From Migrant Worker To Doctor: An Immigrant’s Journey

By Memsy Price

On an average workday, Dr. Ana Benitez-Graham sees between forty and fifty patients. She begins work at 7:00 a.m. at her dermatology practice in Mebane, North Carolina, a small town located about midway between Greensboro and Durham. After her early start, she often works through lunch and then heads home in the evening to have supper with her family. Her life — that of a successful American doctor, wife and mother — isn’t one she ever imagined for herself as a child.

It’s a long way from Mexico to North Carolina. And the journey from teenage migrant worker to doctor is even longer.


Benitez-Graham, her mother and three of her siblings arrived in Austin, Texas, in 1983. She and the other kids rode in the trunk of a coyote’s — a smuggler’s — car. At 13 years old, she was an adult by the standards of her village back in Bejucos, Mexico. But when she got to America, she reasoned, she’d still be considered a child and could attend school. She knew it was her right, even though she and the rest of her family were undocumented.

She did go to school, but she didn’t speak English and was placed two grades behind where she’d been in Mexico. And school was complicated because Benitez-Graham had responsibilities beyond her studies. Her parents wanted — and needed — their children to work. The family’s first job was the same as many in their situation. They became migrant farmworkers, picking tomatoes, apples, peppers and cotton in the searing southwestern sun.

“There was always a goal, that wide-open hope, that it’s going to get better, so you’re willing to pick apples for three weeks straight. It was horrible, but I thought that next month we’re going to be at school; it’s going to be okay. And it was,” she explained.

Benitez-Graham continued to go to school when she could. But when she moved on to working long hours at a commercial laundry facility — her shift changed from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. — school proved impossible.

She never gave up, though.

“I really liked learning,” said Benitez-Graham, matter-of-factly. “I was able to keep that part of me going because I wanted it.”

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Ana in the middle in a white dress with her uncle, cousin and sister. Photo courtesy of Ana Benitez-Graham.

In a 2007 American Public Media interview on “The Story,” she described going to the public library every day, even after she dropped out of school. In her spare time, “one by one,” she devoured the books she saw on a list of the titles everyone should read before high school graduation.

She worked her way up through a series of restaurant jobs and met her future husband, who encouraged her to start community college. At the time, she could enroll without a high school diploma. Benitez-Graham returned to school and continued to work. She eventually entered the University of Texas at Austin — completing a pharmacy degree in five and a half years — and forged a path to citizenship.

In her last semester at UT, she was assigned to a rural hospital in El Paso to complete a pharmacy rotation. Benitez-Graham was part of a team working under the supervision of Dr. Abraham Verghese, an immigrant physician and internal medicine specialist. Verghese, an Ethiopian national of Indian descent, is also a best-selling author whose first book, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, recounted his days confronting the AIDS epidemic in Johnson City, Tennessee.

In her 1994 New York Times review of Verghese’s memoir, Perri Klass, herself a physician, wrote: “Another strand in Dr. Verghese’s narrative is his own personal niche within American medicine and its hospitals: the story of the Indian F.M.G.’s (foreign medical graduates, as they are called, often disparagingly) who have found their professional opportunities in places where the supply of home-grown doctors has not been sufficient, and have spread out through the rural South.”

This observation about immigrant doctors in the rural South seems apt when considering Benitez-Graham’s work in Mebane. And it’s not surprising to learn that Verghese inspired her to be a physician.

“He had a really good bedside manner,” she said. “For every patient, he had their story, and it was very impressive. I hadn’t seen medicine up close but then seeing it with someone like that was a whole new experience. After that I decided I wanted to be a doctor.”

After self-financing her pharmacy degree, Benitez-Graham went on to complete her medical degree at Duke and her residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, schools renowned for their large research hospitals and top-notch dermatology departments. During her medical studies, she received a prestigious Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

Benitez-Graham was recruited by the hospital in Burlington, North Carolina, adjacent to Mebane, in 2010, when she was ready to open her own practice. Mebane is a small factory and agricultural town whose entire population could fit into a high-school football stadium.

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Dr. Ana Benitez-Graham in her office. Photo by Tasha Thomas.

“Whenever you look at places to go and practice as a dermatologist,” Benitez-Graham remembered, “the numbers are something like one dermatologist needs 50,000 people to support them. Mebane has about 11,000 people, so I was wondering if I was going to make it.”

The county hospital had spent almost a decade trying to recruit a dermatologist when it persuaded Benitez-Graham to open her practice. “Dermatologists really have their pick of where they want to go,” she said. “Going to a small place to practice rural medicine is not their thing, even though it’s really exciting because you get to see everything.”

When she first opened her doors, Benitez-Graham wasn’t sure how she would be accepted as a newcomer — and a foreigner — in such an insular, small town.

“Moving here, I became Mexican,” she observed. “I wasn’t Mexican before — I was just a person. Coming here all of a sudden my features were very prominent. People would look at me and try to figure out, ‘Where are you from?’ It was kind of daunting because I do have an accent, and I do look Hispanic, and I wasn’t sure how they would accept me, but they did.”

Mebane is in some ways emblematic of the urban-rural divide playing out across the nation. Conversation around this divide touches on issues including income, education and immigration. Reflecting on the current rhetoric around immigration, Benitez-Graham noted that politicians in particular use it “to divide people so the immigrant debate is always divided between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants.”

Although she’d long experienced acceptance from her patients, she was concerned about whether they’d continue to treat her so warmly after Alamance County, where Mebane is located, turned out for Donald Trump. After all, he had made his opinions on those who arrived in the country like Benitez-Graham did clear with his plans to “build a wall” as well as his “bad hombres” applause line and other statements like it.

Voting statistics show evidence of the divide between Mebane and neighboring cities like Durham and Chapel Hill. The North Carolina Board of Elections’ data from the November elections shows that Trump won Alamance County by 54.55% to 41.93% over Clinton. (In contrast, neighboring Durham County, where Benitez-Graham lives with her family, went 77.66% for Clinton and 18.16% for Trump.)

But between Benitez-Graham and her patients, the feeling of acceptance hasn’t changed. She’s had a positive experience thus far: “I haven’t had a single person come in and say, ‘I don’t want you to be my doctor.’ They have been very welcoming…it’s been a very eye-opening experience.”

Dr. Alvis Dunn, a native of rural North Carolina and an assistant professor in the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, specializes in the history of Latin America and the American South. “North Carolina history isn’t necessarily predictable,” he said. “We are a series of enclave communities, and now there’s a Hispanic side of town. We’ve been content to wall ourselves off from one another, but it’s not a high wall — you can look over it.”

This virtual wall, Dunn said, has become especially important in rural North Carolina, where, as he put it, “the enclaves all touch each other.” When Benitez-Graham noted the disparity between how the Mebane area voted in the presidential election and how her patients treat her, she observed a “disconnect between what people vote for and what they accept in their lives.”  

Dunn explained one way to look at the disconnect is the historical dynamics of the group vs. the individual. Perceptions can change when abstract concepts hit home, i.e., when immigration becomes personal, fewer people support deportation. “The more an issue can be humanized,” Dunn said, “the less people support it.”

Benitez-Graham said about sharing her journey from migrant worker to dermatologist, “I think this is a really good way of trying to fight it off — bring it back to us and to, ‘Who’s your doctor?’ Who’s your neighbor?’ Showing faces shows we’re all much closer than we really are.”

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Memsy Price is a writer and editor based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has worked at Algonquin Books and “The Rough South” series of films about Southern writers. She completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College.

Cover photo: Ana (in a red dress) pictured with her cousin and sister in 1979.

Copyright © 500 Pens. 

White Supremacist Propaganda On Campus Increased By 258% Last Year. This Is How Experts Plan To Fight Back.

By Amy Crawford

The flyers first began popping up around Auburn University in April, around the time notorious white nationalist Richard Spencer visited the Alabama campus to give a well-attended speech about how white people are losing a “demographic struggle.”

“They were all over campus,” says Beth McDaniel, a fifth-year doctoral student who serves as president of Auburn’s Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on Campus chapter.

It was already a tense time at Auburn, which had lost a court battle after it attempted to prevent Spencer’s visit based on safety concerns. In a statement informing students, staff and faculty of the court’s decision, the provost’s office had declared, “Whether it’s offensive rhetoric, offensive flyers around campus, or inappropriate remarks on social media, we will not allow the efforts of individuals or groups to undermine Auburn’s core values of inclusion and diversity and challenge the ideals personified by the Auburn Creed.”

The notices were advertising something called the White Student Union, an unsanctioned group—with a website making it look sanctioned by the university—that seemed to position itself in opposition to official university clubs like the Black Student Union. While the leafleteers have been careful not to reveal their identities, the self-described president identified himself as a current student when he was interviewed anonymously by a British journalist last year.

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A photo of one of the flyers found on the campus of Auburn University. Photo courtesy of SPLC on Campus.

“They’re using the Auburn University name, and they say that they are there to represent the needs of white Auburn students and faculty,” says McDaniel. Noting that the same British journalist interviewed members of the Auburn community who openly expressed support for the concept, she worries that a certain segment of the school’s student body—those who are disengaged politically and unlikely to think through the full implications of pitting white people against other groups—may be vulnerable to this propaganda.

“Like past white student unions, the Auburn White Student Union couches its mission statement in the language of love and egalitarianism. In reality, the organization promotes a false narrative about the forced replacement of white people and advocates for a white ethnostate,” explains Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst at the SPLC. “The group’s ‘Pro-White Resources’ [website] page promotes white nationalist organizations such as American Renaissance, a ‘think-tank’ that’s primary mission is to publicize false statistics about black criminality and white victimhood.”

The Auburn community is not alone in facing threats of this kind. A study released this month by the Anti-Defamation League found that white supremacist propaganda at colleges across the United States increased by 258 percent between fall 2016 and fall 2017, with more than 200 campuses affected. And while the evidence often suggests that outside groups are responsible, advocates for tolerance and inclusion worry that white students across the nation’s campuses may be open to the messaging—and even to recruitment. It’s a danger that, according to Lecia Brooks, the SPLC’s Outreach Director, demands a new strategy from campus administrators who focus on diversity and inclusion: reaching out directly to disengaged white students in order to inoculate them against hate.

Brooks spends most of the year crisscrossing the country, visiting colleges and universities to speak on issues of social justice and working to support the network of SPLC on Campus clubs that has been taking on intolerance since 2015. Recently, she has added a new message to her talks.

“This really started with Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking engagements in Berkeley,” Brooks says, referring to clashes between fans of the alt-right provocateur and antifascist protesters in February 2017. “I was just offended. He was playing these young white men like a fiddle. They so enjoyed having a group and having some kind of presence and getting some kind of celebrity, and they’re vulnerable to these white nationalists’ messages about so-called ‘white genocide’ or ‘nobody cares about you.’ I realized, ‘Wow, we need to deliver the message to them that we care about them too.’ We can’t let them just fall prey to these liars.”

The responsibility, Brooks says, lies primarily with administrators who focus on diversity and inclusion—a specialty that has spread across campuses in recent years. It would be unfair to ask students of color, who are already burdened with more emotional labor than their more privileged peers, to do the work of reaching out to the sort of young white men who may be open to messages from the alt-right, she cautions. Still, it’s also important that diversity and inclusion offices not focus their work solely on supporting marginalized communities.

“I’ve been doing community-building work for a really long time,” Brooks says. “Anyone doing community-building should know that you really have to be intentional about bringing everybody in.”

That means, according to Brooks, in addition to fostering dialogue, administrators need to recruit adult mentors—white faculty and staff who understand the dynamics of racial oppression and power and privilege and can lead groups that talk about what it means to be white—and why it doesn’t have to mean embracing racism and rejecting diversity.

Bringing more white students “to the table” is something that has preoccupied Jabrina Robinson, dean of students at Siena College in upstate New York, ever since Brooks visited to give a talk and meet with administrators this past fall.

“We’ve noticed, over time, you often have the same groups coming to the table, and it’s kind of a preaching-to-the-choir type of audience,” Robinson says. “So we’re really looking at how we can better engage students who have not traditionally been as actively engaged in the conversation of diversity and inclusion—specifically, our white male students…. I think sometimes white males feel like conversations around diversity and inclusion are more about blaming. So how do we not do that, how do we really make everybody comfortable and willing to engage in the conversation so we can all grow?”

While Siena has not seen the same racially-charged incidents that have plagued other schools, Robinson knows that no college campus is immune to attracting the attention of white supremacists. Siena’s first step in counteracting their message will be to organize focus groups of white students to help administrators better understand how to bring them into the fold.

“We want to target students who traditionally don’t come or aren’t as actively engaged in these conversations,” she says. “Besides extra credit, what would attract you to conversations on these issues and what would engage you? Do you feel alienated if you see a poster that says, ‘Let’s talk about race,’ do you feel like you’re not actually supposed to come to this conversation? Do you feel that you’re not truly invited?”

Robinson’s goal is to complete the focus groups this semester. Once the results are compiled and analyzed, she says, it will help the college decide how to modify its diversity programming to include more of the student body.

“I think we’re doing things pretty well here,” she says. “But how can we do it better, and reach more people?”

Back at Auburn, the White Student Union retains its unofficial status—according to Haven Hart, the university’s assistant vice president for student development, it has never submitted any documents to become a recognized student organization. Still, an unknown number of members continue to post on the group’s blog and on social media—including with frequent retweets of messages from the white nationalist group Identity Europa.

Beth McDaniel is hopeful, however, that fostering dialogue with white students could help counteract the White Student Union’s propaganda. Through talks with administrators and SPLC on Campus programming, she wants to reach students where they are, rather than expecting them to take the initiative to get involved with diversity and inclusion efforts. That could mean getting professors or Greek organizations involved, visiting classrooms or asking white students to start hard conversations with their family, friends, classmates and dorm neighbors.

“It’s sometimes hard to go into these situations, because emotions are high on both sides,” she says. “But we need to be willing to actually try to help educate these students and realize that they’re not bad people. Many Auburn students come from white, middle- or upper-class communities that are very segregated—our society’s set up that way, and I think that a lot of students just don’t consider the experiences of other people and then fear any difference. But they’re a product of their environment, and people can change.”

Editor’s Note: This article was produced in partnership with the SPLC.  


Amy Crawford is a freelance writer living in Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @amymcrawf.

Cover photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash. 

Copyright © 500 Pens. February 2018.


Teens Explore Past, ‘Privilege’ And Path To Overcoming Discrimination

By Julia Haskins

On a brisk Saturday morning, the students of Operation Understanding DC (OUDC) crowd a messy hotel conference room, hard at work. Markers and poster board are strewn about, along with junk food to fuel discussions about the intersection of race and religion. Two-dozen teenagers are acting out skits and designing games and posters for their presentations on leaders of the civil rights movement. Several students huddle to practice a rap they’ve written about the Montgomery Improvement Association:

We have a broken system and we’re looking for improvement/
The racists wanna stop us but we keep movin’/
We want our equal rights ‘cause we are all just human/
Up in Alabama in 1955/
They tried to keep us down but we wouldn’t ever hide/
Boycotts, resistance, civil disobedience/
Fighting ideologies of local segregationists

The cramped conference room buzzes with laughter and debate as students put the finishing touches on their projects.

Since 1993, Operation Understanding DC has brought together a group of high school juniors in the Washington, D.C., metro region — half are African-American and half are Jewish — for a year of cross-cultural exploration. The civil rights retreat is one opportunity for students to discover the ways their backgrounds overlap, and how, together, they can overcome discrimination on all fronts.

“I think the black and Jewish experience is the foundation for future growth,” Executive Director Yolanda Savage-Narva says. The theme of black-Jewish resistance is underscored throughout the weekend with activities that highlight the unity of two oppressed peoples during the civil rights movement.

The students learn over the course of the retreat that it was a group of young Jewish and black civil-rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, who were murdered during Freedom Summer in 1964. It was the collaboration of black and Jewish leaders that led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Time and time again, the students learn, black and Jewish people have stood together in the face of adversity.

Aside from this retreat, during the spring, the students of “Class 23” take part in a home exchange for Easter and Passover. In a few months, they will embark on a Summer Journey through the Deep South, continuing their education on civil rights from the past to the present.

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Operation Understanding DC brings together black and Jewish high school juniors in the Washington, D.C., metro region for a year of cross-cultural exploration. Photo by Jared Soares.

“We’re two very different cultures, but at the same time, not,” says student Julian Dowell. “As minorities and as oppressed groups, there’s always going to be commonalities between us. So coming to OUDC, I’ve been able to find those and just connect.”

Dowell says it’s the small moments that show students how they are more alike than different. After programs finish for the day, black and Jewish students go back to their hotel rooms, chatting about the everyday experiences that bond them.

“There’s just little things, like when you’re up in your room up at night talking, like, ‘Oh you go through that?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, I go through that.’ Those are the most important moments in my opinion,” Dowell says.

Program Director Ricki Horne understands the power of conversation in shaping personal views. An OUDC alumna, Horne was moved by the discussions her sister, who was the first in her family to participate in the program, would spark at the dinner table. That led Horne to reflect on her own “privilege” and how she unwittingly took part in systemic forms of oppression.

There’s a saying at OUDC that sums up the program experience, according to Horne. “The relational is transformational,” she explains. “Once you’ve built that connection with another human, you can overcome a lot.”

Civil rights-era activist Joan Mulholland brings up issues of power and privilege in a Saturday afternoon presentation, wearing a T-shirt that commemorates the nine black people who were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Readers who don’t know Mulholland by name may have seen an image of her from 1963: a white woman, her face turned away from the camera, sitting in between Anne Moody and Hunter Gray at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. The student activists are covered in food that’s been dumped on them by the surrounding mob.

The students are enthralled by Mulholland’s presentation, and many go up to hug and thank her afterward. One of those students is Sydney Smith, who says she was touched by Mulholland’s courage to resist a racist society, even though the injustices she witnessed had little bearing on her own life.

“So many people feel like, ‘Oh I’m not oppressed, I don’t really have anything to do with this,’ but you do,” Smith says. “And Joan is the perfect example of how someone who’s in a position of power can really make a difference and stand with people who don’t have a voice.”

It’s that attitude that Rhema Jones had in mind when applying for OUDC. “I said it in my interview that I really wanted to be brave. I really wanted to stand up for people who can’t…even when it’s hard,” Jones says. ”By the end of the program, I want to be wiser and able to create change.”  

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Yolanda Savage-Narva is executive director of Operation Understanding DC. Photo by Jared Soares.

To work toward progress, students must confront their own power and privilege, they are taught. An OUDC tradition is the “privilege walk,” an exercise that shows students where they literally stand in terms of their advantages in life. The students form a straight line side by side. Horne calls out a statement, and students take steps forward or backward in response. “I attend a private school” is a step forward. “I have gone to bed hungry because there was no food at home” is a step backward. After about 15 minutes, there is a stark distance between the student who stands at the front and the one who stands at the back.

After the walk, some students are visibly upset. Horne gathers the students in a circle on the floor of the hotel conference room, first to inhale and exhale deeply, shaking off the intensity of the walk. The discussion that follows is occasionally awkward, sometimes heated and peppered with snaps of approval.

Discomfort is part of the OUDC experience, says Ella Buring. And with an embrace of discomfort comes the ability to respect other people’s realities. “Commit to not being comfortable, and you will be exposed to other viewpoints,” Buring says. “That does not mean that everyone’s going to walk out thinking the exact same thing.”

OUDC offers a safe space to engage in heavy discourse “because all of those social barriers sort of disappear here,” she says.

And social barriers do seem to evaporate when the students lead Shabbat and Havdalah services on Friday and Saturday night, respectively, and a sermon followed by upbeat gospel music on Sunday. There’s a lot of hugging, which Buring says is not uncommon within OUDC.

The students cherish these moments, as they rarely come up organically in daily life. Ben Vardi says that while his college-prep school is fairly diverse, most interactions don’t go beyond the surface.

“I think that it’s really important that we do expose more people to more situations, and I think the best way to do that is through education,” he says.

The timing of the civil rights retreat is not lost among the students, some of whom openly express their fears about living in such a volatile political climate. Black and Jewish students alike are no strangers to the intensifying racism and anti-Semitism throughout the country.

It can be challenging to find common ground across cultures, but that is exactly what is needed right now, Dowell says.

“I think right now it’s all about listening,” he says. “Even our community rule is listening to hear and not to respond. And I think that that’s what we don’t necessarily do nowadays. Everyone’s so quick to respond, ’cause everyone’s so opinionated.”

The students of OUDC are certainly opinionated, but they didn’t commit to a year of extracurricular activity to talk over one another. They want to bridge the barriers that continue to divide, one lesson and one conversation at a time.


Julia Haskins is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She is a reporter for The Nation’s Health newspaper at the American Public Health Association and a communications fellow at the advocacy group End Rape on Campus. Her writing has appeared in,,, Healthline and more.


kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Jared Soares specializes in documenting underrepresented communities and was named one of 51 Instagram photographers to follow by TIME Magazine. His work has been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker and in permanent collections at the Portland Museum of Art and the University of North Carolina.

Originally published in May 2017. Copyright © 500 Pens. 

10 Organizations That Made 2017 Better

By Meghan Guidry

As 2017 draws to a close, we’re taking a moment to highlight some of the incredible organizations whose works have been beacons this year. Whether local, national, or global, these 10 organizations address some of today’s most complex and challenging issues while striving to make the world a more just, equitable, and compassionate place:

1.    College is a crucial gateway to a more stable and prosperous future. However, for students from vulnerable communities and marginalized backgrounds, college is often out of reach financially. Compounding this barrier is the fact that for many students, particularly first-generation students, applying to and navigating college is difficult without the support of peers and family who have shared the experience. The Posse Foundation helps promising students from nontraditional backgrounds succeed in college. By providing full financial support and by creating small cohorts of other scholarship winners called “posses” that all attend the same school, the foundation creates supportive communities of learners to help each other succeed in college and beyond.

2. In 2002, Vermont chef Sheri Sullivan became a hospice volunteer. During this time, she began to notice that as her clients neared the end of life, and as their family caregivers struggled to manage the day-to-day tasks associated with caring for the dying, entire households often went without one of the most basic comforts: a warm, filling meal. Using her network to organize local chefs, restaurants, and delivery drivers, Sheri founded Dinners with Love, a nonprofit dedicated to delivering warm, filling meals to hospice patients and their caregivers at home. Through this work, Dinners with Love can bring beloved home-cooked comfort foods prepared by community chefs and favorite restaurant dishes directly to those who need them most — helping to maintain comfort, dignity, and community during this difficult time.

3. In the wake of #metoo, it may seem like public discourse around sexual assault is having a watershed moment. However, for incarcerated individuals, rape and sexual assault is a real and daily risk, with few to no pathways for victims to seek justice, medical treatment, and emotional support. For nearly 40 years, Just Detention International (JDI) has been dedicated to ending prison rape. Through public advocacy, community education, and survivor support, JDI works to ensure the dignity of all incarcerated people by dismantling the structures and attitudes that contribute to sexual violence. As a special holiday initiative, JDI collects messages of hope written by people from all over the world for incarcerated survivors. Because many prisoners who report assault are placed in solitary confinement or otherwise punished, these messages create a lifeline for those who are suffering, bringing words of hope, humanity, and compassion to those who need them most.

4. Human trafficking is a global crisis, affecting millions of the world’s most vulnerable individuals. HEAL Trafficking envisions a world completely free from and healed of human trafficking, where every single person has the opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential. To make this vision a reality, HEAL treats human trafficking as a public health issue. By providing screening toolkits for physicians, HEAL aims to give all doctors, nurses, and other caregivers the skills necessary to help identify victims of human trafficking in emergency rooms and urgent care centers, and safely remove them from harm.

5. Founded in 1971 by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr., the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is dedicated to fighting hatred and bigotry to create a world where equity and justice are available to all. To advance this vision, SPLC engages in several forms of advocacy, legal aid, and education. Notably, the organization draws upon the legal acumen of its founders to challenge unjust policies targeting and disproportionately affecting vulnerable communities. They also support other crucial initiatives including the Intelligence Project, which monitors and exposes the activities of known hate groups and domestic extremists and the Teaching Tolerance program which provides free resources for educators to infuse teachings on equity, anti-bias, and tolerance into their classrooms.

6. Regardless of what career path students envision themselves pursuing, strong writing and communication skills will be crucial to their success. However, for many students, access to engaging and exciting practices that develop and reinforce these vital skills is difficult or nonexistent. In response to these gaps, writer David Eggers and renowned educator Ninive Calegari founded 826 — a community-based creative writing and tutoring center in Valencia, California designed to help students 6 to 18 years old improve their writing skills and explore their creativity. Since its founding in 2002, 826 has grown into a nationwide network of centers that offers tutoring, in-school programs, workshops, field trips, and young authors support at no cost to help students build the skills they need to be creative and successful in school and beyond.

7. As a child, Sara Minkara lost her sight. This experience led her to dedicate her life to empowering disabled youth throughout the Middle East and North Africa while working to reduce stigmas surrounding disabilities. In 2009, she founded Empowerment Through Integration (ETI) to advance this mission and hosted a one-month summer camp for 39 visually impaired children in Lebanon. Since then, ETI has flourished, offering mentoring for disabled youth and culturally sensitive community-based education efforts to challenge biases against people with disabilities and create pathways for full social integration and holistic community-building.

8. The year-end holidays can be a challenging and stressful time for myriad reasons. However, for incarcerated mothers and their children, this time of the year can be especially difficult. Because these mothers are often the primary or only caregivers, their imprisonment often leaves their children in tenuous and informal living situations where they are not guaranteed to receive the compassionate care that all children deserve. To help bring joy and happiness to both incarcerated mothers and their children, Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration; Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Moms; Nehemiah Trinity Rising, Lifted Voices, and Love Project;, and; Chicago League of Abolitionist Whites created a joint Amazon wishlist filled with toys that anyone can purchase. The toys are then shipped directly to the correctional facilities, where mothers wrap the gifts and add personal notes and touches for their children. This process helps affirm these deep family bonds and provides a special moment of connection during the holidays. (h/t Bustle)

9. While the idea of racism can evoke images of interpersonal prejudice and violence, systemic forces spanning business, education, governmental, medical, and economic institutions continue to drive and reinforce barriers for people of color. Color of Change, the largest online racial justice organization in the United States, is committed to dismantling the power structures that disproportionately affect people of color and reforming systems to create a more equitable world. Color of Change designs and spearheads campaigns that aim to restore justice and increase representation of people of color in diverse public spheres.

10. For people facing the daily hardships of extreme poverty and homelessness, compassionate and dignified healthcare is too often out of reach. In 1999, Dr. Roseanna Means founded Healthcare Without Walls, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to providing compassionate and respectful care to women and children facing homelessness. Dr. Means emphasizes trust-building, conversation, and collaboration as key tenets of treating each and every patient seen by the organization. By creating a program designed to provide optimal health by taking into account all aspects of a patient’s life, Healthcare Without Walls delivers whole-person care designed to promote optimal health while enhancing the dignity of each and every client they serve.


Meghan Guidry is a poet, novelist, essayist, science writer, and librettist from Boston,  Massachusetts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and a Masters of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School, where she studied bioethics, medical anthropology, and political philosophy. Her work explores themes of bodies and boundaries, with a particular focus on the intersections of myth, memory, and medicine. Her work has appeared in The Pitkin Review, The Wick Journal, Applied Sentience, The Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and others. Her first novel Light and Skin was published by Empty City Press in 2010, and her second book Kinesiophobia is scheduled for release in 2017. Meghan is also a working librettist, and has collaborated with composers on several original pieces, including Roots and Wings (c. Oliver Caplan), which was performed by the Handel Society of Dartmouth College. She wrote libretto for The Little Blue One (c. Dominick DiOrio), a new opera performed by Juventas New Music Ensemble in 2014. She is currently working on Tarography, an experimental interactive poem, and a nonfiction book about grief and mourning in contemporary America.

Photo by Massimiliano Reginato via Unsplash.

Copyright © 500 Pens. December 2017.

Lessons From Juan Ramírez On The Power Of Music

Story by David Fulmer
Photos by Mary Anne Mitchell

Juan Ramírez Hernández‘s father loved music and filled the family home in the Mexican town of Madero with instruments, surrounding his ten sons and daughters with both folk and classical melodies of Mexico and beyond.

Juan, the ninth child, was destined for great things. He spent his early years learning the guitar, the violin, and whatever else he laid hands on before advancing into a conservatory near Mexico City, where his skills flourished. After decades of practice and study, he reached the rare pinnacle of master violinist in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s great ensembles. As such, he gets to travel the planet, to bask in applause, to earn a good living from performances and recordings, and to enjoy the rare life of an artist of renown. It’s the culmination of his decades of toil and he could well rest on his laurels.

But, perhaps remembering the magic that music brought to his childhood and all too aware of the dangerous world that many immigrant children inhabit, he decided to use his craft to create Atlanta Virtuosi Foundation with the mission of bringing music into the lives of young people who might not otherwise have access to the instruments and the training. Among the foundation’s programs is “Casa de Cultura,” which he designed to give Hispanic students not only the musical skills, but an understanding of the culture behind what they’re playing.

It’s what brings him on this day to a middle school just north of Atlanta. Many of the  parents of his students left Latin America, often to escape poverty and violence and find a safer, kinder place for their families, but still not without its own perils.

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Juan Ramírez brings music to students who might not otherwise have access to instruments or training. Photo by Mary Anne Mitchell.

“In parts of the city where we teach, some parents have trouble keeping their kids off the streets,” he says. “This is one solution.”

Through the maestro, the students learn a new language, one of notes and scales and keys. A language that they can then use to create beauty — and understand its origins. “Their parents work all day and sometimes all night to build a life for them here,” he says. “Yes, they go to school. But they’re not learning enough where they came from and about their culture.”

For many of them, the family histories are rooted in the land of Norteno, mariachi, ranchero — and, yes, narcocorrido music. But it’s also the land of Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez — and of Juan Ramírez — and it’s those great talents he wants to share with them. “The language of music is the same, no matter where they come from.”

And yet, he says, it’s about much more than the notes on the sheets. What they absorb from him will have profound effects on other parts of their learning processes. “Like mathematics or a foreign tongue, music rewires the brain,” he says.

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Through the maestro, the students learn a new language, one of notes and scales and keys. Photo by Mary Anne Mitchell.

That’s only the beginning of what he teaches them. “They learn discipline through practice. They’re expected to take on the responsibility of caring for an instrument. I want them to understand cooperation and working together to reach a goal, which is to play something beautiful.”

But it’s not a straight path. “I tell them that we strive for perfection, yes,” he says. “I also want them to understand that they’ll make mistakes and when they do, to just keep going. To do the best that you can in the moment. These are lessons for their lives.”

The maestro takes it another step further. “It’s a way for them to experience the past, present, and future. The past is how they have practiced and prepared. The present is the performance that depends on what they’ve done in the past. The future is crossing the bridge to the next step, whatever that might be.”

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“The language of music is the same, no matter where they come from,” says Juan Ramírez. Photo by Mary Anne Mitchell.

And opening doors to futures is the ultimate goal. Because he understands that few of them will ever reach a master level. The values that he imparts go beyond music.

“They learn to play as individuals, but they also have to learn to play together,” he says. “To be in an ensemble, a team with one goal. It’s different from sports where the goal is to win. An orchestra is not there to win something, but to pull together for everyone’s good. It’s the way we want a society to work.”

In this room, as students struggle through their parts, he listens and smiles no matter how skilled (or unskilled) their playing might be. He’s a teacher and leader and a healer who uses music as his medicine, and they respond to him with their eyes and their hands and the breath in their lungs. He hears their mistakes, but also their simple strivings.

“Maybe they don’t have voices in other places,” he says. “But they have voices here.”

The fathers and mothers who brought them to a place where they could learn from a master are rewarded, too, when the children perform in recitals. “The parents come out to hear them play,” he says. “Even if they don’t speak English, they hear the music and they’re all so proud that the children — their children — are creating it.”

And for Juan Ramírez, creativity is the greatest lesson. “I don’t need for them to play like me,” he says. “I want them to play their music.”


David Fulmer, the author of nine novels and a novella, won the Shamus Award for Best First Novel and has been nominated for an LA Times Book Prize, the Barry Award, the Falcon Award, and the Shamus Award for Best Novel. His books have received superlative reviews from, among others, The New York Times, USA Today, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly. Eclipse Alley, the sixth novel in his Storyville series, will be released in October.

Mary Anne Mitchell is a fine art photographer working primarily with analog processes. Her work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions across the country and can be found in private and corporate collections across the US, Dubai, Taiwan, and Canada. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  

Copyright © 500 Pens. September 2017.

Yollocalli And The Artistry Of Young Chicago

Written and photographed by Patty Johnson

In an unassuming building on the second floor of the Boys and Girls Club in Chicago’s “Little Village” neighborhood, a budding photographer can explore her technique, a young painter may freely decorate a canvas, and a hopeful TV producer has access to the perfect lighting equipment that would otherwise be difficult to come by. This is Yollocalli Arts Reach.

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A lively mural has been painted onto the building in which the art program resides. The artwork reads, “Yollocalli. Home.” Photo by Patty Johnson.

Yollocalli, which means “heart house,” is an initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art. The program, which embraces expression through multiple mediums, offers a range of artistic opportunities for young people between 13 and 24 years old. On this summer day, students are critiquing each other’s work with a keen eye and encouraging tone in a popular murals class where participants create art under the guidance of established artists.

Teachers walk around the room and ask students what they like about their pieces. The atmosphere is warm and supportive. Appraising one piece, the instructor says, “This one can be a mural all by itself,” and goes on to explain why.

“My art is a way of getting away from hard stuff,” said Gloria Valle. Photo by Patty Johnson.

With a bright smile, student Gloria Valle displays various pieces, one of which might be a template for a mural the class will be creating and another which is currently displayed at a city bus shelter. Valle has been a student at Yollocalli for one year, and when she first began drawing, she says she “didn’t know how to put art together.”

At the young age of 18, Valle has already withstood multiple personal hardships. Adding to this, she explains, is her disappointment about the state of the country. “My art is a way of getting away from hard stuff. When you’re surrounded by negativity, this is an escape,” says Valle. “[Yollocalli] feels like home. We’re here for each other as people. That’s what our community needs.”

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This mural was created by Yollocalli students on a wall of a local flower shop under the direction of artist Chris Silva. Photo by Patty Johnson.

“Groovie” is 23 years old and has been a student since 2016. She’s a bit shy but nothing like she used to be, she says: “When I first came here I was more shy and reserved, and after being here a while, I was able to talk more. I was able to put my ideas out there.”

Groovie was first inspired to draw at a young age as she watched her father paint. But when her father later left the family, she abandoned her love of art. More recently, her desire to reconnect with it has resurfaced. Groovie draws. She draws about love, the mother-child relationship, global warming, and anything else she pleases. “I really love it here. It’s not just helping me. It’s helping other people.”

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This student-created piece lives on a stretch of wooden fence on a fairly quiet residential street. Photo by Patty Johnson.

Carlos Ramirez became involved with Yollocalli in 2014. Ramirez, age 22, says that at Yollocalli, he “learned about discipline and how to work with people with more ease.”

Because Ramirez has spent three years here, he has made observations about newer students. “As weeks go by they come out of their bubble. They become who they’re supposed to be.”

Ramirez reflects on a mural he helped with that he passes by often. “We see the mural across the street from the jail, and it’s gray and cold but you walk on the other side and you see all these shapes and colors,” says Ramirez. “In this community where violence is prominent, Yollocalli is a hub for creativity.”

The students’ artwork can be found throughout Chicago, many times in unexpected places. Some murals capture themes of equality, unity, peace and the many vibrant colors of the immigrant experience. Other pieces are inspired by the types of buildings artists used as their canvases, and some are born out of abstract expression. A mural map can be found on Yollocalli’s website and offers locations and a brief description of each piece. 


Patty Johnson is a health psychologist from Chicago who enjoys writing and speaking about spirituality, culture and justice. She recently finished a memoir about her secret American boyfriend, her very angry Indians parents who find out and the unraveling of the whole hot mess.  She can be contacted at

Pictured on the cover, Carlos Ramirez 

Copyright © 500 Pens. September 2017.

For Homeless Children, Lessons In Stability

Story by Susan Hoffmann
Photos by Gina Long

Every Wednesday, Lisa Rodriguez drives to a homeless shelter to tutor *Alma. When the weather’s nice, they sit outside on the wide front porch. “She likes to do science projects, so it’s perfect to be outdoors.”

Rodriguez is a tutor for the Los Angeles-based nonprofit School on Wheels. She’s one of roughly two thousand volunteers working with a nearly invisible population: children growing up homeless.

“These children are at an unimaginable disadvantage,” said Catherine Meek, executive director of School on Wheels. “Their families may move two or three times a year, uprooting the children, causing gaps in their learning.” School on Wheels removes barriers that keep these children out of school — tracking down lost records needed to enroll, filling backpacks with school supplies, and providing weekly one-on-one tutoring sessions.

The shelter where *Alma is tutored. Photo by Gina Long.

Volunteer tutors are at the heart of their program. Rigorously screened, they agree to a minimum one-year commitment. School on Wheels then matches them with a student, based on the volunteer’s skills and the needs of the student. “We know the better the match,” said  Meek, “the greater the long-term success.”

Mona Tse, another School on Wheels volunteer, has tutored 15-year-old *Martin for two years. Once a week, she leaves work and walks to the public library down the street.

“Mona helps me in stuff I need help in,” Martin said of his tutor. “She puts a lot of effort to help me strive.”

His school recommended the program to his mother as a way to keep him on track. His grades have improved with tutoring and he’s found acceptance at school. “I was just elected to the Associated Student Body,” he said. “I get to set up fun activities like pep rallies and dances.”

Mona Tse works with *Martin at a local public library. Photo by Gina Long.

This family had a specific need. “We didn’t have the internet,” Martin’s mother explained. They came to the library for a connection but still couldn’t keep up. “If you missed an online assignment or teacher report, you might slip behind by weeks.”

“Teachers assume you have electronics,” Martin said. “And if you tell them you don’t have them, they don’t believe you.”

For homeless families, acquiring the materials and skills to succeed in a digital learning environment is crucial for a child’s success. Many schools, like the one Martin attends, are setting aside textbooks, with their printed examples and worksheets, in favor of homework posted online. With Tse’s help, the family has become savvy with technology. “Mona has helped us stay on track. I’m so grateful for that,” said Martin’s mother.

Tse admitted her good luck being matched with Martin, who comes every week, eager to learn. She had volunteered before, she said, in high school and college, but had taken a break to establish her career. “I was itching to get back into the community,” she said. “I know I can only do so much, but having this impact on the community to help people, that’s something I wanted to be a part of.”

Last year, School on Wheels sent their volunteers to libraries and shelters and public places to tutor more than three thousand students across Southern California. But this effort is only part of a solution to a mounting emergency in this region, where rising rents and stagnant incomes are driving more people from their homes.

Tutor Lisa Rodriguez sets up a science experiment. Photo by Gina Long.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which records yearly changes in the homeless population, found a 23 percent increase in 2016. And in the San Gabriel Valley, where Alma lives, that number soared to 31 percent. Within those numbers, a startling one reveals a 41 percent increase in homeless children under the age of 18.

National studies have shown these children are likely to fall behind in school, underperform their peers, and likely drop out before completing high school. “That’s why we work so hard to keep them in school,” said Meek. But, she admitted, it’s hard to quantify the success of School on Wheels. “We’re working with such a transient community, with children of all ages and abilities. It’s hard to establish a baseline and then measure outcome.”

They rely, in part, on anecdotes, including this one. Meek agreed to tutor a little girl at a shelter. When she arrived the first time, she found the girl hiding under a table. “So, I joined her there, on the floor, and we read together.” This happened for many weeks. One day, the girl was sitting on a chair at the table, waiting for her tutor. “I call that a success.”

Angela Sanchez is a “graduate” of School on Wheels who went on to earn two degrees from UCLA. Photo courtesy of Angela Sanchez.

And so is the story of Angela Sanchez. During high school, her father lost his job and the two became homeless. Angela was struggling with calculus. She knew she had to pass the course to graduate. One of the shelters where they lived recommended School on Wheels, which matched her with a Ph.D. student in astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Yes, a rocket scientist!” Meek said. Angela passed calculus, was admitted to UCLA, and went on to earn two degrees from there. She founded the campus chapter of School on Wheels and now writes a blog about “homelessness, higher education and hope” called Poverty to Professional.

It’s not unusual for former students to become tutors for School on Wheels, or even join their board. Their firsthand knowledge of homelessness and poverty inspires them to help. For volunteers like Rodriguez, the hardships of her childhood played a part in her decision to tutor.

“I thought back on the people who helped me when I was little,” she said, “and I decided tutoring in my community was the right thing to do. I’ve found my purpose in Alma. I mean, a little Latina who likes science! How can I not want to spend my Wednesday evenings with her?”

*Names of children have been changed to protect their privacy.


Susan Hoffmann lives in California, where she writes personal essays inspired by her family. She has retired from a long career in art museum education, having written educational materials and taught classes for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She also wrote promotional materials for the California Institute of Technology and the Art Center College of Design, where she taught courses on modern art. Hoffmann’s work has been published by Literary Mama and Gravel; her essay “A Boy Like Mine” was a finalist in the Tenth Glass Woman Prize.

Gina Long believes photography is more about “translation than creation.” She’s been shooting for over 25 years and began her career with Court TV and, later, served as the Missing Child Producer at “America’s Most Wanted.” Long also produced broadcast documentary programs for Discovery Network and CBS. Today, she is the owner of The Unexpected Portrait in Southern California.

Copyright © 500 Pens. August 2017.

In New Mexico, It’s Back To School But Not Back To ‘Lunch Shaming’

By Leila A. McNeill

In April, Desert Cove Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona, made headlines for stamping a boy’s wrist in black ink with the words “lunch money” in all caps. The student had an outstanding balance on his lunch account, and though he was still given a hot lunch, he was humiliated in front of his peers. The boy’s mother said he was so humiliated that he didn’t even want a picture of the stamp taken. The student is one of many across the United States who has been subject to lunch shaming.

Schools utilize lunch shaming strategies on students to collect delinquent lunch bills. In addition to the incident in Arizona, other shaming practices include throwing away food instead of allowing the child to eat it, separating children into different lunch lines depending on what children are able to pay, or making children work off parents’ debts by cleaning up the lunchroom after their peers. These practices embarrass poor children in an attempt to force parents to pay outstanding lunch bills, but New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act will end shaming tactics across the state.

Written and introduced by Senator Michael Padilla, the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, which became law in April, ensures that all children in New Mexico will have access to the same food and be put into the same lunch line, no matter a student’s ability to pay upon checkout. The law also requires that schools assist students and their families in filling out the National School Lunch Program application for free or reduced lunch.

As a child, Padilla experienced a form of lunch shaming firsthand. “When I was a child, I grew up in foster homes and the All-Faiths Receiving Home for Homeless Children,” he says. Padilla and his sisters cleaned the lunchrooms, mopping the floors and cleaning the tables. And despite their work, they were only given for lunch what was left over after the other students had eaten. As a child, Padilla says, “I didn’t really see it as shaming. I didn’t know what shaming was. I just knew that I was very different.”

Bills like Padilla’s have been introduced because the National School Lunch Program does not seem to have any concrete means to deal with unpaid lunch bills that is fair to both the child and the school.

The Food and Nutrition Service guidelines for dealing with delinquent meal charges advise against tactics that could negatively affect students. While this clause cautions against directly shaming children in the lunchroom, there are no federal laws against it, so children are left with little to no recourse when they are subject to shaming.

For Padilla, ending lunch shaming in New Mexico is also a way to chip away at the long-standing poverty in the state. Looking forward, Padilla believes that if children can concentrate on their schoolwork, instead of their hungry stomachs, they will be able to succeed in school; this will, in turn, increase the graduation rate and grow and improve the workforce, he says.

Padilla’s bill has set a precedent across the U.S., and other representatives are looking to implement similar legislation in their states and districts. “Twenty-one other states, either a representative or the senator has reached out to me, and I’ve shared the bill with them. Individually, state by state, the bill is being crafted to work within infrastructure and government,” says Padilla. One representative inspired by Padilla was Rep. Helen Giddings of DeSoto, Texas, who brought House Bill 2159 to the Texas House; it would have ensured that children would still receive regular hot lunches while their debts were being collected. (The bill ultimately failed to pass.) In Oregon, a bill to end the practice of lunch shaming became one step closer to law when it passed the state senate last month.

Private citizens are also stepping up in order to help children and families who cannot pay their delinquent lunch debts. Chris Robinson is crowdfunding school lunches in Texas’ Fort Bend School District, and Jeff Lew of Seattle raised over $48,000 for his son’s district. But with more and more politicians taking notice of the success of Padilla’s bill, hopefully crowdfunding school lunches will no longer be necessary. Padilla says the New Mexico Congressional delegation is taking an active interest in ending lunch shaming on the national level. “Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senator Martin Heinrich, and Senator Tom Udall drafted a bill and introduced it on the federal level [in May],” says Padilla.


Leila McNeill is a freelance writer, editor, and historian of science with a background on women and gender in science, technology, and medicine. She has written for The Atlantic, The Establishment and Aeon, and she is a regular beat writer for Contact her on Twitter or visit her website.

Photo: iStock Photography 

Copyright © 500 Pens. August 2017.

For These New York City Fourth Graders, A Project On Immigration Hits Home

Story by Kelly Shetron
Photos by Kimberly M. Wang

The fourth graders in Miriam Sicherman’s class studied immigration this past year, and for many, it was not an abstract concept. About half of the eighteen students in her class at the Children’s Workshop School in New York City’s East Village were children of  immigrants — from Poland, Algeria, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Tibet, Haiti, Yemen and other countries.

Ms. Sicherman, who has been at the school for 17 years and teaches third and fourth grade, pointed out that often classroom studies of immigration focus primarily on the Ellis Island era. But in her classroom, that was not the case.

“To me, yes, [the Ellis Island era] is an important era and a lot of Americans trace their ancestry to those immigrants, but a great many Americans don’t, including most of my students,” said Ms. Sicherman. “There are a lot of other important eras of immigration to America.”

Like many of her students, Sicherman also had an intimate connection to the immigration experience. Her daughter, Una, a 9-year-old student at the school, was born in Korea and adopted at nine months of age.

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Miriam Sicherman and her daugher, Una. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

While the students learned about Ellis Island, the curriculum didn’t end there. And, as the school year wound to a close, the students worked on a special culminating project: they created oral history picture books about real immigrants of today.

Student book covers. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

To make their books, the students interviewed three of the school’s teachers who also happen to be immigrants: Noelle O’Reilly from Ireland, Susan Browne from Barbados, and Cassi Park from South Korea.

Students working with Ms. Browne. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

Before each teacher sat down in front of the class to be interviewed, the students worked in pairs to come up with questions. Did you want to come to America? How was your trip? How much stuff did you bring? Were you scared? What was the first food you tried?

Adam with Ms. O’Reilly. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

After the interviews, Ms. Sicherman provided transcriptions to the students. The fourth graders read through them and identified the parts they wanted to include in their books. Then in the final weeks of school, the students sat together in groups and excitedly put finishing touches on their work.

“How did you feel when you came to America?” Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

Lovinia, a soft-spoken student with a broad smile, made her book about Ms. O’Reilly, who immigrated from Ireland. One of Lovinia’s favorite parts of the interview, she said, was when Ms. O’Reilly described her shock at experiencing New York’s intense summer heat for the first time. The interview process was interesting to her, she said, but not necessarily surprising. “It’s not really surprising because my parents are immigrants, and my mom tells us about her home country, which is Haiti, and what it’s like there,” explained Lovinia.

Ms. Park helped students with their projects. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

For many students, the teachers’ immigration stories were relatable. And everyone in class got exposure to different kinds of immigration experiences.

“I think it’s so important for them to realize that immigrants tend to have certain experiences in common and certain experiences that are very different from each other. That definitely came through,” said Ms. Sicherman.

A student asked Ms. Park, “What Korean foods do you like?” Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

In each of the interviews, the teachers expressed having mixed feelings about some parts of the immigration process. Afterward, the kids brainstormed ways to depict complicated emotions and experiences artistically, using collages and abstract drawing.

A page from a student’s book. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

“It helps the kids understand that immigration is not some sort of upward story where you’re leaving the ‘bad place’ and going to the new ‘good place’ and everything is better in that new good place, which is sometimes the sort of heroic narrative of immigration to America. It’s not necessarily like that,” said the teacher.

In the beginning of the year, the students were asked to choose a name for their class. They came up with “The S’mores,” because s’mores, they explained, are delicious and made of different kinds of ingredients. This past year in Ms. Sicherman’s classroom, all of those ingredients were celebrated.


Kelly Shetron is a nonfiction writer based in Brooklyn, working primarily as a collaborative writer (ghostwriter) with Unfurl Productions. She develops books for major publishing houses, taking projects from the proposal stage through final execution, including conducting hours of interviews with the author, developing the story, and drafting and revising the manuscripts. She also writes branded content like ebooks, infographics, and blog posts, as well as personal essays and longform stories.

Kimberly M. Wang is a director, producer and production executive whose work has been as diverse as her clients which includes: PBS, ESPN and MTV. Her company, Eardog Productions, creates branded storytelling content for small businesses, start-ups and non-profits. And as a photojournalist, she is pursuing a passion project comprised of photo essays exploring the creative processes of renowned artists from a wide range of disciplines.

Copyright © 500 Pens. July 2017.

The Graduates: Launching The Next Generation Of Learners

By Shari Nacson

On a Friday in June at 11:15 a.m., the halls of the Early Childhood Enrichment Center (ECEC), located just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, begin to fill with parents and caregivers, some with balloons and signs. One mother holds a big, rainbow spiral lollipop because that signifies “special day” to her son. The rising kindergarteners have stepped out of their mixed-age classrooms, donning special t-shirts, hats, crowns, jingle bells and other accoutrements. Younger friends remain in the classrooms; they excitedly grab the signs they have made and the instruments they will clang as they cheer on their classroom elders — the pre-K Class of 2017.

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The pre-K class is cheered on by its community. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

The staff has worked hard over the years to develop a rite of passage that feels like an appropriate match to the myriad feelings that are stirred up in young children who are on the precipice of leaving their beloved early learning center. Not all kiddos are happy about this moment. Preschoolers want to be big, and yet their feelings of security and attachment are also big — making it tricky to transition from what has become a home-away-from-home during their most formative years.

Among ECEC’s rising kindergarteners, 80 percent will go to public schools. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

With cheers and a cacophony of preschool instruments, the processional begins at ECEC, a hub of economic, ethnic, religious and racial diversity where at any given time, according to the director, there are 25 to 30 different ethnicities represented. Led by a banner that reads, “We are sailing off to kindergarten!” the children’s faces range from joyful to confused. Some who don’t like the attention stay close to a trusted teacher, who helpfully narrates what’s going on. All of the children seem pleased to see their favorite grown-ups amid the crowd that flanks the halls.

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Tillman Cole on his last day of preschool. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

Lisa Farmer Cole says of her son, Tillman, “I’m excited that he’s excited.” Tillman, who will be 6 years old in September, has visited his new school and seems ready for the transition. His mother is asked if she went to preschool. “I did,” she says. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being away from my mother.” Her mother arrives in the middle of this anecdote, fondly nodding as her daughter recounts her own preschool days.

That was a half-day school day. Like most American preschoolers, Tillman has already mastered full-day school. September will be a new building, new people and new routines, but the hours will be similar to what he is used to.

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“This is a fine age,” says one father. “She doesn’t need to get any older.” Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

Cecilia Hyun is nostalgic watching her nearly 5-year-old son. “We’ve been coming here since he was 18 months old.” Looking in the direction of the building’s entrance, she recalls, “There was this one set of steps at the entrance that he couldn’t navigate when we first came. Time has gone by so quickly. I can’t believe we are here.”

Down the hall, Cameron Kissel says that his daughter Cassidy, age 5,  is excited to be in the processional amid the cheering crowd. Self-reflective, Kissel has some trepidation about this moment. “This is a fine age,” he says with tenderness. “She doesn’t need to get any older.” He imagines that most parents feel this way — wanting time to slow down and the sweet phases to endure.

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For Jordan Harris and the other rising kindergarteners, the world is about to become irreversibly bigger. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

Stacy Jones says her son, Justus, age 5,  is eager to transition. The youngest of three kids, Justus is excited to ride the school bus with his older sister. Jones’ eldest child was clapped out of 4th grade the day before. It’s a time of many transitions in their family home. “I’m glad they celebrate the little things and the big accomplishments,” she says.


Shari Nacson is a Cleveland-based mother, editor, child development specialist and nonprofit consultant with a passion for the promotion of engaged citizenship via family and school-based service projects during early childhood.

Gabe Schaffer lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, with his wife, three kids and several chickens. He has been, among other things, a freelance photojournalist for over 15 years.

Copyright © 500 Pens. June 2017.