The beloved Ed O’Brien

ed1Edward Lee O’Brien, 69, co-founder of Street Law, Inc., President of the ACLU for the National Capital Area, and a pioneer of law-related education, died on Thursday, July 2, 2015, of a heart attack in New York City. Serving as Executive Director of Street Law Inc., for almost four decades, Ed brought Street Law’s democracy, human rights and legal education programs to high school classrooms, prisons, courts, police departments and communities worldwide – using innovative inter-active teaching methodologies – the original focus was to teach kids in underserved areas about “everyday law.”

Ed’s vision took Street Law international in 1985, first to South Africa, establishing an enduring partnership with his lifelong friend, David McQuoid-Mason, the dean of the University of Natal Law School. Afterwards, he led programs in Latin America, East and West Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Although his first love was teaching, Ed spent much of his time fundraising and managing grants, and, as a result, under Ed’s leadership, Street Law has sought and secured grants from the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of State, USAID, the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute and some of the major corporations in America including General Motors, Coca Cola and McDonalds, etc.

Ed graduated from the University of Virginia with a B.A. in History and received his J.D. degree from Georgetown University Law Center. He co-founded the Street Law program at Georgetown in 1972 and was awarded a Robert F. Kennedy fellowship, from the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights, which helped launch the organization, by subsidizing his first year of paid Street Law employment.

Ed worked as an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, teaching courses in Prison Law and Street Law. He co-founded Human Rights USA, a project initially funded by the Ford Foundation, in 1998.   He also founded the Black South African Law Program at the Georgetown University Law Center, where over four dozen South African lawyers were invited to earn their Masters of Law degrees; remarkably, the graduates of this program have become some of the country’s leading law professors, judges and practicing lawyers.  He had hoped to write about the legacy of this program during an expected visit to South Africa in the spring of 2016.

Ed has had special relationship with South Africa, where Street Law’s first international program was established in 1985, and in 2003 the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. According to David McQuoid Mason, the then Dean of University of Natal Law School, Ed “arrived on the day the Apartheid authorities declared a State of Emergency. We ran the very first Street Law workshop in South Africa in Durban in August 1985, and started the first university Street Law program in South Africa at the then University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) in 1986. We then both helped to spread the Street Law message around the world, beginning with 16 Eastern European with funding from the Ford Foundation and Open Society (Soros) Foundation. The rest is now history and Street Law is taught in over 45 countries today. Ed was a great inspiration for many people – not least me.”

In 2006, Ed completed a two-year Master’s program in International Children’s Rights at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) Faculty of Law. In 2009, he received the Isadore Starr Award for Excellence in Law-Related Education from the American Bar Association.

Ed has written articles for numerous professional journals and is a recognized expert in the areas of law related education, youth aspects of the criminal justice system, constitutional law, human rights, and democracy. He has authored and co-authored several books, including the premiere textbook for teaching law to high school students, Street Law: A Course in Practical Law (now in its eighth edition) written with the enthusiastic encouragement early on by Isadore Starr, Street Law (South African edition), Human Rights for All (1991), Democracy for All: Education Towards a Democratic Culture (1994), and Practical Law for Correctional Personnel: A Resource Manual and a Training Curriculum.

In 2004, a partnership with the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy headed by Dr. Radwan Masmoudi and Aly R. Abuzaakuk, with funding from the U.S. State Department’s Democracy and Rule of Law (DRL) program, created an adaptation of the Democracy for All text, which uses excerpts from the Koran, to show how Islam and democracy are compatible. This book, Islam and Democracy: Toward Effective Citizenship (2005), published in Arabic, has been used successfully in a number of countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt.

In 2007, as part of Street Law’s Closing the Gap program, Ed served as a living civil rights “Legend” in a unique program called “Breakfast with a Legend,” where 5th and 6th graders in D.C. Public Schools meet with “Legends” — people who had been successful in law and made a positive impact on society. Students at Friendship Charter School Woodridge Campus had breakfast with Ed then took part in a Street Law class taught by him.

In the summer of 2012, Ed traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to volunteer with friend Bruce Lasky, founder of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia Community Legal Education Initiation (BABSEA), an international access to justice, legal education program that uses Street Law as a basis of its teaching mission in law school clinics throughout South Asia.

In January-February of 2015, Ed traveled with May to Kathmandu, Nepal to lead a UN-sponsored Democracy Education Workshop, co-sponsored by the Council for a Community of Democracies and the Nepal-based Institute for Governance and Development, to create plans and guidelines for civic and democracy education Nepal. He also led a Street Law workshop for the Nepal Teacher Training Initiative, a program supported by the Washington, DC Rotary Club, which provides teacher training to remote areas of Nepal.

After retiring from Street Law, he became a Professor at the University of District of Columbia, teaching Law and Ethics and the capstone course on Democracy. He was also on the faculty negotiating team working with the SEIU to secure better benefits for UDC Adjunct Professors.

Ed has served on the board and committees of many organizations, including the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union-National Capital Area, the American Association of Law Schools, the D.C. Bar, the National Assembly of Health and Human Services, the Rotary Club of Washington, D.C., Civitas International, and Capitol Hill Restaurants Inc.

In this last capacity as a restauranteur, he was the co-owner of the Rogue and Jar pub in Dupont Circle, The Man in the Green Hat restaurant on Capitol Hill and Colonel Brooks Tavern in Brookland, which resulted in a life-long appreciation of a good Scotch, a taste for prime rib and good food. Co-worker and friend Margaret Fisher commented that, “Ed was always the one who knew where the best restaurants were and where the best drinks were to be had, without any help from Yelp. He loved life and it was contagious. Any one who knew Ed, knew his laugh and his wit. He also had a nose for people who were genuine and cared about making a difference in the world.”

* * *

ed2Ed O’Brien was born on September 21, 1945, the son of William J. O’Brien and Elizabeth Lee, and grew up in Douglaston, Queens, New York, spending carefree summers in Cape May in an old Victorian gingerbread house on Gurney Street, a block from the ocean. He attended Holy Cross High School, a Catholic boys school, in Flushing, New York, where a group of high school buddies known as the “Kings” continue to raise hell regularly at annual reunions. Since his father died in 1995 at the age of 102, he always thought he would have a long life.

Edward L. O’Brien is survived by his beloved wife, May Yoneyama Gwinn O’Brien; a son, John and his wife Saba Brevi; a daughter, Beth and her husband, Marlon Banta; a stepson, Michael Palmer and his partner, Molly Brown; and a stepdaughter, Mary and her husband, Terry McDonald; three grandchildren, Hamza, Sasha and Neila from John’s marriage; a step-grand-daughter, Maggie, from Mary’s marriage; an older brother William; and their lovable dog “T” or Tristan. Michael recalled fondly that Ed frequently dashed around with his shirttails flying.

Ed loved baseball and was a Nats fan, but his lifelong passion was playing golf, and his dream of going to St. Andrews was fulfilled on a Rotary Friendship tour of Scotland a couple of years ago. He was a voracious reader, often frequenting his favorite neighborhood bookstore, Politics and Prose, and was a dedicated fan of “Morning Joe,” Krista Tippett’s “On Being,” Nelson Mandela and the Dali Lama.   He also had a new interest in the arts and was an avid museum goer; on the last day of his life, he made a point of taking his bride to the new Whitney Museum at the end of the High Line, which he declared was the best museum in New York.

He could be seen on his daily walks with his headphones on taking his exercise routine around his neighborhood of Chevy Chase DC, always friendly, stopping to talk to neighbors, and to pick up his Souper Girl order from Gerald Davis, his personal trainer, in the Chevy Chase arcade.


On Thursday, July 9, 2015, Edward Lee O’Brien was interred at the Meade Memorial Cemetery in White Post, VA, the Lee/Meade family cemetery.


In lieu of flowers, a memorial donations may be made to “Street Law—South Africa,”, c/o Professor David McQuoid-Mason, Center for Socio-Legal Studies, Howard College Campus, Hut 11, Durban 4041, South Africa– to provide scholarships to those who are otherwise unable to attend the “Ed O’Brien International Street Law Best Practices Conference” in 2016 (the conference is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of the first ever international Street Law program, which took place at the University of KwaZulu-Natal); or Nepal Teacher Training Innovations,; or the Arlington Academy of Hope, – all non-profit organizations.

“What we have once enjoyed and love we can never lose, All that we love deeply becomes part of us and can never be parted. Ed will remain in our hearts forever. May the departed soul rest in peace.”  – Sumit Kapoor, upon hearing about Ed’s passing.