Portraits of Leadership
Today we’re talking with Nick Turner, President & Director of the Vera Institute of Justice. Based in Brooklyn, Vera works to urgently build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen communities.
From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?
Surprisingly, more people are aware of the impact of the pandemic on incarcerated people, the role of jails and prisons as disease vectors, and the need to release people and send fewer people into them. There is more recognition — certainly not everywhere — that public safety means public health.
The stories that are going unspoken are mostly about immigrant communities, mixed status families, and the undocumented. There’s general silence or ignorance about the plight of people in detention, the fact that some immigration courts are conducting business as usual, and the fact that many immigrants do not benefit — in fact are carved out — from the federal relief bill.
How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?
We’ve needed to change in three ways. First, we’ve had to migrate to an entirely remote way of working and figure out how to drive justice reform from a distance. We are privileged as an institution that we have the infrastructure to do this and to support our staff to pursue our mission, but it is not without hardships (isolation, caregiving responsibilities, etc.). Second, we’ve stepped up our focus on COVID-19.
The disease has huge implications for the people Vera serves — our agenda to end overcriminalization and mass incarceration is now acutely a life or death agenda.
My team has swung into doing what we can to get the police to stop arresting, ICE to stop raids, jails and prisons to release people, etc. Third, while we don’t know what the other side looks like, we know that when the pandemic and economic free-fall ends, we will be in a new reality. We are trying to imagine what that is like and what it means for our work, our ability to have traction, and our ability to raise resources.
What gives you hope in this moment?
In my organization I see people pivoting, grinding, making a hard adjustment to a new reality but in fact being even more committed to mission. I see resilience and people stepping up in a way that is incredibly heartening. Sure, people are hurting and scared, but they aren’t letting that take complete control. I also see compassion and empathy. And I know all that is happening in the wider world.
I don’t see “hope” as some flimsy, ethereal concept. I understand hope as a discipline and practice — it is a thing that you work to retain and hold onto. It takes work. I see that work happening, and I believe that as hard as things are now, we will emerge better on the other side.
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