Susan Alfred Schechter ’90

June 7, 2010Duke Law News

On May 1, 2010, Michigan became the 26th state to have a comprehensive smoking ban. Susie Schechter, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Michigan, attended Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s bill signing ceremony with her daughter, Annie, who was named for the grandmother she never met. Schechter’s mother, Jo Ann, died of lung cancer at the age of 52.

“I look at the accomplishments in my life, and I’ll say that having my marriage with my husband and my children are still my most important ones, but after that I feel like this is the biggest accomplishment because it affects so many people,” Schechter says.

Schechter’s path to the American Lung Association four years ago began when she discovered an anti-tobacco advertisement online that highlighted how many mothers die each year from smoking. “I was sitting at my computer, and I started bawling,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Okay, I guess this is something I feel strongly about.”

Around that time, Schechter was looking for a new professional direction following 13 years of law firm work in Detroit. Challenged by her husband, Marc, to locate a job that truly excited her, she remembers thinking “I’m not passionate about anything.” The ad served as a reminder of a painful past as well as inspiration for moving forward.

“When I asked myself what I was really passionate about, one thing that made my heart race every time was the thought of kids smoking,” she says. “I wanted to keep other families from going through any kind of experience that our family did in losing someone so important to us.”

Schechter contacted the CEO of the American Lung Association in Michigan and initiated a conversation that led to her becoming the organization’s director of advocacy. Her primary charge was to help add Michigan to the growing number of states that prohibit smoking in shared public spaces such as restaurants and bars.

Schechter welcomed the career change and the challenge.

“It’s easy to have blinders on when you go to law school. I was kind of led in one direction and thought that the one and only job I could have was at a law firm. I didn’t even know that this kind of job existed,” Schechter says. “Next thing I knew I was in Lansing working on one of the most important public health pieces of legislation for our state. It was unbelievable.”

Advocacy work introduced a new set of professional challenges for Schechter, particularly when her lobbying efforts came up short, as they did during the 2007-2008 legislative session.

Having spent the better part of 18 hours in the state capital on the final day of the session, she was devastated when lawmakers failed to reach agreement on exemptions to a bill that looked to be a done deal.

“In law practice, you feel like you have control. You structure your case, you write your briefs, you argue your motion, and then you feel like in a large part you play an important role in whether you win or lose that motion or the case,” Schechter says. “With this, we worked so hard and felt like we did such an amazing job, and in the end it was really out of our control whether that bill passed or not.”

Nevertheless, she felt confident the bill would eventually pass. In the meantime, she made it her personal mission to change the vote of her home district legislator, Republican Sen. John Pappageorge, from a “no” to a “yes.”

Schechter rallied her friends and neighbors to “bombard” the senator with emails and phone calls. She had her daughter’s elementary school classmates write letters to him. And when appropriate, she called upon her personal story of loss due to lung cancer.

She also organized an emotional in-district meeting with the senator that she says served as a turning point in their relationship. Typically such meetings draw a handful of supporters to a local establishment to meet face-to-face with elected officials. Schechter gathered 30 constituents, many of whom had arranged babysitters or left work for the mid-day meeting at a coffee shop. At the last minute she learned that the senator would not be attending; a member of his staff would serve as his replacement.

After a polite-but-firm discussion, the staff member made a phone call that brought the senator to the coffeehouse five minutes later. The two-hour meeting included the personal testimony of a woman who had lost her sister to lung cancer just one week earlier. “He heard from every person around the table,” Schechter recalls. “It was very emotional.”

“We built a relationship from that point,” she adds. “I constantly sent him articles and met him for coffee. In the end he became one of our biggest advocates and was instrumental in getting the bill through the Republican-controlled chamber.”

Having contributed to landmark legislation in Michigan, Schechter is satisfied that her own process of self-discovery has provided an example for her three children to follow.

“It’s been a great lesson for my kids. You evolve as a person,” Schechter says. “Each experience opens up a new door for you and shows you new things that are out there. I love that my kids have seen that. I’m still a work in progress.”
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