For Lesa Morrison, the concept of tikkun olam was a way of life.
From her work in Honduras as a member of the Peace Corps, to her empowerment of residents of Nairobi, Kenya, Morrison really was trying to repair the world, and was happiest putting others first, according to her sister Abby Morrison.
Morrison died the first week of December from complications due to a spider bite while researching the Luo people in Kenya. She was 53.
Morrison was born to BeeJee and Perry Morrison, active members in Jewish Pittsburgh as well as the wider community, and raised in Squirrel Hill. She attended Sunday school at Rodef Shalom Congregation, and High Holiday services at Congregation Beth Shalom.
Her father, Perry, was a trained cantor, and instilled in his daughter not only an appreciation of music, but a love for Judaism. She took that love with her to Africa, where she continued to keep kosher, and was an active member of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, regularly attending services there.
“She loved going to shul,” said Abby Morrison. “She always connected with Judaism.”
Morrison graduated from Winchester Thurston School in 1980 and earned her bachelor’s degree in economics as well as an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1985. But despite her academic credentials in business, Morrison “did not have the money-making mentality,” her sister said. Instead, she just wanted to help others.
“She joined the Peace Corps,” said Abby Morrison, learned Spanish and spent more than three years in Corozal, Honduras, where she helped local women who were African descendants develop a small business, a cassava bread-making factory.
It was while working in Honduras that she “became interested in Africa, the ethnic, cultural and sociological components,” Abby Morrison said.
Following her time in the Peace Corps, Morrison briefly worked at the World Bank in Washington, D.C, then headed to Duke University, where she earned her doctorate in political science as an Africanist, specializing in ethnic conflict, in 2004. While at Duke, she also became a mediator, trained in using principles of nonviolent communication.
After her studies, she left for Kenya.
“She loved Kenya,” said Abby Morrison. “It felt like home to her. She loved the beauty, the nature, and the light there, with its intense colors. It just drew her.”
As she did while in the Peace Corps, Morrison devoted herself in Kenya to improving the lives of others.
“She was interested in helping people develop themselves, which is the highest form of tzedakah,” said Abby Morrison. “Even with her friends in Kenya, she got them chickens so they could have the eggs.”
While in Africa, Morrison developed and practiced her interest in alternative medicine and healing techniques, and taught her friends in Kenya those techniques, according to her sister.
“She wanted to help them be empowered themselves,” Abby Morrison said.
Morrison, who would come back to Pittsburgh each year for a few weeks, was “happy as a lark” living in Kenya, according to her mother.
“She lived life the way she wanted to live it,” BeeJee Morrison said. “She was a very, very smart lady. It was fun to talk to her because she was so bright.”
When her father died in 2010, Morrison put her own grief to one side when, at his funeral, she saw a blind friend struggling to enter the funeral home.
“She left us and went down to help him in,” Morrison’s mother recalled. “She was always that way.”
Morrison was small in stature, but powerful, according to her family.
“I had trouble walking with her because she was so fast,” said Abby Morrison.
“She was super energetic.”
Morrison learned to appreciate music, especially the opera and the symphony, from her parents, who were dedicated supporters, Abby Morrison said.
“She played gorgeous classical guitar,” said her sister, “and kept up with current music,” even while in Africa. “Whatever she decided to focus on, she had a ton of enthusiasm for.”
Deborah Acklin, president and CEO of WQED Multimedia, was a classmate of Morrison’s at Winchester Thurston, and although they lost touch for a while, they reconnected as adults. Morrison seemed to be called by Africa, observed Acklin.
“She was always helping people help themselves,” Acklin said. “That’s a pretty good life, isn’t it? She died in a place she loved, doing work that she loved to do.”
Acklin noted her friend’s deep intelligence and work ethic.
“She was off the charts brilliant,” Acklin said.
“And she combined that with hard work.”
A friend of Morrison’s from Africa called Abby Morrison recently, distraught over her death, and “weeping because Lesa was so important to his family,” Abby Morrison said. “She first met him when she was in Africa doing research, and she kept up with him. He named one of his children for her.”
Services were held at Ralph Schugar Chapel, Inc. on Dec. 29 with interment at West View Cemetery of Rodef Shalom Congregation. Donations may be sent to the Pittsburgh Opera, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Jewish Federation of Greater of Pittsburgh or a charity of the donor’s choice.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.