Cynics call them do-gooders, hopelessly naïve people disconnected from the real world. These days, the cynical view could easily prevail. After all, saving trees, building a house, even appealing to a court for justice will hardly eradicate the hate and despair that too often define our times. Yet many HLS graduates remain certain that they can reshape the world for the better. This is how eight of them, through their work and their commitment and hope, do good.
To Do Justice and to Love Mercy
Most people wouldn’t know what to do to help someone who has been brutalized, exploited, rejected by her family and community. Christa Foster Crawford ’94 knows. It’s what Jesus would do.
Inspired by her faith, Crawford seeks justice for women and girls forced to sell their bodies in Thailand’s widespread prostitution industry. In September, she and her husband, Mark, began running the office of the International Justice Mission in Chiang Mai. Rescuing young women kidnapped or sold into bondage, the office places them in safe facilities that treat their emotional and physical scars, provides job training, intervenes with their families, and ensures them a safe passage home. The clients are often teens or even preteens, prized as a commodity for their youth and lack of sexual experience. Many face prosecution from local immigration officials. Yet no one responsible for their plight has ever been prosecuted in Thailand, according to Crawford.
She is working with the Thai government to change that, and working to change the lives of dispossessed people stigmatized by an existence they had no part in choosing. Crawford describes one of them, rescued in October, a university student from Burma whose mother had an illness and pledged her daughter to pay for medicine. Her mother died, but the student had to continue to pay her debt through prostitution. “The despair that must occur knowing that not only do you lose your mom, but that really you’ve lost your life, and the hopes and dreams you would have had,” said Crawford.
If the job seems grim, Crawford is anything but. She laughs often and jokingly calls herself a “Jesus freak.” And she is optimistic that conditions will improve, secure in the knowledge that God does care about injustice and works through the hands of people like her. It is, she says, a humbling opportunity.
“There’s really nothing more rewarding than being able to hold the hand of a girl who’s been raped and knowing that God’s gifted me with a wonderful education, and that I can use those skills not just to hold her hand through her tears but also to hold her hand as she receives justice in the world,” said Crawford.
She is not doing the work to pressure others to accept Christianity. People of all faiths deserve justice, she emphasizes. Her own faith never wavers, despite her firsthand view of man’s inhumanity to man.
“There is a lot to be angry at,” she said, “but I definitely don’t do it out of anger. I do it out of love. I do it out of love of God and Jesus. He cared about the weak and victimized, and because he cared, I do too.”
Bruce Fisher ’69 manages a growth fund, but he’s not on Wall Street. Instead, he raises money for human capital. And he believes it’s the best investment anyone can make.
As executive director of Huckleberry Youth Programs in San Francisco, Fisher keeps the agency going–and growing. But for nonprofit organizations like Huckleberry, one of the largest youth agencies in the city with more than 6,000 clients a year, the biggest challenge is finding enough money.
“When I create a program, I have a vision without money,” said Fisher. “It’s quite a challenge. I call it social entrepreneurship.”
Fisher’s interest in public service developed during a time of social activism at HLS, when he wrote his third-year paper on programs in Boston for juveniles on probation. He has been an activist since, organizing a tenants’ union, teaching, and working in the private sector and in the government on issues of juvenile justice, child abuse, and runaway youth. At Huckleberry, Fisher raises the agency’s $5 million budget by writing grants and soliciting donations, and through contracts from the city. When funding is not immediately available, he creates programs first and then searches for the money to pay for them.
“I take the most pleasure in developing new programs,” he said. “You look back two years ago where there was nothing–now there is a program serving 2,000 young people.”
Under his direction, Huckleberry was one of the first agencies to establish adolescent health care centers. These clinics, used as models nationwide, provide reproductive health care and HIV and pregnancy testing as well as medical exams. Another program, the community assessment center, keeps about 800 youths a year in the social service system and out of jail, according to Fisher. “People think you need to be tough on juvenile delinquents, but most of our kids are just trying to stay in school and go on to college,” he said.
In order to keep programs available for teens, Fisher and a colleague formed the San Francisco Human Services Network, an association of more than 70 nonprofit human service providers. The organization hopes to enact legislation that will allow nonprofits to help set priorities and shape city policy on human service funding. The nonprofit community in the Bay Area provides $750 million worth of services, according to studies from San Francisco State University, but has no say in how the city budget is allocated. “For the first time, this new organization will create a dialogue that lets decision makers know what the needs are in this community,” he said.
The network already has seen results. When the city mandated that nonprofits raise wages for its employees, it also agreed to give contracts that paid for the increase. Fisher sees these strides as crucial not only for Huckleberry Youth Programs and other local nonprofits, but for nonprofits nationwide. “Some people are suggesting that this is unique in the country,” he said. “We would have a fantastic influence if we get the voice.”
Something That’s Lasting
There may not be any “Whites Only” signs, there may not be any Jim Crow, but the legacy of segregation hangs thick down in the Mississippi Delta.
There are black schools and white schools. There are black churches and white churches. There are black restaurants and white restaurants. The school board expels students for throwing a penny in class. Police arrest–and handcuff–fourth-graders for getting into fistfights. Principals smack excited students to shut them up.
And it is here in the Delta, in Drew, Miss., that Michael Ng ’01 chose to begin his law career. He is a staff attorney for Southern Echo, a community and leadership development organization. But his job goes beyond filing civil rights lawsuits. He teaches parents their rights and helps community organizations influence the legislative process. He is trying to effect change that originates with the people and develops into a foundation that a court decision does not always provide, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, where landmark desegregation rulings barely resonate.
“In so many ways, there are just two different worlds here,” Ng said. “There’s a white world of privilege and money that has a very distinct society here, and then there’s the black community. People socialize and work in two completely different worlds.”
Ng will be the first to say that he hasn’t yet changed these worlds. He’s just trying to get the school board to stop sending black children to an entirely inadequate alternative school just because they won’t sit down when a teacher asks them.
He grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., with 12 siblings, nine of whom were adopted. He has a brother from Mexico, two sisters and a brother from Korea, a sister from India, a brother from Thailand, and a brother from Hong Kong. Ng’s parents made decisions that had radical and long-term effects on many lives. He hopes to follow their example by helping to change a community, from the school board right down to the kindergarten classroom at A.W. James Elementary School.
“I’m developing an understanding of how a lawyer can do something constructive and do something that’s lasting,” Ng said. “The need that must be fulfilled here doesn’t exist in such a glaring way in any other part of the country. I really saw going to law school as giving myself skills and tools that I could put to work in doing the things I wanted to do.”
“I see the impact of what I’m doing,” he added, “and I see the impact not only in getting a legal result, but also in building up something that will persist outside of me.”
On mountains sacred to Tibetans where prayer flags wave, along four of Asia’s greatest rivers where flocks of birds migrate, Ed Norton ’71 is surrounded by the remote beauty he came halfway around the world to save. And as unmistakable as the red soil beneath his feet, he sees the future of this isolated area of China’s Yunnan Province: many, many more visitors.
Since the Nature Conservancy brought Norton East in 1999 as senior adviser to the Yunnan Great Rivers Project, local governments hit hard by a 1998 logging ban have turned to scenery as a source of revenue. New hotels in historic cities are packed with guests. Several 737s land every day in the newly built Shangri-La Airport near the Tibetan border, as if Lost Horizon‘s utopian valley were just a rental car drive away.
The Great Rivers Project itself is a convergence of such economic interests and the desire to preserve a national treasure. A multimillion-dollar collaboration of the Nature Conservancy and the Yunnan Provincial Government, the project aspires to set up a series of wilderness preserves and national parks in an area of northwest Yunnan the size of West Virginia. Home to a resplendent variety of animals and plants from the snow leopard and red panda to many of the herbs used in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, the area is also home to more than 3 million people, many of them ethnic minorities, many extremely poor.
Norton struggles to find ways to pass the benefits of tourism on to the inhabitants, and part of the answer, he believes, is ecotourism. Big hotels from Shanghai and Hong Kong bring jobs to the area, but he hopes to see more locally managed projects as well as programs that train residents to act as guides.
The Great Rivers Project has a long way to go. But Norton is impressed by the tenacity of his Chinese colleagues. He also believes the U.S. National Park system can serve as a model of managed tourism.
When Norton is not out in the field, much of his time is spent negotiating, fund-raising, politicking–familiar ground from his years at the Wilderness Society and the Grand Canyon Trust yet in other ways confoundingly strange. At home, he says, although “nothing is ever finally protected and Satan never sleeps. . . . at least you know the system.” Results are much less predictable, he says, in China.
Norton and his wife, Ann McBride, who left the presidency of Common Cause to go to China as a consultant to the project, have found it hard to be away from their home country since the terrorist attacks. But if September 11 represents the dark side of humanity, then “working together to protect the planet with people of other cultures and other countries represents the most hopeful side.”
The Impact of Stability
Roberta Rubin ’87 likes what she’s doing. She just wants to do it 10 times faster.
As an attorney with The Community Builders (TCB), Rubin estimates that she’s had a part in the development of more than 1,000 housing units in Boston and other cities. Based in Boston, TCB is one of the largest nonprofit urban developers in the United States, with offices in 11 cities nationwide. It connects investors, banks, local, state, and federal governments, and community organizations to renew depressed and blighted urban neighborhoods and increase affordable housing.
“When we go to a site at the start, we often see rats, asbestos, lead paint, non-functioning heat. There’s deterioration, crime. You don’t know how anyone could live there,” said Rubin. “But then, after we’re done, you can just see how people are unbelievably excited to have a safe, decent, affordable home.”
Rubin joined TCB in 1996, after spending nine years at Brown, Rudnick, Freed & Gesmer in Boston. She practiced real estate law and worked with community development corporations and nonprofits on a variety of special housing programs. It was perfect preparation for her move to TCB, which was sparked by the birth of her first child.
“I had to ask what was meaningful to me about my career while trying to balance career and family,” she said. “I realized the piece of my practice that I valued most was involved with the community–the affordable housing process.”
Now TCB’s deputy general counsel, Rubin works with a team of TCB attorneys and a variety of housing programs to secure funding, address tax and contract issues, and keep projects on track. She has been working as a consultant to the Boston Housing Authority during a multiyear project to revitalize Orchard Park, a public housing development in Roxbury, Mass. Rubin proudly displays a picture of the final phase of the project, showing a row of brightly painted wood-framed houses on a site that was previously occupied by crumbling brick and concrete monoliths.
“It’s been a real privilege to watch not only a piece of land change, but a whole neighborhood change,” said Rubin. One woman, an Orchard Park resident since the 1940s, even told Rubin that she now has hope again for the first time in a long time.
Rubin, who works with a homeless shelter in her free time, says the change in people when they finally have safe, affordable housing is immediate and dramatic. “I’ve seen the impact of homelessness and the impact of stability. At one of our developments . . . a lot of the kids are now on the honor roll. It’s really nice to see that impact on individuals and on the community. It’s the best part of the job.”
If the Martindale-Hubbell lawyer directory ever created a new category for Lauren Saunders’ line of work, it would probably read “slumlord slayer.”
She helped rewrite Los Angeles’ housing codes and has pursued Los Angeles’ most notorious landlord so fiercely he sued her for slander.
Yet when she graduated from HLS in 1988 with an additional degree at the Kennedy School and a year as the Law Review‘s executive editor, she didn’t quite know what she was going to do.
Sure, she knew that she wanted to return to Los Angeles and do some kind of public interest law. So after clerking, she took a fellowship at the Center for Law and the Public Interest before moving to Bet Tzedek (“House of Justice” in Hebrew), a local nonprofit dedicated to helping Los Angeles’ poorest residents.
“I was interested in getting back to people who are really in need,” Saunders said. “This position appealed to me because it has a policy side as well. It melds the two sides of my interests.”
She wound up trying to bolster Los Angeles housing just as a good chunk of it suddenly started falling down. Saunders started work only two weeks before the Northridge earthquake in 1994.
Shaky ground was the least of her problems, Saunders said. She walked in with no idea how to fix the housing problems in Los Angeles’ low-income Latino neighborhoods, where immigrant residents were often afraid to call government offices to complain.
She knocked on doors and visited community groups, learning about the cockroaches and rats that bit kids and left behind droppings. Then there were the unlit halls and lead paint. And broken plumbing that bred mold and inflamed asthma.
Saunders quickly helped revamp Los Angeles’ housing codes. Instead of waiting for violations to be reported, housing inspectors now go out and inspect every building in the city at least once every three years. She also helped write new statutes allowing the city to clean up buildings where landlords fail to act quickly enough.
And for the last three years, she’s battled Los Angeles landlord Lance Robbins. The case, she acknowledges, “has really consumed me.” Working with city attorneys, she created a novel legal strategy that targeted all of Robbins’ business practices at once rather than attacking a single housing code violation at a time. Saunders pored over housing records to identify all of his properties, which are hidden within a maze of shell companies.
“She has the tenacity to really go through each record and connect the dots,” said Mirta Ocana, director of criminal filings for the Los Angeles Housing Department. “He should really fear her.”
These days Saunders has cut down her hours a bit to spend more time with her 3- and 6-year-old children. No matter how often she goes to work these days, though, Ocana says she has already “helped more people than she can even imagine.”
The Philadelphia Story
Jeff Seder ’76 likes to brag that the only case he ever litigated involved a stolen pile of horse manure. That’s just one reason he hasn’t exactly been conventional most of the time, Seder says. After all, there’s nothing conventional about pouring $2 million of your own money into saving inner-city kids through filmmaking.
Seder seemed set on a more traditional path (at least after a stint working as a truck mechanic in Rhodesia) when he graduated with a joint degree from HLS and Harvard Business School. He took a job with Citicorp in New York, intending to do international development work. But seeing a mural of Pennsylvania’s farmland in his workplace’s atrium made him realize he’d rather be out in a field himself. So he quit his job, packed up the horse he had bought in graduate school, and moved into an old Pennsylvania farmhouse, where he tried to figure out a way to make money off equines. He eventually created Equine Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology, a company that assesses young thoroughbreds’ career prospects using statistical analysis.
In 1994 Seder served on a committee trying to find ways to improve Philadelphia and wound up helping on a campaign to publicize the city’s unsung heroes. During a film shoot for the project, he noticed a group of kids hanging out on the corner. Instead of chasing them away, he put up a casting sheet. Ten signed up the first day and 15 the next.
Seder and Jared Martin, a former star of the television show Dallas,then created The Big Picture Alliance, which teaches Philadelphia teenagers how to write and produce short films. Eight years later, the organization has its own digital studio and has produced its 50th film. Its participants regularly beat out top film school students at festivals throughout the country. The alliance also creates workbooks and curriculums so teachers can integrate its films on topics like accidental shootings and teen pregnancy into their lesson plans.
Most important, Seder says, the alliance has helped hundreds of kids from African-American, Cambodian, and Latino neighborhoods who were dropouts or worse. Take Rigoberto Garcia, a Big Picture Alliance alumnus, now studying at Penn State while operating his own video production business. “It’s the first time they’ve finished something and been proud,” Seder said. “It’s an eye-opener about how the world can work for them.”
Not everyone can be saved. Pharoah Harris, 18, for example, was shot and killed in a gang-related incident shortly before completing a film he starred in and helped produce.
Seder mostly limits his role these days to fund-raising and management issues. He’s thinking of selling Equine Biomechanics.Maybe moving to Hollywood and writing a few scripts of his own.
Philadelphia leaders would hate to see him go. As former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell said, “Every city should be blessed with a Jeff Seder.”
One day 10 years ago Daniel Wolf ’86 awoke to a radio report about Cambodian civilians who were attempting to clear their country of thousands–possibly millions–of land mines by poking the ground with sticks. “That’s crazy,” Wolf remembers saying to himself.
He spent the next two hours designing a mine-clearing device in his head, before getting up and jotting it down on graph paper.
Wolf’s design eventually became the Armadillo, a simple and inexpensive device that detonates land mines without jeopardizing the safety of its operator. Since then, Wolf has been working to get his invention into the hands of people who need it. In 1993 he founded Terra Segura (which means “safe earth” in Catalan), a nonprofit organization designed to advance technical solutions to clearing land mines. While the U.S. government has developed large-scale, military-style devices to clear land mines, Wolf’s Armadillo is decidedly low-tech and is easily repaired with parts that can be found in the Third World. Run by remote control or with a combination of winches, the 900-pound Armadillo runs a dozen steel rollers over even the most uneven terrain and detonates the land mines in its path.
Wolf notes that increased publicity around the land mine issue in recent years–much of which came after the death of Princess Diana, an outspoken antiland mine activist–has resulted in money being funneled almost exclusively to diplomatic efforts. Clearing land mines became an afterthought, he says, though more than 100 million mines are still in the ground.
“We could negotiate and adopt and ratify a treaty changing the orbit of the moon,” Wolf said. “And then two years later most people would begin to realize that it’s still where it was before.”
Lacking sufficient government or foundation support for his nonprofit, Wolf recently decided to spin off a private company, Ploughshare Technologies, to market and distribute the Armadillo around the world. The for-profit route, he believes, is the best way to serve his humanitarian cause. Because the Armadillo is so inexpensive, property owners and de-mining contractors who operate in the Third World can actually afford to clear land and make a return on their initial investment. “They’re going to make economically rational choices and go for the cheaper alternative,” said Wolf.
A decade after launching his fight against land mines, Wolf acknowledges that it hasn’t been easy. But despite going into debt and confronting obstacles to his pragmatic approach, the former political science professor is now dedicated to saving lives full-time. “If I stop doing this, it won’t just be another person leaving the fold,” he said. “It will be the disappearance of a piece of technology that a lot of people really need out there.”