“At Friends, family had few boundaries and no barriers.” During the 60s and 70s, Heidi’s time at Friends was impacted by her teachers’ real lives and what was happening in the outside world: the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, Apartheid. In 1968 alone, the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and Helen Keller were the focus of Meetinghouse worship and classroom discussion. She remembers her math teacher being an exiled South African activist (Shirley Epstein), exposing the students to the realities of protest and retribution (as well as geometry). A favorite gym teacher had an affinity for jazz (and jazz clubs), leading to a life-long interest (Mr. Lauder). Paul Reeder’s small classes of just 4 or 5 students. “We would sit outside in the Friends’ backyard and discuss civil rights legal cases. He always treated us with such respect, and emphasized learning together. Paul was a supremely thoughtful and kind man, and an openly gay man. He very much reminded me of the person I now refer to as my “gay stepfather” (Bernard Wolff) and gave me the tools to understand him and others. My own sense of family was defined while at Friends.”
The Meetinghouse was a place for quiet contemplation as well as open discussion and served as a reminder the world had issues bigger than any one person. Friends taught Heidi that society had a duty to make the world a better place. Quaker values taught her to look beyond the surface and see individuals as empathetically and organically as possible - as a whole person instead of a labeled box. “Friends’ concept of the light being within each individual was perfect timing.” At Heidi’s public school she was disciplined for being too artistic and for challenging assignments. This was not the case at Friends where her creativity was encouraged and allowed her to imagine a world that ought to be. “The ‘60s and ’70s were a time of great creativity and the Friends community embraced and encouraged that generally. We felt part of the music and art scene, thanks to Friends parents and the openness of Friends leadership to allowing the art and music renegades of our time such as John Lennon and the sounds of John Cage in our doors.”
Heidi’s career path is not surprising. She started her legal career in the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Today she manages her law firm and practices in the fields of dispute resolution, employment, and media matters, and doubles as a documentary film and tv producer with her husband, Steve Engel. According to Reavis Page Jump LLP’s website, the firm has robust practices in litigation and dispute resolution, employment and labor, employment discrimination, entertainment and media, intellectual property, corporate and real estate, infrastructure and urban development, non-profit organizations and education issues, and trusts and estates matters. Heidi says they try to “fix problems or stop them before they become insurmountable or out of control.” The firm has a particularly strong employment discrimination practice, and is proud of its influence on the #MeToo movement and related legislation in the wake of her law firm’s client being the first sexual assault victim to out Harvey Weinstein and be covered in the press in October 2017 (see The New York Times, October 5, 2017).
Heidi points out that both hats she wears—lawyer and documentarian—involve passionate story-telling, just employing different modes and tools. Heidi and her husband, Steve, who is also a lawyer by training, have spent the last 25 years producing films and programs dealing with the law and legal advancements. Their Emmy Award-winning A Walk to Beautiful concerned child marriage and maternal health crises in developing countries (when pregnant women require a C-section, cannot obtain one, and are unaware they even need one, leading to dire consequences for both mother and child). The film raised awareness as well as millions of dollars for women’s and girls’ pre-natal and maternal care, and remarkably led to over 35 additional awards, screenings at the United Nations, and federal legislation proposed by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, The Obstetric Fistula Prevention, Treatment, Hope and Dignity Restoration Act (2020).
Heidi and Steve also co-executive produced the feature-length documentary Missing in Brooks County about the humanitarian crisis along the Texas/Mexico border and the lost families in Brooks County in particular, called “the largest cemetery in America.” Missing in Brooks County also led to federal legislation, the bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Senators Kamala Harris D.Calif.) and John Cornyn (R.Tex.), The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act (2020), which passed Congress unanimously to fund forensic and humanitarian aid to help prevent migrant deaths on the Southwest border and help border counties and nonprofit organizations locate and identify missing migrants.
Heidi also works in documentary television, including prime-time programming such as the long-running series North Woods Law and Lone Star Law on Discovery’s Animal Planet, about wildlife conservation and the game wardens that maintain the land and waterways in those Northeast and Southwest regions, and try to educate the public about outside safety, animal habitat and wilderness protection.
Their current feature film project concerns the story of Madison Smith from a small town in Kansas, a sexual assault survivor in her 20s whose claims were denied by the local County Prosecutor’s Office on the basis of the Prosecutor’s view that the sexual assault and rape were “immature sex” and not crimes. The film chronicles Smith’s courageous pursuit of justice, making use of nineteenth century “frontier” statutes still on the books that enable civilians to convene a grand jury and attempt to prosecute criminals (similar to other civilian efforts in Western states), in a ground-breaking way. The producers hope to advance efforts to define sexual “consent” and standardize responses to sexual assault claims and support crime victims – who cannot achieve justice alone.
“Shaping a documentary is a similar process to preparing a legal argument. In both cases, the goal is to ignite light around the issue or subject at hand, enlighten your audience, and—with any luck—advance your cause.”