People Are Awesome: “SVU” Producer Now Helps “Special Victims” In Real Life

Thanks to him, you can too

We’re relaunching a GOOD online series, “People Are Awesome”, where we feature good people doing great things—and seek their advice, inspiration, and ideas. This week’s Awesome Person: Neal Baer.

Neal Baer’s name comes with a certain heft in Hollywood, the result of writing and producing heavy-hitters like ER and Law & Order: SVU. But what you may not realize is beyond the screen, Baer recently lauched a non-profit venture called ActionLab (still in beta), as a way of “bridging the gap between inspiration and action.” It’s a way for regular citizens, when they become inspired to act based on some TV show (or movie, book, piece of art, etc.), to have some means of doing something—beyond clicking an online petition.

For instance, one of Baer’s SVU episodes concerned the huge backlog of unprocessed rape kits in America, and how that allows thousands of perpetrators to remain at large. Instead of viewers just feeling frustrated and saddened by the issue, ActionLab would give them the tools and knowledge to make a difference. This could be anything from showing people how to get their own rape kit, to teaching them how to pressure local governments into processing the backlog.

“The idea first came out of my work on ER,” says Baer, who is also a Harvard-trained medical doctor. “We’d get letters and emails from people who had learned about various illnesses and treatments from the show, and wanted to know what they could do. How could we use the shows we were making to help people do something in their own lives? ActionLab comes from the notion that storytelling provides inspiration and engagement, but there is nowhere for people to take action.”

With TV one of our most powerful tools of communication, the idea of potentially pushing viewers into activists is a compelling one. Baer was a no-brainer to be GOOD’s next Awesome Person.

Who is your hero?

That really changes depending on what I'm reading or what I'm doing at any moment. One recent hero runs an organization called Reencontro in Mozambique. Her name is Olinda Mugabe and her group provides support for more thousands of orphans in Mozambique. There are over 500,000 orphans in that country, but there are no orphanages or a foster care system there. Reencontro gives support for these poor kids who don't have extended families, so they don’t end up living in abandoned buildings or a garbage dump.

What book most inspired you?

It’s a book by Alan Down called The Velvet Rage about the shame and profound negative power that can dominate gay men's lives. This book was a turning point in my life, the impetus for helping me come out.

What's been the most inspiring news story from the last month?

Can it be something that inspired me to do something because I’m angry. Ok. It was an op-ed piece in the Times called A Bathroom of One's Own, basically saying Obama was wrong to impose the transgender bathroom law without public debate. Truth is, we are not talking about bathrooms here, we’re talking about human rights, our essential right to dignity. I feel like people get so focused on the genitalia of transgendered people, when really it’s about people’s brains. Peter Shuck’s argument is weak, and I’m thinking of writing a rebuttal.

What is a piece of advice you'd like to share with the world?

Take time to listen to the voice inside, and understand that what you think isn't always what's true. This sounds like a contradiction, but I mean that there’s a lot of stories we tell ourselves, and just because you had a thought doesn't mean it's right. Through action, through changing your behavior, you can overcome a lot of anxiety and fear.

What’s the best advice you've received?

Alan Downs, the author of the book I mentioned, is my therapist now. He always says, “People show you who they are. They may say many things, but through their actions they show you.

And the worst advice you've gotten?

It's just business, quote unquote. People do things really lamentable, then they say that. I think it's a terrible excuse. You see it all the time in Hollywood to excuse bad behavior and self-involvement.


Four black women, Engineers Christine Darden and Mary Jackson, mathematician Katherine Johnson, and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan, worked as "human computers" at NASA during the Space Race, making space travel possible through their complex calculations. Jackson, Johnson, and Vaughn all played a vital role in helping John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

They worked behind the scenes, but now they're getting the credit they deserve as their accomplishments are brought to the forefront. Their amazing stories were detailed in the book "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was later turned into a movie. (Darden was not featured in the movie, but was in the book). Johnson has a building at NASA named after her, and a street in front of NASA's Washington D.C. headquarters was renamed "Hidden Figures Way."

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