Whatever you do, don't tell Lynne Abraham she can't do something.
Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1940s, Abraham was often told she "wasn't college material." Not only did she graduate from college and go on to earn a J.D. from Temple Law in 1965, she also became Philadelphia's first female district attorney in 1991, a position she held until Seth Williams was elected her successor in November. As DA, moreover, she started a program, I-LEAD, that reached out to community leaders who were also told they weren't college material — and enrolled them in advanced degree programs.
"If I wanted to be mayor, I'd have been mayor of this city. Don't even doubt me for a second," she informed an audience of Penn Law faculty and students in October. Since leaving the DA's office in January, Abraham has been working at the Philadelphia law firm Archer & Greiner, P.C., as a partner in the Litigation Services department.
In addition to starting I-LEAD, Abraham helped found Philadelphia's Youth Violence Reduction Partnership campaign in 1999 to identify youth at risk of killing or being killed. The DA's office identified the neighborhoods where those youth were most concentrated, then flooded the communities with social workers, many of whom were former gang-members themselves. The project has a "darned good success rate," Abraham added. In two of the three districts where the program took effect, the annual rate of youth homicides decreased by four and ten deaths respectively, according to a 2004 report. Abraham also improved healthcare in low-income communities, by helping caregivers bring free clinics to the public.
It might seem strange, given these accomplishments, to hear Abraham declare that it is "crippling and disabling to do things for people." But that's her philosophy of social work: enabling local community leaders to keep the peace rather than imposing safety from outside.
"Prosecuting crime is good, but it's always after the fact," she pointed out. "We can do a better job, and a more effective job, if we can prevent crime from happening."
Crime prevention can't all occur behind a desk, according to Abraham. Someone has to enter dangerous neighborhoods and identify the sources of criminal behavior, as well as the local figures poised to solve it — with a little boost from the government.
Abraham's policies have elicited some backlash. Neighborhood intimidation, when people are scared to "snitch" on their neighborhood criminals for fear of retribution, is "the hardest, most intractable problem we face," she reported, which further illustrates the importance of knowing the terrain.
"You can't parachute in," Abraham said. "You have to embed yourself in the community."