“I knew about the Center, before I actually knew about the Center,” Liseberde Colon-Blacknall explains of her first encounter with the Center for Court Innovation in 2012, when she was participating in a summer internship at Newark Municipal Court through Rutgers University. “I knew that there was a program operating somewhere in the building that did alternative sentencing work. I just didn’t know who they were and what they really did.”
Known by most as Lise, she is a senior social worker at Newark Community Solutions who went to college in North Carolina and, like most of her friends, thought she might go to law school. “I knew I wanted to do something criminal-justice related.” Her last summer interning with Newark Municipal Court changed her career path. “There was this young woman who was having a hard time completing the programming with Newark Community Solutions. I was there when they were discussing whether she should be removed. I remember saying to the judge, the prosecutor, and the public defender, ‘No, I am this girl, I’ve been in situations where I was having a hard time where people didn’t take the time to ask me what was going on.’
“I told them if they removed her from programming, they’d confirm for her what the system was already telling her—that this would continue to happen.” Lise’s passionate defense helped the woman remain in programming. “The judge asked if I wanted to speak to her, so I went home that night and wrote her this three-page letter. I didn’t know her, but I told her my story and how I knew her story too and could relate. I wanted her to know there were other options and there were people pulling for her even if she couldn’t see it at that moment.”
Lise returned to her final year of college and decided there had to be another way to be involved in the criminal justice system. “I thought I wanted to be a prosecutor, but I didn’t want to be working in the system in a way that would have me send people to jail. I know young women and men of color who have gone into jail, and they didn’t come out with the tools they needed to succeed. I was in the foster care system with someone who looked out for me instead of giving up on me for my mistakes, so I know what it looks like when you have another option. I know what it looks like when people are holding you accountable, but also giving you support.” After her chance encounter with that young woman in Newark, Lise decided she would become a social worker.
"For me, it’s a beautiful thing. I can recognize the humanity in someone and make that connection because I’m very cognizant of the fact that when I see young women of color involved in the justice system, had I not had the support that I had, I could also be there. But I also don’t want it to be the case that we can only come up with alternative programming if we have some sort of personal connection to the issues or people involved. It should be that the standard is to find other solutions.
Lise is currently the senior social worker at Newark Community Solutions overseeing initiatives and services for individuals identified to have specific needs including but not limited to mental health, victims of crime and violence, and those who identify as veterans. Lise also provides short-term individualized therapeutic interventions as well as specialized case management, linking clients to treatment providers, helping with benefits, health insurance, and substance use treatment. “Sometimes it’s telling my clients that the feelings they’re experiencing have a name and there are things they can do to manage it. I feel a responsibility for the hour we’re meeting to give them a space where they are respected and heard,” she said.
I really truly believe in the work we do. I think of myself as someone who’s being invited into someone else’s village and helping them get support. I know I can’t fix everything, but if you’re given an opportunity to help someone, be humbled. I take that as an honor.
One of Lise’s biggest challenges is managing systems that limit opportunities for her clients. “It’s difficult to explain to a client that what they need doesn’t really exist. The programs and systems we operate in sometimes do not reflect the lived experiences of my clients.” Lise explains that in New Jersey for instance, if you need to go into a shelter, you have to provide proof of residency in the state, something many of her unhoused clients do not have. And still, she tries. “I either have to figure out a miracle or see if there are any places I can squeeze them in. But navigating the system creates obstacles to client success.”
Lise manages the possibility of burnout with flexibility and grace. “I’m learning now that it’s okay to do nothing if you have done everything that you can. It’s okay to give grace and it’s okay that sometimes you’re going to have a really bad day where you can’t figure something out. Learn to be okay with not being okay. Don’t ignore it, but be okay with it so you are able to get support.”
In the next few years, she would love to see the mental health initiative expand in New Jersey. “We have great relationships with our partners and clients. I would love to see us expand in ways where we can work with probation, housing, and higher court programs. I’m really excited about the next 25 years at the Center for Court Innovation and in Newark. I’ve seen in the last five years how much we’ve been able to do with and how our community has challenged us to do more. The need is there. The opportunities are there. I want to see us really push forward and expand access to folks.”
“Transforming justice together means building a village. When I think of justice I think of providing access, so that our clients are not constantly in a situation where their backs are against the wall. Many people are justice-involved because of a lack of access, a lack of opportunities, and a lack of flexibility in the system. It’s too much to ask of them. Access is creating a doorway so they don’t feel like there are no other options. Accountability on its own is not justice. We have to offer access to support as well.”
When Lise is not working, she is binging holiday movies on Hallmark, laughing with her friends in group chats, or planning her next travel or food festivals adventures. Outside of social work, learning about other people’s food, music, and history is her favorite way to connect with others.