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Quality time vs. constant crisis: Artwork and legal work as two prongs of human rights practice

Wrapping up her summer internship at a Bronx public defenders office, Kony Kim contemplates the program's legal office — "pervaded by urgent paperwork" — and its programs fostering kids' creativity.

NEW YORK CITY — “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard

Last Friday, I peeled myself away from legal research to join the Community Arts Exchange kids for their end-of-camp party. As we feasted on pizza, I was assaulted with sweaty hugs and a barrage of invitations to be an honorary big sister/aunt/mom.

Student Journal: Summer dispatches from the fieldEach year the UC Berkeley-based Human Rights Center awards summer fellowships to students from University of California campuses, to enable them to work with human-rights organizations in the U.S. and abroad. Several current Human Rights Fellows, including law student Kony Kim, have agreed to share their experiences this summer, with regular updates from the field to be published on the NewsCenter.

Kony KimKony Kim on justice alternatives in the South Bronx

  1. Why NYC: Taking the train and pursuing justice
  2. Teamwork and tangible gestures: Holistic defense at BxD
  3. Defense vs. dialogue: Restorative justice at BxD?
  4. Community intake: bite-sized empathy at BxD
  5. Drawn to a career softer and subtler than law, but driven to deal with injustice in the world
  6. Quality time vs. constant crisis: Artwork and legal work as two prongs of human rights practice
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The kids had warmed to me quickly. I’d shown up on only half the days of camp, yet by my second visit the kids were tickle-attacking me, showing me journal entries, and asking in angelic tones if I was coming tomorrow. It got harder and harder to say “no.” In fact, throughout the camp’s two-week duration, I felt torn between the kids and the office. Visits to camp were refreshing, but they also broke the momentum of my legal work.

My attorney mentors have been constantly preparing for trials, fighting to save people from jail, researching issues that affect clients’ basic rights. To maximize my productivity and learning as their intern, when I’m not shadowing them in court I’ve needed to stay by my computer so as to compile and produce documents, receive trial updates, and be ready for last-minute meetings or investigations.

I’m committed to my mentors and to BxD’s advocacy work, and I drew on the strength of these commitments to say “no” to little friends who wouldn’t be around much longer. So I knew I was making a principled choice — but the opportunity cost still weighed on my heart.

Quality time: scarce in court

In my favorite picture book, The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell, the cat Mooch prepares a birthday gift for his dog friend Earl. Earl already has “everything” — chew toy, food bowl, bouncy ball, etc. — so Mooch carefully wraps and presents one item Earl doesn’t own: a box of nothing. Earl is thrilled, and the friends spend the day enjoying nothing together.

Embedded in this nutty tale is a key insight: shared happiness isn’t about toys; it’s about time. Quality time can’t be bought, yet it’s a precious gift because it comes from the heart. Kids understand this gift well — most kids treasure it and quickly discern who’s ready to give it.

For a lawyer juggling 100+ criminal cases, it’s harder to stay mindful of this gift. But the best advocates grasp the spirit and value of quality time. BxD attorneys dispense it in bits, as best they can, within the legal and logistical limits of their roles. They ask about clients’ lives, call clients just to check in, joke with clients, and shower them with kudos for staying sober and far from trouble.

All this happens at the BxD office or in courthouse halls — because inside a courtroom, quality time is nonexistent. Proper judicial conduct is dry and efficient. A lawyer’s line of questioning must make its point and move on. A witness may not ramble; she’s rigidly coached by the lawyer she’s assisting and constantly interrupted by the opposing lawyer’s objections. Emotions are barely tolerated — in a sex assault trial I observed last week, the judge railed at the audience for wearing “inappropriately distracting” facial expressions.

Restorative justice and human rights

Unlike a courtroom, a restorative justice dialogue is a space where people affected by a crime exchange the gift of nothing — quality time — which is really the key to understanding everything. And unlike a criminal trial, which determines how much harm to inflict on the accused, restorative justice focuses on how to make things right and prevent further harm.

Instead of sitting at separate tables and giving clipped answers to strategic questions, each witness speaks freely. There’s no coaching, no interrupting, no striking of responses as “irrelevant.” Everyone simply listens. In turn, everyone speaks, and the process takes as long as necessary for everyone to be fully heard.

Thus, restorative justice is infused with the core idea that every individual has dignity and deserves respect. This means everyone deserves to be listened to, taken seriously, and invited to enrich the community. And in the wake of crime, all persons affected, not just officials and professionals, should be invited to name the harm and shape remedies. Justice is achieved in community.

Two facets of human rights work

children painting

I’ve felt torn between the law office and the summer camp because I trust that the children’s artwork, no less than the attorneys’ legal work, meaningfully advances human rights in this community. In both places, BxD empowers Bronx residents of various ages and sizes who deserve to be listened to, taken seriously, and invited to enrich the community.

These two prongs of BxD’s work operate in wildly divergent settings: one in a punitive system where advocates battle to protect clients’ liberty; the other in a safe space where mentors nurture young minds and hands. Accordingly, the legal office is pervaded by urgent paperwork, while the kids’ program is full of fun activities — sharing ideas, developing confidence, making art together — which, though not urgent, are vital for growing a healthy community of young leaders.

The first prong, criminal defense, is BxD’s raison d’être — the mission it pursues uniquely well through its holistic advocacy model. The second prong, which advances the intangible, longer-term benefits that restorative justice envisions, plays a supporting role.

Being both a dreamer and a believer in restorative justice, I can’t help envisioning a world in which the second prong takes priority. In this world, a new generation of leaders builds a community that’s too strong, too informed, and too busy creatively improving itself, to become entrapped in a vicious cycle of prison and poverty.

About Kony Kim

Kony Kim

A J.D. and PhD. student at Berkeley Law, Kony Kim aspires to pursue her passions for art and storytelling to become what she calls a “writer-artist-advocate.” The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she received her B.A. in philosophy from Yale (2003) and her M.A. in theological studies at Westminster Seminary (2006). While completing coursework in Berkeley Law’s Jurisprudence & Social Policy program, she was inspired by her volunteer work with asylum seekers to focus on refugee rights advocacy, and by her interactions with prison inmates to investigate alternative justice models.

Kim will spend the summer as a legal intern for the Bronx Defenders, which provides legal advocacy and services in one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. Through participant observation, she will research how the organization makes use of “restorative justice,” an approach to crime that seeks to involve all affected parties in repairing the harms done.