SLC Honors Young Local Writers: News and Events at Sarah Lawrence College

young local writers

Twenty-two aspiring writers from Yonkers high schools will be recognized at a November 18th ceremony at 7 p.m. in the Suzanne Werner Wright Theatre at Sarah Lawrence College. The students won scholarships to attend the Summer Writer's Workshop for High School Students, held in July at the College. The Youth Mentoring Initiative for International Understanding, a collaboration of Sarah Lawrence College’s graduate writing program, the Yonkers Public Schools and the Greater New York Chapter of the Fulbright Association, sponsors the Yonkers students’ participation in the workshop that is designed to help young people develop their writing skills in a non-competitive environment.

The November ceremony will recognize the Yonkers students and their teachers from the school district. Some of the students will read writing they completed during the workshop. Ambassador Robert Aisi, representative of the Papua New Guinea United Nations Mission, will be the keynote speaker. A leadership award will be presented to superintendent of the Yonkers Public Schools, Angelo Petrone for his work in promoting international education.

In July the scholarship winners joined 50 other students from the tri-state area for five days of writing and theatre workshops led by prose writers, poets and theatre artists. In keeping with the Sarah Lawrence tradition of one-to-one interaction between students and teachers, students met individually with workshop leaders throughout the week.

The Greater New York Chapter of the Fulbright Association provided the scholarships. The Fulbright Association is a member organization of students, teachers and scholars who have participated in the Fulbright Program, an educational exchange program dedicated to promoting international cooperation.

Yonkers Public Schools teachers chose the scholarship winners based on a writing competition focused on themes of diversity, conflict resolution and global issues—topics that resonate with the Fulbright Association’s international concerns.

"We feel it is increasingly important to acknowledge schools' emphasis on writing and reward students’ writing efforts," said Rosalba DelVecchio, education committee chair for the Greater New York Chapter of the Fulbright Association. The group has stressed the value of building partnerships with institutional members of the Association, such as Sarah Lawrence, to benefit the education of young people.

At the inaugural awards ceremony in 2001, Harriet Mayor Fulbright, the widow of Senator J. William Fulbright who founded the Fulbright Program, explained the Fulbright Association’s enthusiasm for the Youth Mentoring Initiative. “Senator Fulbright was convinced that we can and must use our minds and hearts to provide all our youth with the best education possible” in order to “lay the groundwork for a worldwide network of intelligent and dedicated leaders.”

Sarah Lawrence is committed to involving local community members in its programs; the Youth Mentoring Initiative is one aimed at involvement and collaboration with the City of Yonkers. "It is important to us, as a college based in Yonkers, to have students who are close neighbors participating in the workshop," said Alexandra Soiseth, assistant director of the graduate writing program and coordinator of the summer writing program.

At last year’s awards ceremony, Yonkers City Council President Vincenza Restiano pointed out that the students in the Yonkers Public Schools represent 53 nations and cultures. "In America, in New York, in Yonkers, cultural diversity is not a trend. It is here,” she said. Restiano also delivered a proclamation from the Yonkers City Council commending the Youth Mentoring Initiative for “expanding the horizon of our youth.” A similar proclamation from the Mayor of Yonkers was issued in 2001. The 2002 keynote address was given by Alison Gardy, director of international relations at the 92nd Street Y and board member and membership chair of the national Fulbright Association.

The Fulbright Vision and 11 September 2001

Harriet Mayor Fulbright

Since the day I agreed to talk with you, our world has been turned upside down. The tragic events which so swiftly unfolded at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania last September 11th transformed popular opinion and outlook around the world. If there was ever a single event that riveted the attention of every human being within reach of some means of communication and changed the view of life and what it means, this was it. This was one of those few times when everyone will remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

Within hours of the explosions my email address began to fill up with heartfelt messages from every continent. People poured out feelings of support and sympathy and added thoughtful comments on the difference between the people of Afghanistan and the terrorists. There were numerous letters addressed to President Bush urging him to use caution in his response, sent for more signatures, to be passed on to the White House. News reports on the Administration's plans indicate that all these messages have been heard in some fashion.

As always when a momentous event has occurred, I am left thinking about what my husband's reactions would have been. What might be his response to this tragedy?

First and foremost, he was an instinctive collaborator. He would therefore reach out to allies to help bring the perpetrators to justice. His call to collaborate 60 years ago came in the form of the introduction of a Congressional resolution to establish an international body, which became the United Nations. He was not a pacifist; in 1940 he strongly supported Roosevelt and his assistance to the British through the Lend Lease program when his colleagues were opposed to any involvement in the conflict, and he warned his audiences that Hitler had to be stopped forcefully long before our entrance into World War II.

He was, however, supremely cautious in recommending the use of force and was the only Senator, or advisor of any kind, who expressed to President Kennedy opposition to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. His first line of defense was always an exchange of views. All during the Cold War, for instance, he would consult on a regular basis with the Soviet Ambassador as a means of finding out Moscow's motives and thoughts behind its actions. The conversations were often held at his dinner table, and many a Senate colleague refused the invitations for fear of being tainted by being in the same room with the enemy.

At the same time Fulbright would fall back on the skills and habits he developed as a Professor at the University of Arkansas - skills he also practiced in Congress. He would spend time at the Library of Congress looking for historical precedents, and he would hold hearings with a wide variety of sources and experts to bring to light the causes of the attack as well as the best response to it. He would be concentrating on the very roots from which terrorism springs and on the sources of a hatred so fierce that the perpetrators think nothing of ending the lives of thousands of innocent people.

Senator Fulbright would, in other words, educate both himself and his country. He would subsequently convey to us that Islam is not the source of violence; that it is a religion of peace, one practiced by one fifth of the world's population; that its Holy Book the Quran states that when you take the life of one person, that act is the same as killing all of humanity; that suicide is unacceptable; that terrorism therefore has nothing to do with Islam or Muslims.

This role of education and seeker of peaceful solutions was, as many of you know, so natural to him that in 1945 right after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, Senator Fulbright did what has become his trademark as public servant. Convinced that the true enemy was now war itself because of the unimaginable havoc wrought by the new weaponry, he turned to history and to his own life for a preventive measure. The program which grew out of his intense thought, study and Senate hearings is the one he considered his greatest accomplishment: namely, the program which bears his name, signed by President Truman on August 1, 1946. It became clear to him, especially as he looked back on his experience as a Rhodes scholar, that if we could get to know one another and learn to exchange ideas, then perhaps we might not be so willing to exchange bullets. The international exchanges started modestly and grew slowly but steadily until the Fulbright Program is now the single largest program of its kind in the world.

We are now at a crossroads, perhaps the most significant in the history of the planet. Today power no longer rests in the hands of those with muscle, material goods and masses of land. The sources of strength more and more lie in science and technology, the development of expert service and creative delivery systems and the ability to work with those outside our own familiar communities. This empathy and understanding seems all the more urgently needed during these last few weeks.

I am happy to report that the Fulbright methods of dialogue and of reaching out to those with all manner of differing opinions has spread to those working with the program he left behind. When Daniel Hajitoffi, the Fulbright Commission Director in Cyprus, asked my advice on an appropriate memorial for the Senator right after his passing, I immediately replied that he would love a garden. Daniel did one better. After much hard work, he was able to establish a Fulbright House right between the lines of barbed wire dividing the city of Nicosia into north and south; and with the help of the American Ambassador, he quietly began bringing together groups of Greek and Turkish Cypriot Fulbright alumni and supporters for informal meals and discussions. At a reception during my visit, small groups of Cypriots came to me to say that their friendships across the border began as a direct result of the Fulbright Commission.

And in Israel the Fulbright Director of a few years ago brought together Palestinian and Israeli high school students for refreshments, games and, of course, discussions. I only point out two instances because you will tire of my voice if I carry on longer, but I wanted you to know of the extra mile walked by the Fulbright Program staff and take pride in their efforts.

As is obvious, Senator Fulbright had much more than the perpetuation of his name in mind when he created his international education exchange program. He was, in fact, uncomfortable with personal monuments of any kind. Rather, I think that the underlying reason for his hard work on the exchange program was not only to further the ideals of education and peace. He was also determined to lay the groundwork for a worldwide network of intelligent and dedicated leaders capable of promoting education for both men and women in every country and determined to establish peace. He was convinced that the whole international community of Fulbright scholars could and would combine forces to help improve the quality of life for all people without destroying the planet we inhabit.

This network is essential because it is now clear that peaceful solutions to global problems can no longer be accomplished by heroic individuals alone or even by groups within single countries. It is up to you and all your Fulbright colleagues who have traveled the planet and are in the best position to work together on solutions, using your global network of the best minds available, developed during this scholarship. As he stated in his last book:

"The future is not in the stars but in our own minds and hearts. Creative leadership and liberal education which in fact go together, are the first requirements for a hopeful future for humankind."

Senator Fulbright was convinced that we can and must use our minds and hearts to provide all our youth with the best education possible and to find the most effective peaceful solutions to critical problems for the benefit of all society and all nations. The Fulbright experience is not something one can dismiss at its completion. The events of September 11th should convince us of that. Like it or not, it is a lifelong commitment, and I thank you one and all for making that commitment.


Alison Gardy

Greetings. I want to recognize the people in this audience who are responsible for not only the second successful year of this writing program partnership between Sarah Lawrence College, the Yonkers Public Schools, and the Greater New York Chapter of the Fulbright Association, but also a more than 100% increase in participation of Greater New York Chapter-sponsored students, from ten to 21.

It is remarkable to see such expansion, such an unqualified upturn, a big, smiling YES during this time of so many cutbacks, downturns and grim no’s. My heartfelt gratitude goes to: Michele Tolela Myers, President of Sarah Lawrence College; Elise Van Oss, President of the Greater New York Chapter of the Fulbright Association; The Honorable Vincenza Restiano, President of the Yonkers City Council; Susan Guma, Dean of Graduate Studies at Sarah Lawrence College; Joe Farmer, Superintendent of Yonkers Public Schools; Alexandra Soiseth, Assistant Director, Graduate Writing and Coordinator of the Summer Writers Workshop for High School Students; Rosalba Del Vecchio, Education Committee Chair of the Fulbright Association Greater New York Chapter Board of Directors and the determined engine behind the creation and sustaining of this partnership. (Rosalba, would you please stand? I want not only to thank Rosalba for the time and energy she has donated as a volunteer despite a full to overflowing professional and family life, but also to make a point that the power of a single individual volunteer is phenomenal.)

I also want to recognize the Teachers; Students; Parents; Friends here tonight, and, someone who is not with us tonight, but joined us last year for our launch celebration and gave us her blessing, Mrs. Harriet Mayor Fulbright. Mrs. Mayor Fulbright is a tireless advocate for the Fulbright Program, which her husband founded, and for international educational exchange in general, as a means to increase genuine mutual understanding and greater prospects for peace between peoples of the world. Esteemed Guests, each of you has contributed to our collective success. You should all be proud of this moment.

The past year has shattered, expanded, darkened, deepened, confused and clarified our perceptions of the world. In the meantime, we get our coffee from the corner deli and take the usual train home. Daily life trundles on with habitual resilience, yet everything has changed. We stand more together, yet more alone, on the cusp of a question that asks, Which way is forward? What does it mean to do the right thing? On the world stage? In our country? In our schools and homes? We can no longer imagine that these spheres of life are concentric circles. They link and influence each other more than ever in our shrunken world.

I last had the honor of speaking on this stage, in this illustrious institution that is Sarah Lawrence College, just over a year ago, on October 1, which the Mayor of Yonkers dedicated as Fulbright Day, when the first ten Yonkers high school students sponsored by the Greater New York Chapter to attend the High School Summer Writers Workshop stood on this stage and shared their writing.

It was a healing event. We had come together to celebrate the successful launch of our groundbreaking partnership just three weeks after a few people who had cut ties to their humanity and, consequently, to humanity, had used the familiar instruments of passenger planes to rewrite the New York City skyline forever. The night we met here in this auditorium, smoke still gushed from the wound at Ground Zero as the heavens sucked skyward, in a huge reverse waterfall, the incinerated remains of the great towers and nearly 3000 people from 87 countries. Their vanishing left us wordless. We searched for their stories, read them in the newspapers, posted them on walls, re-told them, and shook our heads in speechless shock.

Many of the students who performed on this stage last year made a brave decision not to read the stories and poems they had prepared and polished over the summer, but instead to premiere the writing that this horrific destruction had birthed within them. They had discovered the power of writing to give voice to their grief and form to their horror. They had discovered that while writing could not erase or change the past, it could help them digest the present and anchor them amid the relentless rush of headline news. Writing could push their thinking to deeper levels. It could provide relief simply by naming the pain. It could take them on a path to self-knowledge. It could help them formulate a convincing argument. The students read from their heart. I cannot wait to hear this year’s students read.

This is not to say that writing is a good in and of itself. Writing is only a tool. People can misuse it to spread hatred and lies. With the Internet, anyone can post misinformation that condemns an entire race, religion, ethnicity, or nation. But I want to tell you about someone I recently met who uses writing to accomplish extraordinary good. Her name is Beverly Hawk, and she is from Birmingham, Alabama. She told me a story that revealed, once again, the phenomenal power of a single individual volunteer.

I met Beverly through the annual US Fulbright Association conference. The US Fulbright Association is the alumni association for citizens of the United States who have received grants to study, research, or teach in one of the 140 countries that participate in the Fulbright Program. Since the Fulbright Program is an exchange program, students, teachers, scholars, and administrators from other countries also come to the United States to learn, study, and teach.

I want to explain a bit more about the spirit of the Fulbright Program, because it explains the context in which I met Beverly, and it resonates with the values expressed by you in this room tonight. Founded in 1946, thanks to Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who pushed the necessary legislation through Congress, the Fulbright Program has had over 250,000 participants worldwide. In the Senator’s words: “The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship."

Today, the Fulbright Program is the largest and oldest federally-funded international educational exchange program in the United States. It is still guided by Senator Fulbright’s ardent belief in the value of international educational exchange.

In his words: “Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations. Man's capacity for decent behavior seems to vary directly with his perception of others as individual humans with human motives and feelings, whereas his capacity for barbarism seems related to his perception of an adversary in abstract terms, as the embodiment, that is, of some evil design or ideology.”

I encourage everyone here tonight who is a student, teacher, administrator, scholar, or non-academic professional to consider applying for one of the wide range of Fulbright grants. Please let me or Greater New York Chapter President Elise Van Oss know if you would like more information about applying. My Fulbright grant to Mexico in 1988 opened my world as no other experience could have done. I learned as much about Mexico as I did about my own culture in the United States.

Now to Beverly’s story. Beverly, who is a college professor of political science, has enjoyed two Fulbright grants to Kenya and Malawi. The story she shared with me, however, took place not far away in Africa, but in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham, Beverly told me, has had a full-time FBI bomb expert since the 1960s, when the city became a key battleground of the civil rights struggle. People like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of young students faced fire hoses, dogs, and forces of hatred such as the Ku Klux Klan and ordinary people who were not ready to see other ordinary people as equals. Many here will remember Birmingham as the site of the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Beverly told me that “a nice tradition” had recently taken root in Birmingham. In her spare time, she volunteers for an interfaith group, the Metro Area Justice Interfaith Committee (MAJIC), and for the Coalition Against Hate Crimes, two organizations that often work together to keep an open dialogue going between different faiths, races, and ethnic groups. Birmingham is mostly Baptist, but has several other Christian denominations as well. Beverly is Catholic herself. There is also a Jewish community, a Muslim community, Hindu, Buddhist, and Baha’i communities. Birmingham is black, white, brown, American and international.

“Whenever a racially or religiously motivated attack occurs anywhere in the country, especially involving White Aryan Nations,” Beverly told me, “Birmingham gets nervous. There’s a fear that pockets of hatred will act. So we get people together to talk. But it’s always the same 45 or 65 people again and again who come out.”

In the summer of 1999, Buford O. (“Neal”) Furrow, a white supremacist from the State of Washington, walked into the lobby of the North Valley Jewish Community Committee in Los Angeles, and opened fire, spraying 70 bullets and wounding children. He then hijacked a car, spotted a Filipino-American postman, got out of the car, asked the postman to mail a letter for him, started shooting, and killed him. When Neal Furrow turned himself over to authorities a day later, he said his shooting spree was “a wake-up call to America to kill Jews.”

Back in Birmingham, the tension was thick. At one of the community meetings, Beverly and other like-minded people worried that with the Jewish New Year coming up in just eleven days, a copycat hate crime would occur in their city. An idea occurred to her. She wrote a simple greeting on a piece of paper: Our warmest thoughts are with you at the High Holy Days. May the year bring peace and joy for you and those you love.

“That was it,” Beverly said. “The message was simply a greeting of good will and good wishes. It was not about one religion sending a religious message to another religion.” Beverly turned to Reverend Lawton Higgs, who leads MAJIC, for the next step. He asked her to get the letters ready. He would print them on MAJIC letterhead and distribute them to the interfaith mailing list. “It is so thrilling to find people to work with,” Beverly said, “and they are out there to be found.”

Copies of the greeting circulated around the community, to black churches, white churches, to the Muslim community, to people of the Buddhist, Hindu, and Baha’i faiths. Sometimes Beverly stood by as people lined up to sign. “I wish I could have recorded the conversations I heard as people signed their names,” she said. ‘My best friend in college was Jewish!’ ‘We have a Jewish neighbor.’ You got a window onto people’s lives and thoughts through those remarks.” Beverly tried to circulate the greeting only among friends, but she realized that as more and more people asked to circulate copies of the greeting, she could not guarantee that the signatures would avoid unsafe hands. Her solution to the dilemma? Get over 1,000 signatures. That way, she reasoned, individuals with malicious intent would be less likely to try to put the signers’ names on the Internet in an effort to expose them to hate groups. There is power in numbers.

The greetings with signatures began coming back to Beverly. They kept coming and coming. In that brief space of eleven days, Beverly collected over 2,000 signatures. She framed each page on an oversized piece of thick paper, then bound the pages between a glossy cover, and tied it all together with blue and white ribbons. On the cover, she printed, “Rosh Hashanah Greetings to the Jewish Communities of Birmingham.” “It’s not often,” she said, “that something with ‘Birmingham’ written on the cover has such a positive message inside.”

Beverly brought the book of greetings to the Jewish community center. “They looked at me in disbelief,” she said. “They could not believe so many people had signed. For me, it was shocking to see how low a place they thought they held in the community.”

Beverly’s effort took ingenuity, time, and energy. As for cost, the entire effort, with all the photocopying, mailing, and binding, came to a total of “at most $250.” Beverly’s idea reached the scale of reality that it did, because she tapped into feelings that many people in Birmingham wanted to express, but, as Beverly put it, “they felt too awkward or concerned that their motives might be questioned if they just went up to their neighbors and gushed.”

It gets better. To thank the people who signed, the Jewish community held a concert. They put out 100 chairs, figuring more people would not come. Beverly noticed that only 50 people had replied to the invitation, so she started making phone calls. The night of the concert, a thunderstorm hit Birmingham. “It was like a car wash,” Beverly said. “No umbrella could help.” People started arriving, soaked and dripping. Then more people came, and more people, until 250 people packed the room “right up to the punchbowl.” Rabbi Miller, the Reform rabbi in the community, walked in about fifteen minutes late with his two sons. There were no seats for them.

The next concern of Beverly and her colleagues at the Metro Area Justice Interfaith Committee was Y2K. At the time, there was a real fear in Birmingham that, as Beverly put it, “the crazies might come out.” Beverly and MAJIC turned their fear into an opportunity. Throughout the year 2000, they sent greetings to Muslims for Ramadan, Buddhists for Buddha's Birthday, Jews for Rosh Hashanah, Hindus for Diwali, Baha'is for the Honoring of their Prophet Baha’u’llah, and various Christian faiths for Christmas. Each community wrote one page in their own words about their faith, including contact names and phone numbers of speakers willing to talk about their faith to other communities. Then a copy of that page was attached to each copy of the greeting with room for signatures, and the two pages were photocopied and distributed together. Beverly and others bound the greetings and gave them as gifts to each community. Each effort produced 1,500 to 2,000 signatures.

Long after the books were bound and presented as gifts, signed greetings continued to trickle in. Beverly would collect them and bring them in bunches to each community. This spillover of belated good will reinforced the message of the original gift: You are not alone. You are among friends. We are glad to have you as our neighbors.

The greeting to the Muslim community read: Our warmest thoughts are with you during the Holy Month of Ramadan. We are thankful to have you as our friends and neighbors and hope the future will strengthen our ties of friendship and understanding.

February 20, 2000 marked the one-year memorial of the gruesome slaying of a gay man named Billy Jack Gaither in the countryside outside Birmingham. Beverly told me the story. It went like this: “Billy Jack Gaither lived in Sylacauga, Alabama with his parents all his life and worked at the Russell Athleticwear factory there. His killers picked him up at a local restaurant, took him to the sticks (further into the sticks) where they beat him unconscious. Thinking him dead, they put him in the trunk and drove to get gas to assist in the disposal of the body. When they went to dump him, he had enough strength to knock one of his attackers down the hill. They doused him with gas and burned him alive. The configuration of his corpse showed his arms raised. (Killed February 20, 1999.) His father said Billy Jack couldn't have been gay because he read the Bible. Today, his attackers are in prison, and show no remorse. When interviewed for Connie Chung, they said, ‘Yeah, we are in jail, but Bill Jack is in Hell.’”

For the one-year anniversary of his death, Beverly planned a community-wide memorial book to let Billy Jack’s parents know that others, straight and gay alike, were thinking of their son and wanted to send condolences. Beverly was determined to get over 1,000 signatures on the condolences. People at a local gay center “thought I was crazy” to think so many people would sign. Because Billy Jack and his parents were locals, Beverly took extra care to distribute the condolence pages, each of which had fifteen signature lines, only to people who were “safe,” that is, people she knew would not circulate the names to hate groups. As a result, the pages came back with some signature lines blank. Beverly thought it would send the wrong message to give Billy Jack’s parents a book of greetings with blank signature lines, so she sent the incomplete condolences to gay organizations, and asked them to fill in the blanks with their signatures. “But I was determined,” she said, “that over 500 of the signatures would be straight.”

She got over 1,000 names. More than 500 of them were “straight.” She bound the condolences in a book, and made it extra fancy. She added pages cut out from Holocaust Museum and Southern Poverty Law Center publications. “It was real pretty, dignified,” Beverly admitted.

It took two hours to drive to Billy Jack’s parents’ house from Birmingham. A man who had once dated Billy Jack and a friend of his took Beverly to deliver the book. Beverly imagined that the visit would take no more than twenty minutes. She would deliver the book and leave, so as not to impose. She ended up staying for hours, well into the night. Billy Jack’s sister could not look at more than six pages of the book at a time before she had to close it. Beverly later learned that it had taken Billy Jack’s sister a month to read the entire memorial book.

Each year, on the anniversary of Billy Jack's death, Beverly and other members of the Metro Area Justice Interfaith Committee and the Birmingham community “do a little something to remember him.” Billy Jack’s parents have moved away, but his sister still lives nearby. And more greeting pages keep trickling in for Billy Jack’s memorial book. “This year,” Beverly told me, “I will take some more pages to Billy Jack's sister. She is in a wheelchair now from inherited lung problems. Very rare I am told…. I will tell her of how we talked, and that, in that way, he lives.”

I encourage each of you not to underestimate the power of your individual actions, as writers, as volunteers, and as citizens of the world.

Thank you for allowing me to share these words with you tonight.

Alison Gardy
October 17, 2002