This summer, I am working as an intern for the LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diverson) Program in Downtown Seattle. LEAD is a pre-booking diversion program designed to keep low level drug offenders and sex workers out of prison and into a constructive social support system. LEAD provides its clients with housing, access to drug treatment and medical services as well as mental health counseling. LEAD helps their clients through creating sets of goals set by the client, which can include anything from getting clean and sober to graduating college. Since its inception in 2011, LEAD has been extremely successful—It is being used as a model for drug offenses in major cities across the United States.
My work for LEAD consists primarily of conducting ethnographic interviews with LEAD clients. The purpose of my interviews is to glean qualitative data about the population LEAD serves as well as the program’s effectiveness in delivering services like housing, treatment, social support and counseling. So far, I have conducted fifteen interviews with a range of clients—from those who have been in the program since its starting year to members who have been on the program for only a week. So far, I have been truly amazed by these clients’ forthcoming attitude during interviews—despite my fairly specific questions, many launch into detailed histories of their pasts, including both regrets and hopes for the future. In many cases, these interviews take on a storytelling quality. At the beginning of my work with LEAD, I felt thoroughly unqualified to ask these people about the personal details of their lives. While I have come to realize my position as an outsider, both among LEAD staff and LEAD clients, and am continually astounded at the openness of the people who give their time to tell me about their lives, as a person they’ve never met before, both before and since being a part of LEAD.
Although my primary duty is to interview LEAD clients, I spend a good amount of time with the LEAD case managers (those assigned to a group of clients who help them navigate and access LEAD’s services) transcribing my interviews and engaging in participant observation to understand how LEAD staff functions. I sit at a table in the middle of the open cubicles, each inhabited by a case manager. At first I was surprised that the caseworkers didn’t have individual offices, with doors, like some of the other LEAD staff. They often talk on the phone with their clients, counseling them through anything from a personal crisis to mild confusion about an appointment. Simply by sitting among the case managers during the workday, it has become clear to me that these social workers care a great deal about their clients. They call them up just to see how they’re doing. They accompany them in court and in health-related appointments. The case managers are all-around their advocates in navigating their way out of homelessness and addiction. Its been fascinating to slowly begin to understand the social dynamic amongst the case managers—they may chat about their clients with one another or commiserate about the bureaucracy of insurance companies, things they battle with for their clients on a daily basis. The work these case managers do requires a good amount of stamina and resilience—having the positive, supportive, and open environment seems to fuel them through their work.
My internship at LEAD so far has been a unique inside look into the social support systems for and among LEAD clients and staff. I am still somewhat stunned by my privilege to be a recipient in hearing the stories of the people on the LEAD program, people who I have only begun to come to know. There are still days where I come away from work wondering if I am at all entitled to hear about these clients’ lives. In the remaining weeks of my work with LEAD, I am excited to meet more clients and better understand how I can make my own role with LEAD meaningful despite my temporary arrangement with the program.
Just a week ago, as I walked down 3rd Ave to catch my bus in Seattle’s underground bus tunnel, I saw my second interviewee, a young man close to my age, walking down the street toward me, pulling a rolling suitcase behind him. He has only been in the program a few weeks. I say hi as he walks by.
“What’s up?” He tilts his head back slightly.
The nonchalance in the exchange gives me a strange sense of relief. We still know who each other is outside of the office—our relationship extends beyond the boundaries of LEAD. There’s an equality in the greeting. We are both ordinary people walking down the streets of downtown Seattle. We could know each other from anywhere.