Prof. Laurence Simon leads conversation about his career in international development, human rights activism
Simon reflected on how his upbringing, family values and education built the career he holds today.
In honor of Prof. Laurence Simon’s (Heller) influential career in international development, the Heller School for Social Policy and Management hosted a conversation with him, moderated by Prof. Rajesh Sampath (Heller). Simon is a professor of International Development and the Director of the Center for Global Development and Sustainability. The event focused on Simon's upbringing and early adulthood and how this led to his career in humanitarian aid and international development.
Sampath first asked about formative events in Simon's early life, specifically asking Simon to reflect on his family, childhood and how his upbringing shaped his moral compass. Simon's response began with the story of his family's immigration to Ellis Island in the 1800s. His father's parents immigrated from Kiev and his mother’s from Minsk. His father’s family lived in a tenement building on the lower east side of Manhattan, like many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe at the time. The tenement buildings had horrible living conditions and high death rates due to disease, crowded living spaces and many other factors. As he told the story of his father's childhood, it was clear that the journey had not been simple. After a difficult journey from Kiev to the United States, his family lived without a lot of money and worked constantly to support their seven children, one of whom was Simon’s father. Despite these hardships, his grandparents had hopes that life in the United States would be different than in Tsarist Russia or Nazi Germany.
Simon proceeded to speak about his parents. While they were not observant of most Jewish religious practices, his father always emphasized “tikkun olam,” which translates to repairing the world. The idea of tikkun olam had the greatest influence in his early youth. Not only did his family's immigration story and struggles as Jewish immigrants influence his work, it now informs his approach to everything he does, Simon said.
The conversation shifted to Simon's early adult years and intellectual roots. After graduating from Queens College with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, Simon enrolled at The New School. During his studies there, his most influential philosophy professor was Hannah Arendt. She spoke of people’s moral compass and reactions to oppression, and taught that intervening in oppression can be done from the outside.
After the Vietnam War, Simon worked at Fordham University, where he met Archbishop Dom Helder from Brazil. “When he [Helder] spoke of injustice, poverty and oppression, an aura of goodness came from his words,” Simon said. One of the ideas that the archbishop preached was that charity alone cannot fix injustice; there is also a need to reorder the social structures of humanity.
Shortly after Simon's time at Fordham, he decided to travel to Latin America to do humanitarian work. In 1977, he began work at Oxfam, an international nonprofit whose goal is to alleviate global poverty, in Central America and the Caribbean. While Simon’s ties to the church gave him a different vantage point to examine the issue of global poverty, he wanted to connect his Jewish roots to his work. His work with Oxfam revealed that there was no identifiable Jewish presence in the world of humanitarian aid. This idea led to his co-founding of the American Jewish World Service in 1984.
Throughout the event, Simon emphasized that humanitarian aid and international development are not the same in every culture or country. The way to succeed in humanitarian work is to understand and defend human rights, while honoring cultural practices and traditions.
Simon also pointed out that it would be unjust to speak about this topic without bringing up the struggles of minorities, such as caste inequities in India, the struggles of Black people in the United States, rights for Indigenous peoples and more. Simon believes that the most important aspect of civic activism, in relation to these groups or others, is deep reflection in terms of social change. It is essential to look at long term challenges and at how to provide more than a small fix. This work cannot just come from those who experience oppression, he said. Every single person needs to be a part of humanitarian aid and the fight for justice.