2017 Sorensen Fellows Check In From the Field
The 2017 Sorensen Fellows spent the summer interning in Africa and across the United States.
Participants Michelle Dennis ’18, Ece Esikara ’19, Mrudula Gadgil ’18, Max Gould ’18, Paul Sindberg ’18 and Leah Susman ’18, contributed to work in the arts; criminal justice; LGBT rights; medicine and public health; refugee resettlement; access to mental health services; and racial justice.
The Fellows checked in from the field and shared experiences and reflections, excerpted below.
In my interview for the Sorensen Fellowship, one of my notes from an interviewer stated, “she could meet failure head-on and not be discouraged,” or something to that effect. As I prepared for my internship, this note remained in my mind but I could not have imagined how necessary this mindset would be for the success of the summer. That note proved to be the motif of my internship experience.
Reflecting on this summer, I have learned that failure is only a temporary comparison to the expectations we once made for ourselves. It is what we do from that point, how we motivate ourselves to move forward, that matters the most. When the headmasters of the five schools requested ballet choreography in addition to technical training, it was important to find a way to make both teachings possible; when I was at the midpoint of my internship and did not feel that I was conducting “vital work”, it was necessary to figure out how I could also explore the health care system in Ghana.
Jewish Vocational Services is a place of acceptance. Respect and acceptance are what I have observed so far here. Clients, volunteers, employees, and employers, regardless of their background, get help from and work with each other. I believe that I fit into this picture.
The Pro Bono Counseling Project
For the past two months, I have been working at the Pro Bono Counseling Project to enfold CHAI (Counselors Helping South Asians), a program dedicated to reducing stigma and providing mental healthcare resources to the South Asian community in the area. Simultaneously the most enjoyable and difficult part of the process has been community outreach. In an effort to interact with community members to understand their needs, we have attended social gatherings and conducted workshops at places of worship.
Connecting with community groups, especially as members of an organization that deals with a stigmatized topic like mental health, is a slow and careful process, but we have been making progress. Recently, we conducted a workshop and attended a "henna night" with the girls' youth group at the Muslim Community Center of Silver Spring. The workshop opened up a discussion about relationships and signs of distress, and the henna night sparked an interest in henna among the Pro Bono staff!
My experience with the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice so far has been beyond anything I could've imagined. I've been fortunate enough to have such a diverse array of experiences at the Foundation. Through the Foundation I have been exposed to so many different facets of the innocence movement, and have had the opportunity to meet incredible and awe-inspiring advocates, as well as those whose lives have been negatively impacted by wrongful convictions.
My most memorable experience of the summer was attending the evidentiary hearing of Lorenzo Johnson, a man wrongfully convicted of a grisly murder in 1995, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. New evidence had arisen that proved the motive witness in the case against Johnson had a pseudo-familial relationship with one of the investigating detectives. Many were fairly certain that this, compounded with other evidence of his innocence, would be his saving grace and finally set him free after 22 years in prison.
However, before the hearing, the DA's office contacted Johnson to make a deal. He would be allowed to go home a free man if he did not contest the charges against him, effectively solidifying the original guilty verdict against him. The day of the hearing it was revealed that he accepted the deal. It was a bittersweet moment amongst his family, friends, and other supporters there. He would finally be allowed to go home with his family after 22 years of wrongful imprisonment, yet it came at the expense of his innocence.
Working with OUT LGBT Well-being has given me the opportunity to develop my legal skillset in a supportive and conscientious environment. Two memories I'll treasure: working with the provincial government's LGBTI task team to draft a budget for the year, and chasing a flock chickens out of my bedroom one morning! Later this week, my supervisor and I will be visiting police stations to advocate for the proper investigation of two ongoing hate crime cases, and I'm looking forward to learning effective advocacy tactics from him."
My work with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs has been focused largely on community organizing around two police accountability campaigns, one of which aims to install an oversight board for Chicago's Police Department and the other with a goal to change the CPD's union contract which currently holds police officers above the law. This feels especially urgent given the police murder of Laquan McDonald. If it weren't for an unethical contract, then the police officers involved would not have been given a full 24 hours to come up with a story and then given the opportunity to change their story a year later once the evidence was released.
I'm glad to have the opportunity to take action against police brutality, as it is an issue that I feel very strongly about but never really knew how to contribute to as a white person. The experience of observing how JCUA works with coalitions, largely led by groups that represent communities of color has been invaluable to my aspiration to have a career as a community organizer. It will be interesting to follow how these campaigns unfold over the next couple years, having played a role in them this summer.