“Every time you dare to speak truth to power, every time you voice an opinion that is not received or accepted opinion, that’s a defining moment.”—Leslie H. Lowe
This November, as we move into the holiday season with important things going on in Washington, it makes sense to explore the need to Speak Truth to Power, which is the Lead Line of my dear friend, the late Leslie H. Lowe. As lawyers, we will all be faced with those choices at some point, whether it is telling the truth to a judge or a senior member of the firm, or even standing up to a client.
Leslie and I first bonded over Nancy Drew. In Leslie’s words, “Nancy Drew was smart and spunky. She taught us about influence and feminism.” We both love strong women with a head on their shoulders—and the fact that Nancy had her own roadster didn’t hurt.
I met Leslie in 1976 in Paris, where, after winning Dick Clark’s $25,000 Pyramid television show, she went to the Sorbonne to get her second master’s degree in African History. Leslie was one of the most intelligent, strongest women I ever had the joy of knowing. She grew up with a mother and stepfather who were both lawyers and was bit by the law bug at an early age. Her mother, the late Judge Mary Lowe, was the second African American and female federal judge appointed by President Jimmy Carter. I learned so much from her when I was just a wet-behind-the-ears 18-year-old Texan.
Leslie never expected to become an environmental lawyer, but it’s easy to see where the inspiration for her career started. During her formative years, Leslie attended a Lutheran summer camp in northeastern Pennsylvania. “There was an incredible rhododendron forest that had grown over a dry creek bed. There were all these flat stones that we could play on. It was our playhouse.” Leslie loved her summer camp, she loved going on hikes, and she learned the importance of not littering and leaving places better than she found them. “You should put back more than you took out. I think if we all take more than we give there is nothing left for anybody.” Her childhood led to her to find joy whenever she was able to have a beautiful, natural place to spend time in. This experience paid off in later years when she fought to save the community gardens in New York City.
Leslie graduated from Harvard Law School in 1980, when the foundation for globalization of the World Trade Organization was being built. She started working in the tax department at Shearman & Sterling. “I worked on a major international arbitration in the bank finance department. Again, because of my political perspective, which is decidedly to the left, I was very skeptical about much of what I did and saw. When I left, I went to work for an organization at that time which was called the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights.”
Leslie worked primarily on the Haitian refugee crisis. “I worked with people who were here in the U.S. preparing the refugees for their applications. I worked with the late Arthur Helton, who was one of the outstanding figures in the human rights field. Because I spoke French, they sent me to the Human Rights Convention in Geneva.”
Leslie also worked for the New York Appellate Division, where she first started learning about environmental law. “I said, ‘Judge, I don’t have to do the criminal cases. I’ll do all the environmental and land use cases.’ And that was fine with him.” She worked on a lot of cases in which a government real estate action required an environmental review. When David Dinkins was elected mayor, Leslie had a colleague who was named head of the Office of General Services, a quasi-business agency for the City. “He became Commissioner and asked me to become assistant commissioner and work for him. I left the court and did that.”
Leslie became an expert in the New York City Charter, focusing much of her work on land issues and due process regarding land procurement. “Later in my career, I learned how government works, how the process works. When I left the City, I did some consulting work. At some point, a friend called and asked what I was doing, and I said that I didn’t know yet. He said, there’s this organization that is looking for somebody. It was the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.”
Shortly after Leslie left the City, she was approached by a woman named Cindy Worley, who asked her if she would represent an organization pro bono called the New York City Community Garden Coalition. “Of course, my first inclination was to say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But she started telling this very compelling story, and I knew about the community gardens because I lived downtown, Lower Manhattan, and I could see the gardens here and there, and they were really very nice. I was shocked that the city—again, this was under [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani—was starting to close them and sell the land.”
Leslie became an advisor to the gardens and ultimately became involved in the litigation. The issue became widely publicized throughout the city, and eventually Giuliani said the city was going to auction off all of the gardens. “Pete Seeger came to publicize the fate of the gardens, and on the eve of the auction, Bette Midler came through with enough money to buy the gardens. She just said, ‘Here, I’ll take these.’ She bought about half of them. Some of the land trust groups came up with the money and bought the other half. That’s what saved the community gardens. There had been interim litigation by the New York State Attorney General, and they got a stay on some of the community gardens. That’s how we saved New York City’s Community Gardens.”
What causes are worth standing up for and fighting for in your life?
It is amusing how a city girl would become such an advocate for the environment. That irony was not lost on Leslie. “Even though I lived most of my life in New York City, I’ve always cared very deeply about the natural world. That comes from my childhood experiences—spending my summers in the mountains at summer camp—and just having a beautiful, natural place to play in. I think kids today are so deprived because all of their play is so supervised. They have play dates and are not allowed to just run out into the woods and explore nature and find salamanders.”
Leslie also saw gardens as an important part of the melting pot that is New York City. During the 1970s a gardening movement started taking hold in the city—she saw how the community gardens were knit together by neighbors hailing from the Caribbean, Asia, Latin America, and everywhere. “That is also part of the culture of New York City. We’re an immigrant city. Each of these groups brings something to the City.”
Leslie learned how to be a powerful lawyer by protecting the gardens and the environment from the big city machine. “Every time you dare to speak truth to power, every time you voice an opinion that is not received or accepted opinion, that’s a defining moment. My defining moments have been largely those moments where I saw that something was important but didn’t necessarily have powerful defenders or articulate defenders was as risk. Like the gardens. The people in the community loved those gardens. By all rights, if tending something and taking care of it gave you ownership rights, those people owned those gardens. The city only neglected them. The real estate speculators would just buy them at auction and hold them for a while, and if they couldn’t flip them for a profit, they would let them become abandoned lots again.”
Are you using your voice for good in the community and in your sphere of influence?
Leslie continued to use her voice while still fighting for the betterment of our world. She talked at length about how our economy is ultimately destructive of our environment. “We are not thinking forward.” Leslie was always looking for incentives to fix our economy, fix our environment, and better our future. Her ultimate goal was to make the better choices also the rational ones. She wanted to see the government create economic incentives to tell the country to do the right thing.
As long as I knew her, she never gave up that fight, and she never stopped speaking about it. “I cherish the freedom I have to throw myself into something and work on it until either I realize I’m knocking my head against a stone wall, or until I’m satisfied that I’ve done everything that I could possibly do.” Leslie was never afraid to speak her mind about what she saw as just and right. Her legacy lives on in New York City’s Community Gardens and all the hearts and minds she touched in her too-short time on Earth.
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Parts of this article were excerpted from Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul. ©2019 by the American Bar Association. All rights reserved.
Defining Moments: Insights Into the Lawyer’s Soul
By Melanie Bragg
Product Code: 1620777
2019, 241 pages, paperback and e-book
$29.95; member price $23.95
Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 4, November 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.