For Adrienne Austin ’05, combatting racist systems has been a common thread throughout a varied career. After NYU Law, she worked as a trial attorney at the Bronx Defenders, then spent two years at the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy nonprofit working to end mass incarceration. In 2010, she took a job in New York City’s Department of Education (DOE), where she held a number of positions, including that of deputy chancellor. In January 2022, Austin left the DOE to become the director of diversity and inclusion at the Jersey City Medical Center. In this Q&A, Austin discusses the importance of mentorship and how her work combatting racist systems has evolved over time.
How did you first become interested in public interest work?
From an educational perspective, I went to the University of California—Los Angeles [for an undergraduate degree], which is where Angela Davis was a professor, famously. And she, of course, is the author and architect of a lot of the literature and research around the mass incarceration problem in America. I didn’t take a class with her, but her interests and considerations were felt there.
I also grew up as a young Black woman in Oakland, California, and I had friends who were incarcerated and ended up serving time and they somehow seemed placed on this unfair track. I became very passionate about the desire to help my community. NYU Law became an easy choice to pursue that because of their strong public interest programming. I was a Root-Tilden-Kern scholar there.
Were there any experiences at the Law School that you found significant?
Definitely. [Professor of Clinical Law Emeritus] Tony Thompson has been a mentor and father figure for me since I was a student. He absolutely changed the trajectory of my life. One of the challenges when you are a first-generation lawyer, especially as a Black woman, is to figure out where to go for advice. Having someone who knows the world, knows the field, has connections, and that you can speak to while navigating your career is very valuable. And that was the connection that I had with Tony. In addition, you know at every point that he truly cares about you. That is both empowering and important.
Tell me about how your career shifted from public defense into policy and government work.
When I started at the Bronx Defenders, Robin Steinberg [’82, former executive director], was creating this innovative and robust model of holistic care that I really believe in. It was this idea that a client may come in with an entry point, say a criminal case, but they likely need help with a housing problem or maybe an immigration case or family court case. These issues confound each other in this web that makes it incredibly difficult to escape the criminal justice system once you’ve had that point of contact. Our work was to address all of these issues, or as many as we could, to prevent entry or reentry.
After some time, I realized that I needed to work on some of these larger policies instead of troubleshooting the results of the policies by working with individual clients—though that work is so important. I worked at the Vera Institute for two years, which had me flying around the country to consult with probation programs and correctional facilities about ways to improve their own policies. A lot of that was using data and policy analysis to illustrate how racism operated within the criminal justice system, and some people are receptive to that and want to change.
After I had my first child, I didn’t want to be traveling as much. At the same time, I decided to shift my focus to the school-to-prison pipeline, and I started thinking about ways that improving our educational systems could have its own impact towards ending our country’s mass incarceration.
What systems did you work to improve at the DOE?
I worked on just about every issue imaginable. I held a number of jobs there from senior field counsel to chief of staff to the general counsel and eventually as deputy chancellor. In the deputy chancellor position, I met and had conversations with hundreds of thousands of parents and my role was to wade through all of the important issues that they were advocating for so that I could advocate on their behalf as a leader in the organization—that’s my legal training, I think. I still feel like I am an advocate in everything I do.
During the pandemic, we were able to bring our board meetings online which allowed way more parents to attend and participate. At our peak over one hundred thousand parents were attending our virtual parent meetings. Being able to partner with the community on the issues that impact them is, I think, the key focus of that role.
During my time, we also created Parent University, which was a way of taking the over 500 courses and resources available to parents and putting them in a place online where [parents] could have access to them. These courses included topics like English literacy, trauma and healing practices, and navigating special education. I’m proud of that work.
As deputy chancellor, there were a lot of challenges around changing or evaluating the racist legacies of segregation in education, because the DOE is a large bureaucracy, which makes it slow to change. For example, the racism in the admissions processes that determine which students go to the most highly sought-after public schools. Because of the deep pain and challenges of these conversations, I knew I wanted to be more explicitly involved in shaping discourse around race and diversity and inclusion, so when the position came up at the Jersey City Medical Center, it seemed like a great role.
What are you excited about in your new position at Jersey City Medical Center?
I’m excited to continue to contribute to the center’s commitment to greater diversity, equity and inclusion. This will mean doing a lot of listening to the community and learning, it will be conducting anti-bias and cultural competency trainings so that we can all be aware of the ways our biases can impact healthcare, and it will also mean finding ways to celebrate the diversity that already exists here. It’s important to me to cultivate a work culture that acknowledges and celebrates everyone on the team, and provides growth and advancement opportunities fairly across the organization. I’m also excited about expanding the center’s health equity work, partnering with community organizations and leaders to bring health education and screenings into under-served communities, which we’ve started.
I want to focus on creating space for important conversations around race and equity in healthcare, which I think of as “hearts and minds” work, as well as implementing policy and practice changes that will improve the quality of healthcare and outcomes, particularly for communities of color that face longstanding disparities.
Posted May 24, 2022.