For Ralph Bunche, starting law school in New York elicited not only the usual jitters and excitement, but a degree of celebrity he had not previously known, despite his famous name. He is the grandson of the Nobel Peace Prize- winning scientist and civil rights leader, but had grown up in London, where the accomplishments of his namesake are less well known.
Although the elder Mr. Bunche died before he was born, Mr. Bunche has inherited the family penchant for social justice. Prior to law school, he ran a youth recreation program in a depressed and ethnically diverse part of London, where opportunities are few and crime rates are high. In 2001, he took that experience to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he oversaw a youth center created to build understanding between children of various ethnic groups who lived near one another but whose lives barely intersected.
Spurred on to work in the field of human rights, and particularly children’s rights, Mr. Bunche returned to England to pursue a master’s degree in the subject at the University of Essex. His first stop after graduate school was India, where he worked for a nongovernmental organization that was trying to curb child labor.
“There are 60 million child laborers in India,” he says. “It’s one of the only countries that hasn’t ratified any of the International Labor Organization child labor treaties.”
While Mr. Bunche recognizes the myriad ways to approach the protection of human rights, he says, “The kind of work I was doing was legally based, and I realized that a law degree would be incredibly important.” His choice of law schools was clear. His professors at Essex, itself an academic leader in human rights, noted that Columbia’s program was considered at the forefront of scholarship on the subject.
Mr. Bunche hopes eventually to work with an organization that helps countries develop labor systems, particularly with regard to child labor laws. For now, however, he is very much enjoying life in New York, which has brought its share of surprises. In Morningside Heights, for example, he has discovered an elementary school up the street named for his grandfather – who received the Nobel Peace Prize after helping to broker an armistice between Israel and the Arab states in 1948 – as well as an exhibit on his grandfather at Harlem’s Schomberg Center.
Will it be hard to live up to his famous name?
“It’s actually kind of freeing to me,” says Mr. Bunche. “I think if my grandfather hadn’t been as successful as he was, perhaps. But there’s no way I could ever live up to him. No one ever lives up to such things.”