A blue crane, in silhouette, morphs into a yellow origami crane as it takes flight.

Seeing Change

Collaborating to solve some of the world’s most urgent challenges, Swarthmore alumni are building more equitable and just communities through their efforts in the fields of law, medicine, academia, humanitarian relief organizations, and others. What inspires them to engage in the toil of global problem solving and —importantly — what hope is on the horizon?
by Heather Rigney Shumaker ’91, George Spencer, and Tomas Weber

Feeling gratitude in the face of crisis

“Send me,” says Allison Oman Lawi ’91, the deputy director of nutrition at the World Food Programme. “Send me in, and let me do my job rather than feel the pain of watching it unfold and not being able to do anything.” Oman Lawi, now in her 10th year with the United Nations organization, went on missions in 2023 to crisis hot spots in eight nations — Chad, the Congo, Ghana, Guatemala, Madagascar, Niger, Senegal, and South Africa. She is in her 27th year of humanitarian work with the U.N.

Based in Rome, she is supporting the World Food Programme’s (WFP) efforts in Sudan, Chad, Gaza, and DRC, she says. “I have deployed members of my rapid response team to those locations and I attend bi-weekly operations meetings to discuss what is needed.” The WFP won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2020. Its relief efforts in 120 nations reached 160 million people in 2022. Oman Lawi’s humanitarian work began at Swarthmore, where she had a special major in anthropology, sociology, and religion. “I called it peace studies,” she recalls. While a sophomore, the amount of food wasted at the former dining hall troubled her. Soon she began taking plastic tubs full of leftovers to a Chester homeless shelter in her Chevy Tracker. Later, she created a feeding program on 69th Street in Philadelphia.

Today “it feels like the world is on fire,” says Oman Lawi, pointing to a deadly earthquake in Morocco, flooding in Libya, and the wars in Yemen and the Middle East. “But at the same time, I feel more people are beginning to understand, care, and connect the dots with this beautiful planet we live on.” Describing herself as “fundamentally an optimist,” she says: “You can’t compare crises, and you can’t compare suffering, because you go crazy if you do. Questions about good guys and bad guys go out the window. If I’m working to save a malnourished kid in Mali, it’s no different than if that kid is in the Republic of South Sudan.”

Despite her influential role, she believes the most important thing she can do is be true to herself. “Living a life based on my own ethics — that tiny little grain of sand — is truly, fundamentally, at the end of the day my contribution, and for that, I feel this unbelievable gratitude.” —GEORGE SPENCER

In an outdoor camp providing humanitarian aid, Allison Oman Lawi looks toward the camera in a white shirt and is kneeling beside a woman with a serious expression in pink shirt who is holding a small child and feeding the child with a spoon.
marc Regnaultdelamothe
“It feels like the world is on fire,” says Allison Oman Lawi ’91 (above left), the deputy director of nutrition at the World Food Programme. “But at the same time, I feel more people are beginning to understand, care, and connect the dots with this beautiful planet we live on.”
Ann Starrs and her colleague stand in front of a building with bright green walls. Ann covers her head with a bright pink scarf.
courtesy ann starrs ’84
“All the core elements of the work I was doing and the mission I’ve dedicated my life to are not just threatened, but under explicit attack,” says Ann Starrs ’84 (above left), now on the board of Partnerships for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, which partners with U.N. agencies. Starrs is pictured on a visit to a primary health care clinic in Kano, northern Nigeria, in May 2023.

Building Partnerships in Women’s Health

WORRIEDLY OPTIMISTIC. That’s the way Ann Starrs ’84 feels about the struggle for sexual and reproductive health rights around the world. As director of family planning at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the former political science major led its overall strategy from 2019 to 2023. With a $280 million budget at her command, she funded contraceptive technology research and projects to increase access to contraception in India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and francophone West Africa.

“All the core elements of the work I was doing and the mission I’ve dedicated my life to are not just threatened, but are under explicit attack,” says Starrs. Anti-abortion groups, many funded from the U.S. according to her, have been “very effective” in other nations. Working at the Gates Foundation was “intense.” She left, in part, because it does not fund work related to an issue of vital importance to her — access to abortion services. Around the world, abortion rights are under “serious threat,” she says. Yet she is hopeful. “We are seeing greater activism and engagement from communities, particularly women and girls. The youth movement is surging globally with young people asserting their rights,” says Starrs, who now serves on the board of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, which partners with U.N. agencies, donors, and nongovernmental organizations. Looking back, she’s most proud of her work as president of the Guttmacher Institute, a New York City-based nongovernmental organization, whose 2018 report on reproductive health and rights is regarded by donors and advocacy groups as the gold standard for evaluating progress in those fields.

“we are seeing greater activism and engagement from communities, particularly women and girls.”
—Ann Starrs ’84
The daughter of a U.S. diplomat, Starrs mostly grew up overseas, an experience that exposed to other cultures and values. Then “Swarthmore grounded me, not just in passion, but in logic and systematic strategic thinking,” she says. A defining moment came in Uganda, at the height of the AIDS crisis in 1989, after she earned her master’s at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Local women told her they feared their unfaithful husbands would give them the incurable disease, but they had no way to protect themselves. “That kind of injustice infuriated me, and is why I have dedicated my professional — and in some cases my personal — life to helping enable girls and women achieve their full potential.” —GEORGE SPENCER
Headshot of Olivia Ensign
Laurence kesterson
“I wanted to think about different inroads to change,” says Olivia Ensign ’12, a senior advocate and researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York City.

Seeking Change in Criminal Justice

Before she even graduated from law school, Olivia Ensign ’12 was helping save clients’ lives. Every other week for a semester, while studying for her law degree at New York University, Ensign would fly to Alabama. There, she would dive into researching the lives of individuals facing the death penalty. “I would talk to everyone,”she says, as part of her clinical placement with the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, “from their second-grade teacher to their grandmother, scrutinizing “any system they had ever encountered and been failed by.”

After NYU, she took a job as a staff attorney at the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. Her mission was persuading courts to spare her clients’ lives. The job took her all over the South. At every turn, she came face to face with the towering structural barriers her clients had faced. Many came from overpoliced neighborhoods or had been through the foster care system. Others had untreated mental health conditions. “Their stories,” she says, “always started a long time before the capital charge.” After five years of that work, during which she was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Law and Policy, Ensign started to want to make a greater impact at a structural level. “I wanted to think about different inroads to change,” she says.

In 2022, she moved to Human Rights Watch, a large, Nobel Peace Prize-winning international organization, where she is now a senior advocate and researcher on the U.S. program. She spends her days “trying to move the needle,” towards greater protection of human rights in America through research, public education, and advocacy, often in collaboration with grassroots groups. Still focused on the criminal justice system, she now sets her sights on the root causes of violence, discrimination, and police brutality. She advocates for structural change, including investments in education and in infrastructure. “For what communities need to thrive,” she says, “and be safe.” —TOMAS WEBER

Jim Himes and James P. Grant
courtesy jim himes ’62
Jim Himes ’62 (right) shown here in 1988 with James P. Grant, former executive director of UNICEF. As founding director of the UNICEF-Innocenti Research Centre in Italy, Himes ’62 focused on the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child. He retired in 2000, but the Centre continues to undertake policy studies relating to children’s rights.

Shining the Spotlight on Children’s Rights

JIM HIMES ’62 didn’t plan on a career in international affairs and human rights. “I thought I’d be a chemistry major, but I was a victim of organic chemistry,” he says. Instead, he earned a degree in economics. After Swarthmore, he studied at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, then took a job in Buenos Aires with the Ford Foundation. He continued there for 17 years, becoming head of the Office for Latin America and the Caribbean. Himes’ work included supporting projects in Colombia focused on helping low-income families with nutrition, health care, and psycho-social stimulation for children under age 5.
“democracy is under fire in many countries.”
—James Himes ’62
“I was quite impressed by the results,” says Himes.“That’s where my interest in women’s rights and children’s rights began to be front and center.” The second half of his career was spent with UNICEF. As director of UNICEF’s planning office, his economics degree stood him in good stead. “I worked on the ‘dismal’ side of social development: number crunching, economic analysis,” says Himes, referring to economics which is sometimes termed the “dismal science.” “Most development and human rights programs have laudable objectives, but which of them are affordable and sustainable in the long run?” Next, Himes became founding director of the UNICEF-Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Italy. Innocenti focuses on supporting the United Nation’s Convention on Rights of the Child. “We shine the spotlight on children’s rights,” he says, including strategies to address complex issues such as child labor, children in armed conflicts, and the rights of migrant children. Himes worked with Innocenti until his retirement in 2000. He is hesitant to identify today’s most pressing human rights issues.“There’s been a checkered history of trying to prioritize rights,” Himes says. “We’ve seen numerous recent setbacks in terms of democratic governance. Typically, autocratic systems will say, well, we’re feeding people and we have good health clinics … But on the other hand you can’t vote in free elections or express dissent.” Himes acknowledges governments and nonprofits can’t do everything at once. It’s important to see the whole picture, take things step by step, and support all human rights, political as well as economic and social. Nevertheless, several are foremost on his mind. “Refugee and immigrant rights is one that spans the world, but a longer-range one relates to the impact of climate change,” says Himes. “Politically, democracy is under fire in many countries … [We need to] keep people expressing their political preferences at the ballot box, and not behind an AK semi-automatic weapon.” —HEATHER RIGNEY SHUMAKER ’91
Neil Heskel sitting with a colleague and a patient at the Haiti Clinic.
courtesy of neil heskel ’74
Neil Heskel ’74 (left) meets with a fellow physician and a patient at the Haiti Clinic in Port-au-Prince. The U.S. State Department now has a Level 4 Do Not Travel advisory for Haiti, due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and poor health care infrastructure. The clinic is staffed entirely by Haitians.

bringing medical aid to haiti

“That’s What I want to do,” thought Kevin Browngoeh ’78 when he met Neil Heskel ’74 through the Swarthmore Alumni Council. Both men are doctors and Heskel had mentioned that he volunteered with the Haiti Clinic. Founded in 2007 by Florida emergency doctor Dirk Parvus, the clinic provides medical care for people living in Cité Soleil, an impoverished neighborhood of 300,000 in Port-au-Prince. Browngoeh and Heskel bonded through the project; now Heskel is past president and Browngoehl is president.

“We wanted a Haitian-centered clinic,” says Heskel, who helps raise money for medication and clinic salaries. Haiti Clinic is staffed entirely by Haitians: two doctors and a dentist, plus nurses and community workers. Patients pay 50 gourdes (about 38 cents) for an office visit. That’s the price Haitian doctors suggested. Culturally, when patients pay a small fee, they value the care they receive. “Haiti has very little to no access to health care,” says Browngoehl. “We provide that in a culturally sensitive way. We ask them what they need, then we provide it.” He admits it’s tough.

There’s little clean water, no sewage system, and no electricity. Increasing hurricanes makes things worse. “Our staff walks to the clinic in rubber boots up to their knees, because most of the time the water is at least ankle-depth,” he says. Gang violence also plagues the area. When the clinic was founded, clinic doctors met with local gang leaders to obtain permission to open. In turn, the gangs protected the clinic. Now newer, more violent gangs don’t respect those relationships. Heskel and Browngoehl stopped traveling to Haiti in 2020. “We’d be an extreme kidnapping risk,” says Browngoehl. “The Haitian doctors told us not to come anymore.”

“we wanted a haitian-centered clinic.”
—Neil Heskel ’74
Still, the Haiti Clinic continues its efforts. Vitamin Angels donates deworming medicine and vitamins for kids. A company called Love donates a million condoms a year. “The executive director gets a pallet of the them in her driveway,” says Heskel.

Besides treating illnesses and injuries, the Haiti Clinic screens every child for malnutrition. Malnutrition weakens the immune system, and diarrhea is a major cause of death. Malnourished children are supplied with Medika Mamba, a peanut-based product that provides complete nutrition.

Back in their Swarthmore days, Heskel majored in philosophy and Browngoehl in biology. Heskel got involved in Upward Bound at Swarthmore and continued his social involvement in medical school and beyond. Browngoehl volunteers with National Health Service Corps and Community Volunteers in Medicine in the U.S. “In my pediatric practice, I always worked with the poor,” he says. “I wanted to do something for other people and the world, and Swarthmore nurtured that.” Equality is the most pressing human rights issue, says Heskel. “Economic inequality carried into political inequality. If that’s not the biggest problem we have, it’s in the top three.”

“The connection of the degradation of the physical environment, climate change, and food insecurity,” adds Browngoehl. “They all come to the forefront in Haiti.” Fundraising for the Haiti Clinic includes non-running 5K races and “don’t bother gettin’ dressed up, just donate” in place of traditional fundraising dinners. “It works!” says Browngoehl. “We’re still supported by the community, and Swarthmore I consider to be my community.” —HEATHER RIGNEY SHUMAKER ’91

Saving People’s Lives When No One Else Can

PLEASE GO GET SOME LIFE EXPERIENCE. That’s what Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) told Kim Comer ’09 when she applied for a job while she was still at Swarthmore.

After working with theater troupes and on cruise ships, she knocked on MSF’s door again. That time it worked.

“i wanted to be a part of that first-deployed, elite task force.”
—Kim Comer ’09
Ten years later, life experience is what Comer does not lack, having worked on emergency teams saving lives in the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, from Chad to the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Sudan, where she helped turn a muddy field into a working hospital in just a couple of weeks. “I always liked the idea of jumping out of airplanes and going to help people,” she says. “OK, so we don’t jump out of planes. But I wanted to be part of that first-deployed, elite task force.” Since 2020, Comer has been based in Paris, where she is the head of operational logistics for MSF France. She helps coordinate teams around the world — including in Gaza, where MSF has staff on the ground.

“It’s difficult to feel so impotent in the face of such a huge change in context,” she says. Humanitarian organizations like MSF are a Band-Aid, says Comer.

They don’t cure the underlying illness, and they don’t create change. Still, they save people’s lives when no one else can. —TOMAS WEBER

Carrie Griffin Basas poses in front of a lake with her family.
Libby Lewis
“It’s all been really exciting,” says lawyer Carrie Griffin Basas ’99, executive director of Disability Rights Washington, with her husband, Fred, and daughter, Dasha.

Finding a New Path for Disability Rights

CARRIE GRIFFIN BASAS ’99 has experienced structural discrimination as a disabled person since she was a child. For almost as long, she’s been set on doing something about it. “That’s why I went to Swarthmore,” she says. “I felt like they could give me the support I needed.” After Harvard Law School, Basas had a hard time finding a job. So she started advocating for disability rights in the legal profession, as well as in criminal justice. She clerked for a judge, and then taught at law schools across the country.

In 2013, though, everything changed.

She adopted a little girl, who shares a similar disability with Basas, from an orphanage in Ukraine. Living in Seattle, Basas could see her child, an English learner with disabilities, was facing barriers. So she stepped up to pull them down. She was appointed director of the Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds, where she advocated for the rights of disabled students, and helped the service achieve greater representation of the marginalized communities it served. After a leadership role at Disability Law Colorado, Basas today is the executive director of Disability Rights Washington, where she heads up the state’s civil rights protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities. “It’s all been really exciting,” Basas says. “I didn’t know what I want to do when I grew up, but seeing the experiences of others in my community have taken me on this pathway.” —TOMAS WEBER

Praying for Peace

Diana Roose ’70 prays for peace. She has worked on or volunteered for anti-war causes for more than 50 years, but says she came to Swarthmore “a naïve little girl from Ohio” who was “totally uninformed.” After attending protests against the Vietnam War, the psychology major’s life changed forever in spring 1970 when U.S. and South Vietnamese forces invaded neutral Cambodia. Outraged, Swarthmore students, like those at many other colleges, went on strike. “I became an activist,” says Roose. “That event crystallized my commitment to the issue. After that, everything I did after graduation was related to ending the war.”

After Swarthmore, she took a research position at the Philadelphia-based, Quaker-founded American Friends Service Committee. Later she researched U.S. corporations’ support of the U.S. military and then investigated the Reagan Administration’s 1980s arms buildup. Today the Oberlin resident works with a local Quaker group that lobbies Ohio’s Congressional delegation on “peace building.” “To me, the most pressing human rights issue is war,” says Roose, who also served as an assistant dean at Oberlin College and as assistant to its president.

“War preparations and the spending on war and defense are astronomical now,” says Roose. Of grave concern to her is the threat of nuclear war. “The fact that we have so many nuclear weapons I think makes it likelier that they’ll be used someday, even though other countries have them, too. Everyone says they’re for self-defense, but we could easily get into a nuclear war,” she says.

A 1980 trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki drove home the value of her pacifist efforts. As one of three American journalists who received a grant to interview survivors, she met with many who had never told their grueling accounts.

Her book, Teach Us to Live: Stories from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, spread the word, as did her collaboration on the play “Ghosts of Hiroshima,” which toured Ohio in the 1980s. Quakers, according to Roose, share one abiding principle — “A part of God is in every person. It’s a crime to kill or disrespect that of God in a person. That’s the basic foundational concept Quakers have always used to oppose war.” —GEORGE SPENCER

Martín Palomo sits on a park bench.
laurence kesterson
In Philadelphia, Martín Palomo ’19 is a sex-abuse paralegal. His work highlights the prevelence of gender-based violence.

Working to Prevent Gender-Based Violence

“how can I assist?” wondered Martín Palomo ’19, at the end of his major in Peace & Conflict Studies. He had studied social movements, conflicts, and peacemaking with particular emphasis on state violence, atrocities, and restorative justice.

As he transitioned into a criminal defense paralegal position, his knowledge of social justice helped him advocate for criminal justice reform.

The work challenged “the bloated reality of mass incarceration in this country,” he says. He would later transition to another paralegal position that advocated for disability rights.

Now Palomo works at Saltz Mongeluzzi Bendesky, a law firm in Philadelphia, as a sex abuse paralegal, where he helps survivors fight for accountability through trauma-informed legal advocacy. Along with preparing court filings and compiling case documents, he also helps his clients navigate and process their trauma.

“I help them let their feelings out,” he says. “The job brings home the ways gender-based violence is tragically ever-present — from mass atrocities to the living room. It starts micro, something we experience at home, but it impacts human-rights issues at every level,” he says. “It’s very pervasive.” —TOMAS WEBER

Theresa Williamson and Nill Santos install solar panels in Brazil.
Alexandre Cerqueira
Returning to her native Brazil, Theresa Williamson ’97 (right) learned that many human rights issues come down to the right to roots. Here, she celebrates with favela organizer, Nill Santos, who recently installed solar panels on her community center for women victims of violence.

Connecting Communities

Theresa Williamson ’97 long believed she’d go into environmental activism. During her junior year, a semester of biology fieldwork in Madagascar deepened her perspective. She realized that environmental activism had to start with people.

“I was in the middle of a forest that was being preserved because it was private,” says Williamson. “But the whole country was in flames because people didn’t have food.”

In 2000, while working on her Ph.D. in urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania, she moved back to Brazil, where she had lived as a child. She wanted to support community organizers in the favelas, informal communities that have long suffered from government neglect, environmental racism, crime, and police violence. That year, she founded an organization called Catalytic Communities, working in tandem with local grassroots organizers.

“If people have a sense of rootedness and belonging, then a lot of other rights flow from that”
—Theresa Williamson ’97
“We had a community center, and different volunteers with skills and talents, and we’d connect people,” she says. Today, Williamson helps create sustainable communities in the favelas by facilitating the Sustainable Favela Network and working to introduce an alternative ownership structure of the land itself.

In 2018, Catalytic Communities introduced the Community Land Trust model to the favelas. Residents will own their own homes, but the land will be held in common. It’s a sustainable model, Williamson says, to ensure that people can access affordable housing in perpetuity.

From the favelas, Williamson has learned that many human rights issues come down to the right to roots.

“If people have a sense of rootedness and belonging, then a lot of other rights flow from that” she says. “If we have community, we can care for each other.” —TOMAS WEBER