Why We Do What We Do

 Lori Zeno, Executive Director, Queens Defenders

I want to tell you a little bit about Zaire. We met him when he was a high school student In Far Rockaway.  Smart as a whip, he lived with his parents, did well in school and had a million friends. He was also involved in some potentially dangerous, illegal activity – which he stopped once he became part of the Rockaway Justice Center programs.

Queens Defenders planned an event to support the March 2018 March for Our Lives and invited high school students to write essays about the impact of violence on their lives. Zaire’s was passionate, articulate, and clearly informed by personal experience.

After graduating from high school, Zaire joined Queens Defenders’ mentoring program, attended a leadership skills retreat, and started college in September 2018 as a criminal justice major. Unfortunately, his financial aid package fell through and he was removed from the college rolls. He continued to attend class, with his professors’ permission, and completed all the assignments, though he did not receive credit.

Hoping to go back in the spring, he was disappointed again by the financial aid system and became depressed and angry. His relationships at home fell apart and he was kicked out of the house. He could not afford to pay rent and became homeless and jobless. He turned again to crime.

Queens Defenders did not give up on him. We stayed in touch and he eventually returned to our Rockaway Justice Center. Our staffed helped him reconnect with his family and he moved back home. He applied to other colleges and additional financial aid with our assistance. Queens Defenders gave him a loan that he pays back by working in the Justice Center when he is home. And this past September I drove him to school myself.

This is the kind of work that motivates all of us at Queens Defenders. The opportunity to provide justice of all kinds – criminal, civil, socioeconomic – for our clients is our vision and our mission. We fight for justice every day for every client.

Mike on Top

Michael Osemwengie, Homework Helper

I met Daniel Rosero, a member of the Queens Defenders Outreach Team, the first time I participated in a Youth Justice Court at the Queens Library. At that time, my life was kind of crazy.  I was hanging out with the wrong crew, my phone was stolen, and I had decided that was going to be it. I wanted to change my life, make better decisions, get off the wrong path.

I found the Rockaway Outreach Center and asked Dan Rosero what I could do there. All of the staff supported me: Mr. Parsee, Brandon, Daniel, Susana, and more. They offered me a volunteer role helping kids with their homework.

During the summer I dressed up as Elmo for the Domestic Violence Awareness BBQ.  The costume was big, and it was a hot day… I am not going to lie, it wasn’t fun. But that did not matter, I had a purpose in mind, so I just kept my focus on that.

My fear about getting a job was that I get upset and angry easily. Life has not been easy for me and it’s been very hard for me to open up. Daniel had a strategy for me: whenever I felt anger or distress coming on, we would go for a walk around the block. He would remind me of my goals and ask me to breathe deeply to calm down. I do not have these outbursts anymore. I am so happy about this.

One day on one of our walks, Daniel gave me a sheet of paper that listed the steps I need to take:

1) You have to have self-control

2) Good Attitude

3) Stop being in your own mind all the time.

I put this in practice and I see now that there are other ways to get through life. As I am writing this, I will be honest – I am happy, I am proud of myself, I am Mike on Top, you already know, I learn something every day.

Even though my mom is no longer here with me, she is with me all the time, just looking down on me. I cannot use that as an excuse by saying, “oh I miss my mom” and feeling bad about myself, I know she is up there, she is looking at her son Mike on Top, you already know. I cry sometimes – there is nothing wrong about crying. I think it’s good to let it out, it’s good to express yourself.

I want to put Far Rockaway on the radar, because it is not an easy place to live in.  Queens Defenders turned my life around. This is my family, the people I look up to.  I feel like something changed in me, something that now I carry, no matter where I go it is in me.

I am so thankful for a lot of things right now. I am thankful for another day, for my job. As a youth leader and a mentor, I have to show what I am really about everywhere I go. Every time I have my Queens Defenders shirt on, I am dedicated, I am part of the team, I feel good because I earned it, I worked hard for it, and I got it.

When I feel like giving up, I say to myself “my community depends on me, they need my help, people are suffering.”  Everywhere I go, I see it: people are fighting with each other. It is sad. I am so happy that we work together at Queens Defenders to change this. We don’t need violence, we just need happiness and love, and to be thankful for everything.

Runway to Success

Susana Vaca Coca, Immigration Advocate, Rockaway Justice Center

Most fashion shows aim to showcase high-end merchandise worn by willowy girls. “Hour Fashion Night,” an event organized by Johanna Flores, Employment Coordinator at Hour Working Women Program (HWWP) and sponsored by Queens Defenders (QD), turned that concept inside out by featuring real women in affordable clothing.

Most of the models were formerly incarcerated individuals enrolled in HWWP and the staff who work with them. HWWP was created by Hour Children to help participants achieve self-sufficiency and provide for their families by obtaining meaningful, stable jobs with living wages.

Through HWWP’s one-to-one services, they gain hard and soft skills and targeted employment placement. HWWP’s flexible enrollment dates enable each client and her providers to tailor a program and a schedule that fits into her life, accommodates her responsibilities, and meets her training needs.

Setting reasonable expectations and attainable goals that realistically reflect each woman’s interests, educational level, and wage requirements, while remaining mindful of the realities of the job marketplace, is also part of the program. Group and one-on-one mentoring guarantee that participants learn appropriate social skills for work environments.

QD provides weekly services at Hour Children’s Long Island City offices including immigration-related screenings, intakes, and mindfulness meditation sessions. In addition, QD offers monthly Know Your Rights Workshops to Hour Children clients and local residents.

All profits from the fashion show were designated for expansion of the HWWP computer lab.

Justice 456

 Mani Tafari, Criminal Attorney, Queens Defenders

Understanding the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights is critical for black and brown people, especially adolescents and young adults. Queens Defenders is launching Justice 456, an educational tour of schools, community centers, churches, and other community venues. We want to teach those most at risk of a wrongful conviction how to protect themselves.

  • The Fourth Amendment guarantees you the right to be protected from unlawful searches and seizures. Police cannot search you or your house without a search warrant or “probable cause” to think you have committed a crime.
  • The Fifth Amendment allows you to refuse to answer questions from the police or prosecutor in order to avoid making incriminating statements against yourself. Understanding that you do not have to “explain yourself to a police officer” can save you years and perhaps decades in jail.
  • The Sixth Amendment provides the right to be represented by a lawyer who can explain your rights and the charges against you. Do not speak to a police officer — who is supported by the District Attorney, the police department, criminal justice agencies – without a lawyer.

A person’s words can be twisted and used against them in a court of law regardless of whether they’re innocent. In fact, criminal defense attorneys spend a large portion of their time attempting to get statements made by defendants without a lawyer present thrown out of court. By remaining silent, you are much more likely to have a successful outcome to your case.

The bottom line: always be respectful and polite to police officers and never lie to them, but, more importantly, never say anything to them other than requesting the presence of a lawyer.

Knowledge is power. Understanding your rights and using them respectfully will benefit you in both the short and the long term.

The Messenger

Ken Smith, Credible Messenger, Queens Defenders

In 2012 I was just another teenager looking for answers. What would my life be in 5 years?

Things began to take a turn that year. I was 17 years old and a junior at Grover Cleveland High School. Not attending classes, not even showing up to school became my new norm.  My friends were doing the same. We thought we were cool. We thought this was ok. One morning, when I actually did show up at school, I saw an opportunity to steal a phone, right out of a kid’s hand.

Why did I want to steal this phone? Just to get a few dollars? Was it worth it? What consequences would I face? None of these thoughts came to my mind.  What I thought was, I have a great phone.

The next day at school, I was sent to dean’s office and later arrested. I had to go to court where a lawyer from Queens Defenders was assigned to be my attorney. She arranged a plea for me which required me to attend Queens Defenders’ summer internship program. It was the very first one, and the first day, July 15, was my 18th birthday.

Although I didn’t know it then, this is when my life began to change.

There were 12 other teens like me who had committed crimes and had to go to court where the judge then referred them to Queens Defenders.  During the day, we spent time at the law offices, learning about public defenders and gaining office skills. We also had plenty of activities outside the office: rock climbing, bowling, wood carving, health and wellness classes. I attended pretty much every day. I met a lot of people and got a lot of experience.

In the fall, I needed to find a job. McDonalds offered me a position. It was my first job. The Executive Director of Queens Defenders, Lori Zeno, offered me a job a few months later, but first I either had to return to school or get my GED. I attended a New York State-run GED program and was the Valedictorian for the entire state that year. I also went to trade school at the same time and earned certificates Electrical Installation and Building Maintenance. Ms. Zeno hired me as a data entry clerk and I am now working as a Credible Messenger, mentoring teens who find themselves in the position I was in seven years ago.

Queens Defenders supported me when no one else would. They encouraged me to look within myself for the answers I sought. Now, I am 24, engaged to be married, and a proud homeowner! My goal is to become a urban farmer, teaching people how to grow their own food. I want to be a successful Youtuber too, so I can share what I have learned with others.