Oregon State Bar Bulletin OCTOBER 2013
Profiles in the Law
Steve Higgs Focuses on Advocacy for Opportunities for Boomers, Seniors
By Melody Finnemore
A walk behind a waterfall in New Zealand transformed a teenaged Steve Higgs into a lifelong environmental advocate and proponent of changing the world through civic activism. The former Perkins Coie attorney believes a person’s ability to serve as an agent of change only grows as they age.
A few months ago, Higgs became the first full-time executive director of SAGE (Senior Advocates for Generational Equity). Founded in 2011 by Ward Greene, managing partner of Portland’s Greene & Markley, SAGE is a nonprofit organization that encourages people over 50 to “give forward” by contributing their time, skills and wisdom for the benefit of future generations.
Greene, president of SAGE’s board, says he was struck by how clearly Higgs conveyed his passion during the application and interview process. Greene also recalls that when asked about the change in salary from private practice to running a nonprofit, Higgs noted, “I think compensation is more than what you get paid.”
“Steve is an inspiration to me as a senior trying to encourage other folks over 50 to discover a sense of gratitude for the opportunities most of us have already been given,” Greene says. “And when I say most of us, I realize there are many seniors who have really suffered and need every bit of safety net they can get. But there are many of us who are able to look ahead and think about how we can help future generations.”
Improving the world for future generations has long been a goal for Higgs, who holds a dual bachelor’s degree in biology and environmental policy from Maine’s Colby College. During his studies, he took a course in international environmental policy, which sparked his interest in using policy to set and achieve public goals.
After graduating, Higgs joined the Washington, D.C., nonprofit American Rivers, where he worked on campaigns to remove dams and restore natural fisheries. Higgs relished being surrounded by others who were also passionate about their work. His boss, an attorney who had worked in private practice for several years, proved to be a valuable mentor.
“She was one of the most efficient and strong advocates I’d ever met. I really admired the way she worked, and she inspired me to go to law school,” he says.
While earning his law degree at the University of Michigan, Higgs received a master’s in resource policy and behavior through a joint degree program the university offers. During law and graduate school, he served as a research fellow for the Ecosystem Management Initiative, where he co-published success stories and lessons learned from diverse parties working together to advance large-scale ecosystem-management efforts such as watershed planning and forest fire management.
He also worked as a summer associate at two law firms — first at the nonprofit Trustees for Alaska and then at the commercial firm Pierce Atwood in Portland, Maine. He says the dual experiences further enhanced his interest in the power of policy, conflict resolution and problem solving.
After receiving his law degree in 2005, Higgs was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship and returned to New Zealand to study environmental mediation in its Environment Court. Higgs interviewed mediators, judges and parties in conflict to highlight the lessons learned from mediating public policy disputes.
“While I learned about conflict resolution in school, the Fulbright experience allowed me to listen more deeply to people navigating conflict and to witness firsthand the resolve of people working to overcome it,” he says.
Higgs joined Perkins Coie’s Portland office in 2006 and says the firm’s powerhouse environmental practice presented him with a broad array of interesting projects and challenges.
“I had exceptional colleagues who worked hard, practiced with integrity and taught me what I know about problem solving,” he says. “It was an exciting environment to work in. It was intense, but it was fun.”
Tom Lindley, chair of the firm’s environment, energy and resources practice group, says he and Higgs worked closely on a variety of complex environmental projects throughout the state during Higgs’ six years with the firm.
“He was deeply involved in helping cities and counties address their wastewater treatment issues and got to work awfully closely and carefully with a lot of county employees who wanted to do the right thing but were struggling with budgets,” Lindley says. “Steve managed to befriend all of them and kept coming up with creative solutions for them.”
Above all, Lindley says, he admires Higgs’ commitment to walking the walk, from educating Whole Foods’ staff and customers about organic foods and waste reduction to chairing Perkins Coie’s Sustainability Committee.
“He has good values and he lives them,” he says. “During the winter, you would see this gray bundle ride up in the dark and rain on a bicycle and gradually unfold and unpack, and it would be Steve riding into work no matter how bad the weather.”
As much as he enjoyed practicing law, Higgs says SAGE’s mission completely gripped him. He is intrigued by the leadership and innovation opportunities for people over 50, and the chance to sink into a problem that is critically important to him.
“We’re living in a world of tremendous opportunity and challenge. It’s both exciting and concerning at the same time. We’re also living in a world without precedents: our communications, mobility and technology are exploding.”
For Higgs, that context opens up immense avenues for creative service — for people to take on a challenge facing future generations that matters to them personally and to “give forward to benefit future generations in a way they might not have imagined when they were younger.”
Higgs and SAGE’s board members are in the process of prioritizing the range of programs they will pursue. The group has a host of concerns, including affordable education, economic opportunity and environmental quality. Two initial programs, SAGE Socials and business brown-bag lunches, give people a chance to talk in small-group settings about their own concerns and explore the role that people over 50 can play to safeguard opportunities for future generations to thrive.
Higgs spends most of his free time with his daughter Ella, 9, son Tasman, 6, and Amy, his wife of 15 years. With his own children’s futures to consider, Higgs says it’s an exciting time to be involved in finding solutions. His work with SAGE also offers a unique sense of fulfillment, Higgs adds.
“It’s enriching in a way I’ve never experienced before. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about peoples’ concerns for coming generations and how many are giving forward. Through my work, I’m constantly reminded that the only thing greater than tomorrow’s challenges is our collective resolve to overcome them.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. To learn more about SAGE and its activities, visit www.wearesage.org.
© 2013 Melody Finnemore