Alfred Brownell was a law student at Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1999, the year then-president Charles Taylor introduced the Strategic Commodities Act, granting the office of president “sole power to execute, negotiate, and conclude all commercial contracts or agreements with any foreign or domestic investor for the exploitation of the strategic commodities of the Republic of Liberia.” The act’s passing paved the way for the awarding of large mining, timber, and palm-oil concessions on undeeded Liberian lands to outside multinational companies in the name of economic development. That same year, Liberia’s second civil war began. It is alleged the same multinationals Taylor granted concessions to supplied his beleaguered government with arms during the subsequent four-year conflict, circumventing existing United Nations Security Council embargoes.
Later, from New Orleans, where he was working on his Master of Laws degree at Tulane University, Brownell watched as what he described as “violations of all kinds of standards” were committed in his home country during the early-2000s: displacement of indigenous people; children recruited into private, corporation-backed militias; reckless cutting of timber; and other breaches of customary and international laws. After graduation, he returned to Liberia with a mission: to help Liberia’s indigenous people use its courts and international law to protect forest land and their rights. Most recently, he and his colleagues celebrated news that the World Bank’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman is assessing a complaint filed on behalf of eight villages in north-central Liberia against Salala Rubber Corporation related to alleged forcible evictions, damaged property, land grabbing, sexual harassment, and more.
“As a student, I was like, ‘We have to find a way to document this and see what we can do to stop this!’ That started my interest in forestry and climate justice. I made a commitment to this struggle then,” Brownell explains almost twenty years later from his office at Northeastern University School of Law, where he is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence. Brownell came to Northeastern in 2017, after fleeing Liberia with his wife, Bessie; daughter, Konah Lahaitu; and son, Alfred Jr. in the face of possible imprisonment and physical harm related to his environmental advocacy work.
In April, his decades-long work earned Brownell recognition from the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation, which named him among the six recipients of its 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize. The prize is considered the “Green Nobel” and is awarded to grassroots environmental activists from Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America each year.
“Alfred was nominated by multiple parties,” says Ilan Kayatsky, communications director for the Goldman Environmental Foundation. “His work has gone over so many years and touched so many organizations that have partnered with him. Many people know what a dynamo he is, how stark the issue was in Liberia, and how brilliant he was as a leader in protecting the rainforest and the people who lived there. He connects environmental issues with social issues in a way that really stood out.”
Brownell’s path to this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House began long before Charles Taylor passed the Strategic Commodities Act. Social justice is in the 54-year-old attorney’s genes. His paternal grandfather, Counselor Nete Sie Brownell, fought to end the modern-day enslavement of indigenous Liberians in the 1920s. His mother drummed home values such as selflessness, equity, and compassion to Brownell and his siblings. Faith was an integral part of those lessons, too. “I am a very firm believer in the Christian principle, and the Bible as well,” Brownell says.
It was that firm belief that led Brownell to walk into First Parish Brookline, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Brookline, Massachusetts, two years ago; that and the need for community after his family arrived in the Boston area in exile.
“I was broken because I left everything that I had fought for my whole life and I was trying to figure out what my life would be like with my kids,” Brownell says. “So I was like, ‘We have to find a church. I need to tell God thank you for bringing us safely here.’”
He set out on foot in the snow his family’s first Sunday morning in Brookline searching for a church. A stranger pointed him toward First Parish. By 10 a.m. he and his family of four were sitting in a pew waiting for the service to start.
What the Brownells found at First Parish was a community living the values their family risked everything to uphold and promote back in Liberia: the inherent worth and dignity of every person, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence.
The First Parish congregation is midsized by UU standards, with about 250 regulars. Families, mostly, from all over the Greater Boston area. Same-sex couples. Interfaith. Interracial. A hodgepodge of beliefs and cultures all gathered together in the name of tending to the human spirit and living a moral and ethical life. The Brownells immediately fit in. Alfred is a member of the congregation’s pastoral care team and Racial Justice Action committee, and both he and his daughter, Konah, act as greeters, welcoming all and seeking out visitors.
“Our congregation has a lot of respect for Alfred and his family,” says the Rev. Lisa Perry-Wood, First Parish’s senior minister. “People are just proud and excited for him. We are his and he’s ours.”
Brownell echoes that sentiment. “Destiny took me into law,” he says. “And destiny brought us to First Parish. There are four influential forces that kept me active in the fight while in exile: First Parish Brookline, my family, Northeastern University, and my colleagues back home and our community clients and partners. The church sprang into action with open arms and welcomed us. I was inspired by the honest and authentic selflessness of these great social justice warriors. They spiritually speak to me every Sunday, [encouraging me] not to give up.”
Not giving up for Brownell means continuing the work he and his colleagues back in Liberia began with the 2009 formation of Green Advocates, Liberia’s first and only environmental justice group. Much of the organization’s early work involved crafting the environmental and human rights legislation they wanted to see. Brownell was the group’s man on the ground in rural areas, particularly in north-central counties such as Bong and Margibi.
“I’ve learned a lot working with indigenous communities,” Brownell says. “I had people take me into the forest and show me their historical zones . . . how it started out and where the tribe came from. The trees emerge out of the ground like giants, and there are places in the forest where at midday the sun is shining and the canopy is so dark it’s difficult to find your path. But this is where people live. And there are cultural and communal and development practices that have allowed them to coexist with nature over time. They can show you their religion through that: why they worship this forest, why they believe what they do. They are linked to it, and to destroy that forest and the land, you are actually destroying them.”