Providence, Public Service, and Posterity
Lucy Jane Lang, Special Counsel for Policy and Projects and Director of D.A.N.Y. Academy, New York County District Attorney’s Office, shares her personal perspective as a participant in the 2017 class of the Presidential Leadership Scholars (PLS) program.
There is no better way to describe my six months as a Presidential Leadership Scholar than beshert. Yiddish for providence, beshert holds a special significance to me, as it has threaded its way through my family’s history for the more than one hundred years that we have been in America.
In 1914, my teenage great-grandfather and his socialist Jewish family fled persecution in Hungary. The eight siblings scattered, but my great-grandfather landed in New York City, where he became a machinist in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, joined the Wobblies, and married a schoolteacher.
His son, my grandfather, graduated from public high school at 15 and told his principal he intended to become a social worker so he could help people in need. The principal advised that — since my grandfather had a good head for numbers — he become a businessman instead so that he could pay a lot of social workers and help many more people.
Shortly thereafter, in an incredible moment of beshert, while working as a busboy in a Yorkville restaurant, my grandfather served a wealthy patron who took an interest in him and ultimately funded his education at Swarthmore College. My grandfather took full advantage of that education and went on to found several highly successful businesses.
My grandfather never forgot how the wealthy patron used his own success to positively impact the life of another and his principal’s advice that he leverage his talents and skill to help as many as possible. These two life lessons united in 1981 when, as he addressed a graduating class of middle schoolers at his alma mater in East Harlem, he made an impromptu promise. He promised them that if they finished high school, he would pay for each of their college educations. That now-famous promise was made the year I was born and, when I was 16 years old, earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton. That ceremony was my first visit to the White House.
Inspired by my grandfather’s vision, my parents’ belief in American democracy, and my own love of New York City, I became a lawyer and a public servant — a local prosecutor — because there seemed to me no better way to elevate my community. I wanted to protect my city and ensure that those who are victimized and those who cause harm are treated with equal dignity.
In the summer of 2016, a decade into my career and a parent of two young children, I applied to the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program (PLS). A few months after, however, I became so disheartened by current events and the state of our nation that I found myself actually contemplating leaving public service. When I interviewed for one of the coveted 60 spots for the PLS 2017 cohort, I had no idea that my admission to this remarkable program would ultimately salvage my belief in public service — a calling I trace back to my grandfather’s example and my great-grandfather’s good fortune in coming to the United States.
Following our first PLS module, in February of 2017, a now dear PLS friend wrote an essay about making her first gay friend in our midst. The writer had been an officer in the United States Air Force, who married in her early twenties and raised four children, and who is an active member of her church. In her posting, she spoke beautifully about befriending one of our cohort, not initially realizing he was gay, and ultimately having her preconceived notions about sexuality challenged. Her essay asked readers to “check in with yourself,” suggesting that we were either judging her for feeling so positively about the experience, or judging her for not having already had more diverse exposure.
I was guilty of the latter. I’m a New Yorker of Hungarian, Irish, mixed European descent, a secular Jew, the daughter of artists, and the product of a private, liberal arts education. I mean it literally when I say that some of my best friends are gay. In our cohort, I related more easily to the Sikh from Kenya who is a doctor on the Upper West Side, than to the essayist — a young blonde white woman like me. Within moments of passing judgement, though, I shamefully realized my own, largely self-imposed, lack of exposure. Notwithstanding my intellectual and legal belief in the importance of protecting freedom of religion, I had never had a deep conversation with a person of faith, about that faith. I realized that for my whole adult life I had avoided the topic altogether when speaking with someone of faith, assuming we would never get past that difference.
Over the next six months, while visiting four Presidential Libraries, my PLS colleagues and I went on to discuss reason and faith and American democracy, our conversations always informed by a shared commitment to civility. We debated the merits of the 2008 auto bail-out with officials from the Bush administration who had helped structure it. We did the Texas two-step after reaching an impasse in a debate over the Second Amendment. We heard Presidential Chiefs-of-Staff proffer differing approaches on breaking bad news to a President.
We spent time with Luci Baines Johnson on the banks of the river that runs through the Johnson Family Ranch, while she told us about her father’s success in bringing electricity to rural Texas. I shared haircare tips with the Air Force Officer essay-writer, and applauded her when she was named CEO of a major publicly traded company. We identified income inequality as a deeply shared concern despite our political differences, and agreed to continue to argue over and work together towards a solution in the years ahead.
We met three American Presidents.
Over the course of these months I discovered that I do have a sort of faith — in the goodness of people, in public service, and in those moments of pure providence when our lives and our futures make complete and utter sense, if only for a moment. I realized that in that I had everything in common with the faithful.
And surely it was beshert that in April I was seated with President Clinton for dinner just hours before my grandfather’s death, and that together we told my PLS classmates about that day at the White House when he awarded my grandfather the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Because how else would I have come home from my grandfather’s shiva several days later to a handwritten note from President Clinton in his careful cursive, saying “I liked and admired Gene so much, and am glad I saw you just before he took his leave.” A note which I will pass on to my son and daughter, as a reminder of the mandate to continue my grandfather’s work in this world in whatever way they are best able, appreciative of the Constitution’s promise to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Lucy Jane Lang, Special Counsel for Policy and Projects and Director of D.A.N.Y. Academy, New York County District Attorney’s Office, is developing a semester-long liberal arts style seminar for prosecutors from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and soon-to-be-released inmates at Queensboro Correctional Facility. The participants will study and discuss criminal justice issues and together generate ideas for policy reform. All participants will conclude the semester with a deepened understanding of one another, countering the tension between law enforcement and the community it serves.