Inspiring the next generation of successful “agents of social change” is the mission of Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Bartholet ’65 and Lecturer on Law Jessica Budnitz ’01. Through their course, “The Art of Social Change,” the duo hopes to give students an opportunity to explore successful methods and policies that better protect children.

Each week, students hear from individuals who have been “extraordinary social change agents” in their careers, Bartholet explained. The lecturers range from those working in the courtroom—such as David Deakin ’91 who leads the Suffolk County Family Protection and Sexual Assault Bureau in the District Attorney’s office—to those who have used grassroots-based support to urge Massachusetts lawmakers to expand access to early childhood education, such as Margaret Blood, founder of Strategies for Children Inc. Other lecturers include doctors who are trying to address the developmental issues associated with children who have been abused, such as David Olds, Director of the Prevention Research Center for Family and Child Health at the University of Colorado in Denver.

“One of our students described the Art of Social Change course as a live course textbook,” said Budnitz [photo right]. “Instead of reading reports describing the deplorable conditions for children who receive sentences dooming them to die in adult prison where we know they will be victims of abuse, our students interact with the lawyers fighting to overturn those sentences for children.”

“Although we include using the courtroom, we’re trying to educate students about how often effective change comes from outside of the courtroom, or from lawyers who work with a lot of different people who use very different methods,” said Bartholet.

Since first offering the course in 2005, Bartholet and Budnitz have developed a following among students from all over the University who are seeking a forum for policy discussions around child welfare, education, and juvenile justice issues. Because of the inter-disciplinary approach, students from the Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Kennedy School, and even the Harvard Divinity School have made up as much as one-third of the course’s enrollment.

“We’ve had so many different people who do different types of social work,” said Sara Garcia, a student at the Graduate School of Education who is enrolled in the Education and Policy Management program. “This class is helping me realize where my interest might be. It is nice to figure out where I fit into the picture.”

For HLS students, the course represents a broadening in perspective: “It is valuable to hear perspectives from people who aren’t lawyers, or who maybe are lawyers but don’t follow the typical path. It is easy to have a limited vision because we are in a very constrained environment,” said Danny Rosenthal ’11, a former teacher who wants to pursue a career in education after law school.

Bartholet and Budnitz are intent upon facilitating a conversation that extends outside of the classroom throughout the semester. Members of the broader community – especially those who have experience in child welfare issues – are invited to each lecture to listen and participate in the discussion. An informal reception follows each course, where students have the opportunity to mingle with the visiting lecturers and fellow classmates. And, students can sign up to attend dinner with the presenters each week.

“Although child advocacy work is often underpaid and undervalued, securing a job in the field – even for Harvard Law School grads – isn’t easy,” explained Budnitz. “Through the course, we create opportunities, like our receptions after class and our dinners with our guest speakers, where students have the chance to engage more deeply with the course issues and presenters.”

The “Art of Social Change” plays an important part in the Child Advocacy Program, which Bartholet leads with the help of Budnitz in order to advance children’s interests while bridging academia and the world of policy and practice. Bartholet teaches the Program’s academically rigorous classroom course, “Child, Family, and the State,” as well as a writing seminar on “The Future of the Family,” and Budnitz leads a clinical component of the Program, which matches students with legal organizations that promote the interests of children.

“We hope to inspire our students to act, to pursue social change work in some form when they graduate,” said Budnitz.

Added Bartholet: “We’re making [students] realize that lawyers in courtrooms fit into a larger world.”