William Holston turned 55 this year. While others may be looking ahead to retirement, he decided it wasn’t too late to start over again.
During the more than 30 years I practiced business law,I enjoyed the intellectual challenges of problem solving, and I loved my law partners and staff. But over time, I realized my passions lay elsewhere. It began by saying yes 25 years ago to a random request from a Mennonite missionary who was working with Central Americans seeking refuge in Dallas, where they fled civil war. I agreed to take a political asylum case representing Marta, a young mother. Her husband was a truckers’ union leader in Guatemala, killed by a death squad. When Marta received death threats, she fled her country. I helped her win asylum and was totally hooked. Since that first case, I’ve represented people from twenty different countries, and have taken cases from Human Rights Initiative of North Texas for the last 12 years.
The work has transformed my life. I have learned much about the world and the different immigrant groups that fill our city. I began to seek every chance I could to write and speak about human rights abuses. I marched with Zimbabwean and Iranian human rights activists here in Dallas. I was changed by hearing the client stories of persisting despite persecution.
But there was a problem. 90 percent of my energy was going to the practice of law, while 90 percent of my passion was with my pro bono work with Human Rights Initiative. For 12 years, I lived with this tension. Then last year, the position of executive director opened. My wife and I talked it over and I decided to apply.
I was able to pursue this passion at this stage of life primarily because of a single decision I made in 1984 when I married. Jill and I have avoided debt and live in the same modest house we purchased in 1986. Because our values coincide, we can afford to live on a non-profit paycheck. Of course I was nervous about this change, but I would have always regretted not trying.
I’m at the stage of life where I want to devote all of my energy to things that matter most. I’ve always heard if you pursue your passion, the money will follow. I’ve never really believed that. It might be true if your passion is being an investment banker. But what if what really makes you tick is representing people who don’t’ have a nickel when they arrive here in America? What is your passion in life? Do you want to get to the end of your life and regret that you never pursued the things that were most important to you?
Hanging on my wall is a photograph taken by my friend Dylan Hollingsworth. It features a protest sign with the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
I’m not going to make that mistake.
William Holston is Executive Director of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.