Advocate for the forgotten

Moses in August 2011
Moses in August 2011
PHOTO: COURTESY MOSES FAMILY

May 16, 1966 – June 6, 2012

In 1987, Dawn Jahn Moses and a handful of undergraduates who belonged to the Student Volunteers Council started what has become a foundation of the freshman experience for many: several days of community service at the start of their time at Princeton, an alternative to canoeing or rock-climbing with Outdoor Action.

For Moses, working to shape that program — now known as Community Action — was a prelude to a career spent advocating for the less fortunate. Even when Moses was in the hospital, fighting the cancer that would take her life, she was helping to launch a groundbreaking report on homeless children, a group not known for its political clout. But by packaging an analysis of the homeless as a state-by-state report card — and focusing on children, rather than adults — the report generated 3,500 media calls and attention to a topic that frequently is ignored.

“She had a sense of how to position the issue in a way that would make people listen,” says Ellen Bassuk, the founder of the National Center on Family Homelessness, near Boston, where Moses worked as a vice president.

In her work on behalf of the homeless, Moses drew on lessons she learned in Washington as a policy adviser to Tipper Gore, wife of the vice president, during the federal health-care debate of the 1990s. Co-workers from that period told The Boston Globe that Moses emphasized that there were vulnerable people behind the dry statistics of policymaking.

Moses, who was 46 when she died, came from a Princeton-all-the-way family. She grew up in Princeton; her father, professor emeritus Robert Jahn ’51 *55, was dean of the engineering school, and her mother, Catherine Seibert Jahn, was a teacher at the University League Nursery School. The youngest of four children — her siblings are Eric ’79, Jill ’80, and Nina ’84 — she met her husband, James Moses ’88, in her freshman Spanish class.

On campus, Moses was “the strawberry blonde with the huge smile,” remembers Cece Rey Hallisey ’88, who helped Moses get elected Undergraduate Student Government social chairwoman with the slogan, “Don’t Yawn, Vote Dawn!” “People were drawn to her,” says her sister Jill.

Moses was drawn to work as an advocate for the homeless and the mentally ill after watching her mother, who had severe arthritis, press for accommodations for the disabled. “My mom fought for the underdog,” says her sister Nina, “and so did Dawn.”

Jennifer Altmann is an associate editor at PAW.