What Every Harvard Law School Student Should Know About Appleseed

Among the many public service endeavors of Harvard Law School graduates, one lasting institution stands out:  Appleseed.  Recent Harvard Law School students may have seen the Appleseed conference room, on the fourth floor of Wasserstein Hall and wondered, what’s the Appleseed Foundation?

Appleseed is a network of 17 public interest justice centers in the United States and Mexico, with a national headquarters in Washington, DC.  At the 35th reunion for the Class of 1958, Ralph Nader, Ed Levin, Ralph Petersberger, Bert Pogrebin and other distinguished lawyers asked how they could make a lasting difference.  They didn’t do a day of service or make a huge reunion donation to the law school; rather, they decided to create a foundation whose mission would be to create other local institutions that would address systematic injustices…in short, to spread the seeds of justice, much as Johnny Appleseed planted apple orchards throughout the Ohio River Valley, Midwest and Canada.

Did they spend their first year in meetings agreeing on an agenda?  No.  They agreed not to have an agenda.  Priorities would be set by local leaders, who were best positioned to determine what the structural problems were, problems that they could fix.  The vision was to complement traditional legal services for the poor, with its case-by-case approach, and address issues upstream, systematically.  They imagined harnessing the pro bono talents of professionals in the area, and calling upon them to use all their skills to analyze root causes of injustices and carry out plans to fix them.  Just as top flight lawyers handle major transactions and occasionally secure legislation for clients, the pro bono attorneys on Appleseed projects devote their analytic, deal-making, policy, litigation and governance skills to solve problems.

Members of the Class of ’58 called their friends and classmates in various cities, hired an Executive Director, Linda Singer, HLS 1991, and began the hard work of institution-building.  They established Centers or welcomed existing public interest organizations into the network, often in places where public interest lawyers were few, such as South Carolina, Texas, Nebraska, Louisiana, Alabama.  Members of the Class of ‘58 worked with and inspired the members of the Class of ’68 to establish DC Appleseed, one of the biggest and strongest Centers in the network.  They built institutions and led particular projects.   

What began at a reunion became a lasting commitment to build and strengthen the Appleseed institution, with dollars, with personal connections, with time, with brainpower and organizational skills.

What kinds of projects have Appleseed Centers taken on?  What are some of the successes?  Appleseed projects tend to fall into one of four main areas of advocacy:  Advancing Education and Protecting Vulnerable Youth; Combatting Poverty and Building Assets; Securing Justice, Good Government and Democracy; and Promoting Health and Safety. 

Education and Vulnerable Youth

  • In 2004 in New York, working with the Department of Education, Agent 16 (an advertising firm), and the Ad Council, New York Appleseed addressed what was identified as a core problem in education:  teacher recruitment.  At the time, New York City education officials had to hire just about every applicant.  The successful campaign not only allowed New York to be choosy about the teachers it hired, it lifted the status of the teaching profession.
  • Now, New York Appleseed is tackling another core problem in education:  segregation and re-segregation of schools, and the fair allocation of resources within and among schools. 
  • Georgia Appleseed, also working collaboratively with partners to form JUSTGeorgia, secured the first rewrite of the state’s juvenile code in 40 years.  Through interviews, research, drafting and persuading legislators, they reformed discipline and the social service systems to serve children better and promote safer communities. 
  • Washington Appleseed, New Mexico Appleseed and others are tackling hunger in schools, successfully advocating for ‘breakfast after the bell” so kids aren’t trying to learn while they’re hungry.
  • Mexico, Massachusetts, Nebraska and others have addressed numerous issues relating to particularly vulnerable children – immigrant children fleeing violence abroad, homeless children, children in the foster care system, and young adults leaving the system.
  • Connecticut Appleseed has been a leader in stopping and remedying bullying in schools.
  • D.C. Appleseed created lasting reforms in the city’s special education programs, to reduce over-reliance on litigation and ensure that vulnerable children obtain the services to which they’re entitled, without having to hire lawyers. 

Combatting Poverty and Building Assets

  • Following Hurricane Katrina, southern tier Appleseed Centers began work in earnest on heir property issues – the largest cause of black land loss in the South.  When property passes without going through probate, ownership is fractionated among the heirs, causing myriad problems, from blight, lack of access to capital, exploitation and dispossession.  Through legislative and policy changes, education, and trainings, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia Appleseed are enabling people living on heir property to obtain clear title, unlocking new opportunities to generate income and fix blighted homes.
  • Appleseed Centers in Texas, Nebraska, South Carolina and Alabama are leaders on stopping or reforming predatory payday and auto title lending – loans that lock in poverty for those who are gulled into taking out these high-interest loans.
  • Building on the work of Texas Appleseed, national Appleseed played a leading role in securing transparency in international remittance transactions.  Millions of vulnerable immigrants work hard to save money to send to relatives in their countries of origin, and they were at the mercy of remittance companies to give them a fair deal and deliver the money as promised.  With the new reforms, consumers can shop for the best deal and they have remedies when transactions go awry. 
  • Through research, litigation, policy work, communications and advocacy, Hawai‘i Appleseed is leading the charge for affordable housing on islands where the cost of housing is prohibitive. 

Securing Justice, Good Government and Democracy

  • New Jersey Appleseed has led the charge against “pay to play;” has waged successful campaigns to ensure that statutes providing for public involvement in important decisions like hospital mergers and closures are upheld; and has advanced the implementation of the Help America Vote Act.
  • DC Appleseed, through a range of initiatives, has elevated the issue of an egregious blot on our nation’s democracy:  the lack of representation in Congress for the District of Columbia, and it has taken practical steps to advance self-determination for the District’s 660,000 residents.   
  • Alabama Appleseed is taking on a central problem of governance in its state:  the 1901 state constitution, adopted in an era of backlash against the new rights won by African Americans following the Civil War.
  • Kansas, Chicago and other Appleseed Centers guard and promote an independent, excellent judiciary.

Promoting Health and Safety

  • The great challenge in recent years has been securing the passage of comprehensive health care reform and making sure that the Affordable Care Act fulfills its promise of providing affordable health care for millions of uninsured persons at an affordable cost. Numerous Appleseed Centers, including Alabama, Nebraska, South Carolina and New Jersey, have played critical roles in their states in this endeavor, to improve the health of millions of Americans.

Appleseed founder Ralph Nader uses the phrase “from charity to justice” in several contexts;   it’s a particularly apt description of Appleseed.  He and the other Appleseed founders challenge those privileged with a first-class education or resources to move beyond simply giving away 3% or 10% of income for charity, though that’s of course important. Appleseed asks those with intellectual and financial resources to secure justice in a lasting, systematic manner and to create an infrastructure for justice. 

The vision of the Appleseed founders continues.  Vibrant centers have joined the Appleseed network in recent years, from Mexico, to New Mexico, to Hawai‘i.  Harvard grads from the Class of 1958 and continuing to today can take on the issues of the day, the root cause problems, and forge lasting solutions.  Whether at reunions or through local connections, leaders who graduate from Harvard law school can pool their funds, their contacts, and their skills to create more Appleseed Centers and to strengthen existing Appleseed Centers in the U.S., Mexico, and around the world. 

As an added benefit:  most Appleseed volunteers and board members find that the satisfaction that comes from securing an enduring victory for justice exceeds the pleasure of finding a key document, or winning a motion, or negotiating a good deal on behalf of a corporate client. 

Since Appleseed’s founding in the early 1990s, Harvard Law School itself has built a strong infrastructure to support public interest lawyering, by providing funding for summer and post-graduate fellowships.  Seed money propels start-up nonprofit ventures, too.  May the Appleseed network be a magnet for new generations of lawyers who are inspired by the Appleseed vision and record of accomplishments. 

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