Walking the Walk
When I first visited the NAPD website, I have to confess that I was startled by its brazen language. "Movement", "Resistance", "Solidarity," and "Revolution" have been words banished from my public lexicon these past six years that I spent trying to improve public defense services in Louisiana as one of Governor Bobby Jindal's employees (there is no doubt that Bobby Jindal does not like this language).
Those words - and the implied bravery and ideology of the organization promoting them- were enough to have me signed up for membership in about 2 minutes.
Then I went back to reading... "You're the expert", "NAPD will be a sharing organization", "NAPD is committed to the dignity of clients and their families", "we reject Strickland as a working professional standard" and the explicit invitation for non-attorney advocate-members (that meant me!!) got me really, really excited.
I was born and raised in rural central New York, in a small town with a fancy college. I graduated high school with 40 kids, almost all of whom I had known from kindergarten. They were either the kids of farmers, or the kids of college professors, different and often segregated groups. Both sets of my grandparents were farmers, both of my parents were public school special education teachers, so I was at the same time neither and both. As a bonus, my parents both taught GED classes at night at the prison up the road, and at 3 years old, one of my earliest memories is being at a prison picnic and my mom kneeling down and solemnly telling me that "if you get lost, ask for help from someone in orange, not in green." So that maybe tells you a little something about where I come from.
I have worked for the ACLU and ACLU of Louisiana, and directed a small non-profit, the Louisiana Justice Coalition, which conducted a four-year public education and media campaign to support comprehensive public defense reform in Louisiana (bill passed in 2007). In 2008 I joined the newly formed state public defender agency as a member of its start-up Executive Staff.
My personal hopes and vision for NAPD are informed by more than a dozen years of supporting Louisiana's public defense system, both from the outside and within. During that time, what have I wished for? A safe place to ask honest questions about best practices, and how to achieve them; the opportunity to have in-depth knowledge about innovative programs, both modest and grand; a mechanism that would let me know how the same problems have been tackled in different places. I wanted to be pushed to another level by smarter, stronger, different advocates; the occasional burst of energy and hope that comes from sharing success stories; not to worry I was re-creating a wheel that was already in some much-improved edition somewhere else. I want a place to turn to that is opposed to hoarding and committed to sharing; a place to call where someone real answers the phone, or returns an email timely; a professional organization that is as willing to address gaps in technical skills as it is to address gaps in the emotional and ideological foundation of this work. I want to be part of a conversation that moves beyond talking about the client and begins talking about the client community. I almost always want to ask questions but I sometimes want to tell stories, and in both cases, I want a colleague who is available to listen and advise.
To be clear though, I don't want to just take; I want to contribute too. I have met enough of you at conferences and through circuitous routes to be certain that many of us want to give more to the public defender community. Restricting my language in Louisiana was a practical necessity but how I would have loved to be able to push the boundaries with a group of folks who wouldn't bat an eyelid, or who might even shame me by exposing how little I really know.
In my few months as a member, I have been so gratified that NAPD seems to be perceiving the same gaps that I am, and working to address them. Of course, that is because this is an organization of "us."
As a new staff member in this young organization, I am mindful of how powerfully I longed for something more and how many hopes I have pinned on NAPD to deliver it and I am aware that a whole lot of other people must be hungering too. In less than one year, the concept of NAPD has become a real thing, with more than 6,000 members and an infrastructure built almost exclusively by volunteers. I have found that its mission is approaching radical and its organizational structure is "walking the walk."
While my primary responsibility is to generate additional resources to sustain and grow NAPD, I also plan to direct a good measure of NAPD development back into the programs of members. I also want NAPD to support your efforts to engage community partners, build relationships with state and national funders, earn access to funding streams once exclusively offered to prosecutors and law enforcement, and think outside of the box on ways to solicit greater investment in the critical work that public defenders perform for their clients and their communities.
Additionally, I am committed to supporting the larger organizational goals of raising public awareness, providing training and support, garnering positive media attention, facilitating conversations between members and being responsive to member needs. My vision for NAPD is to remain intimately connected to you and to the voices of our collective clients. This is not hyperbole- this is a promise.
"Movement" is a fundamental concept at NAPD and one that holds great appeal to me. Our work is to move public defense forward, to move information and resources between ourselves, and to move ourselves in the direction that our clients need us to go. NAPD is a dynamic place, thin on bureaucracy and high on substance. The whole point is to bring us closer with a purpose.
This all was a long way of trying to explain my simple vision: I am listening, and the work that needs to be done is the work that I want to do. Please seize the invitation to make NAPD be what it needs to be in order for you to make a difference.
Heather H. Hall joins Executive Director Ernie Lewis as NAPD staff on June 1, 2014, serving as Development Director. You can reach her at email@example.com