Serve Well Blog

10.23.15

Caleb Stewart and a Lifetime of Service Leadership

The Krista Foundation | Colleague Press

This speech was given at the Krista Foundation Annual Fundraising Breakfast in Spokane, WA on September 29, 2015.

Caleb Stewart, 2002 Krista Colleague, served with the Peace Corps in Thailand. After his 27 month assignment, Caleb felt at home in the Thai culture and decided to stay. He was hired as Managing Director of the Khom Loy Development Foundation, an organization serving 18 tribal villages in the Chang Rai district. Caleb managed rapidly expanding programs in agriculture, Montessori-style education, and handicraft microenterprise. Upon his return to the U.S., Caleb completed his J.D. at the University of Washington Law School. Caleb currently works in Colorado as an attorney providing free civil legal services to survivors of labor exploitation and human trafficking.


When I reached five years in Thailand, I felt I needed to make some decisions. I either needed to make my life in Thailand permanent, or return to grad school. I decided that even if I wanted to commit to Thailand, I wanted to make that decision from the US. However, I knew that if I returned to the US, I needed to find meaningful work with opportunities for interacting with other languages and cultures. Therefore, I looked for work with migrant populations. I then decided that the most beneficial graduate degree for helping that population, for me, was law. So I went to law school with the intention of working with that population.


During my orientation week for law school, 60% of the incoming class raised their hand in response to who planned on pursuing public interest law. However, law school has its own ethos that values success in the classroom. Law school is also full of very intelligent and talented individuals. These two things combined to create an environment that closely defined what is valuable and what Is not. I found that my cross cultural skills and experiences, my language skills, my focus on serving those in need, were not valued. Those aspects of my personality weren't respected. As my competitive classmates became acculturated in the law school ethos, they often focused their attention on areas where they would get positive feedback. What that meant is that after graduation, despite 60 % intending to go into public service law, less than 10 % did.


A large reason why I was one of that 10% that did continue onto a public interest career is that I was able to step outside the law school ethos and find a community that still valued and recognized those skills and personality traits, traits that do lead towards a life of public service. In the KF community, I found people that would both affirm my desire to do public service law and would challenge me to go further in preparing for that service.


Entering my first year presented a cultural shock after living for five years in Thailand. It was disheartening, and a challenge not to lose confidence in myself and my abilities when all the qualities I had spent time developing while in service weren't valued. However, during that first year, I attended KF's transition retreat. That was a powerful weekend for me because it allowed me to step outside the law school ethos and see it for what it is, just one community of standards. I was encouraged that my service experiences prior to law school were important and challenged by the other amazing colleagues and the work they were doing.


Upon returning to law school after the retreat, the community of colleagues in Seattle and around the world constantly reminded me that there is a community that does value cultural adaptability and sensitivity as well as service of others. By being a part of this community of colleagues, I was able to go beyond the general attitude promoted in law school.
After leaving law school and beginning my legal career, I found that the connection with the KF helped me understand how to create a lifetime of service out of my service experience. Through the focus of the Krista Foundation Grant, I learned that there has to be a balance of self-care, personal development, and career development. I used the grant to further those three foundations through language study, training for, and then running a marathon. In a very direct way, I've used that language training to win a scholarship in law school and to assist Thai labor trafficking survivors in my current work. The lessons learned for self-care, personal development, and career development have helped me to maintain focus and avoid burnout while daily working with individuals that have tragic stories to tell while suffering through forced labor in jobs ranging from restaurants, farming and sheepherding to drug trafficking and prostitution.


When I first came back to the US, I was on a plane from LA to Denver and seated by chance next to a Thai man coming to the US for the first time. He didn't speak English and I'm sure I was the only Thai speaker on the plane. I helped him navigate the airport and we exchanged numbers. Later, when he found that the job wasn't what he was promised, he felt comfortable enough to call me for help when the job wasn't what he was promised. I knew what he was experiencing wasn't right, however, at this time I didn't yet have the legal training necessary to help him but I did reach out to others that did. Eventually, this restaurant was investigated and charged with human trafficking.


Later in my third summer during law school, I volunteered with the organization that assisted the human trafficking survivors that worked at this restaurant. I then had the legal training that I lacked before and was able to help them in ways I couldn't before. While at my current position one of these clients called my supervisor and left a message in his best English followed by a few sentences with him speaking to his wife in Thai saying that he tried to speak in English but doesn't know what he said. My supervisor forwarded me the voicemail and I called him back. He was quite surprised and happy to know that I now worked for CLS and could help him. He was diagnosed with cancer and denied medical coverage and other resources. He, like many of my clients who are in need of services from a large range of providers stretching from dentists and doctors, to bankers, and housing providers, needed me to advocate on his behalf before those professions so that he could get the services for which he qualified. No matter the industry, a broadened perspective gained from service experiences will help to serve the disadvantaged and vulnerable who seek those services more effectively. The opportunity to be a part of the Krista Foundation community was invaluable in sustaining me through my service assignment in Thailand, in maintaining my focus as I transitioned out of that assignment, and supporting me as I continue in lifelong service work.