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Social Justice Heroes

TOP ROW, FROM LEFT: GLORIA STEINEM, FRANCES PERKINS, SABINA ABBASI AND MUHAMMAD ANWER ABBASI. BOTTOM ROW, FROM LEFT: BAYARD RUSTIN, A. PHILIP RANDOLPH, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND BRITTANY PACKNETT. ALL ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOM FROESE

During Heller's 60th anniversary year, Heller community members, from students to faculty to alumni to staff, all shared their social justice heroes. 

Dean David Weil kicked off the campaign in Heller Magazine, Spring 2019: "As the Heller community seeks to address social policy questions that will shape the next decades, it’s essential to ground ourselves and look back at those who have fought for social justice in the past. We all find resonance and inspiration from different peopleWe hope all members of the Heller community will share their heroes as we approach our 60th anniversary." 

Take a look through all the wonderful activists, policymakers, family members and more who have inspired the Heller community to pursue social change. 

Thomas P. Glynn III, MSW’72, PhD’77, Co-Chair, Heller 60th Anniversary Steering Committee

Charles Schottland and Ernest (Ernie) Green

My social justice heroes are Charles Schottland, first dean of the Heller School, and Ernest (Ernie) Green, one of the Little Rock Nine. Schottland formed a school devoted to social justice and to building the field by training future deans and academic leaders of social policy schools around the country. Green was the first African American to graduate from Little Rock Central High School. He’s an iconic civil-rights figure who remains active today.

Susan Windham-Bannister, PhD’77, HHL’19, Co-Chair, Heller 60th Anniversary Steering Committee

Rep. Elijah Cummings

My social justice hero is Elijah Cummings, former U.S. Representative. He constantly exhorted us to be better as a society, and we’ve lost an important voice since his passing. 

Black and white photo of Linda Brown and friend on school campus

University Professor Anita Hill

Linda Brown, Ada Lois Sipuel, Pauli Murray

"In 1950 Linda Brown (pictured) was a 10 year-old who would become the named plaintiff in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case  banning segregation in public schools. Linda Brown sand the other courageous plaintiffs in the 6 cases that were decided under the banner of Brown v. Board and their parents, would change the country’s vision of equality for generations to come."

"In 1946, 19 year old Ada Lois Sipuel, a newly minted graduate of Langston University attempted to enroll in the University of Oklahoma College of Law. OU denied Sipuel's application, solely on the basis of her race. Yet, Sipuel would became the first female plaintiff to win a higher education segregation challenge and the only such plaintiff to graduate from the school that her lawsuit integrated. Sipuel’s determination became the inspiration for families of black students, including Linda Brown's."

"In 1942, Howard Law School student Pauli Murray, conceived the legal strategy that  led to the Supreme Court victories for Ada Lois Sipuel and Linda Brown and so many more. Later in life Murray would apply the same principles to gender discrimination, paving the way to greater gender equality in the United States.  Murray's Equal Protection arguments ushered in a new era upending Jim Crow and later opening doors for protections for many other groups."

Portrait o Patria Mirabel

Jessica Estevez, MMHS'98

Hermanas Mirabal

"One of my many social justice heroes are the "Hermanas Mirabal." The Mirabal sisters were four sisters in the Dominican Republic - Patria (pictured), Minerva, Maria Teresa, and Dedé - who opposed the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (El Jefe) and were involved in clandestine activities against his regime. Three of the four sisters (Patria, Minerva, Maria Teresa) were assassinated on 25 November 1960. The last sister, Dedé, died of natural causes on 1 February 2014. The assassinations turned the Mirabal sisters into "symbols of both popular and feminist resistance." They were women who decided to love without letting fear guide what they needed to do and what they noticed their community needed. Aligns with my personal mission #lovewithoutfear!"

Photo of Julianna Brill, MA SID/COEX'22 and her grandfather Larry Hine

Julianna Brill, MA SID/COEX'22

Larry Hine

"My grandfather has always and will always be my hero in every sense of the word. My grandfather was the first person to ignite my passion for politics and social justice. Growing up, every year, my grandfather would take me and my sister to the polls with him on Election Day. He engrained in us both the importance and the routine of voting. He never shied away from making us aware of the sad reality that voting was a power and a privilege that not every American had the right or the ability to do. He explained that this why he had never missed an election. He happily informed us on who each person he was voting for was and why he chose them. Because of him, I have also never missed voting in an election and I still get excited to call him afterwards and recount my experience.

He was and still is an advocate, an educator, and a deeply empathetic individual. A few years back we found a box filled with letters in one of his drawers that he’d written to numerous politicians and representatives over the years. One stood out that he’d sent to President John F. Kennedy in 1962 asking him to end segregation and prove once and for all that all Americans were truly equal and he’d even gotten a response!

My grandfather grew up in the Bronx, New York in a working class Jewish-immigrant family where he was the first in his family to be college educated and worked tirelessly to support his family. He would go on become the youngest Controller of the Plaza Hotel and then the CFO of Thornton Tomasetti. My grandfather has been officially retired for 16 years but still consults on numerous projects for multiple companies because he must always be doing something! He is the definition of hard-working, selflessness, and determination. My grandfather is also my best friend, my inspiration, and my social justice hero. If it wasn’t for him and his unwavering support I would not be at Heller or pursuing the path that I am. I aspire to make him proud each and every day and to continue to vote in every election for all those whose voices are still silenced in America today."

Sam Watson '01, MBA'06

Allie Morse ’10

Sam Eisenstein Watson ’01, MBA’06, founder of the SamFund

"Sam Eisenstein Watson ’01, MBA’06, from the SamFund has completely inspired me and changed my life in my attempts to change the world. When I first graduated from college, I actually was diagnosed with cancer myself. The first person I came into contact with in the young adult cancer community was Sam. She founded the SamFund, an organization that provides financial assistance and support to young people with cancer, and she immediately reached out to me and became a mentor and has been involved in my life ever since. I’ve also been involved with the SamFund, and I’m proud to say that the Samfund recently helped passed legislation that will change the life of not just people who get their scholarships, but anybody who is diagnosed with cancer. Now, anyone who is diagnosed with cancer who has student loans can put them into forbearance. it’s phenomenal and so life-changing and something people don’t think about. Sam’s work takes a very niche area, that is really underreported and under-discussed for young adult cancer survivors, and has made a huge difference for people might not have gotten any attention otherwise."

Roberta Walsh, PhD’89

Morris G. Ward

"My personal support for social justice originated with my father, Morris G. Ward (1915-1969). Raised on a dairy farm in Maine and coming of age during the Great Depression, his only opportunity for gainful employment was the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program part of the New Deal. There, he learned forestry management, later applying his skills as tree worker for a large, national firm. He soon recognized the dangers involved in the work, employees lacking any rights to safe working conditions or compensation for injuries. He then courageously undertook efforts to organize a tree workers’ union. When word of his initiative reached company owners, he was promptly fired. He then formed a company of his own, vowing to treat workers fairly, with the goal of growing the firm to prominent stature. Although he never realized his goal, he remained committed to unionization and fairness in the workplace."

Flag on Hussain ibn Ali's Shrine in Karbala, Iraq

Parisa Kharazi, MS’13

Hussain ibn Ali

"1400 years ago, a man named Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, led a social justice revolution. Hussain lived in a time where moral values and freedom were destroyed by tyrants. He, along with his family and companions refused to pledge allegiance to an oppressive ruler and were tragically martyred. Hussain's heroic legacy of sacrifice and standing by his principles until the very end has not been forgotten. He inspired leaders like Gandhi to achieve victory while being oppressed and Nelson Mandela to stand for the right of liberation. Hussain's martyrdom is a reminder that each person has a responsibility to rise against injustice. Violence, military occupation, brutality, and oppression are concepts present today. Today, Hussain inspires millions to have the courage to fight for social justice, stand with the oppressed, speak truth in the face of an oppressor, and live a life of dignity."

Portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Jacqueline Braunthal, MMHS’84

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

"Justice Ginsburg has inspired me to stand up for women and equality in all aspects of my work, husband, family, daughters, friends and community.

Although she is aging and has suffered from illness, she persistently strives to be the best at her motherhood, grandmother hood, as a respected wife while prior to the death of her husband, and to all women who are trying to achieve the highest degree of successful careers.

Recently several movies, both documentary and feature film, highlighted her achievements and interviewed her. As someone who admired my own grandmothers and mother I give her such high regard and find her influential in my own work with aging women.

Justice Ginsburg is not only a woman of valor but a Jewish woman of valor!"
Rajesh Sampath, Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Justice, Rights, and Social Change

Ryan Mishler, MPP’18

Professor Rajesh Sampath

"My social justice hero is Prof. Rajesh Sampath. I enrolled in Prof. Sampath's class on Critical Race Theory in the Fall of 2017 Through our class discussions, readings, and assignments, Prof. Sampath helped myself and my classmates better understand the pervasiveness of white supremacy, from our "founding fathers" in the 18th century to the Heller school today. Rajesh truly provided us with "knowledge advancing social justice" and I, for one, am a better person for knowing him."
Portrait of Nelson Mandela

Yemi Okunogbe, MS’11

Nelson Mandela

"My social justice hero is Nelson Mandela. His life story is deeply inspiring. From the courage and activism he displayed in his fight against apartheid, to his perseverance through 27 years of imprisonment, to his forgiving spirit and reconciliation efforts with his former oppressors,  to stepping down voluntarily from political power: Madiba is the model for the type of leadership that Africa so desperately needs. There would always be only one Nelson Mandela, but hopefully many leaders that carry on his ideals will arise in Africa."

Portrait of Ida B. Wells

Nomi Sofer, Senior Communications Strategist, Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy

Ida B. Wells and Harriet Beecher Stowe

"My social justice sheroes are Ida B. Wells (pictured) and Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose writing called attention to the greatest injustices of their time. Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin used the popular genre of sentimental fiction to insist on the basic humanity of enslaved people and protest against the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Journalist Ida B. Wells wrote tirelessly about the wave of lynchings that terrorized Black people during and after Reconstruction. As a writer, I deeply admire these women who used the power of their pens to challenge racist institutions and demand social justice."

Frances Fox Piven, at conference "Walmart and Its Discontents", at Columbia University, in 2012

Stephen Monroe Tomczak, PhD’08

Frances Fox Piven

"My social justice hero is Frances Fox Piven. In the area of scholarship on the intersection of public welfare policy and social movements there is no more significant figure in my view. In addition to being an exemplary scholar, however, Piven has also been on the forefront of social policy change for over 50 years, exemplifying the dual role of activist/academic better than just about anyone. From her work in helping initiate the welfare rights movement in the 1960s, to the establishment of the HumanSERVE program in the 1980s to promote voter registration among human service workers and those they serve, Piven's work has helped to empower those who are most oppressed and exploited in our society. I hope in some small way to continue and extend the work of Dr. Piven and others who have lived out the egalitarian and democratic values that underlie the concept of social justice."

Photo of Judith Heumann

Sandy Ho, Researcher at Lurie Institute for Disability Policy

Judith Heumann

“My personal social justice champion is Judith Heumann because she has been instrumental in helping me define my own understandings of social justice and disability rights: there is not one without the other. Her leadership continues to raise the bar of expectations for both the disability community and also society as a whole. Social justice requires that we expand community, grow visibility, and increase representation for disabled people at all levels of our society. Judy is a reminder that the work we do is part of a movement that will only be as powerful as the community we foster.”

Photo of Fannie Lou Hamer

John Valinch, MBA/MPP’19

Fannie Lou Hamer

"My social justice hero is Fannie Lou Hamer, a noted civil rights organizer. She was known for the phrase, “Each one, teach one.” That phrase always stuck with me because it honors the power we have as individuals, who are constantly in communion with one another, despite our various education levels or access to privilege. We all have something to offer. We all have something to gain. It’s incumbent on us to listen to each other and work with each other to build better futures."

Portrait of W.W.Law

Otis Johnson, PhD’80

W.W. Law

"My social justice hero was a man who’s venerated here in Savannah, where I served as mayor: W.W. Law. He was the president of the NAACP here for 26 years and for most of my youth and early adulthood. He was very inspirational and took an interest in me. He helped me to understand what a commitment to social justice meant and what it might entail. He started as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, and back in the 1960s, the congresswoman from this district made a vow to get him fired from his job because of his civil rights work. He was fired, but the national NAACP interceded with the Kennedy administration and he was reinstated. He taught me about the sacrifices in working for social justice."

Gale Ivie

Allison Ivie, MPP'13

Gale Ivie

“My social justice hero is my mom, Gale Ivie. She raised us as a single mom. She finished her MPH when we were little kids. She’d take us to her night school classes and my brother and I would play outside her classroom. She said our lives would be so much better if she got her advanced degree, and I firmly believe that. She spent her career working at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California. She taught smoking cessation and weight loss courses. And then later, she handled the entire Reach Out and Read pediatric literacy program for the Southern California region. The whole premise is to create a little library for kids, ages 0 to 5, and encourage parents to read to their children. Sometimes when I’d come home from college I’d spend time packing up books to send to the different medical facilities. She also ran the flu vaccination program, primarily for kids in Medi-Cal, the Medicaid program for California. She made it fun—she’d bring in a stereo with a KidzBop CD and have little stickers for them. That’s just who she was. She just loved public health and kids and childhood development. She worked so hard—it was what she loved to do.”

Photo of Jacqueline Novogratz

Gbenga Oni, MA COEX’19

Jacqueline Novogratz

"My social justice hero is Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of Acumen Funds. She left a corporate job on Wall Street inspired by her early career work in East. She started Acumen to explore how to bridge the gap between the rich and poor in an ever-interconnected world. From the success story of Acumen, she showed that helping the poor succeed is a matter of leadership and that finding ways to strengthen the ingenuity of the poor--in this case their savings initiative--is key to ending the poverty trap. I recommend any social justice advocate working in economic justice or social entrepreneurship to read her signature book, 'The Blue Sweater.'"

PhD Candidate Ben Kreider with parents Kathy and Jerry Kreider

PhD Candidate Ben Kreider

Kathy and Jerry Kreider

“My social justice heroes are my parents, Kathy and Jerry Kreider. They may not be famous, but I would not be at Heller without their influence. As a white, suburban woman, my mom forged an unusual friendship with an African-American woman running a homeless shelter in North Philadelphia, the most impoverished part of the city. She took me there to volunteer as a kid, and taught me that I was fortunate to have good schools and a safe community, but I needed to give back and serve those who were less fortunate. My dad has served as a tireless volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, using his skills as an architect to build affordable housing for numerous families, and serving on the group’s local board for many years. My parents have also campaigned against gun violence, supported refugees and worked at the polls, among other things. They have taught me that we all have a common humanity, and that those who have privilege have the responsibility to fight for justice.”

Brian Kennedy's grandmother

Brian Kennedy, MPP’16

My grandmother

"My grandmother is my social justice hero. For a lot of reasons. She was in college during the student sit-in movement and worked with Diane Nash and John Lewis and was arrested for desegregating lunch counters. For me, it’s funny because that’s the kind of thing you learn about your grandparent or your parent after you learn who they are. I don’t remember how old I was when I learned that about my grandmother, but it was no surprise. Watching her continue to organize, watching her continue to knock on doors, watching her political apathy change… I think also, growing up as a black woman in the South, in the 1950s, 1960s, there’s so many challenges to navigate these spaces, period. To take those challenges on and still decide you want to put your personal safety and personal wellbeing on the line for something larger than you was something that’s always stood by me. I remember calling her after the 2008 election, she was the first person I called after the results came in and she was crying, in tears. I remember her saying ‘I never thought in my lifetime, we’d see a black person elected.’ I remember thinking that in my lifetime, I didn’t think there’d be a black president of the United States. People like my grandmother have worked too hard for us to be tired, for us to not continue to fight. She’s definitely my social justice role model."

Kyla Graves, MA COEX/ILHR’19

Noam Chomsky

"My social justice hero is Noam Chomsky. He speaks truth to power about how the United States has a lot of underlying tendrils within many of the conflicts we work on, in a way I feel most people are too afraid to. His work was very integral to my work in Indonesia working for the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence. When Suharto took power it was because the U.S. helped him, they funded his military, while at the same time withdrawing aid to Indonesia’s president at the time, Sukarno. They created his imbalance of power that led to the massacre of 500,000 to 1 million Communist Party members. People know Chomsky as the guy who’s radically free speech but he’s so much more than that."

Portrait of Saru Jayaraman

Pallavee Panchal, MBA/MA SID’16

Saru Jayaraman

"This woman is one of my social justice heroes and every day I’m in awe of her. Her name is Saru Jayaraman. She’s the director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley. She co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center after 9/11. The World Trade Center had a restaurant at the top called Windows on the World, so when the towers fell all the workers were displaced. She helped start the Restaurant Opportunities Center which at first was almost like a union, to help workers understand how to get new jobs. But it ended up becoming a center to help immigrant restaurant workers and helped them learn about their rights and obtain lawyers and quickly spread from just New York to all over the country. She has a degree from Harvard and Yale and she’s a lawyer—she has all this stuff in her background, but she uses all of her power to help marginalized workers in the restaurant industry, which is notorious for not caring about its people. She’s an incredible advocate for wages and workers' rights and overall justice. She’s definitely my social justice hero. I think about her constantly, like ‘What would Saru do?’”

Cover of the book "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" written by Zelda “Zee” Gamson

Cathy Burack, Associate Director, Center for Youth and Communities

Zelda “Zee” Gamson

"The person who has most influenced my career is the higher education reformer Zelda “Zee” Gamson.  Zee is an esteemed thought leader, activist and change agent in higher education. She is the coauthor of Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education; Faculty & Faculty Issues in Colleges and Universities; Colleges and Universities as Workplaces; and author of Liberating Education. Locally she cofounded the former New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE) and the University of Massachusetts Boston’s higher education doctoral program. Her extensive work with colleges, universities, national foundations, and higher education associations was values driven, always focused on ensuring that voices at the margins had a seat at the table."

Isaac Cudjoe, MA COEX’19

Rosa Parks

"Rosa Parks represents an example of an introverted leader. She didn’t seek the spotlight for the things she did. People are unaware of the work she and her husband did with the NAACP and with Dr. King for years after her refusal to give up her seat on the bus. That day, she embraced her fear—after living through an era of lynchings and killings—and stood up to it. But as the battle for civil rights went on, newspapers didn’t include her in their stories. If history was corrected and we could go back and get the true narrative of Rosa Parks, we would see she was one of the most dynamic leaders of that time.

 Leadership doesn’t mean an absence of fear; it means embracing fear and embracing challenges. Whenever I get in a moment I’m uncomfortable or fearful, I know I have to face it head on. I want to follow her example and follow my passion. It’s not about the clout—it’s about the solutions I’m seeking. Even if I die and nobody remembers my name, if I help solve our pressing problems in some way, I’ll be happy."

Samira Bari, MA SID’20, and her mother Mrs. Nilara Begum

Samira Bari, MA SID’20

Md. Abdul Bari and Mrs. Nilara Begum (pictured)

"When I was young, people used to be sad knowing that I do not have a brother. My parents always used to tell people that I, their younger daughter, was better than a son to them. Despite being in a male-dominated Muslim community that looks down on women doing physical labor such as working in the fields they allowed me to flourish independently. My parents have always encouraged me to choose my own path both academically and professionally. They showed me that, no matter what, I needed to compete with the patriarchal society to establish my rights and responsibilities and to continue my work for social development. They have always supported my decisions, even if they pushed beyond our usual social system. So, my parents, Md. Abdul Bari and Mrs. Nilara Begum, are my social justice heroes."

Ravi Lakshmikanthan, Lecturer

Gabriela Corbera, MBA/MA SID’18

Ravi Lakshmikanthan

"In development, rather than a hero, I think of a leader and public servant. The leader and public servant I look up to is Ravi Lakshmikanthan, MA SID'99, assistant dean of student services at the Heller School. He propels a movement of development practice and naturally encourages a leadership style true to your culture, homeland(s), and community. I found throughout development, as you navigate new roles in management, it can get blurry, yet Ravi’s leadership models a strong compass. This I believe reflects social justice." 

Head shot of Professor Stuart Altman

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, MSW’72, PhD’78

Stuart Altman and Fernando Torres-Gil

"As far as a social justice hero, I shall always admire Dean Stuart Altman (pictured) for his ongoing commitment to and impact on health policy. I also hold in high esteem Dr. Fernando Torres-Gil, MSW’72,PhD’76, director of the UCLA Center for Policy Research on Aging. He has been appointed to numerous public policy committees and commissions, written several books and spoken at numerous forums on the inequality of aging and retirement benefits experienced by minorities, especially Latinos, in the United States. His latest book, “The Politics of a Majority-Minority Nation: Aging, Diversity and Immigration,” is in its second printing since publication this past August. Moreover, in spite of suffering from polio as a child and the aftereffects as an adult, he continues to write and speak throughout the world. He really is my hero."

Photo of Lebron James

Mathew Jadd, MBA'20

LeBron James

“I admire LeBron James because he uses his platform as the best player in the NBA to make a difference in the lives of so many people. His "I Promise School" in for underprivileged youth in his hometown of Akron, Ohio and helping with the new California bill to allow NCAA players to be paid for their likeness are only just some examples. Lebron remembers the humble beginnings he came from, being born to an extremely poor single teenage mother, and uses his money and influence to make an impact on the lives of those that grew up in a similar situation.”

Photo of Peggy Zhang's grandparents together

Peggy Zhang, MBA'21

Kevin and Jean Zhang

"My parents. My parents both had humble upbringings in China. They studied tirelessly to enter universities in Beijing, where they met each other by chance on a train during a school break.  When they first started dating, my dad used to bike for 2 hours just to meet up with my mom.  Years later, my dad was able to secure a scholarship to attend graduate school in the United States, but my mom wasn’t able to join him until years later. They made countless sacrifices, leaving their families, friends, and lives behind in China to ensure that my sisters and I could be raised in a country with options and opportunities they never had themselves."

Leah Spellberg, MBA/MA Hornstein'21 at her graduation, with her grandmother and rest of her family

Leah Spellberg, MBA/MA Hornstein'21

Marlene "Mashie" Kaplan

"My grandmother - she always puts our family as her highest priority and cares about the successes of each of her grandchildren as if they were her own. She also somehow finds the time to volunteer for many different organizations that she is passionate about and is one of the most social people I know!"
Photo of Ellen Degeneres

Rebecca Vitale, MS'20

Ellen DeGeneres

"Ellen DeGeneres is my social justice hero. Her infectious laugh, generous heart, and ability to turn ‘scaring’ into an international sport have made the world a happier place. A unifying figure in the world of entertainment, Ellen has managed to win over the hearts of the young and old alike, using her kind yet funny comedy style to influence audiences about important causes. Not only has she created the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda, but she has used her status to help influence national LGBTQ policy. She was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018 from President Obama. Ellen has personally remained a constant source of joy in my life and has managed to keep me sane during many stressful times."
Photo of Ye Haiyan

Yuqi Wang, MPP'20

Ye Haiyan

"I really admire Ye Haiyan. She is a gender rights activist in China whose activism includes fighting for the rights of sex workers in the country. In recent memory, she fought for justice for school girls whose principle sexually assaulted them. As a result, she was harassed and assaulted by Chinese authorities and thugs, evicted multiple times from different homes along with her daughter, had her passport confiscated and is under surveillance by the government. Nevertheless, her protests generated much attention, went viral, and she ultimately was able to seek justice for the students."
Photo of Billy Porter

Lydia Casmier, MPP'21

Billy Porter

"Billy Porter is my social justice hero at the moment. Billy is the first openly gay Black actor to win for a lead role at the Emmy’s, and he is most famous for pushing back against the gender binary through fashion. Most recently, he wore a uterus shaped suit-dress covered in crystals as an act of solidarity with a woman’s right to choose abortion."

Photo of John Buleti's mother Florence

John Paul Buleti, SID 20'

My mother and my wife

"I admire my mum and my wife, who have been supportive through their constant encouragement from the time I made the decision to further my studies abroad. My mum is a retired senior teacher, she has been instrumental in shaping the lives of many young individuals in my community. She ensured that all my 6 siblings got the best education based on the choice of school we made to attend."

Elinor Gollay, MSW’71, PhD’77, Heller Board of Advisors

Abner Stern

"My social justice hero is my stepfather, Abner Stern, who entered my life when I was 5 years old and remained important to me until he died in 1976. He was a physician who was active in Physicians for Socialized Medicine. He didn't believe in profiting from others' misfortune. In fact, one year he netted only $14 on his private medical practice. After my cousin Robert graduated from law school, a family member suggested he could work for Abner. Abner was confused: 'Doing what?' The family member explained, 'I'm sure you have patients who haven't paid and Robert could help you collect what they owe you.' Abner responded, 'I bill people. I don't know if they've paid or not paid. It makes no difference to me. I treat them regardless.' To this day I carry with me the archaic notion that health care should not be for-profit."

Photo of Majd Mashharawi

Sari Rapkin, Heller Board of Advisors

Majd Mashharawi

"When Mashhawari graduated from as an engineer from Gaza's Islamic University in 2015, her family expected that she would follow the usual path for young women in Gaza and get married without ever having a career. Instead, she decided to work on solving persistent local challenges. Majd Mashharawi observed the acute need for access to construction material in order to rebuild damaged buildings and infrastructure. She addressed this need by founding GreenCake, a company that creates environmentally friendly bricks from ash and rubble. In 2017 she developed SunBox, an affordable solar device that produces energy to alleviate the effects of the energy crisis in Gaza, where access to electricity has been severely restricted, sometimes to less than three hours a day. With SunBox, she was able to provide electricity to over 1,000 people; as well as power 20 desalination plants with solar solutions to provide clean water."
Photo of Margaret Sanger

Sarah Emond, MPP’09, Heller Board of Advisors

Margaret Sanger & Elie Wiesel

"I have two social justice heroes. The first one is Margaret Sanger (pictured): by advocating for control over one's reproductive system, Margaret Sanger embodied feminist ideals, and fought for health care justice. My career in ensuring people have access to affordable health care can trace back to her advocacy. My second social justice hero is Elie Wiesel. Reading his account of surviving the Holocaust in 'Night' had a profound impact on how I viewed justice, forgiveness, good and evil. I take his lessons on resilience to heart in my work every day."
Photo of Ella Baker giving a speech

Maryse Pearce, MBA/MPP’18

Ella Baker

"My social justice hero is Ella Baker, the civil rights organizer and activist. Her philosophy was to build 'leader-full movements' – that is, to empower everyday people through grassroots organizing, rather than relying on a few charismatic leaders. Her belief that 'strong people don’t need strong leaders' was my guiding principle at Heller and still is today."
Photo of Rachel Carson

Kyle Richard, program coordinator for the Eli J. and Phyllis N. Segal Citizenship Leadership Program

Rachel Carson

"My social justice hero is Rachel Carson, author of the game changing book Silent Spring. She was one of the lone female voices, in a highly DDT and industrial chemically friendly space talking about the harms of DDT and change America's perceptions on the environment."
Alpana Patel, MA SID'04 and her mother in law Priyamvada Mishra

Alpana Patel, MA SID'04

Priyamvada Mishra

"The year is 1975.  Place is Ranchi, Jharkhand (formerly part of Bihar till 2000) in India. In that time and place, lives a 31 year old woman; mother of five children, the youngest not even two years old. One day, her husband walks in with a baby that is barely 24 hours old and puts him in her lap. The baby is her husband's older brothers' son and his mother has just passed away during child birth- a very unjust reality (still) for many women all over the world due to lack of access to proper care. The woman immediately nurses the new born baby and soon the rest of the four older siblings of the baby also move into the family home. Within a few days, this woman becomes responsible for caring for 10 children. As a trauma therapist, I am acutely aware of the possible impacts of the lack of healthy and safe home and attachments to a caregiver in childhood. By doing her best, this woman was able to provide a secure home base and attachment to these children, especially the newborn. Today that baby is a happy healthy adult with a wife and son of his own! If you were to ask this woman about what she did and how, she would tell say "If I didn't, who else would and why would anyone else if I am there?" This woman is my mother-in-law, Priyamvada Mishra, and she is my social justice hero, a title that she most likely does not identify with. And I am so blessed that I get to call her 'Ma.'"
Amira Abouhussein, MA SID/COEX’17, Program Manager at the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy

Julia Szendro, MA COEX’18

Amira Abouhussein, MA SID/COEX’17, Program Manager at the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy

“She’s someone who’s really walking the walk. She designs and leads trainings on countering violent extremism and conflict management and resolution abroad, in the Middle East and Africa. Just hearing about her working through her own challenges and at the same time really being bold and really asking a lot of her participants and navigating the dynamics of entering a new country and a different conflict than she’s experienced previously—I’m so inspired by her. She manages the relationships between her organization and participants and other contacts abroad, and does it all with incredible kind energy and enthusiasm and passion. She’s amazing to watch.”
Portrait of Lillian Wald

Bryna Sanger, PhD’76

Lillian Wald

"Lillian Wald was an inspiring social welfare leader: a registered nurse, humanitarian, and social activist. Arriving in New York City in 1889 to study nursing, by 1893 she began teaching poor immigrants on the lower east side home nursing and began her work as a visiting nurse. She coined the term “public health nurse” for nurses whose work was integrated into the public community. She was an early advocate for health insurance and began a partnership with MetLife, advocating for national health insurance, and helped to found the Columbia University School of Nursing. She also founded the first Settlement House in NYC serving the poor immigrant community and providing 27 nurses to serve them. This became the Henry Street Settlement which remains a vital institution advancing social justice over the decades. Her efforts to provide universal in-home care resulted in her founding the Visiting Nurse Service of New York of which she was the first President. The settlement house grew providing employment and careers to women providing them with independent incomes from their husbands. Her success and community outreach as an early leader of the child labor committee advocating for legislation protecting against child labor, resulted in her founding the Women’s Trade Union League in 1903. She was a civil rights activist and was a founding member of the NAACP. She organized the Women’s Peace Party and remained active in the ACLU over the years. Her election to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans in 1970 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 cement her achievements through her progressive activism: a lifetime as a social justice hero whose impact remains."
Sam Hyun, MPP’21 and his mother Donna Hyun

Sam Hyun, MPP’21

Martin Luther King Jr. and my mom

"My social justice heroes at Martin Luther King Jr. and my mom, Donna Hyun. Dr. King was imperfect, but I’m realizing that sometimes as a leader, people are inevitably going to be angry.  He spoke up when he had to, and he took charge when he needed to. He took the heat for the people he was leading. He really exemplified that."

"My mom is my other hero. Growing up, it wasn’t easy for us, because my mom was a single mom. But she always made sure we took time to serve the public, going to the Boston Rescue Mission every month, to really see what the reality of the world looks like. There have been many times when I’ve been walking around Boston, and people will stop and ask me, 'Are you Donna’s kid?' And I’ll say, 'How do you know my mom?' And people will just tell me these amazing stories of how my mom showed them empathy, care and love. This one man told me he went to her laundromat one day. He was doing his laundry and she came over to him and asked, 'Are you okay?' He was at his wit’s end and didn’t know how much strength he had left. She offered him a hug, and he said it was the first time in so long someone had cared and seen him as a human being. That’s why she’s my hero."

 Parveena Ahangar

Javaid Iqbal, MA SID’21

Parveena Ahangar

"My social justice hero is Parveena Ahangar. Up to 10,000 people have been victims of enforced disappearance in Kashmir, India which includes her son. She was never a political person but the fire of her own suffering and the anguish of other parents prompted her to start the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). She started visiting the families of the disappeared in every part of Kashmir to listen, offer support and encourage action. Every year, the families of APDP come together on 30 August, the UN Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance. She won the Rafto Prize for Human Rights in 2017 for her 'protests against enforced disappearances' and for demanding justice for victims of violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Her ability to rise above personal trauma to rally against injustice led to being nominated for the Nobel peace prize in 2005. Parveena Ahangar has been the voice of the ‘disappeared’ -- a euphemism for those allegedly picked up for questioning by security forces but never returned home for over 20 years. Thanks to APDP’s efforts, the government has finally acknowledged that more than 3000 people have vanished in custody and has promised to bring this practice to an end."
Barack Obama

Abdellah Azzouzi, MA COEX’20

Barack Obama

"Former U.S. President Barack Obama has been my social hero ever since his campaign for office in 2007. Although it’s years after he had finished his presidential terms now, he continues to inspire me. From time to time I find myself listening to him giving his powerful, thoughtful and inspiring speeches at schools, universities, conferences, State of the Union, and UN’s annual general assemblies. Obama’s social impact on the US and the world at large is far beyond being measured and is hard to deny!"