Two Prep graduates honored for their work to advance equity and understanding
They live on opposite coasts, but educator Rob O'Brien '04 in Danvers and economist Paul Niehaus, Ph.D. '00 in San Diego have a lot in common. Both are committed to advancing equity and justice, both believe in the potential of every individual, and both were honored at the Prep's ninth annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on January 11, 2018. See images from the event!
O’Brien received the Justice and Equity Award for his commitment to empowering all members of the community, something he expresses every day in his role as an English teacher and mentor for the Prep’s international students.
The No One Walks Alone award was presented to Niehaus, who is co-founder of GiveDirectly and Segovia, and an associate professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego. GiveDirectly is a global aid organization that’s changing the way people think about helping those who live in extreme poverty.
Kennealy Commons was filled with parents, alumni, students, teachers, and staff, who gathered to “celebrate Dr. King’s legacy of faith, non-violent civil disobedience, and servant leadership—and to inspire each of us, and our community, to become agents of change who will make the vision Dr. King spoke of in his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech a reality, here and now,” Headmaster Hardiman said in welcoming guests.
Student voices were among the evening’s most powerful. Six members of the Middle School Advisory Council—Tighe Cole ‘23, Raoul Foster ‘24, Jack Hartfelder ‘23, Mario Hernandez ‘22, Ansh Motiani ‘22, and Davian Romero ‘24—walked to the podium in front of the packed room to share thoughtful reflections on some of Dr. King’s words. Jack Hartfelder said he is inspired by Dr. King’s words on faith—Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. “That’s what faith is really about. Everyone needs to believe that their battles will be won, even if the odds are against them. They still have a better chance when they believe.”
Senior Sebastian Roizner followed the younger boys. He shared a story about encountering discrimination as a child, but ended on a hopeful note. Index cards had been placed on each table, and he asked people to write down one thing they could do for someone else—to spread kindness in place of divisiveness.
When he stood to accept the Justice and Equity Award, O’Brien said the theme of the evening was community and fighting together to advance Dr. King’s work. It was a powerful grassroots embrace of the cause that propelled the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, he said. “Imagine if Dr. King had walked alone across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma. We wouldn’t be talking about him now if it weren’t for the community that rose up around him. Fifty years later, we are an extension of that legacy, and we have a job to do. I am here. You are here. Together, we will push through.”
Paul Niehaus joined the program by way of a video he sent from Switzerland. His Prep experience was invaluable, he said, because it meant being “part of a community in which service to others was not unusual or exceptional, but done as a matter of fact. I think that culture is unique and unusual and something to be treasured. I urge you to keep that culture alive.”
Raisa Carrasco-Velez, director of Multicultural Affairs and Community Development, also recognized two senior parents, Lina Bowers and Gary Cherry, for their daily involvement in advancing diversity and inclusivity at St. John's.
Empowering Students for a Global Community
Among the classes O’Brien teaches at St John’s is a freshman language skills class designed to help students who are far from home acclimate to a new language, learn about the culture, and become part of the Prep community. He also is a hands-on partner for the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Community Development (MACD) and the Women’s Initiatives for Leadership & Learning (W.I.L.L.) Committee.
Senior Robby Huang says O’Brien made him, and his fellow international students, feel at home as soon as the arrived at the Prep. “I felt Mr. O’Brien played the role as a big brother and a cultural ambassador during our first year at the Prep. He humbly learned about and respected our cultural backgrounds. Meanwhile, he patiently introduced us to the American one. He became our ‘go-to guy’ so that we don’t feel embarrassed when asking questions on matters such ‘Why do people say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes? I can vividly remember that he bought some Easter eggs to introduce egg hunts to us in the class before Easter and got a basket of pumpkins for us to decorate during Halloween. We, as guests from the other side of the world, received the warmest welcome from Mr. O’Brien, had a unique experience in his class, and felt embraced by the supportive Prep community.”
O’Brien was characteristically humble when asked how he felt about being recognized for his efforts. “I was initially surprised to learn that I had been nominated, but I'm honored to receive the Justice and Equity Award. I've always been inquisitive about culture and perspective, and I think advocacy is an extension of that curiosity. I'm happy to do whatever I can to help anyone at St. John's feel comfortable and valued,” says the Notre Dame graduate, who later earned his master’s in teaching at Boston College.
English Department Chair John Klein first knew O’Brien as a student and athlete. Now he counts him as a colleague. “What’s impressed me more than anything has to be his skill at gentle accountability. Whether it is getting young writers to develop their own unique styles or convincing young runners that they can excel, Rob is a master at communicating confidence and motivation.”
Part of five state championship teams at St. John’s, including cross country in his senior year, O’Brien now coaches the Eagles in cross country, winter track and field, and spring track and field. Zach Lankow ’07, who is now head varsity track and field coach, was a freshman runner when O’Brien was a senior. “Rob pursues all his endeavors with the same diligence and thoughtful attention. He does a fantastic job holding kids to a high standard by empowering them to vocalize what they need to do in order to succeed. Training new milers, Rob meticulously tracks athletes splits for every race. Afterwards, he analyzes the splits with the athletes and points them in the direction of improvement by showing what the data says. He empowers athletes by having them vocalize the areas of the race they need to focus on in the future, just as he helps students vocalize how they need to improve an essay.”
Changing the Way We Give
Founded in 2008 and now one of the fastest growing charities in the world, GiveDirectly makes one-time, $1,000 cash transfers directly to some of the poorest people in the developing world. No strings attached. Recipients decide how best to use the funds. In the ten years since GiveDirectly began, they’ve done everything from invest in livestock and agricultural ventures to pay for education, build or improve their homes, and start businesses.
The net effect is empowering people to make their own decisions and improve their lives. The award belongs to them, says Niehaus. “Think of this as an award for Mary, an A- student who went back to school because she could finally afford the fees. An award for Kilaris, who bought ropes and nets, leased a boat, and started a fishing business. An award for many more like them, people living in extreme poverty who used money that we helped deliver to improve their lives. What I read in the data is that ending poverty is about their hard work more than it is about our own heroics. More than anything else, my collaborators and I have tried to point towards that truth.”
GiveDirectly’s efforts began in Kenya, where people in the most impoverished villages typically live on $.65 a day, and where inexpensive mobile payment technology to facilitate cash transfers is widely available. Today, GiveDirectly is earning high marks and has expanded its reach to Rwanda and Uganda. GiveWell rates it as one of the top charities worldwide, Inc. calls it one of the “most audacious” companies, and Fast Company describes it as one of the ten most innovative. Segovia was founded to help organizations like GiveDirectly. In short, Segovia is creating a streamlined platform for making secure cash transfers to the developing world.
Niehaus studied applied mathematics as an undergraduate at Harvard. He began to explore new approaches to philanthropy while he was studying for his Ph.D. in economics, also at Harvard. Back when he was at St. John’s, he played on the freshman basketball team for coach and religious studies teacher Bill Mackinson, who remembers him well.
"Paul exhibited such ease and kindness as a freshman basketball team player 'back in the day.' He simply loved to play the game and then spend hours competing in the game of chess with our athletic trainer, Brian Corbett. His pioneering efforts with GiveDirectly testify that the ease and kindness he so genuinely shared here at St. John's, matched with his intellectual brilliance, enrich people's lives today miles away.”
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Justice and Equity Award recognizes a member of the St. John’s Prep community who has embodied King’s steps toward the goal of social justice by fostering a caring, welcoming environment; building morale and showing compassion; working toward cultural competence and awareness; promoting and embracing diversity; social justice and equity; demonstrating moral courage and dedication to the ideals of social harmony; and giving their time and service freely to those in need without question and often without recognition.
The No One walk Alone (N.O.W.A) Advocacy Award recognizes a member of the extended St. John’s Prep community who has embodied King’s steps toward the goal of social justice by creating opportunities for change; acting as a role model and inspiration for the members of our community through a commitment to Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision; promoting and embracing diversity; actively seeking social justice and equity; demonstrating moral courage and dedication to the ideals of social harmony; giving their time and service freely to those in need without question and often without recognition.