Greg Berman (Fellows 1991) played a key role in bringing about the New York City Council’s recent historic vote to close the notorious jail complex on Rikers Island. It was a crowning achievement in his 25 years as director of The Center for Court Innovation, a role from which he recently announced he will step down. We spoke with Greg about his role in closing Rikers, why the movement was “the ultimate Coro experience,” his advice to young leaders and more.
Q. How did the idea to close Rikers, which was considered radical until recently, get translated into real-life policy?
Greg: For me, the movement to close Rikers was the ultimate Coro experience. It was certainly a real-life example of the Coro idea that multiple actors—government agencies, journalists, foundations, nonprofits and others—have a role to play in making a city great. I would argue that the success of the campaign was due to a rare convergence—for a variety of reasons, many of these parties ended up pointing in the same direction. I’d also argue that the Rikers experience highlighted another key Coro idea—that there are many ways to exhibit leadership. The effort certainly required both traditional, charismatic, political leadership and behind-the-scenes, facilitative leadership.
Q. What lessons can be learned from the Rikers experience that might help guide us in taking on other problems?
Greg: My enduring takeaway from the experience is the necessity of an inside-outside strategy. The Rikers campaign would not have succeeded without a big advocacy push that raised fundamental moral questions about the continued use of Rikers. It also wouldn’t have succeeded without reformers, both inside and outside of government, who took a more technocratic, problem-solving approach.
Q. Why was the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform—which you helped organize—effective in advocating for Rikers to be closed?
Greg: The Commission, which was chaired by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, played an important role in mainstreaming the idea of closing Rikers. I don’t think you can overrate the importance of Lippman’s personal credibility. The composition of the Commission, which included university presidents, foundation executives, criminal justice experts, and people who had spent time behind bars, was also important. So was the quality of the written product—the plan we produced was detailed and credible. It couldn’t be easily dismissed. I think all of these things combined to basically give permission to people who might have been on the fence, particularly elected officials and editorial boards, that closing Rikers was a reasonable position to take.
Q. What’s one thing you learned from Coro that made you a better leader?
Greg: I think Coro gave me the confidence to be myself. In the early days of my career I thought that there was only one way to be a leader—to be out front in a very public way. One of the things I saw during the course of doing Coro was that the most vocal people were not always the most successful in terms of moving the group. In my experience, less is often more. If you speak less frequently, people will listen more when you do open your mouth.
Q. What was the most surprising thing you’ve learned about leadership?
Greg: There’s an old expression which I think is credited to Harry Truman: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” I think an important part of leadership is wrestling your own ego under control.
Q. How has the Coro network of alumni helped you in your career?
Greg: I am nearly three decades removed from my Coro experience, but I find that I draw upon the network regularly. To choose the most obvious example: the Coro network was deeply enmeshed in the campaign to close Rikers. One of the first things I did when we were starting the Lippman Commission was to reach out to Jeff Plaut (Fellows 1988) to bring Global Strategy on board as a consultant. They did an amazing job of helping us with media and political strategy. Jamie Torres Springer (LNY 19), then at HR&A, was also a crucial partner, bringing land-use expertise to the table. Sarah Williams (Fellows 1990) at Propel Capital was an important early funder, taking a chance on this idea before almost anybody else. And I’m sure that there are other Coro alumni that I’m forgetting.
Q. What advice do you have for young, emerging leaders?
Greg: In this time of radical uncertainty and suspicion of authority, I have been thinking a lot about trust. In my life, I have found that it is necessary to give trust before you can receive it. You have to take a leap of faith in other people, whether they be employees or partners or something else—often before they have earned it. The world runs on relationships. And for me, good relationships are based on reciprocity: I trust you, you trust me. I guess I am arguing against a kind of management approach that seeks to constantly exercise control and in favor of real delegation of authority.