Benet speaking at a podium

Benet Magnuson accepting the 2019 Andy Hyman Award for Advocacy at the Grantmakers In Health annual conference.

Photo courtesy of Grantmakers In Health and Steve Schneider

Nation & World

Seeds of change

4 min read

“We’re facing big problems — as a community, as a state, as a country, as a world — but the folks who tell you that it’s hopeless are wrong.”

When Benet Magnuson, A.B. ’06, J.D. ’09,  joined Kansas Appleseed in 2013 as its executive director he pretty much had only himself to supervise. But within a couple of years the social justice nonprofit had a dozen staffers working all over the state.

“To be able to engage in really meaningful approaches to the work, we had to be of a certain size,” Magnuson explained about the advocacy group, which is dedicated to protecting the rights of Kansans through research, community organizing, and impact litigation.

Magnuson was anxious to get to that work. Trained as a lawyer, he’d previously handled cases involving immigration, public housing, and domestic violence, and he had worked at a criminal justice coalition in Texas. When the Kansas native began reading about fiscal problems in the state forcing major cuts to education and social programs, he decided it was time to return home.

In Magnuson’s first few years at Kansas Appleseed, the organization worked on solutions to childhood hunger, ensuring the legal needs of immigrants, and fighting for the rights of children in foster care. With their new size, Magnuson and his team looked to take on larger issues.

“A report came out about one of our state juvenile prisons that showed it was a very unsafe place for kids,” Magnuson explained. “They were able to harm each other, harm staff, harm themselves. A follow-up report that year also found that they were not getting any of the educational programing that they were entitled to.”

Benet and some of the people he helped in front of a court house

Kansas Appleseed grassroots partners after the bill signing ceremony for Kansas’s comprehensive juvenile justice reform legislation in 2016.

Photo courtesy of Kansas Appleseed

Magnuson and the Appleseed employees began working to solve the problems of the juvenile justice system, including unnecessary incarceration and children who go missing in it, by raising awareness in various cities and towns.

“It’s a core value of the organization that our work is done in collaboration with communities,” he said. “We put a lot of value in being physically present in communities across the state.”

Based on community feedback, Kansas Appleseed helped to form a coalition, which lobbied for legislative policy changes to address the problem. The group got reforms passed in 2016, and subsequent reports have shown progress.

“We’ve seen about a 60 percent drop in youth confinement since then, including a 30 percent drop in kids in state prison,” Magnuson said. “In terms of kids who have gone missing in the system, it’s just plummeted.”

While the nonprofit has clearly made a difference, Magnuson says that the lion’s share of the credit belongs to the communities, which rise up and demand change. He says advocates like Kansas Appleseed are only catalysts, likening the organization’s role to that of the mysterious visitor in the children’s book “Stone Soup”:

“A stranger comes to a town where everybody’s hungry, and he says, ‘I’ve got this magic stone, just bring me a pot of boiling water and the stone can make a delicious soup.’ They taste it and say, ‘It’s delicious, but you know what it could use is carrots.’ And someone says, ‘Oh, I’ve got carrots,’ and runs and grabs carrots and puts them in, and then someone says, ‘You know what this needs is some onions.’

“And by the end, the whole town has this delicious feast, and the stranger takes his stone out of the pot and moves on to the next town.”

This story is part of the To Serve Better series, exploring connections between Harvard and neighborhoods across the United States.