The Schuster Institute: Changing the World, One Injustice at a Time

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The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University receives Clarion Award; celebrates 10 years of exposing corruption & human rights abuses.

Elaine & Gerald Schuster

"Our hope," said Elaine Schuster, "is that through investigative journalism, we can help change the world, one injustice at a time."

Nonprofit, university-based investigative journalism has taken its place alongside traditional news media as “watchdogs” for our society – and the award-winning Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, the first to launch such a program, is leading the way.

Founded in 2004 and supported by a $5 million grant from philanthropists Elaine and Gerald Schuster, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism has exposed corruption and human rights abuses from Boston to Bangkok, focusing on vitally important social issues, including human trafficking and modern-day slavery, international adoption fraud, sexual assault on the job, the exploitation of immigrants, wrongful convictions, and health and safety threats in the American food system.

According to Florence Graves, the Founding Director of the Institute, “these investigations have saved lives, changed laws, altered the way governments and corporations conduct business, and have brought to light for millions of people some of the world’s darkest secrets.”

Most recently, the Institute won the Clarion Award for its enterprise reporting that exposed human rights violations in the burgeoning but largely unregulated palm oil industry in Indonesia. By tracking shipping records and through personal observations, the Schuster Institute was able to trace Indonesian palm oil, produced on a plantation using child and slave labor, to corporate giants like Proctor & Gamble and Cargill. These corporations have since strengthened their commitments to producing fully-traceable supply chains and to ensuring that production and practices adhere to human rights and environmental standards.

In its relatively brief history, the Schuster Institute’s journalists have won more than three dozen awards, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, and the Cushing Niles Dolbeare Media Award. Other Institute awards include the 2014 Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Investigative Series, the 2013 American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) Award, and the 2012 Exceptional Merit in Media Award (EMMA).

This month, the Schuster Institute, in partnership with Boston’s WGBH Public Radio/TV News, launched a year-long series on the impact of forced busing and desegregation of public schools on Boston and Jackson, Mississippi. The series coincided with the 40th anniversary of the first U.S. District Court decision applying the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board outlawing segregation in schools in the North as well as the South. The series kicked off with the Schuster Institute’s unveiling of newly-obtained historic documents that reveal the more intimate daily experiences of students, teachers, principals and other school officials during the early days of forced busing in Boston’s public schools.

In 2004, as journalism’s business model began to disintegrate, Graves helped launch the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism as a home for high-quality public interest reporting on social justice and human rights.

The Institute’s benefactors, Elaine and Gerald Schuster, have long been leaders in advancing issues involving education, health care, and human rights that have improved the lives of people all over the world.

“We are honored to be a part of this great adventure in investigative journalism, “ said Gerald Schuster, founder of Continental Wingate Companies, a Massachusetts-based real estate company with interests throughout the United States. “We found the perfect home at Brandies University to tackle important social and human rights issues that many newspapers and other traditional media increasingly no longer have the time or the resources to delve into.”

Gerald Schuster noted that the Institute is now a partner of the (President) Clinton Global Initiative, which, he said, “allows the Institute even greater opportunities to expand its influence in support of social justice and other important causes.”

The Schuster Institute has a team of investigative reporters and editors based at the Brandeis newsroom along with a “newsroom without walls” that includes 20 independent investigative journalists reporting domestically and internationally. Together they have produced a host of investigative articles and books that have led to important changes in public policies, laws and public opinion.

Said Graves: “In this new media ecosystem, the Schuster Institute performs a unique public service –investigating human rights violations and exposing systemic social injustices whether we find them locally, nationally, or internationally. That means that when we uncovered slavery in Pacific fishing, New Zealand changed its laws. That means after we spent years looking at details of what looked like wrongful convictions, we got two men who had lost all hope back to court – and also helped prompt Massachusetts to pass a law permitting prisoners access to potential DNA evidence to prove their innocence. That means that when we exposed profound problems in international adoptions, results included a new federal law and the closing of several shady adoption agencies. That means exposing everything from the American way of eating to the deadly legacy of U.S. bombs dropped secretly on Laos, to cover-ups of ultra-Orthodox Jewish child abuse.”

Brandeis President Frederick M. Lawrence called Gerald and Elaine Schuster Institute an “integral part” of the Brandeis community, and noted that the Schuster Institute has provided Brandeis students a unique opportunity to participate. “I know that they will carry what they have learned at the Institute – a devotion to social justice along with a keen awareness of their capacity to right the wrongs of this world,” Lawrence said.

Elaine Schuster explained that although university-based, the Schuster institute is more like a think tank, selecting unreported or underreported topics that require time, resources and a deep understanding of how to present complex issues in a clear, compelling manner. The Institute also seeks out partnerships with major news outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The Boston Globe, Slate, NBC, NPR, CNN, TIME and Good Housekeeping magazines.

Then, through multi-part, multi-media news releases, the Schuster Institute informs the public, influential thinkers, policymakers and advocates – and makes it easy for them to find the facts they might need to organize effective policy response.

“Our hope,” said Elaine Schuster, “is that through investigative journalism, we can help change the world, one injustice at a time.”

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Dominic Amenta