My big brother, Shafeek (Arabic for "the compassionate one"), was my hero from birth when he gave me my first name, to the delight of our parents. He was eight years older than I--almost to the day--and the oldest of the four children (two girls and two boys) in our family.
Shaf was an idea factory with many subdivisions. Always the listener, reader, and conversationalist, he was blessed with an absorptive curiosity, and he readily shared everything he learned or thought with the family. I remember once before he returned to his studies at the University of Toronto, he left me a note and three books to read. One was A Short History of the World, another was a small philosophy volume by James Harvey Robinson, and the third was a book about music. It was pretty heady material for an eighth grader--so much so that I read every page of each book.
He was a constant local explorer in rural Connecticut and Massachusetts. Countless times he would have us hop into his jalopy and bounce along the side roads (sometimes dirt roads) of the countryside, while he pointed out historic sites, glorious hidden meadows and marshes, and lead us on climbs in the Litchfield country hills, from which we enjoyed spectacular views. Then there was the magic of being woken up in the middle of the summer night for a ride, pajamas and all, to the nearby Hartford reservoir to view the full moon in all its splendor. Later, he argued for education that hones the civic skills of students in the elementary and high schools. He wanted children to learn their own area’s history and geography and to explore their own hometowns.
Wiser than his age and more mature than his contemporaries growing up, Shaf paid close attention to his younger siblings--Claire, Laura, and me. With unusual empathy, Shaf was an arm-around-the-shoulder kind of older brother, comforting us in our moments of worry, pain, and anxiety, and celebrating with us our joys. He also brought us down to earth when we became too elated or agitated. But it was the way he counseled or cautioned us that was so effective. He would use analogies from historic figures, or cite his own previous mistakes so that we could learn from them. In so doing, he gave us larger frames of reference, which a narrowly focused preteen or early teenager often needs.
It was not just my parents, sisters, and I who learned so much from Shaf. From his days in the navy during Word War II to his many ideas, proposals, and projects afterward, his suggestions were adopted by many people and he was glad to let them take the credit. He would often go to the local town meetings and lay before the elected officials basic solutions to the town's problems, while offering a vision of new horizons for what our town could become. In this vein, he talked up, to much initial skepticism, the formation of a community college. At the time, no town with a population of just over 10,000 people like Winstead had one. Shaf organized a core group of his friends to establish the Northwestern Connecticut Community College; this thriving institution celebrated in its 40th year in 2005.
My brother was interested in structures and systems that were innovative and open to the citizenry, regardless of their power and income. (For instance, he did not like professional spectator sports, but instead urged people to participate in their favorite game.) This interest is one reason why he admired consumer cooperatives, including arts and crafts. Co-ops help build a community and its self-reliance. He thought that our town should have its own ocean fishing boat and its own nearby fresh vegetable farm, under cooperative entities.
Shaf was all about the roots and fundamentals, whether it was the roots of words, or the crucial focus on community in many of its meanings--material, spiritual, nurturing, pioneering, and environmental. He rarely separated people from their locale. Never have I met anyone besides Shaf who could converse so authentically with so many different kinds of people from all backgrounds. From them he learned about their felt needs; their viewpoints; their sense of fun, pun, and play; and their yearnings.
His passing at age 60 left us with memories that now serve as guides and lessons, and we established an educational foundation--The Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest--to carry on his civic values and humane work. His wisdom gave us a fundamental sense of priorities for how we can make a difference and work toward building a better community and a better world. I think often of the story of a small moment that took place while he was fighting his final battle against cancer in a California hospital. One day, an African-American nurse who was pushing his wheelchair down the corridor leaned down and said, "I hear your family is for the people."
Shaf replied, "Maybe that is because we are of the people."
© Copyright Ralph Nader