Note: A shorter version of this profile appeared in the May 24, 2012 issue of the Harvard Gazette

Clad in black, with her mortarboard jaunty, Clara J. K. Long received a J.D. from Harvard Law School on May 24. She was one of hundreds that day – but surely the only one who had lived in a Brazilian landfill.

A woman with red hair leans against a tree in Harvard Yard. She wears a black vest and shirt.
Clara Long, a longtime member of the Clinic, plans to pursue a career in human rights advocacy. Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Back then, Long was a Brown University undergraduate helping to organize city trash pickers. She lived on sliding mounds of trash, with noisy birds wheeling overhead, for just one month. But the experience is an emblem of the eccentric verve with which Long has so far lived her young life. As a teenager she jumped on a plane to tour Russia, roamed through Central America with just a backpack and bravery for company, hiked 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, and one summer – still a biology major then – grew cancer cells in a New York City laboratory.

In her 20s, she worked alongside peasant socialists in Brazil, summered as a grant writer in Tanzania, taught filmmaking in Burundi, interviewed residents of the U.S.-Mexican border as a young journalist, helped with an anti-debt slavery campaign in the Brazilian Amazon, worked as a “fixer” – advance person and translator – for American journalists in Venezuela, and as a law student did grinding rounds of legal work in American and South American prisons. This was before and after graduating from Brown University in 2004, and earning a master’s degree from the London School of Economics (2005) and another (in journalism) from Stanford University (2007). As part of the journey, Long mastered three new languages – French, Spanish, and Portuguese. (Today she is studying Swahili, whose grammar she calls “a gift.”)

During these years, alongside a passion for adventure, Long embraced an equal and motivating passion for justice and human rights. In all, the life this 32-year-old has lived so far was summed up nicely years ago by Paul Tillich, the Protestant theologian: “In every act of justice,” he said, “daring is necessary and risk is unavoidable.”

That sense of daring had its start in Long’s childhood. She grew up in suburban Fairfield, Calif., a city of 100,000 in the fecund Central Valley. Her mother is a geo-scientist; her father is an urban activist and former city manager who once dropped out of Brown to join the Army and head for Vietnam. Long’s sense of justice goes back to elementary school. She would join her friends at recess in a farm field, where trucks veered around corners, leaving knee-deep piles of tomatoes along the road. Migrant workers picked crops in this fertile region of flat green fields and goldenrod hills. Long learned aside their children through 11th grade. She said, “I remember feeling a lot of discomfort about the contradictions that came up.”

And 12th grade? That’s the daring part. With her family making a move to Reno, Nev., Long decided to finish high school in France, arriving for a senior year in Fontainebleau, just south of Paris, with only a smattering of French. But immersion, and dreaming in French, helped get her through a baccalauréat degree. “My brain was working very hard to integrate,” she said.

Starting at Brown, “I was really concerned about doing what mattered most,” said Long, who first intended a career in medicine. She took time off after the California hiking adventure to explore Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Dreams of medical school clung until a spring semester abroad in Belém, Brazil with the Vermont-based School for International Training. “That totally changed the trajectory of my life,” said Long, and transformed a longtime passion for the environment into “something that was much more about people.” She got close to members of the Workers’ Party and to the Landless Workers’ Movement – absorbing fast how the powerless could gain power.

In Tanzania one undergraduate summer, Long got another view of the poor – and how less enabling international aid efforts can be in comparison to social action from the bottom up. She lived with her brother, a Peace Corps volunteer, and worked for an NGO. “It was a real introduction to the logic of development,” said Long – “doing things in the service of getting money, not in the service of doing things. After Brazil, it was a real contrast.”

With a senior thesis underway, she left Brown in 2003 and moved to Brazil for a year to work in Tocantins State with Xavier Plassat, an activist Dominican monk fighting peasant debt slavery. He taught Long his secret about hope: You have to cultivate it.

By October of 2004 she was at the London School of Economics for a master’s degree in environment and development. The experience also introduced her to the wonders of journalism, by way of a BBC radio course. Afterwards, Long lived in Venezuela as a fixer and radio freelancer, and by 2006 was a Stanford graduate student in journalism.

Then came an epiphany for the young student reporter. Long was interviewing a young Latina mother in Redwood City, Calif. Afraid of raids by U.S. immigration authorities, she had not left her house in two months. “I just felt really helpless,” said Long, and she came to believe that law school could give her “tools for dealing with injustice.”

Before Harvard, though, Long exercised her interest in human rights another way – as co-creator and co-producer of “Border Stories,” a Web-based journalism project that investigates tensions and realities on the U.S.-Mexico border. Its catalog of video stories from both sides of this charged region include one about an Americanized Mexican teenager deported to Mexico, a country he had never known until being exiled there; a civilian border minuteman who had lost one eye in Vietnam; two beleaguered ranchers; and other witnesses to the confounding and intimate details of border life.

Long was still wrapped up in Border Stories during her intense first year at Harvard Law. It was fire hose of work, but also taught her how much she loved legal analysis. During one year off she taught filmmaking to youngsters in Burundi with her fiancé Bradford Adams, who also graduated with a law degree on May 24. And in her first summer and second year, Long put her training to work in the field: in Florence, Ariz. – a city of 25,000 that hosts 11 prisons – and with Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic in Brazil, where human rights abuses are woven into the culture of its roughneck national prisons.

This year she helped coordinate multi-law school project on the fate of U.S. protest rights during the Occupy movement. (A report is due out this summer.)

“I have no grand plan,” said Long of what is next after law school – describing her life course in a sentence: “I always feel the next thing.” But she does have a grand idea: to bring the language and ethic of human rights work from the developing world into the United States, where rights violations often simmer unseen. “It helps us,” said Long of Americans, “not to think of ourselves as an exception.”