ALUMNI PROFILES • Fall 2001

Advocating for Immigrants' Rights

 

Suzanne Brown, J.D. '96

 

Walking into Suzanne Brown's law office is like walking around the world. There are tapestries from South and Central America, masks from Africa and the Far East, batiks from South Asia and the Pacific, and other beckoning mementos—all gifts from immigrant, and often indigent, clients. She's touched many lives, helping undocumented workers become U.S. citizens, helping others avoid deportation, reuniting families, and connecting many with businesses looking to hire.

"I've been incredibly blessed to meet people from all over the world," Brown says, "and I consider my work as Tikun Olam, a Jewish expression for 'healing the world.' I use my intellect to help correct the imbalances of the system."

The downside, though, of her work, which she sees as a vocation, a calling, is the disappointment when there is nothing the law can do. "I have to tell clients that they'll have to wait 12 years to be joined by their families, or that they won't be able to travel outside of the country safely for six, seven, or eight more years. It's tragic," she says.

Brown began working as executive director of the Immigration Project in southern Illinois at its inception in 1987. She had been working in the Central American solidarity movement, and after visiting Salvadoran refugees in Honduras and displaced persons in Nicaragua and Guatemala, she applied her interest in refugees and her ability to speak Spanish to help immigrants in Illinois. "Two or three times a year, we visit migrant camps near some 20 communities in downstate Illinois to let people know about our services," she says. "Workers are in orchards, tree and shrub nurseries, and vegetable fields, and usually our 'offices' are kitchen tables, church basements, and public libraries." Clients are charged nothing or a nominal fee.

Brown, who received a bachelor's degree from the University of Massachusetts in 1972 and a master's degree in legal studies from what now is the University of Illinois at Springfield in 1984, entered law school at Washington University in 1994, when she was 44, to help better serve her clients. In 1995, when the Immigration Project ran out of funds, she kept it going, seeking advice from professors as she expanded funding sources and established a strong board.

"Suzanne Brown was one of my all-time brightest students," says Stephen H. Legomsky, the Charles F. Nagel Professor of International and Comparative Law, "and she has lived a life of exemplary service, dedicating her remarkable skills to helping the neediest and most vulnerable members of our community."

In 1997, she received an Attorney Recognition Award from the Lawyers Trust Fund, given to attorneys who have made outstanding contributions to the ideal of equal access to justice.

Last year, Brown decided to give full time to her immigration-law practice, based in Richmond Heights, Missouri, to begin saving more for her retirement. However, she still volunteers one day a week at the Immigration Project, where she often gets to see the third generation of many families she has helped in the past.

"I love what I do," Brown says. "I feel very fortunate to have found the right path for my life."

—Nancy Belt

 


 

Improving People's Spiritual and Material Lives

Jonathan Weaver, B.S.B.A. '72

 

Economic empowerment for African Americans is a primary mission of the Reverend Jonathan Weaver. As pastor of Greater Mt. Nebo A.M.E. Church in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Weaver founded the Collective Banking Group of Prince George's County and Vicinity, which links five banks with 265 churches and has made available $180 million in loans to the church community.

"The Collective Banking Group started as a form of personal protest," says Weaver, who earned his theological degree from St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore in 1984. In 1992, he and his congregation applied to a bank for a $50,000 loan to renovate a building to house their ever-growing congregation. Although the church had good credit, and, in fact, had eliminated a $200,000, 30-year mortgage in seven years from the same institution a year earlier, the bank made a number of stipulations that were well beyond their recent loan. Weaver wrote a letter to the bank's president, expressing the disappointment of his 750 parishioners and hinting they might take their business elsewhere. Within days, he received a phone call from a senior bank official indicating that as a response to his letter, the church's loan was approved without restrictions.

Weaver soon discovered that other area pastors had suffered similar indignities. Thus, in January 1993, 21 pastors met to form the Collective Banking Group. Having earned a business degree from WU in 1972 and an M.B.A. from Harvard in 1975, Weaver was well qualified to head this effort. He realized that "many pastors and churches were unaware of the way banks operated. They believed that the banks set the policies and they had to comply. The purpose of the Collective Banking Group was not to try to shift the current paradigm, but to create a new paradigm."

The group spent two years interviewing banks in the Washington, D.C., area, asking: How many African Americans were employed in management positions? How many personal loans and small-business loans were made to African Americans? What benefits would they provide the group's members? Periodic reviews of the member banks' performance show how many loans are requested, granted, and denied, and, if so, why. "This accountability has proved to be very effective," Weaver says. "The banks must think carefully before denying a loan."

Since the Collective Banking Group began, its efforts have benefited not only churches but also small businesses and, most especially, individuals. The group holds conferences on a number of subjects, such as how to eliminate debt, obtain a loan, and buy a home. It also has helped build day-care and recreation centers and senior-citizen housing.

Weaver says, "By building communities, we are saving the souls of the communities."

Weaver believes his early education at WU was invaluable. Both as president of the Association of Black Students and as treasurer of the Association of Black Collegians some 30 years ago, Weaver was exposed to such values as leadership, activism, and humanitarianism. He uses many of these principles to benefit the 1,500 members of his congregation and the African-American community at large.

Today, the good word is spreading. Two more chapters of the Collective Banking Group have started—one in Baltimore and the other in Richmond, Virginia. The group also is hoping to obtain a new conference and banquet facility to house meetings and annual conferences. But Weaver has an even bigger dream: "to create our own economic institution." Judging by his rate of success to date, that day may not be far off.

—-Cynthia Cummings

 


 

Building a Mystery

Shirley Kennett, B.S. '72

 

The butler did it!

That is a phrase you won't come across if you're reading one of Shirley Kennett's mystery novels. Kennett has taken the mystery genre to a new level, incorporating in-depth character studies with high-tech crime-fighting strategies. Using artificial intelligence combined with virtual reality, the investigators in her books are able to recreate crime scenes in the computer world and review the possible scenarios involved.

Kennett was not always a novelist, though. In fact, she entered her current profession at age 40, after many successful years as a computer programmer and independent consultant. She had wanted to write since she was young, but, while studying engineering at WU, she fell in love with computers. "Then I hit 40," Kennett recalls, "and while I was blowing out the candles, I thought: 'There's an awful lot of candles on that cake—if I'm going to take a stab at a writing career, I'd better start now.' The very next day I began pulling things together for a serious start on my writing."

One of Kennett's recurring characters is P.J. Gray, a newly divorced, 40-year-old psychologist hired by the St. Louis Police Department to investigate homicides. Gray uses her expertise to recreate crimes in virtual reality, with the investigator playing the role of killer, victim, or witness. (In reality, this technique is still in its early stages of development.) Kennett's novels (Gray Matter, Fire Cracker, Chameleon, and Act of Betrayal) have been met with critical acclaim and a growing fan base.

Kennett says she is interested in exploring what goes on within the mind of a killer. "The vast majority of us," she explains, "have a strong inhibition against killing. I'm interested in what it is inside a person that causes that inhibition to be nonexistent. In the sociopath-type, the inhibition is simply not developed. In other people, the inhibition is definitely there, but some circumstance in adult life causes them to toss it aside, whether that's greed, lust, love, or any number of motivations."

Kennett, who lived in a converted funeral home as a child and spent hours in its basement reading mystery books by flashlight, uses these murderers as a counterpoint to her main characters, who learn more about themselves and their relationship to the world at large from chasing down these ruthless killers.

Kennett's own relationship to the world includes her husband, Dennis Kennett, B.S. '67, M.S. '69, and two adopted sons, one from Peru, the other from Ethiopia. Traveling to Peru for the first adoption, she and her husband fell in love with their son at first sight. They spent much of their time absorbing Peruvian culture, including floating down the Amazon River, so they would be able to share that with him as he grew older. Their second son was eight when they adopted him from Ethiopia. They did not travel there for the adoption, although they are hoping to travel there soon to absorb the culture that their Ethiopian son already has ingrained. Kennett explains that she has always been aware of something larger in her life, a relation to others on a worldly scale. She says, "It just came as a natural thing for me to do—to stretch out a hand to a child in another country. It felt as if I was fulfilling something that I had thought about since childhood, to make a global connection."

Connecting her readers to other cultures, Kennett's next novel will branch off from the mystery genre. Set in Ethiopia and incorporating elements of the country's landscapes and traditions, it tells the story of a young American woman making her way across the wilds of Ethiopia with a newborn baby she has rescued. "There's a mystery at the core of it: Who's trying to kill this baby and why? But mostly it's an adventure, a thriller." Indeed something to anticipate from a novelist for whom adventure is "elementary."

—Ryan Rhea, A.B. '96, A.M. '01