An Interview With Lifetime Activist and Social Entrepreneur Charles Halpern

Charles Halpern

The topic below was originally posted on my blog, the Intrepid Liberal Journal, as well as The Wild Wild Left, The Peace Tree, Independent Bloggers Alliance and Worldwide Sawdust.

Effective change agents and activists must blend their cognitive skills and passions with deep reservoirs of inner strength. It’s a life path requiring self-sacrifice, discipline, a tough hide combined with empathy, idealism joined with pragmatism, a willingness to put ego aside, resiliency and a perspective beyond the moment of immediate conflict.

Alas, many of us dedicated to pursuing the cause of peace, justice and economic fairness are demoralized by setbacks and criticisms overtime. Personal lives are also easily consumed by the flames of devotion to causes larger than ourselves, such as reversing global warming or stopping genocide. It’s so easy to lose our balance as we stand apart from professional colleagues, friends and relatives who don’t share our passions or devotion to change the world for the better.

Lifetime activist and social entrepreneur Charles Halpern provides a life road map in his inspiring memoir, Making Waves and Riding The Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom (Berrett-Kohler). In an accessible and compelling narrative, Halpern describes his journey starting as an ambitious young Washington corporate lawyer to becoming a crusading advocate on behalf of the public interest.

It’s also the story of a man who learned to lead, listen and follow. On his unique journey, Halpern realized his cognitive and adversarial skills were by themselves insufficient. Hence, Halpern developed “inner resources” that complimented his professional abilities and led him to what he calls “the practice of wisdom.”

With humility and self-deprecating wit, Halpern conveys revealing anecdotes about the remarkable cast of characters he encountered along the way such as Barney Frank, Ralph Nader, Ram Dass and even the Dalai Lama in his pursuit of justice and self-knowledge. Overall, Halpern’s book is a compelling read for veteran activists or anyone who has struggled to enhance the quality and meaning of their daily lives.

In 1970, Halpern founded the first public interest law firm the Center for Law and Social Policy, and helped train a generation of public interest lawyers while going toe-to-toe with the Nixon Administration on behalf of the environment and civil rights. The profession of public interest law was further strengthened in 1982, when Halpern became the founding Dean of the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School in Queens. At CUNY Halpern championed a curriculum specifically designed to graduate public interest lawyers. Twenty-five years later, CUNY Law School is still standing with public interest law graduates fighting the good fight for the common good.

After his stint at CUNY, Halpern became president of the new $400 million Nathan Cummings Foundation. He is also the founder and board chair of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a leading force in bringing meditation and inner work into universities and other mainstream institutions. Halpern has been involved in many other progressive and activist organizations, such as founding the think tank Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action.

The Dalai Lama wrote the following in a Foreword for Halpern’s book,

“In this new book, Making Waves and Riding the Currents, he shows the importance of fostering basic human values like compassion in our relations with others and of working to generate inner peace. If we are able to do this, we will make our lives and our work meaningful, and ultimately contribute to the welfare of all living beings.”

Halpern agreed to a telephone interview with me about his life, work and book. Below is a transcript of our conversation that took place on Sunday, March 9th.

ILJ: I was quite engrossed by your book. A re-occurring theme as the title suggests is the practice of wisdom both in daily life as well as social activism. Tell the readers, many of whom are activists themselves, what you mean by the “practice of wisdom.”

HALPERN:  By the practice of wisdom, I mean first and foremost making a commitment to bringing wisdom into our lives–setting ourselves on the path of becoming wiser people. And for activists what it means is cultivating wisdom as a way of becoming more effective in our work and coming to our work from a deeper place.

For me the cultivation of wisdom has a number of aspects. I think that wisdom is a practice, like tennis or playing the piano, which can actually lead us to become wiser people then we are. Most of us are not going to reach the level of wisdom of the Dalai Lama but we can move in that direction. In this book I suggest some of the ways that I’ve explored the wisdom path. And I have some ideas about how others, particularly activists might do so.

For me, the first element of cultivating wisdom is aligning our work with our values. Second, making a commitment to keep our lives in balance. A balance between our public involvement and our private lives. A balance between our head, our cognitive abilities, our advocacy abilities on the one hand and the qualities of the heart and the emotions, on the other.

Third, the practice of wisdom for me implies assuring time for reflection and introspection. In my case it has been through a formal meditation practice. But I think anyone who wants to cultivate wisdom has to have some regular and systematic way of pulling himself or herself out of the cacophony of noise, mostly media generated, and for activists, out of the tensions and anxieties that go with an activist commitment.

ILJ: I was struck by one part of your book where you wrote about how you found yourself ensnared in the “success trap” and you describe that as a common American malady in which we only pursue those projects we’re comfortable with or that we’re good at. How important is it to avoid performing only those projects we feel proficient at in cultivating wisdom?

HALPERN:  The success trap, in my view, is a very pervasive phenomenon in our culture. We are naturally drawn to do the things that we do well and to avoid doing things we feel less confident about. I think it’s extremely important to explore the edges, take some risks and go into areas where our skills are less fully developed.

For example, in the book I describe how I went on a weekend retreat that was committed to improving skills at music improvisation. I signed up for that retreat with full knowledge that was an area of notable lack on my part. I’m not good at music and I had never tried improvisation at all.

I thought it would be a good thing to push that edge and see what it was like for me to work in an area where my competence was so low. And to just monitor my experience of that. I did this at a time when I was starting a new law school and I was particularly interested to put myself in the place of people who were anxiously preparing for  the study of law– a new discipline for them and one where many had no real confidence in their capability. And I thought by putting myself in a situation something like theirs I might improve my capacity to identify with their experience and help them get past their anxiety and grow in confidence.

I think this is a subset of something I consider very important — the willingness to take risks and push the boundaries. And particularly to do it in a way that increases our capacity for empathy and understanding how the world looks to other people.

ILJ:  Let’s talk about your life journey. In the beginning of your book you write about the seminal moment of your life occurring in 1965. You’re a young, ambitious associate at the prestigious law firm Arnold & Porter, started by New Dealers who served in FDR’s administration. Future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas was there.

And a pro-bono case falls in your lap, defending the rights of a man named Charles Rouse who had spent four years being mistreated in a mental hospital after committing a misdemeanor. This was the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest era when it came to mental health treatment. You successfully represented Rouse after initial setbacks and the course of your life changed. If that case hadn’t come along, would you have remained a corporate lawyer even with the turmoil of the 1960s?

HALPERN: That case was extremely important to me. It gave me an opportunity to do two things. One was to increase my empathic capacity to identify with this poor guy who was then a little younger then I was, in his mid-twenties. To see what this incarceration had done to him. And then I could actually use my lawyer skills to do something for him and to get his release. I saw in that case the possibility of expanding the reach of the Constitution into mental hospitals and to institutions for mentally retarded people. I thought here is an area of civil rights that had really not been explored.

And by fortunate circumstance — my assignment to this case — I had the opportunity to think about how a whole new area of law might develop. So you’re quite right in identifying that as a turning point in my life. And it permitted me to see that I could use my legal skills in a way that would help build a more just and compassionate world. And that was a major insight for me. If it hadn’t been for that case I probably would not have moved just at that moment to a different kind of career.

But I think it would’ve happened at some point. There was too much emptiness for me in the kind of law I was doing at Arnold & Porter. I was handling cases that had very little in them to make a connection with my values. It was work that, whenever I stopped to take a look at it, I would say, “What am I doing here? This isn’t the person I expected to be when I went to law school. This isn’t the person I wanted to be.” So I think even if it hadn’t been for the Rouse case my career in corporate practice would have been a short one.

ILJ:  You took a leave of absence from secure employment with Arnold & Porter, became a social entrepreneur and established the Center for Law and Social Policy about 1969. Reading about that, I was struck by how you simultaneously interfaced with the privileged elite, while mingling with the counter-culture and took on entrenched corporate power by playing within the rules of our civil society. Rules that many in your generation had come to despise and therefore drawn into the counter-culture. How were you able to keep your balance and finesse the contradictions?

HALPERN:  When I set up the Center for Law and Social Policy with a group of three other young lawyers, we realized that for us to be effective, we were going to have to maintain relationships with the establishment. First of all we had to get foundation support. Our plan for this enterprise was to get foundation support to  permit us to represent clients that lacked resources to hire lawyers.

I was twenty-nine at the time. From the perspective of the large foundations,that’s a very junior person. They weren’t going to make a big investment in  a novel venture like a public interest law firm unless we looked like we were really well grounded. One of the ways we did that was by putting together a board of trustees of eminent leaders of the legal profession. So already by virtue of being connected to the foundations, we were maintaining a connection to the establishment world.

Our board chair, Arthur Goldberg, had been a Supreme Court Justice. He had been ambassador to the United Nations. He had been Secretary of Labor. Incredible credentials albeit always on the progressive side of things. He had been general counsel to the AFL-CIO before Kennedy had made him Secretary of Labor. So he was very sympathetic to what we were doing but an establishmentarian nonetheless. He had been a cabinet member. And we found we could do the work we wanted to do with those connections.

When we considered a major lawsuit to enjoin the construction of the Alaskan pipeline which put us against the biggest oil companies in the world, our board of trustees gave us complete support. So we managed to keep the support of progressive elements of the American establishment for some pretty counter-cultural activities. Now our activities were filing lawsuits. We were not throwing rocks. We were not in the streets. So we had found a place where we could navigate these cross currents.

ILJ:  You and your colleagues at the Center made history and sued the Nixon Administration’s Interior Department to prevent the construction of an environmentally hazardous pipeline in Alaska. You won a great victory. Sadly, the pipeline is built years later anyway and we had the Exxon-Valdez catastrophe in 1989. The Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling about it in June. Given the current makeup of the court with conservative corporatists, is there any reason to hope for a just ruling?

HALPERN:  Well, the turn that the Supreme Court has taken under Bush II is really sad. It’s disheartening to see so many Constitutional principles pushed aside, with so much corporate bias reflected in court decisions. This represents a conservatism that goes way beyond the conservatism of the Nixon era. Warren Burger, the Chief Justice that Nixon appointed, would be a moderate by today’s standards. So you can’t be optimistic about the decision in the Exxon-Valdez case. This brings me back to the question you started with — bringing the cultivation of wisdom into our activism.

One of the things the wisdom perspective gives us is the long view. The understanding that there are going to be ups and downs. And the down cycles might last for quite awhile. When we are dealing with the complicated challenges of the twenty-first century, the long perspective is going to be critical to avoid burnout and despair among activists.

ILJ:  During your career at the law center in the ’70s, your wife Susan, a very accomplished person herself, became heavily involved in women’s causes. You acknowledged in your book feeling threatened at the time. Why do you suppose that an enlightened progressive man like yourself, as well as other men in this era who otherwise considered themselves progressive, struggled so much during the early stages of the women’s liberation movement?

HALPERN:  It’s hard to put oneself back into that historical moment. I want to stress that my formative years were the Eisenhower years. I entered college in 1957. My generation was a transitional generation, and much shaped by the fifties.

Many people of my era lived their lives from the old playbook, the fifties story. And some of us tried to be more open and receptive to the forces that were alive in the sixties. This goes back to your question earlier about how I was able to bridge the fifties attitudes of my seniors to the sixties attitudes of my juniors. And I think it has to do with this odd historical moment of which I came of age. And one of the revolutionary developments of the sixties era was the women’s movement. I talk in the book about how hard it was for me to adapt.

It was a hard one. The fact that a person is progressive doesn’t mean he or she will be good on all issues, including those that are close and personal. It was a complicated moment and lots of marriages were breaking up around us. I consider it a mark of success that we were able to renegotiate our marriage and recreate a vibrant new marriage that has thrived and been a blessing for both of us.

ILJ:  In the early 1980s, you’re recruited to become the founding dean of the City of University of New York School of Law in Queens. A very different world than the comfortable universe of law and well meaning activists you had come to know. New York was especially gritty in those days and you find yourself caught in the vortex of the corrupt Donald Manes Queens political machine and bureaucrats who cared more about patronage than public interest idealism. How close were you to giving up?

HALPERN:  I was very close. I had never lived in New York City before. New York City was a tough place and I underestimate how tough this job was going to be. Setting up a new law school is hard– particularly one that has a public interest emphasis and a commitment to design a new curriculum for training public interest lawyers. So it was hard work and I would come home many days exhausted and discouraged. My wife Susan and I would discuss if I should cut my losses.

Fortunately, I saw it through. The law school was then and is now an absolutely great and unique place. So as hard as it was to do, I am very proud to have been the founding dean. The law school is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary since the founding.

It’s fair to say that the City of University of New York Law School has graduated more public interest lawyers practicing in New York State then all the other law schools in the state combined. That’s quite a legacy and when I was back there on my book tour a couple weeks ago we had a wonderful gathering of old students, faculty members, new students and alumni. And it was thrilling to see this group of people who had carried our unique training out into the law world where they held influential positions — from judgeships to public defenders to senior positions in state agencies.

ILJ: It is indeed a remarkable legacy. Looking back twenty-five years ago,   Donald Manes, the Queens Borough President, was the antithesis of your good government reformist sensibilities. Years later he was caught up in scandal and even committed suicide. When you met him, Manes was in his prime as a tough talking machine boss.


ILJ:  You write that during a dispute over faculty you wanted to hire, Manes told you with a smile, “Queens, despite its two million people, is really a small town. If you fill the Law School up with a bunch of Communists and lefties, I’ll drive you and the Law School out of the County.” What kind of relationship did you have with him that enabled this law school to survive?

HALPERN: He was at the outset the essential person who got the money to start this law-school and keep it running. So part of my job was to stay in a good working relationship with him. Fortunately, I grew to like him despite his shortcomings and the distinctly different sense of politics and governance that he and I had. I think the fact that I did like him … he  had a sense of humor about himself and his work… made it easier for me to function effectively in his orbit.

It wasn’t easy but I was able to keep a civil relationship with him. And in that dispute over our faculty hires he backed us up. He was in our corner. And of course we were giving him something too. To have a respected law school in his borough was a good thing. He used to enjoy meeting with the American Bar Association teams, academic intellectuals who would come in to inspect the law schools. We had to get ourselves accredited by the ABA. He took great pride and saw this law school as one of his accomplishments. In a certain sense he recognized that we were returning something important to the borough of Queens. He was deeply devoted to the borough and interested in seeing its institutions thrive.

ILJ: You used the word legacy a moment ago. Ironically, with the corrupt Donald Manes, one of his legacies is this public interest law school which helped train and nurture a generation of do-good lawyers.

HALPERN:  It’s a great irony. Again to return to the wisdom theme: one of the hallmarks I think of a wise person is the capacity to live with and appreciate paradox and the kind of ironies that you just pointed to.

ILJ:  The stresses of your position in Queens influenced you to learn meditation. It happens one of my dearest personal friends has become a practitioner of meditation. Last time I saw her she seemed to have gained a new wisdom about her life and was practically glowing. Why is meditation that powerful for people like my friend and yourself?

HALPERN: We’re starting to get some scientific answers to that question. I began meditation when I was dean at the law school. A friend of mine suggested it was a way to manage the stresses of this position that I was in. I started with a very simple meditation practice — and with some real skepticism. It didn’t seem likely to me that simply sitting for half an hour in the morning, watching my thoughts come and go, and trying to stay centered and balanced was going to be helpful to me in this difficult job I had.

But to my pleasure and surprise, it turned out to be a powerful force. Precisely by giving me a place of stillness and centeredness inside myself, to which I could return in the middle of a confrontation-filled day. I could take a few breaths and come back to that place of meditative stillness. I tried it as an experiment and it paid off for me so I just kept doing it I would get up each morning and do this meditation.

Now scientists have begun using the most sophisticated brain scanning techniques to look at what happens to the brain with meditation. This was an entirely pragmatic thing in my experience. But what we’re finding is that the practice of meditation actually changes brain function and brain structure. So you shouldn’t be surprised when you observe really dramatic shifts in your friend who is meditating.

In my case I think changes have been gradual. But over time mediation has given me a way of dealing with high stress situations, making me less reactive, more capable of identifying with the views of people who disagree with me, more effective in promoting the values that I care most about.

ILJ:  It sounds also as if you’re able to put ego in a certain perspective. You still have your ego but you’re able to rise above it when the situation calls for it. Does meditation help one do that?

HALPERN:  Yes, absolutely. I don’t’ want to say free from ego. Nothing like that. But it helps give me some distance from my own egoic sense of what the world is like. And that’s been tremendously important to me. I think it’s made me a better husband and father and surely a better activist. Meditation creates a space in which wisdom can arise.

ILJ:  I like the way you put that. Creating a space where wisdom can arise. And in pursuit of that, following your service at the law school you become president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and one of your program areas was Jewish life. You managed to arrange a get together with Jewish Rabbis and the Dalai Lama. What interests did they have in common?

HALPERN: That was a wonderful project. Another turning point in my life. I think what brought the Dalai Lama to the gathering was his particular interest in how the Jewish community had so successfully maintained itself in Diaspora, away from its homeland. That is the situation the Tibetans were confronting since he and many of his followers had been driven from Tibet by the Chinese invasion in the fifties. So he was trying to figure out how to keep this culture and religion alive, and here he saw a community that had done it over millennia.

And from the Jewish point of view, I think it was admiration for the Dalai Lama and a desire to be helpful and to learn from him. Something that was on both sides was a sense that these were two ancient and deep spiritual traditions that had really not interacted much over their thousands of years of life. And I think they were both drawn to that historic dimension of this meeting, a unique gathering in the long histories of their religions.

Most of the foundations that had been approached with this proposal had summarily turned it down. The Cummings Foundation saw the potential in it. For people who are interested in pursing this, I describe this gathering a in my book because it was so influential for me to be in the Dalai Lama’s presence for a week. But there is a wonderful book by Roger Kamenetz, The Jew and the Lotus, which describes the gathering in detail and provides wonderful insights into Judaism and Buddhism for people who may not be familiar with one or both.

ILJ: You also write that during your tenure at Nathan Cummings you became more connected with your Jewish heritage. Why did that happen at this point in your life?

HALPERN:  Meditation had opened me to deeper spiritual insights. I grew up in a very secular home. The central importance which I now give to the meditative dimension of life came to me late. It wasn’t something I learned in childhood.

At the Nathan Cummings Foundation, I worked with a brilliant and deep Rabbi, Rachel Cowan, one of the first generation of women to be ordained. And through her I gained access to the rich and diverse strands of Judaism that were flowering in the nineties and now. The Jewish renewal movement, for example. I never thought I would meet rabbis and scholars who were so stimulating and spiritually engaged, committed to social justice and to spiritual inquiry. It was very exciting for me personally, and here we were at a foundation where we could support these people and help them realize their commitment to spiritual renewal with our grants.

So it was that combination of things that led me deeper into my own Judaism. And one of the nicest things about it was that this Jewish program came to infuse other parts of the foundation’s work. So for example, in the environmental field, Paul Gorman and I worked out an idea that would bring religious groups more directly and effectively into the environmental movement.

Prior to that time there was little attention within organized religion to the environmental field and the National Religious Partnership became an important catalyst that brought diverse groups, from the liberal denominations to the evangelical Christians, into the environmental movement which has had real impact in the world. And it’s not just that these are new resources brought to the environmental issues. They brought the depth of their traditions into the environmental movement which gave it a resonance and spiritual force that environmentalism didn’t have before.

ILJ: It sounds like they brought a moral dimension to the cause of environmentalism.

HALPERN: I think it’s a moral dimension, a religious dimension and a spiritual dimension. And if we’re going to be able to succeed in the huge challenges we face today in the environmental world – such as global climate disruption and the like — that deep grounding is going to be a critical component.

ILJ: This year is of course a presidential election year. For my generation, politics has promoted an ethos of hyper individualism at the expense of community values. Do you a sense a tipping point this year in the other direction?

HALPERN: I hope so.

ILJ:    Any sense that the pendulum is finally swinging in the direction of activism towards a better society instead of I want mine and I don’t care about you?

HALPERN:  Well my crystal ball is cloudy. There have been so many incredible surprises already that between now and November I’m reluctant to make a prediction. What does please me greatly is the fact that the importance of wisdom is starting to be recognized. I was impressed that when Senator Kerry endorsed Obama, he specifically did so because of his wisdom.

When Tony Morrison endorsed Obama, the first time she’s ever endorsed a presidential candidate, she did so because of his wisdom. And she wrote a lovely essay about wisdom in doing this. The very idea that this word has resurfaced in our political discourse is I think an encouraging sign. The idea that we will look for a candidate that embodies wisdom as well as experience and communication skills and strategic judgment marks a big moment in my opinion.

ILJ:  In your opinion does Senator Obama embody wisdom? Are you in fact an Obama supporter?

HALPERN: I am in fact an enthusiastic Obama supporter. I think he’s someone who has cultivated the wisdom dimension. A person shall we say who walks the wisdom path. And to have the opportunity to vote for such a candidate is quite thrilling for me.

ILJ:  Charles, you’ve been very generous with your time. A final question if I may. As you might surmise, many reading this are bloggers as well as activists. In your opinion has the Internet enhanced activism or made people more detached?

HALPERN:I don’t really have an opinion about that. I want to become more of a web person myself. I can see real virtues in having so many more voices expressing themselves and new networks being formed. That strikes me as a very exciting phenomenon. And I think the way the web has opened up the financing of political campaigns is a pro-democratic influence. Whether there is also significant downside, whether it leads to a fractionalization of political opinions and makes it harder to put together effective coalitions, I just don’t know that yet. I suspect it’s just too soon to know.

ILJ:   Understood, it’s still very much an evolving phenomenon. Charles, thanks again for doing this. It was a lot of fun for me.

HALPERN:  A real pleasure for me too.


    • kj on March 19, 2008 at 15:54

    Most wonderfully excellent!   Where is your tip jar, Intrepid?

    Thank you for this… it is truly a large echo of other essays up right at this time.  perfect synchronicity.   🙂

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