First Post from New Orleans!

At work in the Law Library
At work in the Law Library

I’ve been in New Orleans for about a week. I could say I love it, but it’s more complicated than that. This new world I’ve stumbled into inspires me. The love inspires me, the hate inspires me, and the fact there is so much I don’t just know, inspires the hell out of me. Everything down here is extreme. Things are very different, but to just label them “different” excuses the northeast from the problems of racism and sexism it still experiences as well. That’s why I say things down here are “extreme”.

My first day on the job, I saw a Senator greet two male interns with a handshake, and overlook the outstretched offer of a woman’s hand. I’ve heard the cheers of the Senate after a conservative bill has passed. There’s nothing that seems to break up the Old Boys’ Club that is: Louisiana Government. This week in a committee hearing, I sat behind the mighty Warden Cain of Angola Penitentiary, as he influenced others with his presence. All of this reassures my decision to come work for the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (LCADP).

View of Baton Rouge from the top of the State House
View of Baton Rouge from the top of the State House

The work I’ve been doing at the State House involves interviewing Legislators on how they feel about the death penalty in general and in the context of a few bills that have been brought to the floor. Earlier in the session a bill was written that would bring back the electric chair. My organization worked really hard to put major pressure on that bill, and since it has turned into a “secrecy bill,” saying that the records containing the names of the compounding pharmacies that provide the lethal drug will be sealed and secret to the public. I went with Sidney as she testified against the bill in a committee hearing. We will find out next week what happens, but it’s not looking too promising.

LCADP is housed in downtown New Orleans in a building dubbed “The Justice Center”. It is called such because of its incredible inhabitants. Along with LCADP, the Capital Appeals Project, the Louisiana Capital Appeals Center and the Promise of Justice Initiative are located in this quirky building of hard working, passionate individuals. I’ve never felt more like I belong somewhere than I do here.

My orientation to The Justice Center was with the other interns in the building. They are all law students working for the other organizations, but we were all placed together for a one-day training. We learned about the building; how to lock up, turn off the alarm, navigate the maze that is this building, etc. The session also included learning all about capital defense, which was so interesting to me. This kind of law is very intense and fascinating. It’s definitely some of the most challenging work lawyers do, described by the staff as literally being made up by their own sweat, blood and tears. So learning about the litigation was important because although I won’t be doing that type of work this summer, I’ll be working very closely with lawyers and the other interns, as well as the fact that I might want to do this exact work in the future. The last thing we went over was the need for all of what we do to be extremely confidential. They were very clear that we are quite seriously dealing with life or death situations, and nothing can leave the office. That was comforting… After the collective introduction I met with my boss and went over some more information specific to LCADP.

LCADP is finishing up with the House and Senate sessions, so we will shift our focus from lobbying to community organizing. One task we have is to expand our vision to include helping victim’s family members. I have been put in charge of reaching out to victim’s rights organizations, support groups and District Attorneys offices to foster relationships with these communities. I am looking forward to traveling around the state to meet people in charge of these groups, and start working together to make things safer, more comfortable, and hopefully more just for all involved in this difficult process.

“Process” is a word that comes up often. Everything we go through is a huge process. Litigation takes so much time with capital cases, which is one reason it is much more expensive to even attempt to carry out the death penalty than it is to keep a man in jail his entire life. The journey that brought me here is one that I’ll always be more than thankful for. When Sister Helen Prejean came to Brandeis, I feel in love. I heard her stories and listened to her messages, but what really got me was not something that can be pinned down. It isn’t anything I heard or saw, but instead everything I felt. Sister Helen spoke directly to my soul and there was no snuffing the fire she lit in my heart. I knew I needed to be in an environment where this passion could be fanned and explored. I knew Sister Helen was the person to help take me there. So we met and we spoke, we laughed and we connected. Through the next month, we formed a friendship, and she set me up with an interview with subsequently, my current boss, Sidney.  Things fell into place because our hearts were in sync, and our passion, unyielding.

It’s only been a week, but I know I’ve found a place that I can feel inspired, fulfilled, and challenged. I thrive in dysfunctional places, and I’ve definitely found one here. But for all the difficulties Louisiana faces, there is magic to it; it’s powerful and unique and so full of life. I know I’ll get frustrated with the politics and the social norms I’m not accustomed to, but that’s the whole reason I’m here. I will and have already met amazing people from Louisiana. It has certainly moved into a special place in my heart. In addition to falling in love with the city and the people, I will also learn how to work with certain people I don’t see eye to eye with, and I will learn how to grow and help others grow. I will make sure to be humble, and learn a whole lot more than I ever expect to teach.

Good news: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2014/06/new-low-in-preference-for-the-death-penalty/

 

2 thoughts on “First Post from New Orleans!”

  1. Hey Molly!! Sounds like an amazing first week you had this summer. I was wondering, since you have been active in or aware of several grassroots organizations and campaigns for various environmental concerns, if working for this cause specifically has changed your perspective on how to not only prevent injustice in general, but also how to approach it with an open mind. Also, I know you have already had experience working in a governmental bureaucratic agency, but has working with the Senate down in Louisiana changed your opinion on the effectiveness of local governments in fighting injustice.

  2. Hey Ben, thanks for the questions! It was very interesting to compare my work in environmental justice to criminal justice. It was a very different feel, but I think the main reason for that was not the nature of the work, but instead the region I was working in. I believe if I had been doing criminal justice work in the North, it would have felt a lot more like the environmental work I am more experienced with. So in terms of approach, the main factor was my location, so I had to learn how to cater to that style of advocacy. In addition, this was a big challenge in keeping an open mind, but I was not surrounded by my usual liberal crowd, I had to learn what things to say that would translate into a productive conversation, instead of sounding like an attack or accusation.

    You second question is really interesting. I interned with Senator Barrett last semester in the MA State House, and yes, this experience was way different. I felt very positive about the state government when I worked there because they got a lot of stuff done. They moved at a much faster pace than the federal government, and being a liberal, I was happy about the outcomes. However, when coming to a red state, I’ve seen things work very differently in Louisiana. I felt that MA fought injustice fairly well, but still needed a lot of help. However, in mind, it doesn’t compare to the Louisiana State Government. Some of the things I heard and the laws that were proposed sickened and frightened me. It made me feel like there needs to be more Federal oversight. But that’s where my bias comes in, because I understand that I can’t have it both ways. I can’t expect MA to do whatever it wants and not allow LA to do the same. So it’s a tough compromise, but I believe when advocacy groups get more involved, then the state government can be more effective in fighting injustice. However, to do that, government officials must listen to the masses of people, not just those who can hire the most lobbyists.

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