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Alumni A World Community

Land for the Least

Alumnus of the Year Fights for Rights of World’s Poorest

By Deanna Duff | Photos courtesy of Deborah Espinosa and Landesa

Tim Hanstad '85Tim Hanstad ’85 travels frequently for his work with Landesa. Here, he has a discussion with local residents in Kenya.

Tim Hanstad’s family, faith, and career grew from roots he put down during his childhood near Mt. Vernon, Washington. From 8 years old to college, Tim spent summers on local farms planting and harvesting. As the sun warmed the fields at 6 a.m., he knelt alongside migrant workers, head bowed and hands busy over strawberries, cucumbers, and cabbages.

Men’s soccerTim Hanstad ’85. Below: Tim meets with local partners in Gumma, Odisha, India.

“The work I did in those fields is where the seeds of international issues of development and social justice were first planted,” says Tim ’85, Seattle Pacific University’s 2016 Alumnus of the Year.

In time, he began cultivating land in new ways. Tim is co-founder and senior advisor of Landesa, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works in more than 50 countries to secure land rights for the world’s most impoverished. With a particular focus on women, Landesa has helped more than 115 million families gain land rights. The organization partners with governments and communities to strengthen land rights for the world’s poor by developing, monitoring, and implementing land-related laws and programs.

“Land rights are a fundamental building block not only for helping poor people climb out of poverty, but also for establishing and maintaining peaceful and prosperous societies,” Tim says.

His own grandparents, Norwegian immigrants, farmed strawberries in Skagit County. Tim’s early labor as one of nine children instilled a sense of gratitude and work ethic, but also opened his eyes to injustice. Some of the migrant workers he saw working hardest in his community lived in vehicles and never owned their own land.

During high school, a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan resonated and influenced his studies.

“There is often so much focus on the afterlife — ‘How do I get to heaven?’” he says. “Jesus brings it back to a discussion of ‘What can you do here on earth?’ What do you do to help in really practical terms?”

At SPU, he combined classroom studies with leadership experiences. He worked for the student newspaper and yearbook, joined a campus political group, interned at the King County Prosecutor’s Office, and captained the tennis team. He spent hours discussing current events in his Ashton Hall room, colorfully decorated with John McEnroe and AC/DC posters.

“Tim was a real leader and role model,” says Mark Alman, former SPU tennis coach. After Tim graduated, Mark hired him as an assistant coach. “There was a player Tim took under his wing and really encouraged and helped. That player won matches no one else thought he could win except for Tim. He sees the best in people.”

SPU political science classes solidified Tim’s interest in social justice causes and introduced him to the work of land reform expert Roy Prosterman, a University of Washington law professor.

Roy’s work included founding the groundbreaking “land to tiller” program during the Vietnam War. That program provided land rights to 1 million tenant farmers, increased food production, and reduced enemy combatant recruitment.

After graduating magna cum laude from SPU with degrees in political science and history, Tim attended UW’s law school on a full-ride scholarship. While there, he worked as Roy’s research assistant.

Tim assumed an active role, including fundraising and networking, to create the formal infrastructure that eventually became Landesa and furthered his mentor’s work. During his first trip to Egypt, in 1986, he interviewed a woman who had previously sharecropped land she now owned. That land gave her food, income, and dignity.

“She said that land is life. It was beyond economics or just another asset,” Tim says. “I’ve heard that so many times — ‘I was a nobody, but now I’m somebody. I’m a landowner and can hold my head high.’”

Tim has traveled upwards of 140 days a year on Landesa business. Before technology such as iPhones and Skype were common, he and his wife Chitra, who he considers a partner in his work, sometimes couldn’t communicate for weeks. Instead, they wrote in journals they exchanged upon reuniting.

Despite the personal sacrifices, it was crucial to meet people face-to-face, learn firsthand, and celebrate customs. Journeys have included frigid stays in Russia and meals of scorpions, snakes, and fried bees.

On the windowsill of Tim’s downtown Seattle office, a photo of him with President Bill Clinton shares prominence with handmade gifts of beads, paintings, and figurines from Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda. A note on the wall from his daughter reads, “Hi Dad! Have a great day!”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a head of state or a homeless person in his neighborhood, Tim treats everyone equally,” says Lori Brown, SPU employer relations manager, who nominated Tim as Alumnus of the Year. “Tim’s career and his personal life show that you truly can change the world.”

Lori met the Hanstad family 24 years ago at their mutual church, Rainier Valley’s Emerald City Bible Fellowship. Tim is a dedicated member. Even after an international flight home, he’s at church teaching Sunday school the next morning.

“It’s not just about doing social justice at work. It’s a part of who he is and who we are as a family and couple,” says Chitra. “You can’t just do it ... when you’re being paid. Tim sees it as an integral part of life.”

Over the past two decades, Tim, Chitra, and their four children have often hosted weekly dinners where as many as 20 youth crowded their small dining room and kitchen as they share homemade spaghetti, chili, and Indian-style meatballs.

“Chitra and I hope we can in some way inspire and speak into kids’ lives who are thinking about reaching across boundaries to help others in maybe nontraditional ways,” Tim says. “Mine is just one path to serving the needs around us.”