Portraits of Leadership

Brooklyn Defender Services Confronts COVID-19

Hyperakt’s new interview series hands the mic to nonprofit and cultural leaders around the nation as they guide their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today we’re talking with Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services. The New York City-based public defender office provides criminal, civil, family, immigration, and legal defense to 35,000 people each year.

From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?

  1. How long the courts took to stop bringing people into court on non-emergency cases and how that impacted a lot of people, mostly poor people of color, who were forced to get on the subway and sit in crowded courtrooms way past the time most people were staying home.
  2. The potentially devastating impact of shutting down important court proceedings over a long period of time, including prolonged and unnecessary separation of families, untested and unproven allegations holding people in jail and many other dire circumstances.
  3. How much more difficult it is for poor people to manage the crisis — their living situations are more complicated, they cannot stock up on groceries or necessities, they do not have access to the technology that is helping everyone work and attend school.
  4. We hear a lot about those who have continued to work in the face of great risk to themselves, like nurses and bus drivers, and they are worthy of our gratitude and admiration. But we do not hear a lot about those staff in so many organizations who worked really hard for days on end to get their colleagues home. They too are heroes, often working when everyone else was home, and enabling us all to do the social distancing and sheltering at home that ultimately has the best chance of stopping this virus. We should hear more about the IT people, those who are cleaning offices or dropping in to take care of the mail, also risking themselves so that the rest of the office can stay home.

How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?

100%. Our office has always been dependent on live attendance. We thrive on collaboration. We even still have paper files that we work on, making it seem impossible that we could work from home. Yet, due to the incredible collaborative energy so many staff put into this, we successfully got our staff home in early March.

We are still representing thousands of clients and getting new clients as well. Despite the challenges, we have made sure everyone knows they are not alone during this extremely difficult time and we will do anything we can to keep the people we represent safe and healthy during the pandemic as well as continue to fight for a good outcome on their case.

What gives you hope in this moment?

The staff at BDS has filed dozens of special proceedings to get our clients released from jail in both criminal and immigration proceedings. And these have been successful. These are complicated special lawsuits that we have never done before, yet the talent and commitment of the staff has been incredible.

And the willingness of the judges to release people has also been heartening. Every person who is released from jail feels like a life saved due to the high rate of infection and lack of proper care for recovery when someone is incarcerated. I also have hope that some of the improvements we have seen will survive this crisis, like being able to videoconference with our clients in jail using our own laptops, something we were not able to do before.

Explore Brooklyn Defender Services’ work at BDS.Org and on Twitter, and read more interviews in the Portraits of Leadership series.

Hyperakt is a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. We believe in design’s power to build a future filled with courage, optimism, and honesty.

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