Jay Youngdahl (SFGI03) melds a lawyer’s activism with intellect
by Gregory Shook and Deborah Spiegelman
Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the height of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Jay Youngdahl (SFGI03) was keenly attuned to the social injustices and unrest experienced by African Americans living in the Deep South. Knowing that he wanted a life of service, he found inspiration in his family of advocates for social welfare and civil and political rights. His grandfather was the dean of the School of Social Work at Washington University in the 1940s – his department was the first to admit African American students.
In 1957, nine African American students were denied entrance to Little Rock Central High School in defiance of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering integration of public schools. This landmark act of the civil rights movement focused the nation’s eyes on Youngdahl’s hometown. Deeply affected by these events in his own backyard, he became an attorney specializing in civil rights law, union law, and discrimination law on behalf of minorities and women.
As a young attorney, “I had an activist’s courage,” says Youngdahl, “but I also wanted an intellectual courage.” That desire led him to St. John’s in 2001. “It was a way to try to light up those parts of my brain that I hadn’t used in those last 25 years [practicing law].” Youngdahl embraced the Program, which he describes as “showing the arc and commonality of issues and concerns expressed by our human species. [The fact that] our worries of today have been the focus of great minds throughout human history is extraordinarily helpful to consideration and comfort with such issues.” At the Graduate Institute in Santa Fe, he was excited to explore new authors and approached familiar works with a fresh perspective – and “learned to read Shakespeare like never before.”
In 2005, Youngdahl found himself at a crossroads. Believing he had accomplished all that he could in his chosen field, he was ready to make way for a new influx of young lawyers, eager to “carry the torch to do the right thing” for civil and workers’ rights. Although he continues to practice law today, he was ready to challenge himself in new ways.
An eternal activist who believes in the power of ideas to foster change, Youngdahl began exploring ways to elevate discourse on important issues. Having practiced law throughout the South and Southwest, he had worked on cases regarding claims by injured Navajo rail workers, who for more than 100 years took on the arduous work of laying and anchoring tracks. Seeking “to understand the culture, the people, and to try to improve their lives and situations,” Youngdahl had done archival research and oral history on the Navajo Reservation.
In his new book, Working on the Railroad, Walking in Beauty: Navajos, Hózhǫ́, and Track Work, Youngdahl presents a cultural history of how Navajo track workers have modified their traditions, particularly religious practices, to protect themselves against the perils of their livelihood. His experience at St. John’s is evident in his multi-disciplinary approach: the book touches on philosophy, religion, literature, economics, human rights, and conversation.
Today Youngdahl raises awareness of important social and political issues through journalism. As the majority owner of the Oakland, California-based newspaper, East Bay Express, he is committed to “producing hard-hitting journalism and fighting to keep quality journalism alive.” He also contributes a biweekly column, “Raising the Bar,” in which he addresses ethical and moral perspectives on current issues and events. In addition, Youngdahl is an in-demand speaker, traveling to colleges and universities around the country to talk about matters close to his heart. At Harvard Divinity School, where he graduated with a master’s degree in 2007, he recently gave a talk about the juxtaposition of compassion for others as the basis of moral action and an ethical life.
Youngdahl continues to examine the world around him and generate dialogue to find ways to make it a better place. Concerned with how “the speed of human life today makes important considerations seem to just zip by the window of our moving societal train, leaving us without the ability to fruitfully examine and evaluate them,” he makes a point to carve out time for personal reflection. As Youngdahl writes in his book, for the Navajos, to “walk in beauty” requires harmony and order in the universe. It also takes courage.