Philadelphia activist and Penn Law graduate Sarah Pitts was struck by a bus driver and killed last week while riding her bike in Brooklyn. She was heading home from a cyclist advocacy meeting on Sept. 7 when she was hit at an intersection that has long faced scrutiny. The NYPD is now investigating.
Known as a tireless social justice champion, Pitts was someone who lived “four or five different lives” in her 35 years, her brother John Pitts said.
Even after she left Philadelphia to work as a progressive assistant district attorney in New York, Pitts had a giant impact on Philly, helping hundreds and perhaps thousands of people. She worked in the addiction recovery scene, offered financial assistance to veterans, and was actively making plans to head 90 miles south this fall to help register voters in the swing state.
A GoFundMe set up in Pitts’ memory has raised over $16k, and some of that money will go toward Philly GOTV efforts, said Dianna Schwartz, an old friend and colleague.
“2020 has been a hell of a year for everyone,” John Pitts told Billy Penn. “Ironically, I think it was the time where I have seen [Sarah] happier than she’s ever been in her life, because of the amount of purpose she found in what she could do in these hardest and roughest of times.”
Loved ones and former colleagues described Pitts as someone who could light up a Zoom call with her irreverent charisma — as sardonic as she was altruistic — and would jump out of bed to aid almost anyone who asked.
A Friday night vigil for Pitts last week was attended by about a dozen people, all wearing white, who walked from Rittenhouse Square to City Hall to Penn’s Landing.
It was organized by Schwartz. The friends met in the Center City addiction recovery scene, where Pitts’ personal experience led to her becoming a fierce legal advocate for others.
When Pitts took the bar exam, she was newly sober, about a year removed from a semester off to go to inpatient treatment. At first, the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners rejected her application, arguing her addiction violated the character and fitness requirements to become a lawyer.
“She wasn’t going to give up,” said Laurie Besden, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania. “They could have denied her five times.”
Pitts sought help from Lawyers for Lawyers, an organization that helps people in recovery overcome barriers to practicing law. The next time she went before the board, they accepted her argument, and she passed.
Challenges like that were always faced with a special brand of resilience, said Pitts’ friend Keli McLoyd. When the two met in 2012, Pitts had overcome depression, substance use and a traumatic brain injury.
“She did the work in Philly,” said McLoyd, director of Philadelphia’s Coalition on Children and Opioids. “We all have emotional baggage. She grabbed that baggage and looked right at it.”
Pitts’ candor and humor were signature traits. “I would not want a description of Sarah and all the good she’s done to come off as a Ghandi, Mother Teresa, everything was like flowers and butterflies and Disney princess, doing good,” said her brother John.
“She did all that stuff, but she could just make the absolute sharpest, most cutting joke at your expense. She could give shit better than anyone.”
Getting student loans forgiven and assuring right to a fair trial
The most common characteristic used to describe Pitts was her consistent willingness to help.
Of 300 volunteers on the Lawyers for Lawyers roster, Pitts was one of just five she kept on speed dial, director Besden said, always willing to chat with an aspiring attorney who needed guidance in their recovery.
“At 3:30 in the morning, I called her out of bed and she went and met somebody in Philadelphia for coffee who was suicidal,” Besden remembered. “I’m not exaggerating, hundreds of law students and attorneys, she impacted, and helped save their lives.”
During her time in Philly, Pitts also worked for the Military Assistance Project, a nonprofit that aims to ease veterans’ financial struggles. Her boss at the time was Dianna Schwartz, who said the enthusiastic Penn law student dove in headfirst. Pitts sat with upwards of 500 veterans, listening to whatever financial problems they were enduring and helping them out however she could.
Pitts’ proudest accomplishment at MAP, Schwartz said? When she managed to have a veteran’s student loans completely forgiven.
“Student loans are infamous for being pretty much nondischargeable,” Schwartz explained. “She was able…to find the solution that they didn’t even know existed.”
Pitts later clerked for Judge Alice Dubow, a superior court judge whose team reviews appeals from trial courts to ensure people got a fair trial.
One case stuck out in Dubow’s mind: In 2018, Pitts helped secure a new trial for a convicted child sex offender on the grounds that the defendant spoke little English and yet did not receive a translator on the first day of his trial.
Despite the heinous crime, Dubow noted the constitutional guarantee took precedence in this case.
“The defendant was convicted of being a child predator,” Dubow said. “He did really bad things, but…still should’ve had a translator there. That’s sort of Sarah’s sense of social justice.”
Schwartz, who organized the Philly vigil for Pitts, said there is a bright spot: Tons of people have expressed their interest in giving back in Pitts’ name.
“I’m overwhelmed by the number of people who’ve said things to me like, ‘I’ve been meaning to volunteer with this one group, I’ve been putting it off and now I’m going to do it,’” Schwartz said.
“She knew so many people. It’s remarkable how that narrative is occurring across all these different strata of society, coming together over this.”