Seeing Everything as an Opportunity

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Release Date: 
Tuesday, July 23, 2019

           Wan Qi, our VISTA working with New Orleans Public Defenders writes, as an Asian-American woman from New York City serving at a public defenders’ office in New Orleans — where ninety-eight percent of our clients are black, I am usually very conscious of the fact that I do not truly understand this city, its people, or its history. Although I have a strong sense of empathy, and although I myself can understand what it means to have a marginalized identity on several counts, I am very wary of entering the white-savior complex, of speaking over others, and of thinking I know the best ways to heal this community — things that I and many people in the public sector can be unconsciously and unintentionally guilty of. My role is to stand in the back of the crowd, not to center myself. My role is to listen as much as possible, digest that information, and use it to think of solutions, then circle back to find out if the people I’m meant to serve think those solutions are worthwhile before implementing them. I reflect on all of these things to say that everything is a learning opportunity. Everything is a chance to listen and learn.

          This month as a VISTA, I dove into the criminal justice reform community as much as possible. The public defenders’ office is not the only entity working towards reform — in New Orleans, there are so many organizations dedicated to so many different goals, such as Voice of the Experienced in community organizing, or the MacArthur Justice Center in filing civil lawsuits to fight for humane conditions in prisons, or the Juror Project in educating the public on the importance of serving on a jury, or the Innocence Project in fighting cases for incarcerated people forgotten by the courts from years and years ago to prove that they were innocent and exonerate them — the list goes on and on. There is so much going on that it can feel overwhelming, but we don’t want to work in isolation or find ourselves reinventing the wheel in terms of reform. We need to find out what everyone else is doing and support them in those goals so that in terms of the “bigger picture,” we achieve something so much more long-lasting and meaningful. This month, I attended as many monthly meetings that each of these organizations puts on to meet the intelligent and passionate people fueling this change as well as directly impacted people to understand their needs; often, these two “groups” of people I’m talking about intersect and are the same group. Going to all these events, quietly listening, and meeting so many good-hearted people in this field really allowed me to see everything as a learning opportunity.