Our Stories

'The Way the Spirit Moved Me'

Law Professor Susan Smith's career as an activist started at age three, when she accompanied her mother on Meals on Wheels runs. "From an early age, it was clear to me that what my parents valued was the ability to care for people," she says. She marched in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War as a teen, and served as senior editor of the Harvard Environmental Law Review as a law student.

But it was stint in Australia during the Rio Summit that really solidified her convictions. The Fulbright Senior Scholar had swapped out an all-consuming career overseeing nearly 1,000 court cases with the Lands Division of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., for a job teaching environmental law at Willamette -- when she met colleagues involved with the international summit on environment and development. "They transformed my view," she says. She threw herself into volunteer legal work for conservation causes and wrote a stack of articles and books, one with the title, Crimes Against the Environment. "That's the way I think of them," she says.

"We need to have a complete transformation of way we do business in order to protect Earth. I became convinced that nothing but fairly radical changes in our lifestyles and policies would be sufficient.

"We need to enact enforceable laws that reorient corporations away from a single bottom line toward sustainability, to meet the constraints of social justice and ecological sustainability as pre-conditions, before we worry about maximizing economic wealth. We can rely on self-interest to drive our economic machine, but not to assure a longer-term perspective about people or the planet."

Smith's vision is global, and much of her focus is on water. "Two billion people don't have clean drinking water, and in less than 20 years water scarcity will affect two out of three individuals worldwide," says the law professor, who provides pro bono legal expertise to the World Council of Churches about water as an inalienable right. "If we want democracy and political stability around the world, the first thing we need to ensure is that people are not thirsty."

Three years ago Smith asked members of her church congregation to give up soda and lattes during Lent, drink water instead, and send the savings overseas to an adopted village to help provide water. "I thought the only way we can begin to deal with the global water crisis is one village at a time. We all belong to communities -- academic, religious, social -- and so I started with my village, my church, and we reached out to another village."

Children listened while Smith explained the idea to her congregation, and after they left for Sunday school classes, she said, "Every 15 seconds a child dies from a disease that would have been preventable with clean drinking water. If we lived elsewhere, in the time I've been speaking all these children would have died.

The first year of donations financed a well in Kenya. The next year's Lenten offerings funded a system to channel water from wells to homes in Honduras. The year after, thousands of dollars went to Haiti.

Her Drink Water for Life movement is now spreading to other congregations in the Willamette Valley, who are adopting their own villages -- and building rainwater catchments and storage systems around the globe.

Meanwhile, Smith co-founded Willamette's Certificate Program in Sustainable Environmental, Energy and Resources Law; established the Environmental Law Prof Blog, which receives visitors from around the world; and embarked on a master of divinity degree. She plans to push water justice as part of her ministry.

Smith's enthusiasm is infectious, and she issues a call to action on her office door. A flyer asks her students:

In May, will you be able to say:

I made a difference during my first year of law school.

I lobbied for legislation.

My idea became a bill in the Oregon legislature.

I testified on behalf of my policy proposal at the legislature.

My policy proposal failed this time, but I know enough now to make it happen next time.

Lawmaking in the real world -- it's worth the hard work!

"Willamette has given me this privilege," Smith says. "Intellectually, I thought teaching would be the right place. It allows an opportunity to reflect and look at things in more depth." But teaching and writing -- her words -- have never been sufficient. Smith is a visionary and activist, linked by deeds to a growing number of villages -- and neighbors -- across the globe. "This is the way the spirit moved me," she says.