I’m so excited for Helen Struck to be our first “parents who inspire” of 2016. She is a dear friend who has been committed to service from a young age. When I met her in college, she was the Executive Director of our University’s student-run non-profit, a huge role to take on as a full-time student. After graduating, we moved out to San Francisco and became roommates, where I learned about her deep passion for the law and her desire to become a public defender.
Helen turned her dreams into a reality, as she is now a lawyer who defends Californians on death row. She is also a wife, a mother to an adorable daughter and doggy, as well as a recent cancer survivor. Helen endured a years worth of chemo and surgeries (while continuing to work, btw) with so much grace and courage, everyone who knows her was in awe. Yet, to know Helen is to know that when she puts her mind towards accomplishing a goal, she achieves it.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I am a criminal defense attorney representing indigent men and women on California’s death row. I live in San Francisco with my husband, 2.5-year-old daughter, and 12-year-old dog, Billie.
As a parent, what’s your favorite part of living in your city?
San Francisco has so much to offer its residents, big and small. I love that our daughter can be exposed to the hustle and bustle of the city life just as easily as she can be exposed to nature and SF’s incredible landscape. She experiences this every day; we live a block from the pacific ocean and we all work/go to school downtown. I love that juxtaposition. And of course, I love all that she is exposed to living in the city – museums, different cultures, architecture, racial and ethnic diversity, family diversity, great food, fresh produce, endless parks and outdoor space, and much more. I am proud to live in this city and I hope one day she is too.
What are your passion projects or in what ways do you engage with your local or national community?
Luckily my job serves as my passion project. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to work with a low-income population. I took a gap year between high school and college to do an AmeriCorps program where I worked in an at-risk elementary school and a gang intervention center. I absolutely loved it, but realized that I could never be a teacher (definitely the hardest job out there). The following year, I interned as an investigator for the public defender in Washington, DC and everything just clicked and I pursued that career from that point on.
It can be a thankless job, but whenever I get down, I remind myself that while I may not be “winning” cases on a daily basis, each brief or motion that I file is an effort to challenge our inhumane and racist criminal justice system. Those whom the government elects to execute are disproportionately people of color, raised in poverty, mentally ill, cognitively impaired, and those whom the government has failed. Every day I work to stand up to that system and I have faith that little by little, my efforts will scrape away at that reality. By the time my clients get to me, they have likely already been failed by the system. One organization that works to ensure that does not happen is called Gideon’s Promise (www.gideonspromise.org/) where they are working to transform indigent defense and provide equal justice for all, as is required by our constitution.
What’s your favorite part of your civic engagement activities?
I love working with my clients and their families. Often times their stories are tragic and heartbreaking, which can be tough, but it is a constant reminder of how lucky and privileged I am. This frequent reminder serves as motivation to work harder to create a more humane criminal justice system. It also calls attention to the fact that we never know the struggles that others are facing on a daily basis; a reminder to be kind and gentle with each other.
What inspires you to engage in these activities?
I am fundamentally opposed to the death penalty. I do not believe the government should have the power to choose who lives and dies. Capital punishment has its roots in lynching and reflects the ugly reality that we value those that are white above all else. In California, where I practice, those who are convicted of killing whites are three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill African-Americans and four times more likely to be sentenced to die than those who kill Latinos. I am inspired to stand up to this injustice and do my best everyday to do so.
Any words of wisdom for parents wanting to create space for civic engagement in their own busy lives?
This is something I grapple with myself. My job allows me to engage with people in need of my help, which I love and feel good about, but there is always room for more. I often have grand plans of volunteering weekly but never seem to get around to it. I have to remind myself that even the smallest gestures (e.g., donating used toys to kids in need) are worthwhile and can serve as great lessons for our children.
How amazing is Helen?! Having just finished Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, and in the beginning pages of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, I have a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the important, yet often times, thankless work that Helen does every day. Our criminal justice system is deeply flawed and racist. I’m so appreciative that people like Helen are fighting on behalf of individuals that have been cast aside from or failed by our society long before a crime has been committed.
Helen inspires me; she inspires me in her tireless work ethic to uproot systemic racism in our justice system; she inspires me as a cancer survivor; she inspires me as a partner and mother. Her story motivates me to strive for a just society alongside her. How about you?