Standing outside the Bronx Hall of Justice in a grey blazer, over a grey business dress and grey heels, 32-year-old Porsha-Shaf’on Venable, is checking her phone—and smiling. She is a Bronx Public Defender. She had just left a meeting with a client who traveled ten hours from Vermont. This client was having trouble with addiction. The case was dropped.
Venable, who received her J.D. from California Western School of Law, has worked as an attorney for the Bronx Defender for almost four years. A public defender, of course, is a person who is appointed by the court to someone who is unable to hire an attorney. They often get a reputation for being overworked, underpaid, and, sometimes, uncaring, but Venable counteracts such notions. “The only thing I live for is to be a good lawyer,” Venable said. “I am here, like so many others, to demolish the conception of the public defender.”
In the life of a public defender, according to Venable, “No day is the same and every day is an adventure. Never knowing who you will meet or what may happen.” She might have a client meeting, be drafting memos, or in court.
Prior to receiving her J.D., she obtained her Masters of Social Work from the New York University School of Social Work. As a social worker, she worked for three years at the Bronx Defenders, alongside attorneys, addressing clients’ social needs.
Changing careers from a social worker to an attorney, Venable says, allowed her to affect change on a larger scale. “As an attorney, you have the power to walk into the courtroom, speak, and make a difference,” Venable said.
Venable says she gets her passion and understanding from her childhood. “I grew up desiring love, and my desire manifests itself by helping people,” she said. “I initially became a social worker to ultimately chase my mom.” Her mother, she explains, was addicted to cocaine.
Using her hands to tell her story, Venable described her life growing up with her mother and grandmother. “I never understood what was happening,” she said. “My grandmother guarded me from my mother’s addiction.” Her grandmother was strict, but also an alcoholic. Venable says she found herself being uplifted by the women in her community. “I hear my client’s stories and I can only hope I’m giving my community back what was given to me,” she said.
A native New Yorker, Venable, grew up with her grandmother in Kingsbridge Terrace in the northwest Bronx. “I still live in the apartment I was raised in,” she says. “I don’t do drugs, but having grown up with addicts, I can empathize with my clients.”
Once again gesturing with her hands, the silver nail polish on her pinky fingers glitter and the pink polish on the rest of her nails stand out. The tattoo of her name on her left thigh reminds you that she is not just an attorney. She discusses the injustices within the minority community, including racism. . “I have two graduate degrees,” she said. “And the presumption is that I am not an attorney.”
Venable says her first time experiencing racism was at 17, during her undergraduate career at Buffalo State University. After that, she says, she realized that on a larger scale she could never be quiet. “I come in guns blazing,” she says, raising her voice. She bangs her left hand into her right palm.
“There are many days that I shed tears out of joy,” Venable said. “A lot of people helped to save me. People told me the impossible was possible.” This is what she does for her clients daily, she says, “regardless, of whether or not they’ve been arrested one time or a thousand times.
“Someone could be arrested for hopping the meter,” she says, “and for $2.50 their life could be ruined. That’s why we are here, to help them get their life back.”