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Making Waves and Riding the Currents

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This book is about working for a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world while cultivating the wisdom that supports and deepens this work.
Charles Halpern is a social entrepreneur with a remarkable record of institutional innovation. He founded the Center for Law and Social Policy, the nation’s first public interest law firm, litigating landmark environmental protection and constitutional rights cases. As founding dean of the new City University of New York School of Law he initiated a bold program for training public interest lawyers as whole people. Later, as president of the $400 million Nathan Cummings Foundation, he launched an innovative grant program that drew together social justice advocacy with meditation and spiritual inquiry.
In his years of activism, he had a growing intuition that something was missing, and he sought ways of developing inner resources that complemented his cognitive and adversarial skills. These explorations led him to the conviction that what he calls the practice of wisdom is essential to his effectiveness and well-being and to our collective capacity to address the challenges of the 21st century successfully.
With wit and self-deprecating humor, Halpern shares candid and revealing lessons from every stage of his life, describing his journey and the teachers and colleagues he encountered on the way—a cast of characters that includes Barney Frank and Ralph Nader, Ram Dass and the Dalai Lama. Making Waves and Riding the Currents vividly demonstrates the life-enhancing benefits of integrating a commitment to social justice with the cultivation of wisdom. It is a real-world guide to effectively achieving social and institutional change while maintaining balance, compassion, and hope.

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1: AWAKENING

ePub

I STEPPED INTO the main entrance of the federal district courthouse, a sterile modern building facing the manicured lawn of the Mall, between the Capitol and the White House in the heart of official Washington. I greeted the guard by name as I walked through the green marble lobby. “How ya doin’ Mr. Hapner? Nice to see you back,” he said.

“I’ve got a big case in district court this morning,” I said, as breezily as I could manage, as if I had trials and arguments in the courthouse every day. Just two years earlier, in 1965, I had been a law clerk in this same building, my first job out of law school, doing research and drafting opinions and memoranda for an appellate judge. Today I was returning, dressed in my gray pin-striped suit, carrying my new monogrammed calf-skin briefcase. I was lead counsel in a case I cared about deeply, asking the court to take unprecedented steps to protect the rights of mental patients confined in public mental hospitals against their will. I was no longer carrying the bags for a senior partner in a case for a bank or drug company. This was my first big step into professional autonomy.

 

2: BREAKING OUT

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SHORTLY AFTER the Rouse case was decided, Paul Porter, one of the senior partners in the firm, stopped me in the hall. “Congratulations,” he said, draping a long arm over my shoulder. “I read about your victory in your effort to bring law and order to the dank back wards of Bedlam. I hope this means that you’ll be able to bill some hours next month.”

Porter’s remark brought to a head the dilemma I had been worrying about for some time. The Rouse case had given me a taste of running my own show, dealing with big issues that I really cared about. Now I was back in my old slot as a junior associate in a big firm whose business was representing large corporations. After the public policy challenges and emotional highs and lows of the Rouse case, I was immersed once again in the routine business of the firm: the junior person advising a bank in New York City that wanted to open a branch on Long Island, working for Coca-Cola before the Federal Trade Commission to avoid a requirement that it list its caffeine content on the bottle.

 

3: SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR

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IN 1968, I invited a group of friends to discuss the problems with our law work and the failings of the justice system. In evening meetings at my home, we were driven both by our dissatisfactions and a sense of possibility, a feeling that we could be doing better with our lives. This wasn’t what we had become lawyers for. We wanted to work on problems that were socially significant, and we were prepared to make waves. We liked the idea of working as a community of friends, with people we cared about. We were in a position to take risks, since our work in prestigious legal institutions provided us a substantial safety net. We were inspired by other people who were taking bigger risks—in the resistance to the war and in the civil rights movement.

In unstructured and wide-ranging conversations, we talked about the social turmoil and the people who were challenging the sluggishness of institutions and the performance of leaders. Student takeovers closed down university campuses; urban ghettoes were in flames. The 1968 Democratic Convention became a landmark of urban disorder and police violence against young people. The assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King made the search for new forms to reinvigorate democratic processes urgent. The Weathermen and the Black Panthers engaged in 54violence in a misguided effort to end racism and oppression. People were making big bets with their lives. They were burning draft cards and they were burning their bridges—moving to Canada to avoid going to fight in a war they condemned, going to jail, or dropping out into the worlds of spiritual quest, drugs, or rock music. People who had been on career and achievement tracks their whole lives were suddenly being derailed.

 

4: CREATIVITY IN THE COURTROOM

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WE BEGAN on a sweaty August day in 1969, in a row house on Swann Street, a street well-known for its high crime rate. Geoff Cowan had rented the house from friends of his who were in Paris on assignment for the Washington Post. “I have the whole house to myself,” he said, “and I only need one bedroom.”

Oddly, I worried about legalism, not about crime. “We are running an office in a place zoned for residential use. That’s a hell of a way to start a new public interest law firm.”

“You think too much like a lawyer. No one gives a damn about the zoning,” Geoff said. “The District of Columbia government doesn’t have it together to arrest the heroin dealers selling on the corner of our block in the middle of the afternoon. They certainly don’t have the resources or the interest to come after us for violating the zoning laws. If you are going to worry, you should worry more about getting mugged after a long evening working on a brief.”

I let go of my legalistic scruples, and we moved in. We paid no rent—which is what we could afford. Geoff assured us that his landlord wouldn’t care about the use we were putting his house to. “He’ll be proud of it,” Geoff said. We took over the house, except Geoff’s bedroom, and put our Xerox machine on the kitchen table.

 

5: COMMUNITY AND CONSCIOUSNESS

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SHORTLY AFTER the district court decision in the pipeline case, I sat down to lunch with my friend Ralph Siu and turned the subject to the case. I was full of our success and outraged by the oil companies’ cavalier indifference to the environment. Ralph’s calm offset my enthusiasm.

“It’s important to plan your strategy with full regard for the long term,” he said. “Your action was especially significant because you averted an action that could have had disastrous impact for generations. On the other hand, our country has an insatiable appetite for oil. Over time, that demand is going to drive resource decisions, and real progress will have to address that problem. The corporations will do what is necessary to meet that demand. I doubt if the corporate decision makers are bad people.”

I realized that I had fallen into the habit of thinking they were bad people, the enemy. CLASP tended to run on polarized and adversarial thinking, and oil company executives had a high ranking on the list of villains.

 

6: FACING A TOUGH REALITY

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I WAS SITTING in my Georgetown office when I received an unexpected call from Abe Chayes, with whom I had remained friends since we met at the Harvard Faculty Club. He got right to the point: “I’ve heard about the perfect job for you. They’re starting a law school in the City University of New York and looking for a new dean. It’s supposed to be a public interest law school, which means that you would have a chance to rethink what legal education ought to look like, and, perhaps, to build public interest law into a significant branch of the profession. The chancellor of CUNY called to ask if I had any ideas. I’d like to submit your name.”

I thought back to a conversation that Abe and I had in a Japanese restaurant in St. Paul in 1976, as we swiped raw fish through soy sauce and wasabi with a group of public interest lawyers and professors. Chief Justice Warren Burger had convened a meeting of leaders in the legal profession to discuss his program of law reform, the core of which was designed to make the court system more efficient in handling corporate litigation. Our group was committed to the idea that poor people were inadequately served in the justice system and that this was a matter that should receive priority attention. I had persuaded the Chief Justice’s lieutenant that it could be 144seriously embarrassing if a conference on the reasons for popular discontent with the courts included no participants who advocated for poor people and others unrepresented in the legal process. I was scheduled to speak the next morning, and Abe was encouraging me to be really tough, to confront the Chief Justice with some issues that he might not want to hear, about injustices embedded in the legal system.

 

7: BEGINNING MEDITATION

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ESPECIALLY IN THE early years, I wondered whether the Law School would survive—and whether I would survive as dean, without being blown off course, without becoming a person that I did not want to be. I often thought of Tim Healy’s caution—that I would be tested in every way, and that I would have to develop reserves of inner strength and wise judgment.

I was trying to lead a law school program that would train whole people, people who would work from their heads and their hearts, who would bring compassion, equanimity, and community to the core of their work. And I often found myself angry and frustrated— at war with the man who had hired me, appalled by the political corruption, misunderstood by the local bar, alienated from some of the students and faculty, frustrated by the uncomprehending bureaucracy, frightened by the lawlessness on the Long Island Expressway. I felt isolated, embattled, and over my head—emotionally, morally, and psychologically. Too many nights, I came home exhausted and dejected, falling asleep immediately after dinner with my briefcase full of unread memoranda and curriculum proposals.

 

8: CONVERGENCE

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IN 1989, while I was thinking about what to do next, I took the private elevator to a spacious suite on the thirty-fifth floor of the Waldorf Astoria, where I was greeted by several members of the family of the late Nathan Cummings, the Sara Lee cheesecake king. The hosts were Cummings’s elegantly dressed, silver-haired son and several of his adult grandchildren. His daughter, Buddy Mayer, who was not physically in the room, participated actively in the conversation from her hospital bed in Chicago via the conference telephone that sat on the coffee table beside the silver tea service. We sat informally on the overstuffed sofas, spreading marmalade on flaky, fragrant croissants as we talked. They welcomed me with unaffected cordiality into their circle.

A few weeks earlier, I had run into a friend on upper Broadway who told me about a new foundation, endowed in his will by Nathan Cummings with more than $300 million in assets. So far, his descendants had chosen four areas for grant making—arts, health, environment, and Jewish life—but they didn’t have a clear idea about what they wanted to do and were looking for a president to help them figure it out. The foundation would give away about $15 million each year. She asked if I would like to be considered.

 

9: THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE

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SUSAN AND I moved to Berkeley in 2001, when she was still weak from her latest round of chemotherapy and the walk up the steep stairs to our rented house in the Berkeley hills left her panting. We wanted to be close to the children if she had to undergo further treatment. A few years later, through the kindness of a friend, I found myself across the table from the playwright Tony Kushner at a dinner sponsored by the Berkeley Repertory Theater at a French bistro near the Berkeley campus. Kushner, who was in town for the opening of his play, Caroline or Change, was remarkably gracious in engaging the strangers assembled for this dinner.

I was introduced as the former president of the Nathan Cum-mings Foundation, perhaps with the hope that I could be helpful to him in financing his next project. But I had no help to offer— being a former president is radically different from being a president, with direct access to the foundation checkbook.

I told him about my decisions to leave the presidency of the Cummings Foundation, to pack up our Riverside Drive apartment, and to move to California. “My wife and I were ready to slow down and to live closer to our children and grandchildren. I was worried that I was starting to believe all of the subtle flattery that was aimed 240in my direction—it can be disabling. I thought that the community in Berkeley was likely to be more supportive of my peculiar mix of activism and meditation.” I had anticipated continuing to make waves and ride the currents, with a shift in the balance toward more ease. I looked forward to being relieved of the burden of responsibility that rests on the shoulders of a CEO.

 

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