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The Power of One: Catching up with a former council maverick in Africa 

John Hummel had the life: A house in Bend. His own law firm. A seat on the city council. Lots of friends. But he wanted

click to enlarge Image: Hummel's change of scenery.
  • Image: Hummel's change of scenery.
John Hummel had the life: A house in Bend. His own law firm. A seat on the city council. Lots of friends. But he wanted a change.

And change he got.

As a Project Manager for The Carter Center's Rule of Law Program in Liberia, Hummel is now working to develop a functioning justice system in a war-torn, economically-devastated West African country. He lives in Liberia's capitol, Monrovia. His house, which he shares with lizards and the occasional cockroach, is surrounded by a razor-wall fence. The area is so dangerous he doesn't walk outside at night. He rarely has power and never has hot water.

And he's got another problem: What to do with the chicken?

"I was invited by the Traditional Women of Liberia to come to their weekly meeting so they could officially welcome me to the country. They greeted me wearing their brightly colored traditional clothes, and sang, danced, and played music. They then presented me with a live chicken. I was honored. However, the chicken now lives in my yard," he wrote in a series of email correspondence. "I have no idea what to do with it."
Shouldn't you eat it? I asked.

"You can't eat the ceremonial chicken!" Hummel replied. "The chiefs come by the office all the time and ask to see it.  If I ate it I would be screwed.  BTW I named him Jimmy - after Jimmy Carter." (The former president who founded The Carter Center.)

But seriously, Hummel's got more intense things on his mind than the chicken. He's worried about, and hoping to help, the Liberian people; about 80 percent are unemployed and disease is rampant.

The government must choose between providing security, boosting education or fighting disease. There are not enough resources to go around, he said.

click to enlarge Hummel's change of scenery.
  • Hummel's change of scenery.
Hummel's change of scenery.Liberia is emerging from 14 years of civil war and the people are well-versed in brutal warfare. But Hummel said in his emails, "I'm never afraid for my own safety - my guards and driver provide me comfort. I do fear for the safety of others, which is difficult."

After much turmoil, in 2006 Liberians elected their first female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, who is working to involve the international community with rebuilding Liberia's justice system, human rights and democracy.

The Liberians were seeking change about the same time as Hummel. He had been feeling like he wasn't excelling in either of his roles - attorney or city councilor - and he needed to make a choice, and realized public policy was his passion. He had also been growing disheartened about U.S. foreign policy. So, "why not work internationally to show the world that Americans were better than our government policies?" he said.

Through research, he settled on West Africa and the perfect program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.

And then one day in February of 2007, he abruptly resigned from the council. His fellow councilors were shocked. He closed down his law firm, sold his house and moved to D.C.

"I felt a calling to do what I'm doing. Sometimes a fault of mine is that I allow the analytical, lawyer side of my brain (to) control the emotional side. This was not one of those times. I wanted to do this and almost needed to do this," he said.

The move for Hummel, an occasional renegade on the council, might have surprised a lot of people, but wasn't really out of character. The councilor was never afraid to back controversial social causes and oft-unpopular ideas like public transportation and affordable housing. He championed the city's controversial equal rights ordinance.

"When I introduced an ordinance to protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation many of my colleagues were not happy," he said. "They preferred that the city council stick to issues of roads, police, sewers, and other similar issues that they viewed as essential city services as opposed to becoming involved in social issues."

But Hummel persevered, and the council ultimately unanimously passed the new law.

He favored the underdogs. He shed tears publicly while recounting his visit to a homeless shelter. But he is far from spineless. As a councilor, he was the last holdout opposing the southern crossing bridge - the Bill Healy bridge. Nor was he an ideologue. He backed the Riverhouse Convention Center against his supporters' wishes. He pushed legislation that benefited street vendors and the working poor. His move to Liberia, which was inspired by his open heart and driven by his convictions, shouldn't have seemed all that shocking after all.

"One of the reasons I chose Liberia was because it was off the beaten path," he said.

He earned a Master of International Public Policy degree with an emphasis on African studies. He had thought job creation was going to be the focus of his work. But he soon realized he could best help Liberians with his legal skills, "to help them develop a functioning justice system."

The logic is that businesses are more likely to invest in a country that can rely on its police and courts.

To create peace, the Liberians need to create and implement their own systems of law enforcement. Hummel said he's not going to prescribe a system; the locals need to figure out what will work best for them. The Carter Center will help by facilitating and coordinating that process, Hummel said.

Hummel manages the Center's Rule of Law program, its budget and 12-person staff (three Americans and nine Liberians). He represents The Carter Center in meetings with the Liberian government, at international diplomatic events, and in press interviews, he said.

His job is different every day. One recent morning he worked on a $900,000 grant proposal.

Another day he unexpectedly found himself seated on stage at a ceremony at the University of Liberia next to the Vice President of Liberia. The VP gave a keynote address. Then, without warning, the ceremony's moderator asked Hummel to step up and say a few words.

"I had not prepared a speech, did not know much about this program, and was following the Vice President," Hummel said. "Oh well, I stood up and gave a speech."

Other days Hummel works in rural Liberia monitoring Carter Center program activities or running legal training seminars. Lots of days are spent in the office doing paperwork.

"On a daily basis it feels exciting and exhilarating.  Liberians desperately desire to learn about law and justice so they can achieve lasting peace," he wrote. "Therefore they work hard when the Carter Center conducts a training."

His future plans?

"I will be in Africa for a few years and will then evaluate my options," Hummel said. "I could continue in Africa, move to another region of the world, or move back to the U.S."

"I think of Bend often and have good memories of clean air, blue skies, Shevlin Park, the strong sense of community, and of course the people," he said. "But what I miss most are Tuesday nights at the Bend Brewing Company."

For his personal updates and pictures of Hummel in Liberia, visit his blog:

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