Mark Salzers life started to change the night his desperately poor host family in Mexico, who had not eaten meat in months, stole a goat and slaughtered it in their home.
Before that, Salzer led the uncomplicated life of an upper-middle-class Princeton undergraduate, honing his pool shot as he ambled toward law school, and certainly would not have condoned stealing under any circumstances, he said.
I learned a different reality in the hardscrabble villages of Mexico, he said. That reality redefined his career path, leading him to international human rights work, to what he calls direct relief work at the Pine Street Inn, the mens shelter, and to teaching in the Boston public schools.
Tomorrow, if the schedule holds, that path will take Salzer, 36, his wife, Rebecca Wyse, 33, and their 2-year-old son, Emmett, on the first leg of a journey to help the people of East Timor.
This familys odyssey is its essence.
Salzer and Wyse, until recently a nurse at the Fenway Community Health Center, met when she had a patient at Pine Street who spoke only Spanish. She called for a translator. Salzer came.
Their lives bear witness to the profound effect social service work can have on privileged youth, and provide some insight into the current movement against globalization.
Sitting in their Arlington apartment this week amid the last boxes headed for storage, Salzer recalls going to Timor in 1992 because he wanted to see the places where the worlds little-known tragedies were occurring. He came away feeling something was really wrong.
East Timor, colonized by Portugal in the 16th century, declared independence when the Portuguese withdrew in the 1970s, but was invaded and subjugated by Indonesia. When Salzer visited in 1992, it was a place where you were watched, and people would cross the street to avoid being seen with you.
Abductions and torture were commonplace. One man waited in the bushes outside his hotel for hours to give him a note to pass to the International Red Cross about his brother, who was being held incommunicado without his diabetes medication.
I came back and saw the cozy relationship between the US government and the Indonesian government. I saw the US was complicit in this devastation and wanted to do something, he said. I can understand the realpolitik point of view, but it is not right.
Salzer returned briefly to the human rights agency where he had been working in Washington, then moved to Boston in 1993 because I knew there was a progressive community here. I was interested in connecting. He went to work at Pine Street, and became Boston-area coordinator of the East Timor Action Network, a nationwide volunteer group dedicated to increasing public awareness and shaping US policy.
While at Pine Street, he read Savage Inequality, Jonathan Kozols book on how the US education system mistreats the poor; he applied to teach in the Boston schools, though his degree from Princeton was in philosophy and he had no formal training as a teacher.
He was granted an emergency waiver to teach science at the Mary Curley Middle School in Jamaica Plain because no one else was willing to do the work. Except for a year when he won a Conant Fellowship at Harvard and used it to earn a degree from the graduate school of education there, he was at the Curley until he decided to go to East Timor.
In East Timor, he will be working for Lao Hamutuk, an effort of international activists and East Timorese that was formed to increase local participation in reconstruction and development projects.
Though unemployment is high, the World Bank flew in folks from Australia to paint the outside of their offices; they paid to house them, he said. Many of the international aid agencies workers are housed on a cruise ship in Dili harbor staffed by Filipinos. Why not rebuild the hotels?
Salzer and Wyse stress that their interest in other cultures, and in watching a new nation build itself, attracts them to East Timor, not any idea that social justice work there is somehow different.
People dont have to go halfway around the world to do good, Wyse says. I dont think what were doing is any bigger or better than people who do the best they can here. You can make a difference anywhere.