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Remembering Nonnie Burnes A Champion of Justice

On August 14th, 2021 we lost a deeply respected and much beloved member of the Discovering Justice community, founding board member, Nonnie Burnes.

Nonnie was invited to join Discovering Justice as a founding board member in December of 2001 and was in attendance at the first board meeting on January 23, 2002. Nonnie remained an active, generous, and passionate member of the board through 2015, serving as Vice Chair from 2012 to 2014. In 2010, Nonnie was the recipient of the Discovering Justice Champion of Democracy award which recognized her bold vision and tenacity as she sought to bring high quality civic education to young students in Boston classrooms and across the Commonwealth.

Nonnie’s contributions to Discovering Justice and our community of students, educators, and volunteers were significant and endured for nearly twenty years. Together, with her husband Rick, Nonnie generously supported the development and delivery of impactful civics programs for our youngest learners. Her vision became the reality for thousands of young students and their educators in classrooms across the Commonwealth.

"Nonnie was like a North Star": Reflections on Her Legacy From the Discovering Justice Community

Members of the Discovering Justice community who worked alongside Nonnie during her tenure as a Trustee reflect on their time together here. The reflections begin with those of Jack Regan and end with his introduction of Nonnie as the 2010 Discovering Justice Champion of Justice. If you didn’t know Nonnie, these words from her friends and colleagues should give you a sense of the extraordinary person and leader she was, and what she meant to our community. If you did know Nonnie, may these reflections help to evoke your own happy memories of her. For Nonnie, let us continue the work that she knew to be so very important. We welcome your thoughts and will continue to collect and share the sentiments of those who were fortunate to have known her.

Jack Regan, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

Nonnie Burnes was a friend and colleague, whom I came to know well and deeply respect through our work together at the Boston Bar Foundation—a Board of Trustees on which Nonnie was a leading voice for innovative legal services models to assist those most in need. When I was asked by the Boston Bar Foundation to establish a Board of Directors for a fledgling Discovering Justice, Nonnie was the first person I called. Nonnie enthusiastically joined that start-up effort to create unique civic education programs for the youth of Boston at the Moakley federal courthouse. It was Nonnie, moved to action by what she saw as a judge in the criminal sessions of the Massachusetts Superior Court, who had the idea of a democracy and justice program at Discovering Justice directed to elementary school children, to reach them at their most formative educational stage, beginning in the first grade. Nonnie was a doer and a thinker, who led by her example, motivated others to join with her, and always oriented everything she did to the north star of the common good. She was fearless and a difference-maker. Nonnie’s impact and legacy will persist at Discovering Justice and at the many other organizations that benefited from her energy, her generosity, her commitment, and her passion to make our community a better place for all its citizens.

Jane Grossman, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

Nonnie uniquely combined serious thought, passionate caring and insight with lightness and easy laughter. When I picture Nonnie, I see her listening intently. And my other vision is of her joyous demeanor. She was a wonderful role model and colleague.

Tony Doniger, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

Discovering Justice had no greater friend and supporter than Nonnie Burnes. She was fiercely devoted to enhancing educational opportunities for inner city children and felt the mission of Discovering Justice in bringing civic education to that population was second to none. She was an energetic and imaginative board member and with her family was a generous supporter of the organization. With her death, Boston has lost a true civic leader; she will be sorely missed.

Cecily Morse, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

Nonnie was so visionary in her approach to the law. I remember her explaining in the early days of DJ why a program like this was needed. She was devastated by the waste of young lives she experienced in her courtroom. It wasn’t just that the justice system had failed those coming before her; more fundamentally they didn’t even know it existed.

John Wallace, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

There are positive influencers in life. Nonnie Burnes was one of those people. Her passion and commitment will carry on. Forever missed.

Meira Levinson, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

Nonnie was generous, welcoming, and totally indomitable in spreading her vision both for Discovering Justice and for democracy as an equitable, inclusive, and achievable goal. When she and Lissy Medvedow set out to get me to join the board, Nonnie wouldn't take no for an answer; her persistence paid off, and I am grateful to her for convincing me to say yes!

Deb Birnbach, Discovering Justice Trustee:

Nonnie was a big thinker who succeeded in inspiring others to help people towards a greater social good. I first met Nonnie when she spoke on a panel of Wellesley College alumni judges, addressing younger lawyers. What stuck with me was Nonnie’s simple plea for all of us to help other women when we are in a position to do so. Nonnie’s vision of social change through greater civic engagement was the driving force behind Discovering Justice’s mission. She inspired lawyers, educators, students, funders and anyone who ever heard her passionate description of the importance of education and social justice. Remembering Nonnie, I am inspired to try to help women when I can.

Tracy Walker Griffith, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

I served on the Discovering Justice board with Nonnie Burnes and am forever grateful for her inspirational vision for helping children see themselves as the change we need to see in the world. She was a caring, compassionate leader who demonstrated daily that service and being active in your community to make it a better place is our charge every day. Nonnie made our world better and I will miss her kind and generous spirit.

Lissy Medvedow, former Discovering Justice Executive Director:

Nonnie was the only person I knew when I arrived at Discovering Justice and, as one would imagine, she helped me enormously. She was generous in every way. And visionary. And spirited. And opinionated. And so very warm with that magnificent smile. She touched my life for which I'm grateful. Even more importantly, she changed the trajectory of innumerable children's lives through the curriculum, Children Discovering Justice. She will be missed.

Ben Taylor, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

Nonnie Burnes was a hugely important board member in the early years of Discovering Justice. Her generosity helped to keep the organization afloat. Her credibility with the legal community and with the philanthropic community in Boston were essential ingredients to DJ's growth. Her unwavering commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion helped to keep the organization's focus on providing civic education for those communities that are most at risk.

Mo Cowan, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

Nonnie truly was one of the greats. I recall meeting her after my @NUSL 1L year and being in awe...of her kindness and generosity of spirit. I later served with her in a couple of organizations and came to know that her soul was pure and ran deep. She will be missed.

Ann Gogol, Discovering Justice Chief Operating Officer:

Whether in the Courthouse at a board meeting, discussing civic education over coffee at a cafe, or on a sailboat, Nonnie was serious about the matter at hand, but always at the ready were her inviting smile and heartfelt laughter. During my last communication with Nonnie in the spring, despite being very ill, she expressed the wish to do more. That was Nonnie. Somewhat intimidating, with high expectations, Nonnie consistently made me want to be better, to do better, and when possible, to do more. At Nonnie’s celebration of life, Rick described her inclination to push the edges, predicated on her belief that the status quo wasn’t fair. I’ll be thinking of Nonnie when I similarly recognize the need to push the edges.

Michael Contompasis, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

Her legacy is the total commitment and dedication she brought to her work in public service. She served the Commonwealth in all her endeavors with honesty. Nonnie was a strong supporter and advocate for the Discovering Justice programs. Her thoughtful and sage advice as a board member helped to ensure the program’s success during its period of expansion. Her leadership was always collaborative and inclusive. I was honored and humbled to have had the pleasure of serving on the board with her.

Emiley Lockhart, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

Back in 2009 or so, I recall having an early breakfast with Nonnie at Beacon Hill Bistro, where of course everyone knew her. She was so poised, so sharp, and also so very funny on that particular morning (and in all the years I knew her). Nonnie was explaining to me that she got involved in championing Discovering Justice after being frustrated sitting as a judge in robes and seeing too many bright young men and women in her courtroom who had turned to gangs and violence as a way to seek "justice," and who lost their futures as a result. She was vociferously calling for children to know a different path while they were still young, and she became a tireless advocate for teaching young people that the justice system is for them. Nonnie's passion for spreading justice, for helping others, and for truly enjoying every moment in life, was infectious. I will miss her voice and her laugh very much.

John Chu, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

I am privileged to have served a number of years with Nonnie on the Board of Directors of Discovering Justice, of which she was a founder. During those years Nonnie was like a north star, ensuring that the organization remained true to its mission of educating young persons on the rule of law and learning to become active citizens in our democracy. As a practicing attorney, I am also in awe of her innumerable significant roles and accomplishments – law partner, judge, commissioner, professor, wife and mother, philanthropist, community leader and the list goes on. Although we have lost a champion of justice, through Discovering Justice she has laid the foundation for so many of our youth to have the tools and understanding to live in a positively engaged way and themselves be advocates for fairness and justice.

Laurie Burt, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

Nonnie was passionate about civic education for kids and the vision of the new waterfront Moakley Courthouse (circa 1998) as the people’s place. She got all the major law firms and city leaders to participate in the public celebrations and tours when the courthouse opened and helped launch this new public/private learning experiment called “Discovering Justice.” Nonnie’s leadership at DJ was epic, buttonholing law firms to coach and judges to preside at the Middle School mock trials, and tirelessly supporting expansion of the civic & democracy curriculum for K-12 schools in Boston. Nonnie was deeply committed to the role of critical thinking and mutual respect to empower young people to engage, personally and civically, in community. I will never forget Nonnie’s elation with the premier unveiling of the children’s book, “What is a Rule?” based on bringing these principles to life for the youngest children in the DJ program. Our paths crossed often in legal and civic circles throughout Nonnie’s career. It was Nonnie who persuaded me to join the new Governor Deval Patrick’s administration. “Sometimes you just have to jump, not because it is safe but because it feels right,” she counseled. We were risk takers, so I did jump, of course. Public service was a privilege we both loved and shared. Nonnie was a good friend, a beloved conscience-compass who always pointed toward justice, fairness, and a civic duty to include and help others live to their full potential. Such a loss for Rick and the family, the Boston community and the Commonwealth who benefited from Nonnie’s infectious tenacity and courage.

Thad Beal, Discovering Justice Trustee:

Even when she was not physically present, Nonnie Burnes was a presence in every aspect of Discovering Justice. And when she had something to say, the room went quiet.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, former Discovering Justice Trustee:

​​I had the joy of working with Nonnie on several projects connected to the Boston Bar Association and Boston Bar Foundation. In every interaction, she taught through example that devoting your time to important causes is both a privilege and a great pleasure. She was smart, gracious, thoughtful and kind – and taught those qualities by example. We all became better leaders because of her.

Jack Regan's Introduction: Nonnie Burnes, Champion of Justice

March 25, 2010 | Discovering Justice Benefit

It is an honor to have been asked to introduce my good friend, Nonnie Burnes, as the recipient of Discovering Justice’s 2010 Champion of Democracy Award. No one deserves the Award more than Nonnie. If there were an award for a woman for all seasons with many talents, Nonnie would win that award too. She defines what Governor Patrick and others have called the “citizen lawyer,” one who brings her considerable legal talents to bear to improve the circumstances of the disadvantaged in the community in which she practices.

Lawyer, partner at Hill & Barlow, a Superior Court Judge—who was equally comfortable in criminal and sophisticated civil litigation sessions; Insurance Commissioner for the Commonwealth, who, over the doubts of the naysayers, and the opposition of certain special interests, had the boldness to successfully introduce managed competition into the automobile insurance market in Massachusetts; Trustee of the Boston Bar Foundation—and now—in her latest gig—Senior Fellow at her law school alma mater, Northeastern University, a role she is defining as she goes along, at an institution that is leading the way on many important initiatives in Boston and beyond.

And while all of that has been going on, Nonnie and her husband, Rick, have quietly, often anonymously, for many years provided critical financial support as benefactors to both Boston’s most-established charities and its most exciting new entrepreneurial ones, like Discovering Justice. It was in this latter role that I came to know Nonnie Burnes, rather than in any of her other important private and public sector jobs.

It was in March, 2000, exactly ten years ago, when, out of the blue, the Boston Bar Foundation Trustees asked me to help them spin off a successful pilot project, then called the Federal Court Public Education Project, as a free standing non-profit organization—with all of the opportunities and challenges that would come with independence. Nonnie was among the first that I asked to join that original Board of 24 intrepid Trustees.

I had not known Nonnie before we came together, with many others, including Maria Karagianis, the original Executive Director of Discovering Justice, to build what would eventually be called: Discovering Justice: The James D. St. Clair Court Education Project.

A non-profit startup is not for the faint of heart. When I began asking people to serve on the Discovering Justice Board, I had in mind (but, of course, did not dare quote), the famous 1907 advertisement of Ernest Shackleton in the London Times, written to recruit a crew to sail with him on his exploration of the South Pole: "Wanted. Men and women for hazardous journey. Low wages. Bitter cold. Long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and Recognition in the event of success.”

When I talked to those whom I trusted most about the qualities I thought were needed for the challenging job of being on Discovering Justice’s founding Board—intelligence, vision, energy, determination, ability to raise money, a deep understanding of inner city educational issues, significant connections to Boston’s legal and judicial community, collegiality, and grace under pressure—everyone said—you have to call Nonnie Burnes.

So I did. Without knowing her. Nonnie, without hesitation, said yes. And I must say we had a great ride together, until I rotated off the Discovering Justice Board about two years ago.

Now, lots of people sit on charitable boards, serve faithfully, and provide the talent, money, and wisdom that allow nonprofits to carry out their missions, and (hopefully) to seize opportunities should they come along.

But in my experience, few, very few, members of a charitable board have a really big idea that not only does enormous good, but comes to define the organization itself.

In this instance, I speak, of course, of “Children Discovering Justice,” a program created by Discovering Justice that is directed to elementary students in grades one through five.

Nonnie, as is the duty of any Superior Court judge, had occasion to send young people to prison for criminal activity. This is an aspect of judging that can be very tough on a judge, who sees before her young lives of promise that instead are in ruins. But Nonnie, with a profound sense of wanting to get to the root of the problem of youths on the wrong side of the law, boldly said the following to Discovering Justice:

  • I want you to design a program that teaches students between the ages of seven and thirteen about justice, about the rule of law, about democracy, and about our civic values of respect and responsibility—teach them, among other things, about rules, voting, jury service, the bill of rights, and community participation.
  • I want you to make the program participatory, and I want it to be based on children’s literature, so that it reinforces educational goals like reading, writing, group discussion, and individual oral presentation skills.
  • I want the program to be of high quality and have challenging substantive content.
  • I want you to offer the program throughout the Boston Public Schools as soon as you can write the curricula, and elsewhere when your resources permit.
  • I want you to conduct professional workshops for teachers so that they can fully understand the course material and be excited about teaching it.
  • And I and Rick will provide the seed funding and be there by your side to support your efforts every step of the way.

The first reaction of people like me on the Board, and to some extent on the staff, was, “this is crazy.” You can’t teach first graders about law and democracy—the concepts are too abstract—and the teachers will either be frustrated or not interested. To all of which Nonnie said, “just watch me.”

And so, Nonnie, Sarah Churchill Silberman—our own long-time educator on staff at Discovering Justice—and others set about creating from nothing a robust curriculum that, under the energetic leadership of Lissy Medvedow, now serves (as you have heard) 3200 children in 128 classrooms in 17 Boston and Cambridge Public Schools, with an opportunity to visit the Moakley U.S. Courthouse at the end of the program. Over the past ten years, more than 30,000 children have been exposed to the program. When I left the Discovering Justice Board, we were not aware of anything like this program anywhere in the United States. No one else was daring enough to suggest that law and democracy could be taught to first graders. No one else was bold enough to say that the Bill of Rights—freedom of speech, the press and religion—could be explained to second graders. No one except Nonnie Burnes.

So, in conclusion, let me share with you some of what we at Discovering Justice learned from working side-by-side for ten years with Nonnie:

  • She taught us to think big and to be aggressive in attacking the challenges of inner-city education.
  • She taught us to face problems head on, and not to finesse or ignore them in the false hope that they would pass with time.
  • She taught us about fiscal prudence, about accountability, and about the importance of really measuring educational results, rather than just guessing that children would learn when a program was presented.
  • She taught us that having a strategic plan is essential to a successful non-profit, so that the non-profit knows what NOT to do as well as what to do.
  • She taught us that a determined attitude now and a long-term commitment go hand-and-hand, and that nothing of importance in education will be accomplished if you don’t stick with it for the long haul.
  • And, most importantly, she taught us to care deeply for the education of each child, as if that child were our own.

So we are here tonight to confer on Nonnie Burnes the “Honor and Recognition in the event of Success” that Shackleton promised—to those willing to accept the challenge of a difficult journey into unknown waters. As many of you know, Nonnie is an accomplished sailor, so that metaphor is quite fitting.

For all that I have mentioned, and so much more that would take too long to tell you, I am very honored, on behalf of Discovering Justice—whose current success is owed so much to Nonnie and Rick—to present Nonnie Burnes with the 2010 Champion of Democracy award.

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