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U.S. News
Point Breeze native maintains Amnesty International's focus

Friday, April 04, 2003

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

He grew up on a leafy, secluded street in Point Breeze, the son of a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, graduated from the elite Shady Side Academy, went on to Oberlin College and the University of Chicago and now works in New York City.

It could be the resume of a globe-trotting corporate honcho -- and it is, except that William F. Schulz's clients aren't power brokers in crystal palaces but victims of torture and abuse in some of the most godforsaken corners of the world.

Schulz, 53, is the executive director of Amnesty International USA, the American branch of the international human rights group, which this weekend is holding its annual meeting in Pittsburgh for the first time.

He's had his life threatened in Liberia and been tailed by secret police in Tunisia, but most of his time is spent as administrator, spokesman and public face of the organization. As such, he is often quoted denouncing human rights abusers and enablers of every political stripe.

"I grew up with people who today would be leaders in business and government, but my values were always a bit at odds with many of my peers," Schulz said.

"When I was 14, I was one of only two students in the entire school who supported Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater."

Schulz is the second consecutive Amnesty USA leader to hail from Pittsburgh and to draw his activism from religious roots. His predecessor, Jack Healey, who headed the organization from 1981 to 1993, is an ex-priest from Dormont.

Schulz is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and came to his current post in 1994 after eight years as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

In his former post, he traveled to Romania right after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu; led fact-finding missions to the Middle East and Northern Ireland; and was instrumental in his denomination's opposition to U.S. military aid to El Salvador, its support of the rights of women and sexual minorities and its protests against capital punishment.

The Amnesty job, he said, was a natural progression for a man who'd already done extensive organizing, writing and demonstrating.

His parents, the late Bill and Jean Schulz, were always busy with progressive political causes. His father was on the local board of the American Civil Liberties Union and active in efforts to reform Western Penitentiary.

At Oberlin, Schulz was more in tune with his fellow students. He marched in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War, but his activism was sealed by the Ohio National Guard shootings at Kent State University in 1970. Schulz was a student minister in Kent at the time, and it gave him a first-hand taste of government turning on its own people.

Under Schulz, Amnesty USA has vastly broadened its agenda, reach and operating budget, which now stands at $39 million.

Amnesty members continue to write thousands of letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience the world over, but they also get involved in health and economic issues arising from globalization.

One example is the "blood diamonds" that are mined by forced laborers in Sierra Leone and sold to finance civil wars. Amnesty produced a devastating video on the subject for its Web site (www.amnestyusa.org) and got activists to put pressure on the industry by visiting their local jewelers with information on the topic. Just this week, a Senate panel approved a bill that would ban the import and export of the tainted jewels, a huge victory for Amnesty and other groups that worked on the campaign.

Domestically, the organization has organized efforts against police brutality and curtailment of civil rights and liberties in post-Sept.11 America. Amnesty is also hitting harder on the death penalty, particularly for juvenile offenders. Bianca Jagger, who has traveled the world on behalf of human rights, is one of their leading voices on the issue.

"I began my work on the death penalty with Amnesty International under Bill's guidance, and he helped me to have a better understanding of how to be an effective human rights campaigner," Jagger said in an interview.

"I regard him as a role model. He has an unwavering commitment to justice and he is not easily deterred or distracted."

A big push is also under way to nurture more young activists -- Amnesty now claims 1,300 high school and college chapters across the country.

And in order to raise the organization's profile, Amnesty has begun using sophisticated media strategies to get its name before the public. Those include film festivals such as the one running in Pittsburgh through today, a star-studded party in Los Angeles after last year's Oscars, and targeted placement of Amnesty T-shirts and posters on such TV shows as "ER," "Scrubs," "The Sopranos" and "West Wing."

It also includes the current multi-media campaign based on John Lennon's song "Imagine," which is about to go global.

"Bill Schulz really transformed this organization," said Morton Winston, another ex-Pittsburgher (from Churchill) and president of the Amnesty USA board of directors whose tenure on the board dates to 1991.

"He has recruited a great staff and increased their professionalism, cultivated major donors from the business and philanthropic communities, expanded our work into the rights of women, children and sexual minorities. He's also put people in place who get us some really great media."

This last point is crucial, Schulz said, because grass-roots organizations must depend upon "buzz" to some extent.

"Any group with a large youth movement has to maintain its image in people's consciousness," he said. "Media exposure lends Amnesty International and human rights a certain cachet."

On his short list of Amnesty's top issues beside opposition to the death penalty, Schulz puts the implications of the global war or terrorism, the war in Iraq, Chechnya, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and China.

"China is always a profound concern because of the numbers," he said. "They have 2,000 to 3,000 executions every year, sometimes for trivial crimes. They have 230,000 people imprisoned without trial."

Amnesty International USA's three-day convention opens today at the Omni William Penn. Events include speakers, workshops and panel discussion; an awards ceremony tonight and a reception with Bianca Jagger at the Warhol tomorrow at 8:30 p.m.

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.

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