D. Michael Shafer ’71 receives the 2019 John and Elizabeth Phillips Award

Professor, foster parent and grassroots community organizer is honored.

Jennifer Wagner
October 25, 2019
Exeter alumnus Michael Shafer talks with students on Assembly Hall stage.

In an engaging and spirited assembly this morning, D. Michael Shafer ’71 accepted the 2019 John and Elizabeth Phillips award, conferred annually upon an Exonian who exemplifies the nobility of character and useful service to humankind that the founders sought to promote in establishing the Academy.

As a foster parent to 21 children, a grassroots community organizer in rural Thailand and a university professor for nearly 25 years, Shafer has spent a lifetime doing what others consider acts of kindness and sacrifice, but which he has understood as no more than the recognition of the basic humanity of others.

Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08 described the award in his opening remarks as the Academy’s highest honor and praised the work that Shafer has accomplished. “Michael’s story serves as a powerful reminder of the impact all of us can have in the world, on whatever scale we choose, if only we dare to imagine.”

Shafer spoke passionately from the podium about how he has tried to lead a “self-conscious life,” learning to always ask himself, “Why are you doing this, Shafer? What will it mean to others? How will what you are doing affect other people?” He entreated students to follow suit and “commit small, daily acts of kindness” and believe in the absolute power each of them has to make the world a better place.

Measure of a man

Shafer humbly began his acceptance speech by recounting his first days at the Academy nearly 50 years ago as a “newbie lower.” Students, fellow class of 1971 alums, trustees and Shafer’s family seated in the packed Assembly Hall, listened intently as he shared the poignant words his father imparted as he dropped him off for preseason football. Your measure as a man, his father said, will be how much better the world is when you leave it than when you entered it. “Just think about that for a minute,” Shafer said. “It took me years after graduation before I came to grips with the underlying question that sits behind [that statement], which is, what does it mean to be human?”

To better understand his father’s words, Shafer traveled the world. His first international foray came through Exeter’s “Schoolboys Abroad” program to France. The following summer he walked the length of Yugoslavia with his brother. During his undergraduate years at Yale, he took 15 months off to explore Africa.

But it was one particularly impactful trip to Ethiopia during the summer of 1975, he said, that became the touchstone for his professional career. Living with leaders of an insurgency he witnessed firsthand the power of collective, community action. “I was there. I was able to watch these guys mobilize peasants to take on this extraordinary army. These peasants are armed with wooden pitchforks. … they’re taking on machine guns and tanks. Why? … They fought for their shared values, they fought for their communities, they fought for each other.”

Some 16 years later, he said, the citizens won the battle. “What I learned through all of this is that we’re not alone,” Shafer said. “In the end, none of us can be bigger than the community we belong to. … Our hopes, our dreams, our possibilities are shaped by, permitted by the community to which we belong. Others have fought and died for us so that we can have this community space in which we can play out our dreams.”

Teaching global civic engagement

Shafer completed his bachelor’s degree in history at Yale and set to work. After a brief stint at the State Department in Washington, D.C., and then at the Agency of International Development, Shafer returned to school, earning his doctorate from Harvard in 1984. Eager to share what he had learned, Shafer accepted a teaching position at Rutgers University and remained there for nearly 25 years, winning teaching awards every year.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton launched Citizenship and Service Education, or CASE, a program to address the collapse of citizenship among young Americans. Shafer took the helm of CASE and, within a few years, he was matching 1,000 students per semester with more than 300 community organizations. Under his leadership, CASE became one of the largest service-learning programs in the United States.

His personal commitment to the developing world inspired him to expand CASE beyond America’s borders to newly democratized countries like Poland, Moldova, Ethiopia, South Africa and Lebanon; and to found Global PACT, or Global Partnerships for Activism and Cross-Cultural Training. Global PACT has trained students from more than 50 countries to run programs in civic engagement, anti-poverty, anti-trafficking and post-apartheid conflict resolution.

Social entrepreneur

At 55, after achieving the stability of tenure and raising four adopted children, including two with special needs, as well as 21 foster children, Shafer pivoted from scholar to social entrepreneur.

In 2008, he and his wife, Evelind Schecter, sold or gave away most of their possessions and moved to the rural village of Phrao, Thailand, to found Warm Heart, a grassroots community development organization serving one of the country’s poorest districts. Warm Heart provides safe housing, education and health services for 40 at-risk children, the disabled and the elderly.

Mindful of the planet and its future, Shafer developed a low-tech, low-cost biochar machine that converts biomass into fertilizer. By teaching local farmers to build and use these machines, he not only helps them improve their crop yields and income, but positively impacts the environment through climate change mitigation.

Enact your humanity

As assembly drew to a close, Shafer directed the students to never stop acting out their humanity. “Here at the Academy, we talk about a lot of very theoretical things, we explore theories and possibilities,” he said. “I’m asking you to engage things with your own hands; to be there; to deal with things in reality; to act out your humanity.” How to do that? “Commit small, daily acts of kindness.” That way, he said, “every one of you can leave the world a better place than when you entered it.”

Principal Rawson announced that the award, first bestowed in 1965, was renamed this year to acknowledge Elizabeth Phillips’ role as a cofounder of our school. This proclamation was received with great applause.

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