Be Like a Bellhop

Bellhops carry people’s baggage for them. They put that weight on their shoulders the full day they work. When their time is up, they make sure each bag is where it needs to be, then they leave unencumbered. I have a lot to learn from bellhops. Anyone working with survivors of trauma stands at serious risk of developing second-hand trauma or compassion fatigue. These psychological phenomena elicit many of the same symptoms that trauma causes. Difficulty sleeping, fatigue, short temper, depression, and anxiety are not uncommon amongst lawyers working with victims. In our profession, it can be hard to put down people’s baggage at the end of the day. Luckily, I switch between light and heavy bags.
While I have the freedom to say I will only do one type of task on a given day, that would mean serving for myself. I’m at the courthouse working with the Durham Crisis Response Center in the hopes of helping victims as best I can. Sometimes that means answer the phone. Other times it means processing intake forms and entering clients into our system. It can involve listening to clients’ stories and helping them transfer that onto legal documents requesting a restraining order. Often, it involves preparing and accompanying clients to court or watching their kids while they go. Most days, doing my best to support the Family Justice Center means doing all of the above in one.

Having lots of tasks to do usually gives me the opportunity to complete a lot of tasks. I get a sense of satisfaction each time I get to check off another box in my head. Where clients often deal with situations far beyond my ability to improve, it’s really nice to have a sense of agency. I can’t guarantee that a client will get the protective order they are requesting, but I can help them submit the paperwork and get them some water while they wait. The little tasks that can feel tedious actually go a long way to empower workers who feel powerless.

Maybe the best part about having a job devoted to dealing with little things that come up in the office is that my only jobs are in the office. My work never extends beyond my hours there. For a kid well accustomed to having hours of homework after finishing classes, a nine to five job feels like a blessing. When I come home, I have to deal with the tedium of adult chores, but I don’t have the looming stress of work uncompleted. That peace of mind is valuable. At least during the summer, I like having a chunk of time when I know I do not have to work.

Being able to leave my work at the office is essential. It takes some effort not to bring the saddest stories home with me. If I had to work on paperwork for those cases while at home, I’d have no opportunity to recharge. As it is, some days can feel pretty long. An hour with a toddler in his “terrible two’s” phase will exhaust me for an hour before I listen to a woman describe in detail the physical abuse she experienced. Because doing my job well involves filling needs whenever they arise, I often am occupied from an hour before I would have eaten lunch until two or three hours later. All of us employees are very conscious about keeping a water bottle with us and staying hydrated even as we’re busily moving all around. I would very quickly burn out if this job were nay longer than 9 to 5.

My demanding workday has taught me the importance of self-care, and understanding my limits. I am less productive and less able to help clients when I haven’t taken a couple minutes to eat lunch or snack throughout the day. Doing the little things to keep myself running at one hundred percent is essential. If my future career involves working beyond my hours in the office, the work needs to be less emotionally taxing. Working as a public defender would be very difficult, but conducting research or reading academic articles before bed is more within my wheelhouse. The type of job I will do will probably involve working on projects outside of the office, so I’m grateful to be discovering what sort of baggage I can and can’t carry home from work.

David Frisch; Portfolio; Bio

David Frisch is a rising junior majoring in Political Science from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is one of seven 2018 Kenan Purpose Program Summer Fellows. David is fascinated by the ethics of law, especially as they intersect with family decisions. This summer, he will be working as a court advocate at the Durham Crisis Response Center in Durham, NC.

A Grateful Guest

When a tree digs its roots deeply, its packs together a mound of dirt beneath and around it. As it feeds off the land, it stabilizes the land. A thick patch of trees intermingles deep below the surface, supporting each other. When great rain comes, water surges through the earth, loosening trees’ foundations. When a collection of trees dig their roots beside each other, they hold the ground firm and weather nearly any storm. But, when trees have been uprooted, the ground moves with the current, toppling and burying trees beneath a mudslide. Having and digging roots deeply is best for a given tree and for its surrounding community.
From small talk that eases nerves and from filling out residential history forms with clients, I often hear how long they have been in Durham. While plenty were born and raised here, many others were not. I very often speak to people who have been here for ten, five, or even two years. It’s not rare for me to speak with someone who has just recently moved to Durham—sometimes to get way from an abusive past. These Durhamites, transplanted and native, young and old, give me a window into the city in which I live. Their view of the city from the courthouse’s towering windows—of the pop fly’s in Bull’s Stadium and the new buildings popping up all around—make me increasingly familiar with the town and its people. I bump into students I know at the grocery store, and swap stories about Jordan lake with my coworkers. Bull City now has a familiar feel to it.

This week, I spoke to three different clients who are newer to Durham than I am. That’s so strange to me. I’m just a Duke student, and I’ve seen so little of the city. I’ve only been inside one of its public schools, to one of its public parks, and to stores within walking distance of Duke’s East or West Campuses. I’m not a Durhamite, I’m a visitor. After two more years, or maybe three if I stick around for a gap year, I’ll be gone for grad or law school. And yet, I am beginning to become a Durhamite. My co-workers live in or near the city, my favorite professors send their kids to school in the area, and plenty of my best memories from the last two years take place off-campus. I’ve bonded with Durhamites over frustration regarding the public bus that just broke down beneath our seats. I am beginning to feel like more of a Durham resident and less of a Duke guest.

I’m glad that’s the case. Duke does a lot of good for Durham, but not as much as it could or should. Durham has given Duke a home, and it’s given me a home. Whether moving between different family members’ apartments over academic breaks or traveling to different programs and vacations over the summer, I have found myself missing a bed of my own. For two years, that bed and stability have been at Duke here in Durham. In gratitude for what Durham offers me and because I believe everyone has a responsibility to serve when possible, I try to learn from and assist Durham. Formerly as a tutor in the public schools and now as an court advocate for victims, my service is stronger when I am more familiar with the context and organizations in which I serve. Nowadays, I do more for the Durham Crisis Response Center in one day than I was able to do in a week months ago. Often, learning just takes time. Planting some of my roots here allows me to add a little support to the community and its service organizations.

But I worry. I don’t want to call Durham my home. To do seems to mean betraying Bull City and betraying my hometown of Pittsburgh. If Durham were my home, how could I justify leaving in two years likely never to return? If Durham is my home, shouldn’t I have a much stronger understanding of what it means to live in Durham, or know the difference between Eastern and Western Carolina barbecue? Or have a tolerance for country music? I’m a grateful guest. I want to know about my host, be polite, help with the dishes, show my appreciation, and help where possible. I want to be a good resident of Durham, but I do not want to call it home. I know I’m going to leave Durham, and it might leave me—but Pittsburgh cannot. I bleed black and gold, I devour pierogies, I’d prefer to say “yinz” over “y’all,” and my ancestors are buried in Pittsburgh earth. That is my home. That land gives nutrients to my soul and holds it steady during storms. In turn, I want to stabilize its soil.

Protect my roots as they bury themselves under Blue Slide Park’s Happy Hill so that countless generations of Pittsburghers will be able to safely look out to the Monongahela river, play catch like the Steelers, and plant their own roots.

David Frisch; Portfolio; Bio

David Frisch is a rising junior majoring in Political Science from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is one of seven 2018 Kenan Purpose Program Summer Fellows. David is fascinated by the ethics of law, especially as they intersect with family decisions. This summer, he will be working as a court advocate at the Durham Crisis Response Center in Durham, NC.

Week 5

Southern drawl, hunting references, and detailed questioning about the location of a given Bojangles’s are all foreign to this Pittsburgher. Duke is a northern pocket in the South, but Durham is a little less so. When I sit in court listening to court proceedings, I am often struck by mannerisms and values not my own. When mentioned, people’s church attendance and Christianity are often topics of interest for the judges. Judges, plaintiffs, and defendants are more open and upfront about their Christianity. My Judaism shifts in its seat in this new environment. My urban millennial manners cock my head in confusion as some judges insist that individuals tuck in their shirt, have people handcuffed for cursing, and threaten to do the same to anyone whispering. I know several Pittsburgh Family Court judges who curse, joke, and speak more like their constituents. Here in Durham, judges’ decisions seem more like an imposition from an external power than from one’s own democratic government.

I often wonder how similarly my clients feel. Plenty are from Durham, and some are clearly religious, but many are neither. Most have fewer years of higher education under their belt than do the judges, and—statistically speaking—a chunk undoubtedly make less money. A mix of white and black judges give racial representation to some, but it’s not more than half the time that a Black person goes before a Black judge. Race, class, gender, education, religion, and geographic origin serve as potential wedges between our clients and the judges. Something about that doesn’t feel quite right.

In Domestic Violence Court and Family Court, judges dictate how people ought to live their lives. Whether a parent can let their kid play football or teach a religion conflicting the with custodial parent’s religion is up to judges. Because the complexities of harassment, abuse, and children’s best interests cannot be adequately handled by a broad, inflexible set of laws, judges must have some discretion. That discretion often feels arbitrary and oppressive to my clients when it goes against their wishes. Nothing will stop people from being mad when they lose a court case, but citizens should still have faith in their course. The challenge is in making discretion seem legitimate. What can push my clients and their defendants respect a judge’s decision even when it goes against them? What can make judge’s will stop feeling arbitrary?

One set of solutions believes inadequate representation to be the problem. Some sort of quota could ensure that there is at least one judge for each racial or ethnic group constituting at least ten percent of the county population. This would make it possible for our many Hispanic clients to see a judge with a more similar background and who would maybe not need an interpreter to understand our Spanish speaking clients. That would be nice, but one judge can only be in one courtroom at a time; clients would inevitably face judges of different racial, ethnic, religious, geographic, and financial backgrounds. To make it otherwise would be to segregate our courts.

So, while representation is important, and I now better understand the rationale for states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania electing their judges, it does not solve the problem. Democratic government, including its judicial branch, must be of, by, and for the people. Aristotle said that democracy means “ruling and being ruled in turn.” Self-rule through election requires that rulers seem like oneself. Some degree of incongruity between judges and citizens’ values are inevitable in a society with increasing cultural divergence.
Nonetheless, we can do further legitimize judges in the eyes of the public. Even if strict manners and behavioral standards are necessary for preserving the court’s integrity, judges can work to sound compassionate. Being patient with frustrated and frazzled citizens can go a long way. Showing sympathy for people’s feelings while separating them from the facts is essential. I’ve seen the power of a judge’s gentle voice to soften a scared victim’s heart and ease the tension—if only slightly—between feuding couples. We need judges to be imposing, respectable, and somewhat distant, but they should never feel foreign. The southern phrases Christian priorities may not be my own, but the judges are.

David Frisch; Portfolio; Bio

David Frisch is a rising junior majoring in Political Science from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is one of seven 2018 Kenan Purpose Program Summer Fellows. David is fascinated by the ethics of law, especially as they intersect with family decisions. This summer, he will be working as a court advocate at the Durham Crisis Response Center in Durham, NC.

Week 4

Work, exercise, cook, relax. That’s my plan for most workdays this year. It’s pretty straightforward. Some days, it feels really tough. At Duke, it’s easy to take a lot for granted. People who examine the Duke undergraduate experience rightfully emphasize the privileges inherent to an elite education, the growth it facilitates, the connections it makes, and the opportunities it offers. This post isn’t about any of that. It’s about the endless little benefits that I take for granted. It’s about the commute, the dining options, the gym, and the libraries. The minor frustrations and wasted hours sprinkled throughout my summer are pains largely foreign to my privileged life and Duke experience. In this post, I’ll walk you through one good, privileged day speckled with these little headaches.

My summer days start as I hurriedly stuff my breakfast and lunch in my backpack and head out of my apartment. It’s not the five-minute walk from Edens to main quad I’m used to or even the C1 ride I tolerated without much chagrin. I walk twenty minutes in temperatures that rise with the sun to my bus stop. There, I hop on the BCC (thank goodness they haven’t cancelled the route yet) and ride it for about fifteen minutes until I’m three blocks from the courthouse. Then I the bus and walk towards the courthouse. I have to get there early so I can change into the work clothes I didn’t want to ruin in the heat. The three miles from my apartments to the courthouse take me just under an hour. Many people have commutes like this, but not Duke students going to class.

After a long day of work, I walk to the bus station, ride the bus, and walk the last leg of my commute—if I intend to exercise in my room or not at all. Otherwise, I hop on a different bus, walk across campus, exercise, then walk another twenty-five minutes to my apartment. During the year, I can see the Edens’ gym from my dorm and Wilson after only a five-minute walk. This summer, I sweat as much trying to get to and from the gym in Durham heat as I do working out. After getting home from the gym or work, it’s time for me to get a meal together. If I planned my meals well and did my grocery-shopping accordingly, I can often eat leftovers or cook within half an hour. If not, it’s another forty minutes to go to the grocery store with a friend kind enough to let me ride in their car. Now eleven or twelve hours after leaving home in the morning, I can do something other than work, commute, eat, and exercise. I’m very lucky that these “long” days are not filled with two jobs, childcare responsibilities, or the other headaches of adulthood.

Kenan’s Purpose Grant has allowed me to spend my summer living a privileged and comfortable life. I only take one bus, I have generous funding from Kenan, I often have kind friends who will pick me up from Duke on their way home, and I never have to worry about being able to afford or access healthy food. The little things that have annoyed me this summer are nowhere near real struggles, but they help me to better understand where hardships can lie. Spending ten hours at work at commuting makes life hard for parents trying to both drop-off and pick-up their kids from school, especially where there are no available after-school programs. Grocery shopping would be much more difficult if I didn’t have generous friends willing to give me a ride. Affording, having time for, and physically getting to the gym would be much harder if I did not have access to Duke’s great facilities. In the coming years, I will work to better realize and appreciate the endless little privileges as well as the major benefits inherent to the Duke undergraduate experience.

David Frisch; Portfolio; Bio

David Frisch is a rising junior majoring in Political Science from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is one of seven 2018 Kenan Purpose Program Summer Fellows. David is fascinated by the ethics of law, especially as they intersect with family decisions. This summer, he will be working as a court advocate at the Durham Crisis Response Center in Durham, NC.

Fencing Out the Wolves

Before I got involved in child protection and domestic violence response work, most of my service centered around education in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system. Running book drives for nearly-empty elementary school libraries, translating work for English Language Learners, and working to establish a student school board, I tried to hold Pittsburgh Public Schools accountable however possible. As I had understood it, kids struggled in large part because schools failed to provide adequate support, resources, and opportunities to their students. I was aware that many students show up to school with baggage that weighs on their minds, but I figured that good schooling could check that luggage. Education was the great equalizer.

I began to shed that understanding in the latter half of my senior year. When I experienced my own very minor family disruptions, I got a small glimpse into the importance of stability outside of school for success within it. Shifting residences, worrying about my loved ones, and feeling isolated made it hard to focus in school or find motivation to do my homework. My grades survived only because my peers all had senioritis, lowering the bar. As I think and read more about children raised in families many times more combative and unstable than mine, I have come to further doubt the ability of schools to single-handedly fix children’s problems. Educational innovation is essential, but it is not the only step—and maybe not even the first step—towards providing many American children with better lives.

During my Freshman Fall semester at Duke, I volunteered weekly as a tutor for English Language Learners at a local elementary school. I spent most of my time helping a third grader who spoke only Spanish. We’ll call her Silvia. Devoted to school, Silvia wanted me to translate every bit of her assignments would get frustrated when the teacher lessened her workload. For a while, Silvia was determined to get the education to which she was entitled. Towards the end of the semester, that changed. Silvia seemed less motivated, expressed discomfort with her male teacher and myself, and informed me that she would be switching schools because her mom and siblings had to move out of their house. Her particular discomfort with male figures including me seemed to signal something, and it concerned me. I pointed it out to her English instructor who agreed. That was the last I heard of her.

I don’t know her exact story—I can only assume. Silvia’s behaviors could have been the result of any of countless factors, but they are certainly common amongst victims of domestic and sexual violence. She could have just had a bad day, the teacher may actually just be tricky, or she might have just been sad to be moving. Whether or not she is truly an example of the kids I am trying to protect, the pain and discomfort she felt is certainly what I work to prevent. In that way, she still informed my belief that more is necessary for a child’s development than good schools.

Watching the quick shift in Silvia’s behavior and work ethic furthered strengthened my belief that safe, stable home life is nearly-essential for education success. J.D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy captures that reality. Discussing the challenges schools face, a teacher told Vance that “they want us to be shepherds to these kids but no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.” As a form of self-protection, traumatized kids often close themselves off to others, including their compassionate teachers. When we fail to put up protective fences for children, we force kids to construct the walls themselves. Though the world needs many shepherds, I feel called to protect against the wolves.

This week, I saw Silvia and her family member meeting with one of my fellow advocates at the courthouse. Her face looked familiar, but I didn’t believe it was her until she gave me the same shy-giggling smiles she always did. I noticed her on her way out, and didn’t know if it would be right to say anything other than “hola.” Brief though it was, the experience has played on repeat in my mind since.

Silvia was always the first person I thought of when I was volunteering in the Children’s Playroom in the Pittsburgh courthouse last summer, and when I began volunteering with the Durham Crisis Response Center this year. I got involved in this line of service to provide resources to children like Silvia. And here Silvia was, receiving our services. I hope that I am wrong about her and that she has not experienced any violence. If she has, I’m glad we were able to provide some help. I’m grateful to have seen that sheep safe behind our wolf-proof fence—if only for a few moments.

David Frisch; Portfolio; Bio

David Frisch is a rising junior majoring in Political Science from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is one of seven 2018 Kenan Purpose Program Summer Fellows. David is fascinated by the ethics of law, especially as they intersect with family decisions. This summer, he will be working as a court advocate at the Durham Crisis Response Center in Durham, NC.

Making a Hard Choice–And Sticking to It

In high school, I thought being a lawyer was synonymous with being a liar. A profession characterized by rhetoric rather than truth, trial law seemed like a necessary evil to me. It appeared evil because trial lawyers make their money doing everything they can to convince judges and juries that their client should win—even if the lawyers know that the client should not. Trial lawyers are necessary because they serve as investigators, gathering and presenting information which a judge or jury use to render a verdict. If the system works properly, even the lawyer promoting the unjust outcome is actually facilitating justice. If, however, imbalances of power make court cases more about rhetoric than reality, wealth can trump fairness.

Working as a court advocate, my job is to do what I can to win a Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO) for my client. Our free services aim to support victims, but distinguishing victim from perpetrator is not always simple. Many relationships are toxic; many perpetrators are manipulative, and plenty of offenders seek protection orders to pre-empt the victim’s legal efforts. By checking our and the court’s records, we can usually identify and redirect the known abusers. As a non-profit funded specifically to support victims, we at DCRC have to make difficult judgements about who is right and wrong. The gray area lies in mutually toxic relationships and custody disputes.

The people in these gray areas I am writing about are not the ones who lie about what happened to them—such dishonesty is relatively rare and of a different nature. The cases that trip me up and stick with me are the ones where our clients honestly describe actions that are wrong but not abusive. Many of our clients are victims in need of protection, but some describe reasonable arguments or non-ideal but non-threatening disputes. These clients often file for a protective order because they want to modify a custody arrangement in their favor. If someone’s partner’s poor behavior can be classified as abusive, the alleged victim is more likely to win custody. Even when children are not involved, our clients still sometimes have questionable motives or framings. Several men have told me they really need this protection order to stop the harassment so they “don’t end up in jail for beating her, because [they] can’t take any more of this.” Our clients are not always the best people.

Without legal licenses, we cannot tell people exactly what to say, nor can we speak on their behalf, but we do give them detailed information about how the process works and how to best describe their situation to a judge. We know what usually convinces judges to grant protection orders. By highlighting those aspects of a client’s story to our client, we help increase the chance of getting a DVPO. While our powers are limited, we still need to be thoughtful about who we help.

After vetting and accepting a client, my job as a court advocate becomes more similar to that of a trial lawyer. I do everything I am legally permitted to do to help my client win—whether they deserve to or not. I have felt guilty doing it. I know that in a few rare but challenging instances, I support the wrong side. I maintain my resolve by focusing on the many clients who have experienced serious domestic violence and fear deeply for their well-being. It’s better to make a few mistakes in the pursuit of justice than to not pursue it at all.

Drawn to philosophy, I struggle to see any decision as “simple.” Having to pick people to fight for and stick with them is teaching me to act in times of uncertainty. I do not need to know how to perfect a situation to know how to improve it. To pursue a career in public service or non-profit services, I will have to become more comfortable accepting that all causes have problematic aspects. Every cause has its radicals and all clients have dirty laundry. My internship is teaching me that pursuing purpose requires picking one and sticking with it—at least for a little while.

David Frisch; Portfolio; Bio

David Frisch is a rising junior majoring in Political Science from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is one of seven 2018 Kenan Purpose Program Summer Fellows. David is fascinated by the ethics of law, especially as they intersect with family decisions. This summer, he will be working as a court advocate at the Durham Crisis Response Center in Durham, NC.