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.