Susan Leviton is emeritus professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. For the past 38 years she has directed a children’s law clinic where she has supervised law students representing child in need of special education or involved with the juvenile court because of delinquency or abuse or neglect. Leviton also supervises law students who intern with members of the Maryland General Assembly and nonprofit agencies that advocate before the legislature.
Previously, Leviton was the lobbyist for the Legal Aid Bureau and managing attorney of the Welfare Unit. She has published numerous books and articles on special education, juvenile delinquency, and child abuse and neglect, and has co-authored articles in the Maryland Law Review including “An Adequate Education for All Maryland’s Children: Morally Right, Economically Necessary, and Constitutionally Required,” and “Maryland’s Exchangeable Children: A Critique of Maryland’s System of Providing Services to Mentally Handicapped Children.”
Leviton is the founder and honorary chair of Advocates for Children and Youth, a statewide child advocacy organization. She is also founder of the Women’s Law Center, chaired the Maryland Human Relations Commission and was a founding member of Free State Justice, a legal service program for LGBTQ folks in Maryland.
It’s clear you have a real love for Baltimore. What attracts you to this city?
I think that in cities, you really get a blend of all kinds of people and that makes them interesting and exciting places in which to live. There is always something new and exciting going on. I walk around the harbor most mornings. It’s great to see the city come to life–folks taking water taxis to work, mothers walking their children to school, high school kids coming from all over the city to go to high school.
Cities are where most immigrants start their American experience. My grandmother came to Baltimore at age three, lived in east Baltimore and, as a young woman, worked in a sewing factory near where I now live. The neighborhood is now thriving, close to my work, friends and restaurants, and it was a wonderful place to raise my son and daughter. It’s fun now to watch the young families who have moved to my street raise their children. I think cities just keep re-inventing themselves and provide opportunities to get to know all kinds of people.
How has city life helped to shape your role as an advocate for the underserved?
As a professor at a law school, I have my law students teach at a charter school in east Baltimore. Some of the neighborhoods where the high school children live are really tough and, seeing this, you realize how the high school students’ moms must worry about how their kids will be able to get home safely. It makes you realize the tremendous disparities in the resources and opportunities that children growing up in our cities have. And you begin to realize that every single one of their mothers wants to ensure that their kids have a great school, a safe neighborhood and opportunities for sports and enriching after-school activities. So it gives you a real perspective on the need to create opportunities for all kids.
How did you get connected to OSI?
In 1986 I started an organization called Advocates for Children and Youth (ACY), which is a statewide child advocacy group. At ACY, our primary concern is to ensure that the services we could provide to our children–a good home, food, health care and a safe school and neighborhood to live and play–is available to all children. OSI-Baltimore’s agenda was similar and so it became one of our big supporters. It was through this connection that I knew and admired the work of OSI-Baltimore.
As chair of OSI-Baltimore’s grants committee, how do you decide what grants to make?
The program officers bring us the very best programs and ideas to consider. What we try to do with our grants is to look at a problem and then think of a multi-pronged strategy to deal with that problem and then fund different groups that can work with us to bring about change. It’s not about funding one treatment program; it’s about funding the advocacy groups or the grassroots groups who can work with us to ensure that the greatest number of people in Baltimore can receive the services that they need. You can take $300,000 and fund a treatment program or you can take that same money and fund a drug policy and advocacy group that is working with the government and agencies to ensure that, when regulations are written, they will enable more people with addiction to access services. OSI-Baltimore would do the latter.
I think it’s a smart approach because all foundations, even the wealthiest, have limited funds. So the way I think you can have the greatest impact with your money is to fund organizations that can create change for the greatest number of people.
You’ve seen so many grants from their inception through their fruition. Do you have a favorite?
That’s a hard one. I love the work we did in helping to start the Baltimore Urban Debate League. From my work with a charter school, I was able to see firsthand the effect that good after-school programs like BUDL can make. Some of the students who cared the least about school became passionate debaters and now are leaders of their college debate teams. They learned that they had a voice and could make a difference.
I am also excited about a new small grant we gave to train middle school kids about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. So many LGBT kids suffer from depression because of the way they are treated by their classmates. Teaching all students to respect each other’s differences is a lesson that will help them, as well as the broader community.