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Alum Profile: Hon. Dena Douglas ’83

Kings County Civil Court judge and former Federal prosecutor Dena Douglas received this year’s George Fox Distinguished Alumna Award for exemplary service to the community and to the school.

“I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I lived in Crown Heights. I started Brooklyn Friends in kindergarten, so I’m a lifer. We moved to Lefferts Gardens when I was around 9…” Dena Douglas ’83 didn’t require much effort to jar her memory and get the chronology leading up to her life as a BFS student just right.

She had first attended nearby Grace Church nursery school, and can still remember her first day walking into BFS. “I liked it. I had the benefit of my older brothers (Brian ’77 and Duane ’81) having already started there,” she said.  “I remember my interview; not much, but I remember coming into the building at Pearl Street and going up to the 7th floor. I was very comfortable and happy.”

Although she loved life at BFS, she soon became aware that she was in an unusual school.  She gave a candid assessment. “It was the early 1970s and the times were changing and the school was trying to formulate its place in those changing times,” she said. “From an educational perspective it wasn’t really a traditional academic setting, so that was a little unsettling.”

In those days the school’s curriculum was particularly progressive and experimental by today’s standards. “In Lower School, where most of my friends and cousins [outside of BFS] were getting homework I was getting teased for not having it,” she recounted with some amusement. “Well, not teased. Let’s say they were confused. But in the end they saw that I was getting a good education.”

Today Dena is a King’s County Civil Court judge and is married with two children, one of whom is a current BFS student. “And I still live in our family home,”she said. Her mother still lives there, too. “I am very lucky,” she said of her mom. “She was an educator and worked for the Board of Education. She was educated in New York’s public school system herself and wanted to explore other options. So that’s how we all wound up at Brooklyn Friends.”

As has often been the case with alums from that nearly mythical golden age in BFS’ history, she particularly recalled teacher Jennifer Knies, today the school’s Director of Admissions. “She was very committed to her teaching and her students.”  Dena also remembered her friendsip with her third grade teacher Debbie Constable.  “She was terrific. She took me under her wing, and she used to let me go with her to make deposits at the bank. It seems strange now but even that experience helped shape me in some ways, seeing the world of adults and professionals outside of the school environment.”

In those days Quaker Meeting wasn’t a weekly affair but a daily activity, even in the Lower School. “We had morning meeting every day. It was not my favorite,” she admitted, “but the Quaker principles help me now, even in my home. My family and I have a peaceful nature, we’re nonconfrontational and we come to resolutions together in the household.”

In the Upper School Dena found guidance from teacher Don Knies. “He helped us develop in terms of college preparedness,” she said. “We were nontraditional students having to apply to a lot of academically traditional schools and we needed good teachers to help us cross over.”

It worked. Dena attended Northwestern University as an undergraduate. She was still undecided about her future, but finally settled on the pursuit of a legal career. “My dad was an attorney but my parents didn’t pressure me,” she said. “He was active in the community and in the Bar Association, so I grew up immersed in the legal profession but it was my decision to go into law.”

She went to St. Johns University School of Law, and after passing the bar she became an Assistant DA in Brooklyn. “The District Attorney’s office is near BFS,” she pointed out. After 12 years in the DA’s office she became a Federal prosecutor and moved to Washington, DC for three years.

After that relatively short stint away from home she returned to her roots and ran for Civil Court Judge in Brooklyn, an elected position which she won in 2007. “Some of my colleagues from BFS helped me out tremendously,” she said. “One family whose house I was in many times growing up held a big fundraiser for me at their home and invited other BFS families. It was incredible.” She is also assigned often to preside over cases in Brooklyn Criminal Court which is also not far from BFS. “Most of my life has happened within a four block radius of downtown Brooklyn.”

As a judge and an elected official there is only so much Dena can discuss about her work, but she will describe herself as someone with a passion for children and those with special needs. “People come into our court for a number of reasons but they’re usually at a crossroads in their lives,” she said. “I want to make sure they’re not treated as a number… Brooklyn Friends has a lot to do with this attitude that a person goes beyond what you see before you, that there are many different people and you can’t judge them based on what they look like.”

Dena is also a devoted mother who enjoys exploring New York City’s art and theatre offerings with her kids.   “I like them to learn outside of the school environment,” she said. Both of her kids are good at sports just like their mother was in her day, but she’s also proud that they have an artistic side which she nurtures at every opportunity. “I like enjoying art but they like making it,” she quipped. “We go to the art supply store and I let them pick out what medium they want to work in next.”

She remains passionate about BFS and has spoken here on a number of occasions, often at the request of the African American Celebration Committee. She will be presented with the George Fox Distinguished Alumna Award at the school’s 2010 graduation ceremony.