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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Non-Profit Founder Who Advocates Surrounding Yourself With Smarter People

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Photo: Alexander McLean)

(Photo: Alexander McLean)

When Alexander McLean was 16, he volunteered at a hospice in London, which got him interested in end-of-life care. That led him to volunteer at a hospital in Uganda at 18. There, he spent three months bathing and feeding patients who were dying of AIDS and tuberculosis; most had been abandoned by their families.

Among them were inmates who were handcuffed to their beds and getting almost no attention—“the most wicked and compassionless treatment,” McLean says. In talking to them, he learned that some had been arrested for minor things like idling or having underage sex. Eventually, McLean asked to visit Luzira Maximum Prison, where these neglected patients were coming from.

Outside, it looked like a foreboding castle. Inside, it was putrid and crowded. During his tour, one of the prisoners walked up and hugged him. It was a man McLean had tended to in the hospital. “I didn't remember him well,” he says, “but he said that my care had saved his life.”

When McLean returned to England, he started the African Prisons Project as a student group at Nottingham University, where he was studying law. He collected books and money, which he brought back to the prison to start a library. Soon after, he bought building materials and oversaw a renovation of the prison’s hospital, which he named for his grandmother, Aileen Lily Chapple: “She loved me unconditionally and gave me the feeling I can change the world,” he says. “I want to treat others in the same way.”

"I am satisfied by the times when I have helped a prisoner to have a good death, one where they feel loved and special."

Today, the African Prisons Project is a full-fledged non-profit, operating not just in Uganda but also in Kenya, instilling better infrastructure and more humane living conditions for more than 25,000 inmates and prison staff.

In Africa, where education is reserved for the wealthy, McLean’s organization provides inmates with a free education while they’re in prison, and awards scholarships to ex-inmates, “to equip them to understand the law better.”

“We work to bring dignity and hope to men, women, and children in prisons in Africa through health care, education, and access to justice,” he says. “We develop leaders in prisons who can serve their families, communities, and nations, as we believe that prisons can be places of positive transformation.”

Susan Kigula, for example, was sentenced to death at age 21 for killing her abusive husband. She shared a cramped death-row cell with four other women. She had no bed and no toilet. From there, she studied for her high school exit exams and passed. McLean helped get her into the University of London’s law school—and her death sentence overturned. Law degree in hand, she established a legal aid clinic in her prison and was invited to join the Ugandan judiciary. Instead, she plans to continue her law education to protect the rights of widowed women.

McLean, who is British with Jamaican ancestry, grew up in South London. “We didn't have very much money when I was a child,” he says. “I got a bursary going to a fee-paying school where it seemed everyone was much wealthier than me. I know what it's like to feel like an outsider.”

His mother and father, whom he calls “exceptionally tolerant people,” got married in an era when there was a lot of stigma for mixed-race couples. “My parents helped me to learn to be open to everyone,” McLean says. “They are welcoming and humble.”

Several things motivate McLean to keep doing what he does: First of all, the scale of the need he’s seen all over Africa and beyond. Then it’s “the satisfaction of seeing lives changed, death sentences overturned, prisoners freed,” and the “excitement of seeing prisoners and prison staff give back to their communities.” Not least of all, it’s “a sense of calling and my Christian faith.”

Along with his wife (they have a two-year-old son), McLean is dedicated to serving anyone on society’s edges: “I have a passion for homelessness and refugees. Through an organization called Nightstop, my wife and I are volunteer hosts for young people without a home. I also feel strongly about palliative care, social mobility, and mental illness.”

His advice for others who aspire to do charity work of this magnitude: “Know yourself, be yourself, look after yourself. Surround yourself with good people, preferably who know more than you. And don't be afraid to make mistakes—have the courage of your convictions.”

When McLean looks in the mirror, he sees determination, tiredness, passion, a human full of flaws and potential. “‘Alexander’ means ‘defender of men,’” he says. “I aspire to live up to my name. I want to defend the poor, the broken, the rejected. To serve them and to learn from them and with them.”

He’s a senior TED Fellow and has a law degree from the University of London. (Though he doesn’t practice as a barrister, he does volunteer as a magistrate to “remind me of the power of the law.”) In 2007, he won the Beacon prize, which has been called the Nobel of the charity world.

When asked which of his accomplishments he’s proudest of, he says: “I am excited by the cases we have been involved in which have resulted in death sentences being overturned. Our work helping prisoners become lawyers is amazing and I don't see anything else like it anywhere else in the world.”

And then he says this: “I am satisfied by the times when I have helped a prisoner to have a good death, one where they feel loved and special.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).