This is an office that is staffed only during major disasters. There are 24 seats and each seat is occupied by a person with a very specific responsibility: for obtaining large quantities of food, for arranging the setup of a shelter, for arranging for licensed mental health professionals and physical health professionals to arrive at a scene, and so on.

My job as operations management was to make sure that each of those seats were filled or that each phone at each seat was being answered. So it boils down to there are 24 phones, if it rings, answer it, respond appropriately, make the right decision.

A lot of people don’t understand that the Red Cross is not a government agency. We are 90% of us volunteers. The volunteers that were available were people who are retired, self-employed, or unemployed. That can really limit our ability to respond to people who are linguistically isolated. Our volunteers speak what they speak, they’re available when they’re available. We happen to be lucky that a couple of our people were native Spanish speakers. It is possible that at a fire you can have people that are so linguistically isolated that no one can help them. We have facilities for that, but it takes some time to set up.

When I arrived at the emergency response center, I found it in full swing. People were already at the blast site. They were already working on a reception center. Until we have the capability, that is, a released building from the Board of Education, a custodian, and shelter staff, we have reception centers. And that’s where clients —  and I have to define the word client here — we never call people victims because part of the Red Cross role is to encourage people in recovery and calling people victims does not encourage that. We have clients, and we have survivors. Clients, survivors, and family members were already at the site looking for information.

The definition of a disaster is that it is unplanned, therefore information is always partial, immediate, and changeable. It’s very difficult to set and manage expectations. We are also committed, individually, corporately, and internationally to client confidentiality. It is very common for family members to call, and we were getting these calls, and people saying “my sister-in-law was there, my nephew was there, my cousin was there.” We cannot release that information. We did not have the information about the deceased but even if we had it, we cannot. We cannot give information about who is registered at a reception center, or a shelter. What would happen if a man were to come and say my “wife is there, I need to get to my wife” and we released that information and that woman had an order of protection against an abusive spouse. That’s something that we always have to protect people against. We cannot make assumptions about what people are telling us.

Most people are honest. Most people want to help. We have to be realistic, as well as optimistic in our view of human nature. So we were getting calls from volunteers, we were getting calls from partner agencies, we were getting requests for food. We try to purchase food from local vendors. We try to purchase all our supplies from local vendors. Surviving vendors may have decreased foot traffic. They may have decreased customer assistance because their customers have been displaced. By the Red Cross spending money in these local businesses, we’re keeping these small businesses in business. We’re keeping their employees able to contribute to the community and therefore the function of the society is continuing to go.

Very often we get complaints from people who say “I didn’t want my money to do go overhead.” Overhead is very interesting. If you think about wanting a report about where money goes, you would say “yes I want a report.” A report needs a database, a list of expenses, and a list of donations. That computer needs electricity. The person who is putting that information in needs an office with electricity, running water, and maybe heat or air conditioning. The software needs to be purchased. That’s overhead. So it’s very interesting to try to explain what overhead means in terms of how people get their wishes in terms of donations.

We have overhead and we are not ashamed of that. We are very careful about donor dollars. In order for a Red Cross responder to go out by themselves, that is, to respond to a fire or a vacate, they have extensive training and extensive practice, and they undergo a background check. When I walk out to a fire, I can have as many as 30 debit cards, with a maximum value in the field of $1,000. If I’m handing someone, as a manager, $30,000 nominally in debit cards, I want to know who they are. That is why what we call spontaneous volunteers get asked to do really basic things: hand out water, hand out food. Trained responders go into people’s homes. We go into homes to evaluate damage, to determine how much cash assistance to give, whether to give hotel rooms. I would not want someone in my home that had not undergone a background check.

So these are the things that go into being a Red Cross responder. And it all gets really ramped up in the event of a large disaster. As you gain experience, it’s also important to know how to step back. I’ve been a volunteer for 7 years, I’m very experienced, and now I’m in management. I have to step back and allow other people to learn how to do this. That can be hard because they’re training and by definition, trainees make mistakes. Sometimes, in an event like this, a simple mistake can get very high profile very quickly, and it’s very difficult to manage. We never send trainees out alone, but in a fast-moving, crowded event, they make decisions. Sometimes they’re very good decisions and sometimes they could have been better. And we work on that in what we call hotflashes. After an event, and in some cases after every 24 to 48 hour period, we sit down together and figure out what went wrong, what went right, and how to keep doing what was right, and how to correct what was wrong. It’s a continuous process.

I love volunteering for the Red Cross. I like going out, I like adulation, I like people saying “oh you do wonderful things.” It’s an ego charge, and I’ll take that. Fires, disasters are an adrenaline charge, but you also have to balance that against the needs of the organization and the needs of the community. Those needs will go on long after I am able to respond to disasters.

Clear Communication is Vital in Emergency Response

Numerous volunteer groups joined in the recovery efforts following the deadly gas explosion in East Harlem, and while the community’s most important needs were met, there was some confusion and disruptions in communication in the aftermath. This was part of what inspired the CUNY School of Public Health and several co-sponsors to organize a community conversation on April 26 to reassess community response efforts and discuss ways to improve emergency preparedness.

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Several local members of the Office of Emergency Management’s volunteer Certified Emergency Response Team (CERT) were there. CERT members are trained to assist with fire safety, medical aid, and search and rescue, among other support tasks. Most of the time, they serve as community educators about emergency preparedness. The explosion in East Harlem was the first time some of them had dealt with a major emergency. They encountered challenges with knowing their role and communicating with other organizations, and a consensus from the community conversation was the need for clear, reliable communication channels so that all responders know where to go for information.

East Harlem resident and CERT member Sam Goudif shared his experience following the explosion, and highlighted how a lack of clear communication made things more difficult, but also demonstrated the desire to help that is the motivation for these volunteers.

My name is Sam Goudif, I’m a CERT member for the last two years. And during the disaster with the gas explosion, I was in Harlem. I was at home watching the news. Naturally, that was the main focus of the news and I knew right away that I would be mobilized. I got the call from the chief and was mobilized to go to 118th Street. Trafficking and crowd control were the main components of what we did. It was about 3 or 4 blocks away from the incident. We wore our masks, which were inadequate, but we had something. We had to double up on them, as a matter of fact. It was interesting that people responded quite well with us. We didn’t have the issues of struggling or fighting with anyone. As a matter of fact, people were helping out in a number of ways. It wasn’t an issue with the crowd. The issue came about as the chain of command. What we were supposed to do in terms of where we were located. Who comes and goes, who was allowed and wasn’t allowed. I was in the first responders. They were very visible, very active. We all tried to coordinate the best we could, the best we had. It was a very challenging moment for us, and a learning process for us. This is the biggest incident I’ve ever gotten involved in.

We had a discussion, we went over a lot of things [referring to the community conversation]. The main thing we discussed was equipment and being safe. That’s the number one issue.

If you aren’t safe, you can’t make anybody else safe. If you don’t have communication you’re really left out there in the field.

So you need better communication than we did. Where were able to communicate, we were able to go over things, was at Hunter College, Zero One ground for us…to have community come together and actually support whatever needs were needed at the time, in terms of people coming in asking questions: where to go, where to get help. Facilitate them in the best way we knew how. And we did that. And that’s something else we learned about. Red Cross, we coordinated with them. With the other organizations we had to find a place where we can do the best job we can do.

 

Faith Leaders Play an Important Role in East Harlem Following Explosion

With churches large and small throughout the neighborhood, religious faith is a hallmark of the East Harlem community. It was only natural that ministers, pastors, and chaplains were prevalent in the aftermath of the March 12 gas explosion, and that pews were full the following Sunday.

Faith leaders were also present at a community conversation held at the CUNY School of Public Health on April 26, which brought together residents and community groups to discuss what happened following the explosion and how to better prepare for future emergencies.

Chaplain Alicia Goudif from the United Chaplains State of New York, and who is active in NYPD Precinct 25’s community board, shared with us her experience following the explosion:

“I got a you call saying to look at channel one, and after that they told me you need to get out there because a lot of chaplains was out there at that time. We were just standing around seeing where we needed to help the most. I call myself the CEO. That means Chaplain Encouraging Others, so I was there to encourage others where their lives are concerned. If they need prayer, I give them prayer. If they need encouragement, I give them encouragement. I was there just helping out the police department, which I’m part of the Two Five Precinct Community Board Sergeant of Arms. So I was out there making sure everybody was safe. Everybody who needed help who were down and out to let them know it’s going to be ok. It’s not over until God says so. If they need help I give them my card to let them know I’m there whenever they need help. I was there following the explosion every day for those who needed my services.”

Jeff Mays on East Harlem Recovering from the Explosion

largerJeff Mays is a reporter/producer for DNAInfo covering Harlem. He has written about East Harlem after the March 12th gas explosion and sat down with me to talk about how the community is recovering six weeks after the tragic incident.

Collette Sosnowy: You’ve been covering East Harlem since the tragic explosion that killed eight people and injured many more. What has the impact of this disaster been on the neighborhood as a whole?

Jeff Mays: I think the neighborhood as a whole is still reeling from the loss of those eight lives. A lot of those people were known in the neighborhood, people recognized them, so I think the loss of life is probably one of the biggest issues they’re still dealing with. There’s still a boy in the hospital, Oscar Hernandez who’s recovering from his injuries. The prognosis is good and doctors are hopeful but he still has a long road ahead of him.

Also, one of the biggest impacts you can see in the neighborhood are that businesses are still struggling. There are some that have been able to re-open but not return back to normal. Other businesses have not opened and are waiting for insurance payments and payouts from Con Ed. Just walking around the neighborhood, it seems like everything is normal but when you take a look around it may not be. There are buildings still boarded up, you still see people stop to gawk at the site, you still see city officials around the site. The neighborhood has been greatly affected.

Collette Sosnowy: Obviously, the families that lived in those buildings or nearby are the ones most directly affected. Do you know are they doing at this point?

Jeff Mays: I’ve been told that several of the families have been put up by the city in temporary apartments that I believe are three to six month placements, somewhere around there.  Another five or six of them have found their own accommodations. What’s most interesting is that I’ve been told that all of those people from the building want to return to East Harlem and city officials have promised them that they will try to make that happen, which is a big deal. I heard a story about one survivor who’s doing well now who has found another place who is getting donations of clothing and furniture and just trying to put her life back together, but those families obviously have a long way to go.

Collette Sosnowy: What’s your sense about how the community is faring overall?

Jeff Mays: I think that East Harlem is such a resilient community, it’s a diverse community with some very strong people. You have a lot of immigrants who have come to this country looking for a better life who are incredibly hard workers. What I’ve seen is that people in the community came together, not just in East Harlem but lots of people in Harlem. Once they heard about the accident, they got together and tried to organize different efforts, tried to collect clothing, collect food, collect money.

There are people who are specifically patronizing the businesses in the area. People are still devastated over the fact that eight people died and over the possibility that many more could have died, but overall people are really trying to get back to normal.


Collette Sosnowy: What are the most pressing issues that remain?

Jeff Mays: Right now housing is the biggest issue. As I said, we still have those people who lost everything when the two buildings collapsed. I believe all of the vacate orders in the surrounding buildings have been lifted, but I spoke to one woman who lives in a nearby apartment. She doesn’t have windows yet. She still has piles of debris in her apartment, and it’s been difficult for the landlord to fix that up. She’s still struggling with that because her shelter housing ran out so she’s forced to be back in the apartment while they do these repairs, and she suffers from asthma.

It’s still tough for a lot of the businesses in the area. I talked to a meat market on 116th street. They’ve been able to re-open but part of the problem is that the phone lines in that neighborhood are down, so they can’t accept credit card payments, EBT payments, which make up a huge chunk of their business. They’re open, but they’re barely open, and they’re struggling.

I’ve also heard about some immigrants who lost everything when the building collapsed and who are now having trouble getting documentation, which is difficult when they have nothing to prove who they are. Going to the DMV when you have nothing is incredibly difficult. I know some elected officials have stepped in and are trying to help those people.

Finally, I’ve heard some frustrations from people about getting money to replace furniture and clothing and other things that were lost in the explosion. There’s been a lot of money raised from the Mayor’s fund, over $330,000, but I’ve heard some complaints from people in the neighborhood that that money has been slow to trickle down to them to help with very real, pressing needs.

Collette Sosnowy: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jeff Mays: It’s been amazing to see how people in this community have responded to this crisis. People have come together and helped one another and are looking forward to moving past this.

I talked to the Urban Garden Center, which is a business right next to where the buildings collapsed and they were finally able to re-open. They were basically destroyed. They were one of four businesses that were heavily damaged or completely destroyed, so they are re-building and they’re very optimistic about their future and that they’re going to come out of this situation stronger than before.

Lynn Roberts on Public Health and Social Justice Activism

Lynn RobertsA key focus of JustPublics@365 is on the work of scholar-activists. Someone who exemplifies this model of engaged scholarship is Lynn Roberts, an Assistant Professor at the CUNY School of Public Health. Her broad range of work and research has included reproductive justice, youth development and juvenile justice, the prevention of intimate partner violence, models of community organizing for social justice; and the intersection of race, class and gender and its influence on health disparities. In this series on East Harlem, we’ll feature a number of scholar-activists.

Listen to the podcast here.

Collette Sosnowy: Thanks for talking with me today, Lynn. Can you share a little bit about your work in East Harlem and in the South Bronx?

Lynn Roberts: I suppose my work in East Harlem began actually many years ago when I was also teaching at Hunter College, in their public health program. I developed a course about 12 years ago focused on initially the South Bronx because I have been doing some work there and expanded it to include Harlem, not just East Harlem but Central and West as well, from the perspective of people who lived and worked there, so that you could look at it through various disciplines and also through lived experiences rather than just an academic lens and then updated the course when we moved into the community here of East Harlem in Fall 2012.

That brought me back to East Harlem with fresh eyes and in a different period of time in its, I guess, evolution, depending on how you look at it because a lot of changes in the community in terms of real estate and gentrification and then our being here and being able to reach out again and form relationships with those who are doing interesting and exciting community work here.

Collette Sosnowy: What are the parallels between South Bronx and East Harlem?

Lynn Roberts: They’re each very rich communities and one of the things that I think was highlighted in the course was just the diversity. I choose the South Bronx and Harlem because they both represented what I think are perceived by the general public as iconic communities.

People hear the South Bronx, they hear Harlem, and they might have a preconceived notion about what each one of those communities represent if they haven’t been there or lived there. I wanted to demystify and clarify the richness of each of these communities, not just as whatever someone’s preconceived notion of what might be described as a low income or an urban community is like. They each have rich histories of growth and decline of innovation in terms of the arts and just really rich histories in terms of the larger American story.

I think it’s important for all of us to know about these communities from those who know best and bringing the community into the classroom I think is really important. A large part of wanting to revisit the course was to, I guess, dispel some of the myth and even some of the apprehension and fear of that, some of my fellow colleagues and students had about being in East Harlem in particular, fear of crime, fear of some type of danger, which I didn’t experience and I didn’t think was any different than other parts of New York City.

I thought if they knew more about the community, that would widen their lens of working in any community and approach any community with eyes wide open and with ears more attentive to hearing from those community voices.

Collette Sosnowy:  How is health a social justice issue?

Lynn Roberts: Very much so. I think that social justice is necessary for health. When you have social justice you have health and wellness, all the positive attributes we associate with that. You have clean air. You have clean water. You have equity in terms of resources such as education and employment. You have a diversity of ideas and background. You have democracy. You have people who get to decide what will happen in their community, in their society, in their country and that is fundamentally good in terms of these peoples’ overall well-being but also just how they also feel about themselves and how much they feel willing to participate civically and have raised expectations for themselves, for their families, for their entire communities. I think they’re intertwined. I think they’re one in the same. I don’t think you can have one without the other.

Collette Sosnowy: As you were talking about before, some academics are hesitant to get involved in controversial issues like those confronting East Harlem. What do you say to critics who might question your “objectivity” as a scholar?

Lynn Roberts: First of all, I probably identify first as an activist and second, or simultaneously, as a scholar. They’re both a part of who I am. I don’t think scientists or scholars really can practice objectivity. I think all questions are based on our lived experiences, our exposures. What we consider valid depends on that. We’re all subjective in terms of how we pursue knowledge and what knowledge we consider important.

That’s not a quest of mine. I’m probably more inclined to just disclose what my subjectivities are, whatever my biases are as I know them. Not all of them are known to me but being more accepting of that, I’m much more inclined to be accepting of that in others. I’m much more inclined to engage with others in a way that I think, maybe it’s an objective but is open. If I’m open I can probably look at things and consider another point of view in a way that makes me more accessible and makes others with whom I interact more accessible to sharing.

I see it as an advantage in terms of my scholarship. How that plays out on the academy depends on, again, someone else’s perspective on that, so that can be a challenge.

Collette Sosnowy: A major focus of JustPublics@365 is bringing together academics and activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice through civic engagement and greater democracy. What sort of “lessons learned” do you have from your experience as an academic-activist in going into some of these fields that are usually more in the area of activism and journalism?

Lynn Roberts: First and foremost I go as a listener but that doesn’t mean that I don’t also bring who I am and my own point of view. It means sometimes hearing first and then hoping that we all come to some conclusions where I’m also listened to. I know that as an academic, in some instances, my voice might be given more credence than someone else’s, so needing to balance that and have some humility around that is really important.

Then using my voice may be perceived a greater agency or power, if you will. Effectively but again, in collaboration, not in speaking for or instead of others. I can contribute to in ways that others might not but I don’t really distinguish doing that in or outside of the academy. I really don’t. I think a lot of those lines are rather artificial.

There’s a lot of wisdom everywhere. There’s expertise everywhere and it’s just realizing that and when you approach it that way you tend to get a lot more done and people, once you dispel that notion of difference, I just find it’s just really easy to work with people.

 

GIDEON’S ARMY Receives Prestigious Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize

This week, on the anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, The Ridenhour Prizes announced that GIDEON’S ARMY, directed and produced by Dawn Porter, will receive the 2014 Documentary Film Prize.

The Ridenhour Prizes recognize and encourage those who persevere in acts of truth-­telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice, or illuminate a more just vision of society.

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) is the landmark Supreme Court decision that unanimously ruled that states are required to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants unable to afford to pay for their own attorneys. GIDEON’S ARMY follows three young public defenders in the Deep South — Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick — as they struggle with staggering caseloads, long hours and low pay, trying to balance their commitment to public service with a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point. Here’s the trailer (:45):

In reflecting upon its decision, the awards committee said, “We are thrilled to have selected Gideon’s Army which celebrates the legion of idealistic young public defenders who are fighting for equal justice for the disenfranchised within our broken and biased legal system, while struggling to stay one step ahead of poverty themselves.”

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(One of the attorneys featured in the film, Brandy, with a client.
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GIDEON’S ARMY highlights the work of public defenders while also exposing the subtle and not so subtle ways in which the justice system is complicit in the mismanagement of indigent defense. Rather than taking their chances with a court appointed lawyer — who may have hundreds of other cases — increasing numbers of defendants agree to plea deals or sentences outside of a trial. As a result, between 90 to 95 percent of defendants plead guilty and never receive the right to counsel as guaranteed by the sixth amendment to the Constitution. This disconnect between the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright and the reality of the law’s implementation has clearly contributed to prison over-crowding, violence, and a reduced chance of rehabilitation.

study of the 100 most populous counties in the United States found that 82 percent of indigent clients were handled by public defenders. In the most recent year that numbers are available, a mere 964 public defender offices nationwide had to handle nearly 6 million indigent defense cases.

“I am honored and so very grateful to receive the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize,” said director Dawn Porter. “The award will help amplify the critical issues Gideon’s Army exposes, and further share the harrowing stories of America’s overworked public defenders with audiences across the world. Ron Ridenhour was a man committed to truth-telling and correcting injustice. My hope is to advance these same ideals, by using Gideon’s Army to educate audiences, spark civic debate, and ultimately advance constructive solutions to the problems facing America’s criminal justice system. On behalf of the 15,000 public defenders and their clients, and with special thanks to the wonderful lawyers of Gideon’s Promise who are the inspiration and heart of the film, I thank the Ridenhour Award Committee.”

We here at JustPublics@365, congratulate Dawn Porter on this prestigious award. We’re also pleased to have this opportunity to share our recent interview with her.


 

GIDEON’S ARMY will be awarded the 2014 Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize on Wednesday, April 30th, from 12pm to 2pm at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This event is open to press.

 

 

Special Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Dawn Porter is a lawyer turned documentary film maker who’s film, Gideon’s Army, follows three public defenders in the Deep South. Her film chronicles the lives of these public defenders and emphasizes the personal stories of their clients to show the realities of, and inequalities in, the criminal justice system. In this interview we talk about how she constructed the film and what impact she hopes it will have.

 



Heidi Knoblauch: The first question I have is could you share a little bit about yourself, your work on “Gideon’s Army” and how you think of your work as a documentary filmmaker, as a form of activism, art, or both? A more targeted question would be: when did you decide to become a documentary filmmaker?

Dawn Porter:  I actually decided I wanted to make a documentary film, which I think is different than deciding I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was working for A&E Television, and I just felt like I wasn’t seeing a lot of stories about minorities or stories that I cared about. There were things I was interested in that I thought other people would be interested in too, and I thought, “You know, I think I could do this.”

When I met Jonathan Rapping and the public defenders I thought, “This is a great story that I have access to, but also that I think I understand as a lawyer.” That’s kind of how it started. I really started out thinking I wanted to make a film. I wasn’t thinking about a whole career shift at first.

Heidi Knoblauch: I know that the film is based on the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright decision, why did you choose to focus on that? What led you to focus on the public defenders?

Dawn Porter: I think that, like most people, I didn’t really understand what public defenders do, how critical they are to our system of democracy. I think that most important, I didn’t understand at all why anybody would do their job. It’s just such a tough job, such little pay and long hours. I couldn’t really… I just was really curious, why would anybody want to defend people who are accused of terrible things?

I was really just curious about them. I also felt, once I got to know them, I felt like what they do is so misunderstood and so misrepresented. I thought that doing a film could add to the public conversation about what they do and show people why they do it, but also why it’s so important and why we should all care about it.

Heidi Knoblauch: That leads into another question that I had, which is who are your target audiences?

Dawn Porter: I think it’s really everybody. I think it’s for the general public, which I put myself in. It’s did you know that 80% of people accused of crimes are represented by public defenders, which leads to the follow-up, that means 80% of people who are being arrested in this country are, if not at poverty level, are very low-income. I think that that’s a striking statistic.

Then I think for public defenders it was to encourage them to explain to people why they do what they do and why it’s important. I think a lot of times public defenders get so much negative publicity that they tend to kind up give up on the general public and not explain what they do, and I think people are open to it if they have those dialogues. For them it was be proud of what you do, you’re so important to our system.

Heidi Knoblauch: Cara Mertes, who leads JustFilms at the Ford Foundation, has said “thinking about impact will make your film better.” Did you think about the impact you wanted this film to have before you made it? How did that shape the film?

Dawn Porter: I think, like a lot of people, I thought about it a little bit abstractly. When you’re making a film your first goal is to make a good film, but along the way I think I realized that it could be a really important part of a conversation that’s happening in this country about criminal justice and criminal justice reform.

I think what Cara says is absolutely right. We should be thinking all along the way for opportunities to spread the message and also who our audiences are, who are allies might be, who might be the microphones for our film, who might use it to make social change.

I think I came to it a little bit later than she was talking about, but along the way that was a really critical part of what we were doing, engaging the public defenders, the ACLU, other social justice, criminal justice outfits. They’ve been fantastic in hosting screenings and publicizing the film and that, I think, has led to a really successful rollout, culminating on HBO.

Heidi Knoblauch: What do you think the film says about the criminal justice system in our country?

Dawn Porter: I think it says that there’s a whole class of people who are invisible and that we have a criminal justice system that works very differently if you’re poor than if you’re wealthy. Since most of the people being brought into it are poor, I think we should be alarmed and horrified by what passes for justice. I think the young people who are featured, who are the lawyers in the film … The other thing I think it says is, “Those are patriots. Those are people who love our Constitution, love our country. They are doing the unpopular thing, but they are also the last protection for people accused of serious crimes.”

There’s almost nothing more serious that you can do than to lock somebody up and strip them of their rights. To make sure that we do that properly… And that’s why we started this film with Travis saying, “If you’re going to take my liberty, you’ve got to do it right.” It’s just one of the most important things we can do. We see, across the world, people are fighting for the ability to have fair trials and free speech. That’s what public defenders do. They’re representing people so that they have fair process.

Heidi Knoblauch: You mentioned that scene with Travis Williams, and I was really blown away by that scene. Why did you decide to focus on a few cases that the public defenders were doing rather than emphasize these huge caseloads, 125 cases or something like that, for each of them.

Dawn Porter: I think that the numbers start to … we get immune to the numbers. When you say, “Twelve million people arrested every year, seven million people in the criminal justice system, two million people in prison,” people get immune to what that really means. What I wanted to do is say, “That’s the backdrop. See how much effort it takes for one of those? Now do the math. Now think about if he has to do this, times 160, what could that possibly be like?”

I think that people, when you slow down and let them understand all that goes into being a good lawyer, I think that it allows them to enter his world and enter his mindset in a way that … If you just put up a big number, it gets a gasp but it doesn’t bring you into his world. If you see actual people … Prisoners become numbers. People accused become numbers and not real people.

What I wanted to show is every single person they’re representing has a family, has a story. If he does his job right he’s supposed to get to know that, but how can he possibly do it with those numbers? I wanted to focus on individual people and not have people be numbers.

Heidi Knoblauch: A major focus of JustPublics@365 is bringing together academics, activists and media makers in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement and greater democracy, and often academics appear as talking heads in documentary films. How can academics push the boundaries and move beyond the role of the talking head?

Dawn Porter: I think that they should really think about what drew them to their work, what made them passionate about their topic in the first place. Don’t hesitate to tell those personal stories if you want to be more than a talking head. We can look up facts. We can’t look up personal stories and experience, and that’s what a person who studies or writes or thinks about really important topics can bring to an interview. That personal experience. Why does this matter? Why do you know it matters? Help us explain to everybody else what you see. I think that’s an incredibly important role for an academic.

Heidi Knoblauch: What are some key projects that would give documentary filmmakers, activists, and academics opportunities to work together? In other words, not necessarily working on documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, but what are the points of intersection for these three sometimes indistinct groups of people?

Dawn Porter: We all go through a period of research where we’re looking for characters. We’re looking for people to help explain a story. If someone has written extensively about a topic, often you know the people that have really good stories. At the research stage, there’s a great opportunity for collaboration. I think there’s also … For writing proposals, we often have to have experts review the proposals.

That’s a really good collaboration, is finding someone who will read over your submission to the NEH, or National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s a really critical … Foundations and other funders, they want to know that you’re tapped into the people who are thinking exclusively about the topic that you’re working on. At the research and writing proposal stage, there’s a great opportunity to work together with people who are interested in being storytellers.

Heidi Knoblauch: Thank you so much for this great interview. It was wonderful.

 

Special Interview with gabriel sayegh on Municipal Drug Strategies

gabriel sayeghThis week I interviewed gabriel sayegh, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York policy office. In this interview, we talk about municipal drug strategies in Canada and Europe and explore opportunities for New York to implement these types of municipal-drug strategies.

 

 

 


What are municipal drug strategies?

Municipal drug strategy is simply a city-based strategy for approaching the problems of drugs and that when you have a situation of opening our drug market as an example or drug-related disorder, cities are often the first jurisdictions that have to address and deal with those problems. Of course, not every element of drug use is a problem. That’s not the case at all but there are instances particularly in cities when drug use can become deeply problematic, either because of overdose fatalities or the transmission of HIV and AIDS or drug related crime or disorder related to open drug markets or public drug consumption. Continue reading

Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine on Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education

Charter Schools: JustPublics@365 PodcastIn this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 podcast series, I sit down with Michelle Fine and Michael Fabricant to talk about the charter school movement. Their recent book, Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake? (2012) questions the promise of the charter school movement. The book seeks to use empirical data to determine whether charter schooling offers an authentic alternative to the public school system.

JustPublics@365 podcast

 

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This post is part of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series. The podcast series features CUNY Graduate Center faculty who are working on issues of social justice and inequality. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share, or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Heidi Knoblauch at heidi.knoblauch@gmail.com

Joseph Straus on Disability Studies and Music Theory

JustPublics@365 Joe Straus PodcastIn this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I interview Joseph Straus on his work on disability studies and music. Professor Straus is a Distinguished Professor in the Music Department at the Graduate Center and author of Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music (2011) and Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music (2006). In addition to his work on disability in music, Professor Straus has worked on StravinskyTwelve-tone Serialism, and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

Our conversation centers around Professor Sraus’s research and theorizing on disability in music. We discuss how disability has traditionally been treated by music theorists and why Professor Straus has decided to take a different approach.

JustPublics@365 podcast

 

 

 

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This post is part of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series. The podcast series features CUNY Graduate Center faculty who are working on issues of social justice and inequality. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share, or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Heidi Knoblauch at heidi.knoblauch@gmail.com

Frances Fox Piven on the Development of the Welfare State, Voting, and Activism in the Academy

ClosingPlenary PivenSS

In this episode of the JustPublics@365 podcast series, I interview Distinguished Professor Frances Fox Piven (Graduate Center, CUNY). Professor Piven is an expert in the development of the welfare state, political movements, urban politics, voting, and electoral politics, and she has been politically engaged with improving the lives of America’s poor since the 1960s. She has taught at several universities in the United States and Europe and among her many books are the bestselling Poor People’s Movements (1977), one of four books she coauthored with Richard A. Cloward; Mean Season: The Attack on the Welfare State (1987); Why Americans Don’t Vote (1989); Why Americans Still Don’t Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way (2000); Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (2008), with Joshua Cohen. In addition, she was invited to write introductions to re-issued volumes of The Lean Years (2010) and The Turbulent Years (2010), both by Irving Bernstein. In this episode, we address the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Voting Rights Act, her work as an activist, and her research on the welfare system in America.

JustPublics@365 Podcast

 

 

 

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This post is part of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series. The podcast series features CUNY Graduate Center faculty who are working on issues of social justice and inequality. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share, or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Heidi Knoblauch at heidi.knoblauch@gmail.com

Ashley Dawson on Resistance: JustPublics@365 Podcast Series

In this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 podcast series I interview Ashley Dawson, Professor of English at the College of Staten Island about his book Mongrel Nation and about his work as the web co-editor of the journal Social Text.

Ashley DawsonIn this interview we talk about some of the ways migrant communities have established a sense of self and community within nations and the history of resistance by African, Asian, Caribbean and white Britons to insular representations of national identity. Professor Dawson also talks about how his academic work and academic training impacts his social justice work.

JustPublics@365 Podcast

 

 

 

 

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This post is part of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series. The podcast series features CUNY Graduate Center faculty who are working on issues of social justice and inequality. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share, or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Heidi Knoblauch at heidi.knoblauch@gmail.com

Margaret M. Chin on Garment Workers

In this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I interview Margaret M. Chin, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNYMargaret-Chin

Professor Chin was born in New York City, and is the daughter of a former garment worker and restaurant waiter. Her research interests focus on new immigrants, working poor families, race and ethnicity, and Asian Americans. She is currently working on a project on the 1.5 and second generation Asian Americans who lost or changed jobs during the recent recession. Her book Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry explores how immigration status, family circumstances, ethnic relations, and gender affect the garment industry workplace. In this book, she contrasts the working conditions and hiring practices of Korean- and Chinese-owned factories. This comparison illuminates how ethnic ties both improve and hinder opportunities for immigrants.

In todays interview, we talk about Professor Chin’s current research, how she gathered her research her motivation for doing this research, as well as her findings about how workers perceived garment work.

 

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This post is part of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series. The podcast series features CUNY Graduate Center faculty who are working on issues of social justice and inequality. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share, or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Heidi Knoblauch at heidi.knoblauch@gmail.com

Juan Battle on the Social Justice Sexuality Initiative

In this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I interview Juan Battle on his work heading the Social Justice Sexuality Initiative.

Juan BattleProfessor Battle is Professor of Sociology, Public Health, & Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is also the Coordinator of the Africana Studies Certificate Program. In this interview we talk about the goals of the Social Justice Sexuality Initiative as well as collecting survey data and acquiring funding. Professor Battle ends by talking about his work with community activists and sharing the large amount of data he collected.

Janet Gornick on Income Inequality

In this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I interview Janet Gornick on her research on working families and income inequality. Professor Gornick is Professor of Political Science and Sociology and director of the Luxembourg Income Study Center (LIS) at the City University of New York. In this interview we talk about the impact of income inequality and why people should care about issues of inequality. She answers questions about her research on duel earner families and the work of LIS. Professor Gornick ends the interview with insights into how her work has been used by activists and how she sees herself as a scholar-activist.