A lawyer looks to HKS to bridge his legal career with his advocacy work.
Susan A. Hughes
April 28, 2023
The realization came to Eliazar Chacha MC/MPA 2023 while he was working on Capitol Hill as counsel for Congresswoman Jackie Speier: he wanted to use the remainder of his legal career to advocate for criminal justice reform.
He had done some pro bono work as a corporate attorney, representing death row inmate Bobby James Moore before the U.S. Supreme Court in Moore v. Texas. He had been recognized by the American Bar Association and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs for successfully obtaining the release of a federal inmate under the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act (known as the First Step Act, a bipartisan law enacted in 2018 that allows certain individuals with nonviolent offenses to be released, due to health issues or other circumstances).
So, when Speier announced her retirement from Congress, Chacha saw his opportunity to redirect his career.
“One of the things that really got me into criminal justice work was the First Step Act. I really fell in love with it.”
Following a suggestion from a friend in Washington, Chacha applied to HKS and, with the support of the Zuckerman Fellowship from the Center for Public Leadership, was able to enroll full time in the Mid-career Master in Public Administration program. “The Zuckerman Fellowship gave me the opportunity to come here and learn without the stress of additional student loans or housing or even finding a job. For me, it was a perfect confluence of factors.”
As a Zuckerman Fellow, Chacha was also able to see policy issues firsthand. “We went to El Paso to look at the immigration policy issues that are happening on the ground, from the legal standpoint, policy standpoint, and educational standpoint,” he recalls. “We met with different stakeholders and individuals there like former Congressman Beto O’Rourke. We had the opportunity to learn from the people who were doing the work.”
Learning, and becoming a life-long learner, was always important in Chacha’s family. He is the son of Tanzanian parents, who met in California while at university on scholarships. He grew up in the Bay Area, graduated from University of California, Berkeley with high honors after majoring in African American and interdisciplinary studies; earned his master's in history from New York University; then his JD from Columbia Law School. “HKS is my last school,” he says with a smile.
So many courses from HKS will stay with Chacha when he returns to Washington. From Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s “Race Inequality, American Democracy,” to Adjunct Lecturer Bobby Constantino’s “A Performance Evaluation of the Criminal Legal System,” to Professor Thomas Patterson’s “Who Governs, Power in America,” he appreciates the breadth of viewpoints.
“At HKS, we look at a whole host of issues from a policy standpoint,” he says. “Where I always looked at things from a legal standpoint, I really look at data now and look at the underlying background information and see what was driving individuals, not from a legal standpoint, but from a social standpoint, a political standpoint, even a personal standpoint.”
These perspectives will be useful for his future work on criminal justice reform: “Now when I go through my advocacy, I can always think about the other side from a policy standpoint.”
And he says the greatest part of his HKS experience has been the people. “I was able to talk with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries about The First Step Act (which he co-authored). I could connect with Professor Sandra Susan Smith as a lawyer working on criminal justice. There have been Forums with Governor Pritzker, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, and Congressman Adam Schiff with differing ideas,” he says. “I worked on Capitol Hill and didn’t have access at all like this.”
Chacha is currently waiting to hear from the White House and other D.C.-based advocacy nonprofits to continue to work in criminal justice reform following graduation. He is hoping to build on the First Step Act. “When House Minority Leader Jeffries came to HKS, talked about it with us and how there should be a ‘next step act ’or a ‘second step act.’ Something both sides of the aisle can agree on. For me that’s exciting, and I hope to help find that middle ground.”
Honoring the memory of his late mother Christine, he leaves Harvard with plans to make a meaningful and lasting impact on his Tanzanian and American communities via nonprofit work, teaching, and eventually as an elected official.
“HKS helped me home in on my purpose and look at the advocacy opportunities within criminal law.” And by coming to HKS, he was able to blend his loves together. “This new focus comes from HKS,” he says.
Portraits by Lydia Rosenberg