Celebrating Visionary Violets—As Voted on by Fellow Alumni—Who Have Worked to Build a Better World
By David Hollander
Brenda Berkman (LAW ’78)
Her 1982 bid to become New York City’s first female firefighter was an uphill battle: after failing the physical portion of the FDNY’s exam, Brenda Berkman sued, insisting that the test did not measure the abilities actually required to be trained as a firefighter. Her legal victory was a watershed moment for women’s rights, but then she was fired in retaliation for complaints about on-the-job harassment, necessitating another successful lawsuit in order to be rehired. She eventually rose through the ranks of the FDNY before retiring, in 2006, as a decorated captain.
Check out the NYU Pop Quiz video featuring Berkman
Taina Bien-Aimé (LAW ’91)
Taina Bien-Aimé was a founding board member of Equality Now, an organization that builds coalitions to combat gender-based violence. Bien-Aimé has spent 25 years elevating the voices of women around the world, helping to pass legislation outlawing female genital mutilation, child marriage, and sexual violence. She has helped both the United Nations and the US State Department develop policies, and now, as the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, she is working to end the practice of sex trafficking.
Matthew Campisi (TANDON ’96, ’20)
After relatives were diagnosed with breast cancer, Matthew Campisi developed early-detection technologies for the disease. But when the engineer became aware of the startling mortality rates in developing-world countries, he was determined to create a screening technology that accounted for global wealth disparities. Campisi cofounded UE LifeSciences and invented the award-winning iBreastExam, a handheld, battery-powered, radiation-free device that performs screenings for under $5. So far, more than 175,000 women in 12 countries have benefited from his invention.
Marcia Robinson Lowry (LAW ’69)
Marcia Robinson Lowry began her legal crusade to protect young people as a leader of the ACLU’s Children’s Rights Project before founding Children’s Rights, an organization that demands better conditions for juveniles under state care. She went on to found and currently serves as executive director of A Better Childhood, which so far has conducted top-down, statewide reform campaigns in eight states. Her fierce advocacy has saved or improved hundreds of thousands of young lives, and she has helped define and implement a set of constitutional rights for children essentially abandoned by the state.
Janet Mock (GSAS ’06)
She was the first to publish a memoir about the experiences of transitioning as a young person (Redefining Realness). The first trans woman of color to write and direct a TV show (for the FX series Pose). And Janet Mock’s Netflix deal makes her the first trans creator signed to develop content for a major media outlet. Mock’s message of inclusion and intersectionality has made an impact both within and beyond the trans community. She is a prized speaker who has brought unprecedented visibility and representation to a historically marginalized community.
Jacqueline Murekatete (CAS ’07)
When Jacqueline Murekatete was 9, her parents and six siblings were killed in the Rwandan genocide. An uncle living in the United States took her in, but for years she was alone with her trauma. That changed when Holocaust survivor David Gewirtzman visited her class and became a mentor and confidante. Soon the duo was speaking around the world, and in 2013, Murekatete founded the Genocide Survivors Foundation, which strives to amplify the voices of survivors and eradicate the bigotry that can lead to genocide.
Kristin Van Busum (WAG ’10)
She was in Nicaragua on a Fulbright scholarship to study food markets, but when a young girl demanded that Kristin Van Busum become her teacher, the policy worker had an awakening. Van Busum was inspired to create Project Alianza, an initiative that focuses on literacy, health and hygiene, environmental sustainability, and gender equality; more than 2,000 kids in 22 communities have been impacted. Van Busum received a Global Innovation Fund grant and gave a TEDx talk, and now Project Alianza is expanding throughout Latin America.
Erin Vilardi (CAS ’03)
The United States is 51 percent female, but our government has been stuck at 20 percent female for decades. We rank a dismal 97th globally in female political representation. Erin Vilardi has made it her life’s work to address these disparities. Her organization, VoteRunLead, focuses on recruiting and training women—especially those of color and with low incomes—to run for elected office. VoteRunLead has trained more than 35,000 women, and in 2018, 70 percent of its first-time candidates won (the typical first-time-candidate success rate is 10 percent).
Lori Wiener (SSSW ’79, ’88)
Researcher and clinician Lori Wiener has dedicated her career to working with children diagnosed with cancer and HIV/AIDS. As head of the National Cancer Institute’s Pediatric Psychosocial Support Program, she has created workbooks, board games, and other interactive platforms that give patients a nonthreatening forum to discuss illness. Wiener has also helped lead an international effort to create the first-ever evidence-based psychosocial standards of care for children and families living with cancer, a road map leading from diagnosis through survivorship, or to end-of-life care and bereavement.
Adrian Kantrowitz (ARTS ’40)
By the time the world-renowned cardiac surgeon passed away in 2008 at the age of 90, Adrian Kantrowitz had literally saved millions of lives around the globe thanks to an extraordinary array of medical innovations. He was the inventor of the implantable pacemaker; the noninvasive, artery-opening balloon pump; and the LVAD (left ventricle assistance device), which keeps hearts beating better and longer. Kantrowitz was also the second person to ever perform a heart transplant.