Lee Stuart

Alumna Lee Stuart’s journey spans the environment and social justice

Prescott College AffiliationAlumni
Area of StudyEnvironmental Studies
Graduation Year1975
Current JobExecutive Director, Churches United in Ministry (ChUM)
LocationDuluth, Minnesota

Lee Stuart ’75 has stood on the front lines of climate research, fighting forest fires, feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless. She’s chosen the twists and turns of her journey, continually learning from mentors along the way and staying true to an internal compass that has rarely steered her wrong.

The first turn in her journey was the decision to attend Prescott College. Lee had applied for early admission to the University of Rochester to study chemistry. Lee’s aunt was the first pediatric cardiologist in Arizona and had been treating the infant child of a biology professor at the College. Her aunt invited her out to Arizona for Thanksgiving and suggested a trip to Prescott College, as “it might be more interesting.” It was.

In those days it was the admissions office’s practice to have prospective students spend the night in the dorms to get a feel for campus. Unfortunately, all the women in the dorm Lee was assigned to were out on a fieldtrip in the Grand Canyon. “I was totally alone in the suite and feeling very lonely, and it was kind of creepy, actually.” She heard a knock at the door.

She opened up to find a student, Jeff Schwartz, whom she had met earlier in the day as her campus tour guide, and a bunch of his friends holding packages. They knew she was alone and had decided to share their holiday care packages from home with her for “an early Thanksgiving.” Lee made the decision in that moment to attend Prescott College. “It still chokes me up to this day to tell that story. I couldn’t believe that there could be a place where the kindness and welcome and recognition of community were right up front like that.”

Early on Lee took chemistry, environmental studies, and a lot of math. It wasn’t until she received her first-year chemistry final exam that she realized how different this place really was. Professor Bob Harrill included a diagram of the atomic absorption spectrum of the atmosphere and the graph from Mauna Loa showing increasing atmospheric CO2 and posed the question: “What are the implications for the earth?” At first, she had no idea how to answer that or any of the similar questions on the test. She and a study partner, Marv Barstow, went to work in the library and over the course of the week read about the greenhouse effect, the role of ethylene in fruit ripening, creating the molecular structure of organic compounds from spectral analysis, and other phenomena included in the exam questions, all of which were far beyond elementary chemistry.

When they went to turn in the exam, very happy with their work, they nonetheless asked the professor whey none of the questions had been covered in the course. Bob’s response was, “I expect you to know what I taught in class. What I want to know is how far you can take it.” That was a game-changer. She began to realize that education wasn’t so much, “What do you know?” but “How far can you go?”

During her first summer at school Lee and fellow classmate Chris Griffin became charter members and the first women to join the Prescott Fire Crew (made up entirely of Prescott College students). It was the year of the Battle Fire. She and the crew worked 40 of the first 48 hours on the front lines, making a name for themselves, and had many more adventures besides. In the second summer they were joined by students from St. John’s College in Santa Fe and the crew became known as the Prescott Hotshots. Lee wanted a future in the Forest Service, but knew it wouldn’t be manual labor on a fire crew, so she sought out other opportunities through her Senior Project.

She was offered a position at the US Forest Service Fire Laboratory in Riverside, Calif. where she worked for eight months on reconstructing the vegetation map for an area that had burned in the Santa Monica Mountains in order to test a mathematical model of how forest fires spread. This type of work combined her love of math and biology, and she got to spend time outdoors. It was the perfect combination that eventually lead to her graduate work.

Lee was a bit scared to attend graduate school. Prescott College had not been a traditional education and she wasn’t sure how she would fare with a more formal and structured program. Her plan was to fly under the radar at San Diego State, especially to fly under the radar of Phillip C. Miller who had written the chapters in one of her undergraduate texts about mathematical modeling that inspired her to go to SDSU to begin with. As luck would have it, Phil handpicked Lee to be his graduate student during the admissions process. Apparently, when Phil was a graduate student, one of his assignments had been to help develop environmental studies curriculum for a new college in Arizona. He wanted to see what kind of student Prescott College had ended up turning out.

Lee and Phil hit it off and together with other students, post-docs and professors organized as the Systems Ecology Research Group, they had a really great run spending summers in Alaska and then the academic terms in San Diego or Chile working on mathematical models of the plant physiology and physical environment of tundra and Mediterranean ecosystem. Although primitive, some of their models indicated global warming would most likely create a compounding source for atmospheric carbon as permafrost thawed and decomposed. “Unfortunately we were correct about that,” she says.

When Phil died during the last year of her Ph.D. program, Lee’s life took another turn.
“My mother had always said when you’re feeling sad or sorry for yourself, go do something for somebody else and get over it.” She volunteered for a UNICEF fundraiser and with people she met there, also volunteered with the Ecumenical Coalition of Concerned Americans (ECCA) in the Los Angeles area. ECCA operated a food distribution/assistance program where they bought directly from the farmers and growers and then packed it and distributed it through other organizations.

She was inspired, but knew there was a better way to coordinate it. Armed with a renewed passion for fighting poverty (which began in her childhood in Appalachia) and some better logistics in mind, Lee returned to San Diego and helped form Self Help and Resources Exchange (SHARE), which functioned basically like ECCA.

SHARE was just getting off the ground when she went to Virginia Tech to do post graduate work. Although she loved her work, Lee realized root physiology, mathematical modeling and endless hours in a laboratory were only part of life, and looked for other ways to be involved in the community. Early on she met the head of New River Valley Community Action, and worked with that organization as a volunteer to reproduce the SHARE program for Southwest Virginia. One thing led to another, and following a propitious meeting of the minds between one of the other co-founders of SHARE in San Diego, a wealthy investor, and a Trappist abbot, the idea to start SHARE in the South Bronx took form. They asked Lee to head the new venture and she left Virginia for the Bronx, arriving March 11, 1985.

To give an idea of the utterly rundown and neglected state of the South Bronx at the time, Lee recalls her second week on the job when a film crew from Germany came through to shoot footage that could double for the destruction after the bombing of Dresden during World War II. It was a community in need of many things and within a year 250 churches had joined SHARE and 10,000 families participated in the program every month.

In 1986 a man came to see Lee at work. Jim Drake had been Ceasar Chavez’s national director of organizing during the grape boycott that brought the United Farm Workers their first contract. He asked Lee, “Aren’t you worried about teaching dependence?” She was perplexed. He explained that by doing so much for people without building any structures or opportunities for them to make their own decisions or be involved in the solutions, that she was likely perpetuating the worst form of poverty – learned dependence. This was another game-changing conversation for her.

Jim was in the Bronx as a national organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation and was working with local pastors to organize South Bronx Churches (SBC), a broad-based, multi-issue organization with sufficient power to bring real change to the neighborhood. “I was in the presence of a truly giant organizer and knew right then that I wanted to work with this guy. He had an effective way of thinking about the forces that created power and injustice and a plan to really turn the tables on those systems. He challenged and inspired me.” Jim went on to help Lee understand how to build an organization with local leadership and how to navigate and build grassroots power that could tackle and win against far larger adversaries: local hospitals, and New York City’s housing and educational systems. Eventually she followed Jim as the lead organizer of South Bronx Churches, undertaking two big projects during her tenure there.

South Bronx Churches’ Nehemiah Project built 966 single- and two-family homes and condos for first-time homeowners living in the South Bronx, most making between $25,000 and $30,000 a year and living either in public housing or low-quality rentals. The project was funded by a $3.5 million revolving loan from Catholic religious orders, the national Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Trinity and St. James Episcopal Churches. The City of New York provided vacant land and a $15,000 per unit subsidy to bring costs even lower, and over ten years SBC rebuilt a large portion of the Melrose and Mott Haven sections of the Bronx. What had been vacant and abandoned for three decades is now a thriving multicultural community with very low crime, a foreclosure rate less than 1.5%, and equity held by South Bronx families themselves.

Lee also helped create of the Bronx Leadership Academy High School. “The whole school system in the Bronx was set up for failure at the time,” she says. “Kids were expected to bring their own toilet paper to school, and one principal at an elementary school even made the children eat lunch off the floor because the janitor’s union said it was easier that way.” Jim had taught Lee to start small, so with South Bronx Churches leaders whose children attended that school, they approached the New York City Board of Education first about children eating off the floor – a pretty easy win. Over time, and with lots of pressure, South Bronx Churches negotiated with the Board and with the support of the Bronx Superintendent of High Schools, built “a new kind of high school.”

Using the rules and regulations of the education system of New York State and New York City, South Bronx Church maximized as many resources at they could including the number of square feet and instructors per child. The experience helped promote policy change at the Board of Education, which has created more and more small schools over the years.

Following a pattern of some sort, her mentor in organizing, Jim Drake, died and she decided to move on to a different chapter in her life. She finished the Nehemiah project and sought purpose at several other organizations, working on adult education, international development and, for a brief time, parks advocacy. When the options in New York felt too limited for her anymore, she put her resume out to many places doing community development, and landed a job with the Duluth, Minn., branch of the Local Initiatives Support Corporatin (LISC), She gave practically everything she had to Mexican families she had worked with at SBC, and hopped in her Subaru to start anew.

“Duluth is great!,” she says, explaining its very liberal, but also very white – something she wasn’t used to after 24 years in the Bronx. “The disparities between Native and African American and white are extreme here.”

She worked for two years re-doing neighborhood plans and the like, but it wasn’t quite as active as she wanted to be. When the director position at an organization called Churches United in Ministry (CHUM) opened up in Duluth, she was encouraged to apply by its outgoing leader as well as others in the community. CHUM was about to build a 44-unit apartment building for permanent supportive housing for families with children who had experienced long-term or recurrent homelessness, so they wanted someone who knew their way around a construction project. They were also appreciative of the fact that Lee had worked in an ecumenical, interfaith organization for a long time.

She’s been with CHUM for two years and finds herself learning more every day. Mostly she’s learning how to run an organization that provides direct service. CHUM’s mission is “People of faith, working together to provide basic necessities, foster stable lives and organize for a just and compassionate community.” As such, it runs Duluth’s largest emergency shelter for homeless individuals and families, and provides the basic social safety net for Duluth’s poorest of the poor. “This is my first experience dealing with people that have been thrown away by our society. In the Bronx the place was the apparent throwaway, not the people.” She explains that for the most part, the people who populated the Bronx were long-time residents who had survived the destruction of the neighborhood or immigrants who saw themselves as valiant survivors coming from terrible places around the world to make a better life in the United States.

The people Lee sees coming to CHUM Shelter have been failed by the systems and culture around them, with more than half showing clear signs of mental illness. She’s beginning to advocate for safe and secure housing for people with severe mental illness so they can get out of the shelter, jail, hospital, street cycle. The new apartments are now open, and by the end of March 2015, 44 families will be in residence. “The best part for me,” Lee says, is the pregnant moms who are moving in. “They’ve been homeless for over a year, or at least three or four times in the last few years – and now, they’re baby is going to be born NOT homeless. That’s wonderful.”

Lee has a profound understanding of the position of privilege she comes from. “I’ve been able to do the things I’ve done because of the investment that was made in me by institutions and my family. They were all betting for my success. That’s no longer happening to young people, particularly people of color. The bet is against them.

“I have great pride in my work, but I’m also driven by the humility of the position of privilege I came from. The baby that’s born into a family that can’t take care of it, that’s its bad luck. It has nothing to do with the value of that baby or the value of that mom or dad. I want to build a society where luck has less to do with it. Social justice is taking the luck out of the equation. Taking the privilege out of it.

“That’s what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. Creating places where people can have a chance, where babies can be safe, where parents can be held in the secure embrace of a community that loves them and honors them; where life is second chances, and third and fourth; where gifts are recognized, where schools nurture the full development of children, where cultures are honored, where we respect the elders, where health is not based on your zip code or your skin color or your income. That kind of thing.

“Years ago when I was a student at Prescott College, Willi Unsoeld gave a graduation speech where he told us to dream big for our lives – not something simple like what he had done, being the first American on Everest. He told us to spend our life on something big. He suggested that we humanize bureaucracy. It was meant to draw a laugh, but pretty much since then, I’ve been following his advice.”