‘Riding Up Front’ Drives Home The Immigrant Experience Through Art

By Poornima Apte

A person she respected once told Wei-En Tan that she did not have enough emotional intelligence. Although it stung, she might not have given the comment much thought if her grandmother hadn’t passed away shortly after. Tan, a native of Singapore, admitted that she had not known her grandmother well. “I never really found out what her story was,” she said.

As a busy finance professional, her travel schedule forced her to hail rides wherever she went. Tan soon made it a mission to ride up front to talk to her drivers and strike a connection. The results floored her. “I have learned a lot and met the most interesting people in the process,” she said.

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A portrait of Wei-En Tan, used by permission from “Riding Up Front.”

Over time, Tan started documenting the stories on a personal blog. One of her friends suggested she get them illustrated, which she did. “Riding Up Front” was officially up and running. Then the 2016 presidential election happened, and things accelerated. Taken aback by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and hate that preceded the election and stunned by the Muslim ban that was declared shortly after President Trump took office, Tan realized she had to do something more. “Riding Up Front” was the perfect vehicle to channel her voice — and that of thousands of others who felt powerless in the wake of crippling hatred. Today, the nonprofit “Riding Up Front,” run by a team of twelve, receives a steady stream of submissions and shines a light on the immigrant perspective.

Each story on “Riding Up Front” narrates a rider’s interactions with his or her driver. Since one of the missions of “Riding Up Front” is to promote awareness of immigrant and refugee rights, submissions must have an immigrant tilt to them. Story writers are not compensated for their work, and a roster of volunteer artists illustrates each submission. Artists get to pick from a set of stories they would like to work on and are reimbursed for the purchase of art materials from Tan and her team.

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by Paula Vrinceanu for “Riding Up Front.”

The public can donate to the blog which is used to maintain the site; and money left over is channeled to the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council and the International Rescue Committee.

Does Tan worry that the people who access the blog might already be open to its message, a case of preaching to the choir as it were? She does see that to be a problem but judging from the thousands of times they have been trolled, Tan is quite sure their message is reaching far and wide. The team doesn’t engage with virulent commenters but if somebody is looking to strike a meaningful dialogue, they’re certainly game.

One of the other mission statements of “Riding Up Front” is to create a community through stories and artwork. Here too they have succeeded, Tan said. She still remembers returning home to San Diego after a daylong work trip to San Francisco and complaining about a long, taxing trip. Tired and miserable, she got picked up from the airport by a Jamaican woman who was full of spirit. The driver, who had awoken at 3:00 a.m. that morning, had worked in the military and held down a side job.

By Alexandra Burda for “Riding Up Front.”

“She has a daughter and goes back to cook every day because she doesn’t trust her husband’s cooking. And she would return and drive and then go back to sleep at 1:00 a.m. And she was so full of positive energy that I just felt kind of ashamed complaining about my job,” Tan said. “That attitude of hers — to look at life so much more positively and to be happy about the things you can’t control, it really hit me.”

“Immigrants are humans, we all have the same struggles and we share the same joys,” Tan said. And “Riding Up Front” is eager to drive that message home far and wide.


Poornima Apte is an award-winning freelance writer and editor. Learn more at wordcumulus.com.

Cover art by Iris Hopp for “Riding Up Front.”

Copyright © 500 Pens. December 2017.

A Man, His Camera And Photos For All

By Melissa Sher

Photographer David Moriya was supposed to fly to Los Angeles for a film festival on January 21, 2017. But he ended up canceling his flight to stay in New York. “I knew I had to be with my city for the Women’s March,” he said.

At the Women’s March, Moriya took hundreds of photos and ended up donating many of them to the organizers. After the New York protest, the once primarily lifestyle, street and music photographer made a decision to cover as many marches, rallies and demonstrations as he could.

Since making that decision, Moriya has covered more than 50 events in the last 10 months and amassed thousands of photos. “I had all of these great photos, and they were just sitting there on my hard drive and they weren’t going to use. Some could go on Instagram and Facebook, but that was it. And I didn’t want the story to die there,” said Moriya. “I knew the work could be used for something. And that was the start of me looking around and saying, ‘You want photos? Here you go. Take them.’”

As a result of Moriya’s desire to offer nonprofits and other interested groups photos that could be put to use, his website, Rogue Photo, was born. It’s a nonprofit photojournalism and stock photo hub that offers royalty-free images related to “opposition of discrimination, bigotry, silencing of the press and defunding of government agencies.”

And while all of the photos are available for free, donations are appreciated. “Photography is what I do,” said Moriya. “It is what drives me every day. It is my personal way of fighting and spreading the word about what is going on in the world.”

Take a look at just some of Moriya’s photos from the past year, below, and view more of his work on Rogue Photo website:

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An estimated 40,000 participants turned out in Boston on August 19th to counter-protest a “free speech” rally that many feared would be a platform for hate groups.  By David Moriya/Rogue Photo.
Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center spoke at the “We The People Rally: Reclaiming our Constitution” in September 2017. By David Moriya/Rogue Photo. 
Demonstrators stood outside of the Stonewall Inn in February 2017 in support of transgender youth. By David Moriya/Rogue Photo.
Participants in the Charlottesville to D.C. “March to Confront White Supremacy” walked over 100 miles this past August. By David Moriya/Rogue Photo.
Participants in march from Charlottesville to D.C., in the rain. By David Moriya/Rogue Photo.
The Women’s March in New York City on January 21st. It’s been estimated that more than four million participants took part in the coordinated effort. By David Moriya/Rogue Photo.
A sign from the crowd outside Kennedy International Airport this past January after an executive order banning travel from six Muslim-majority countries was announced. By David Moriya/Rogue Photo.


Cover photo of David Moriya; courtesy of Rogue Photo.  

Copyright © 500 Pens. October 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.

Protecting Langston Hughes’ Legacy, Nurturing Underrepresented Voices

By Amy Shearn
Photos by Sriya Sarkar

Some years ago, an emerging artist read an article about a poet’s campaign to save Langston Hughes’ house and turn it into a community arts organization. The artist, Beau McCall, lived in Harlem, not far from the brownstone, so he decided to make a pilgrimage. The stately building was almost entirely covered in ivy, obscuring the plaque that had been applied to the façade when the structure was landmarked in 1981. McCall closed his eyes and tried to imagine Hughes himself sitting inside composing poems and plays at his typewriter. Someday, McCall told himself, I’m going to be inside that house. Someday I’m going to make art there.

The home of Langston Hughes. Photo by Sriya Sarkar.

Sure enough, McCall’s art show, “The Conversation” opened recently at the I, Too Arts Collective, the community arts organization that now exists in Langston Hughes’ house thanks to the Herculean efforts of Renée Watson.

Watson is an award-winning poet, children’s book author and activist who walked by the brownstone often over the years she lived in Harlem. She said that Harlem was the first place she wanted to visit when she moved to New York from Portland, Oregon. Watson grew up learning about the Harlem Renaissance and memorizing Hughes’ poems and said that it was in Hughes’ work she first saw herself reflected in stories.

But when she got to New York, she was surprised to learn that his home wasn’t a museum or a creative space. “Having lived through gentrification in Portland and seeing its impact on my neighborhood, I wanted to do something to make sure this part of Harlem’s history doesn’t become an afterthought,”Watson said.

So Watson raised funds to lease the brownstone and established a nonprofit organization committed to nurturing underrepresented voices in the creative arts. The organization’s name comes from Hughes’ poem “I, Too.” Watson said, “To me, this poem is a statement that declares, I, too, deserve a space, a voice, to be seen.”

The I, Too Arts Collective is in this way much more dynamic than an ordinary house museum; Watson sees it as, in fact, the best way to “preserve Langston’s legacy and build on it by providing programming for emerging writers.”

Langston Hughes’ typewriter. Photo by Sriya Sarkar.

Watson was able to raise capital to lease the space through an online campaign and the support of her publishing-world connections, but a lot of the physical work to get the space in shape was done by volunteers. Volunteers spent a month repainting walls and pulling up old carpet to reveal gleaming floors. On the third floor is Hughes’ office, and in cleaning it they discovered 1920s newspapers that they are trying to preserve. The hope is to also create a library with donated books that the community can use. In addition, I, Too is creating a children’s space to  host storytimes and other children’s events.

I, Too’s current programs include poetry salons, writing workshops and a creative conversations talk-back series. Staff are also heavily invested in making sure the local community knows about the events and feels welcome in the space. For an upcoming book swap, for example, they’ve worked hard to reach out to people who live in the blocks immediately surrounding the house. “We want their blessing on it, but we also just want them to feel welcome,” said program director Kendolyn Walker. She notes that many of the older residents in the neighborhood aren’t online, so they make sure to hang up posters and hand out fliers in addition to their social media outreach.

Beau McCall’s interviews were recorded by StoryCorps. Photo by Sriya Sarkar.

The artist who had once dreamed of being in Hughes’ house was there recently, creating his very own “seat at the table.” Beau McCall is an innovative artist whose main medium is the humble button, inspired by the jar of buttons his mother kept in the basement when he was growing up. “It’s the way they feel, it’s the way they smell…something as simple as a button, people usually take it for granted. They don’t acknowledge it,” he said. McCall’s work aims to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

His current exhibition at I, Too is part of Uptown, a new triennial surveying the work of artists who live or practice north of 99th Street, an initiative of the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University’s new Lenfest Center for the Arts. His piece features McCall sitting at a table he’s meticulously covered in buttons, interviewing others about their personal history and ancestry. StoryCorps is recording the conversations, which will be archived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, light streamed in from the windows, making the buttons glow. The interviews were punctuated with laughter. McCall said he had been inspired by Hughes’ poem “I, Too,” specifically where Hughes wrote, “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / when company comes.”

A button-covered table by artist Beau McCall. Photo by Sriya Sarkar.

McCall asked friends and strangers to join him at his button-covered table and tell their stories. He said that his work is “a record that I was here.” “Black people can’t always track our ancestries,” he explained. The oral tradition becomes especially important for a people whose history has been suppressed, family lines fractured, and record-keeping spotty; hence, the recordings of interviews.

McCall, like Watson, was nourished by the work of Langston Hughes. Referring back to the poem, gesturing towards the jewel-like table he’d created, McCall said, “African-Americans now, we’re at the table, but we’re not being fed… we still deal with playing second fiddle in America.” Reflecting on the significance of creating art in Hughes’ home, McCall noted, “Hughes’ spirit and energy is in this house. Art keeps you alive.”

Watson also spoke about the healing power of art: “Poetry — and art in general — can be a place to process, question and heal. That is what Langston’s poetry did, and continues to do, for me. It has helped me make sense of what is sometimes a chaotic, unjust world.”

The hard work isn’t done. Now that the collective is up and running, I, Too is launching its next stage, a capital campaign to raise money to purchase the brownstone. “If we’re not intentional about keeping spaces that are a part of our history, we will lose that history,” said Watson. “Places hold stories, and when we lose sacred places like churches, theaters and the homes of black legends, we lose pieces of our collective story.”

To find out more about the I, Too Arts Collective, plan a visit, or arrange to donate books for the library, please visit their website.


Amy Shearn is the author of two novels, The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is The Ocean From Here. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Coastal Living, Parent & Child, Martha Stewart Living, Poets & Writers, Real Simple, The Rumpus, The Millions, Electric Literature, Oprah.com and elsewhere. She is an editor at JSTOR Daily, and lives in Brooklyn with her family.

Sriya Sarkar is a digital media producer, comedian, and filmmaker working at the intersection of digital media, comedy, and activism. She has worked with artist Maya Lin for the What Is Missing? Foundation as well as the feminist sleeper cell of riotously funny reproductive rights advocates at Lady Parts Justice. She is the producer of Speakout Laughout, a comedic storytelling show about abortion, as well as lolvote, a comedy variety show and accompanying Twitterbot encouraging youth voter turnout. She has performed at numerous shows in a variety of bar basements and stages of all sizes. She most recently was the deputy digital content director in North Carolina for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Currently, she’s the Digital Content Producer for Priorities USA.

Copyright © 500 Pens. June 2017

Preserving LGBTQ History For Future Generations

By Lisa Liebman

“The denial of our very existence has always been a primary tactic against us,” says  Richard Wandel.

Wandel is referring to the LGBTQ community; and as the longtime archivist of the LGBT Community Center National History Archive located in New York City, he has been working to preserve a record of that existence for more than 25 years.  

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Brent Nicholson Earl’s arrest for protesting President George Bush’s address at a 1990 AIDS conference in Arlington, Virginia. Credit: Outweek Magazine collection, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

An amateur photographer and LGBT activist who had recently helped mount a New York City Hall exhibit titled “Prejudice and Pride,” Wandel, now 71, was approached about the archivist role by Richard Burns, the executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (now called the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center) in 1989. Wandel accepted what was  —  and remains — a volunteer position and has been organizing and preserving material related to LGBTQ life for the Center ever since.

The archive, initially conceived as an archive and a museum, began in 1989 with “The Center Show,” a series of on-site installations. Among the contemporary artists featured was Keith Haring, whose sex-positive mural “Once Upon a Time” — created in 1990 in what was then a Center bathroom, nine months before he died of AIDS — is still on view today.

The New York Public Library was the first to donate to the archive — there’s no budget to buy material — passing along its collection of gay periodicals after transferring them to microfilm. From there, Wandel reached out to any and all of his contacts to request personal papers, photographs, videos, records, and what has since become a large international collection of LGBTQ periodicals. Now, researchers come from all over the world to take advantage of the approximately 2,000-square-foot collection stored off-site in New Jersey and brought to the Center as needed.

Liz Eden and John Wojtowicz’s 1971 wedding at New York City’s Yellow Brick Road Bar.  Credit: Richard Wandel, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

Among the materials representing the LGBTQ community are several large photo collections, including those from Wandel and Leonard Fink. Beginning in 1970, Wandel documented the city’s gay liberation movement, its leaders, and demonstrations by the Gay Activists Alliance, of which he was a past president. He also photographed the wedding of John Wojtowicz and Liz Eden; Wojtowicz’s attempt at bank robbery to pay for Eden’s sex-reassignment surgery later became the basis for Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon.

Like Wandel, Fink was also an amateur photographer with an “excellent eye,” the archivist says. In 1967, Fink began photographing life in New York City’s Greenwich Village. His Gay Pride parade photos begin with the first New York City event in 1970. (Parades were also staged in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago that year to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots after a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar.) In 2014, Coming Out: Photographs of Gay Liberation and the New York Waterfront, a book of Fink’s black-and-white photos with a preface by Wandel, was published by the Center and Swiss imprint Edition Clandestin.

The archive also includes photographs from Outweek, a weekly gay and lesbian magazine published from 1989 to 1991 that reported on AIDS activism, as well as on organizations such as Queer Nation and Act Up. Wandel says other interesting collections include those from playwright and actor Jackie Curtis with his plays, poems, and other memorabilia; and Supreme Court historian James R. Perry, whose personal papers included correspondence with a friend about an illness they both had, which turned out to be AIDS. There’s also a cache of videos, including filmed events from Center panel discussions in the ‘80s and ‘90s with, Wandel says, “people you never heard of,” as well as luminaries like playwright Edward Albee and actress Elaine Stritch. Wandel and his all-volunteer staff of 12 are in the process of digitizing them.

John Paul Hudson (a.k.a. John Francis Hunter) at a 1971 Gay Activists Alliance demonstration protesting the Board of Education in Brooklyn, New York.
Credit: Richard Wandel, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

Journalist Eric Marcus, creator and host of the podcast Making Gay History, which features his previously recorded interviews with members of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, says archives like the Center’s are important because they provide a sense of heritage for young people “who don’t have an understanding of how far and how fast we’ve come — and the people who’ve made that possible.”

He notes that, until recently, many older LGBTQ activists didn’t save their things because they thought they had no value. As a result, so much from early generations has been lost, which makes people like Wandel and the Center archive so important. In fact, Marcus says he’s “indebted” to Wandel for providing a photo of transgender activist Sylvia Rivera for his very first podcast. Unsung advocates like Rivera, Wandel and others, he says, “tell us who we are, where we came from, and why we have a reason to be proud.”  


Lisa Liebman is New York City-based freelance writer covering entertainment, pop culture, women’s issues, and more for outlets including VanityFair.com, Vulture, and Glamour.

Cover photo: New York City Gay Pride March, 1974.
Credit: Leonard Fink, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

Copyright © 500 Pens. June 2017

In The Picture: Holocaust Survivors, Remembrance And The Antidote For Hatred

Photos by Giovana Schluter
Text by Karen Schwartz

The human cruelty of the Holocaust is almost too much to comprehend. Couple that with the now frequent image of swastikas appearing on buildings and playgrounds, the more than 100 bomb threats that were called into Jewish community centers and the vandalism that occurred in Jewish cemeteries this past year, the question emerges: How do survivors bear it? One way is through hatred’s antidote: community.

Selfhelp Community Services, which operates the oldest and largest program serving Holocaust survivors in North America, fosters this fellowship by, among other things, arranging monthly lunches where groups of New York City survivors socialize. The camaraderie was clear at a recent Holocaust Remembrance Day lunch in Brooklyn, which featured a program of readings, conviviality and song.

Later, in a room to the side, attendees posed for portraits by photographer Giovana Schluter and answered the question: “What would you most want people today to know or understand from your experience?”

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“We lived in a little town, and my father was a rabbi. We were eight children. They came and took him, and they cut off his beard. We never saw him again. The next morning they took us to the ghetto, my mother and the eight children. And after four weeks, they took us to the stone factory. Then they had an order, people with a lot of children, they have to go first. They took us to cattle cars — no toilet, no food, nothing. We were traveling for a whole week, and we were going to Auschwitz. And somehow what happened — maybe they didn’t have room in the crematorium — they didn’t have place for this transport and then it went back to Austria. And that was our luck.” —Paula Weiss. Photo by Giovana Schluter
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“I keep repeating this: people should know that hatred and silence led to murder. ‘Never again’ will only be good if there is no silence. We can’t be silent.  Now our loved ones, our millions of loved ones, live only through us, and we must make sure they are never forgotten.” —Sonia Klein. Photo by Giovana Schluter
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“I was in the ghetto in Romania three years. From 1941 in June to the liberation August 23, 1944. I went home, the house was empty. We didn’t have [food] to eat and it was terrible. To survive the war, yes, was hard… but many people forget that after was still very difficult.”   —Adele Schreiber (translated to English).  Photo by Giovana Schluter
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“…But I don’t know how you could make the world to believe. It’s very, very difficult. Because even the people who lived there couldn’t believe you could just take people and throw them in the crematories and gas chambers.” —Iditha Avishai. Photo by Giovana Schluter
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“I want people to realize that we went through a lot in the Holocaust, and it was a lot of hatred.  I wish that there should be peace. People should get along with each other. And for future generations, they should know what happened.” —Ruth Sokol. Photo by Giovana Schluter


Giovana Schluter is a portrait and documentary photographer, based in the South Bronx, in New York City.

Karen Schwartz is a writer and a contributing editor to Marie Claire magazine.

Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.

When It Comes To Inclusion, This New York City School Scores High Marks

By Gina Apostol

At her Word Work station at school, *Sabrina sorts out words that rhyme with –or.

“I’m getting rid of my old words,” says Sabrina in a halting but triumphant voice to the teacher assigned to her in this fourth-grade classroom at IDEAL School, an independent school in Manhattan with a mission of inclusion. Sabrina has Down syndrome, and her classmates include a child in a wheelchair, along with six children on a mat who will soon sit down to read fantasy books of their choice in order to write literary essays on the psychological implications of the settings in books.

Lyssa, a girl with braces on her teeth and braces on her legs, comes in with another teacher after having done an individualized test on her reading skills. At this point, there are four teachers in the room: the main classroom teacher, the specialist, an assistant for Sabrina, and Lyssa’s reading skills tester. But the flow of lessons remains seamless, and the room is as calm as a church: four future essay writers are now intent on their books at their Close Reading stations, two boys settle down to have fun with math, Sabrina is sounding out her rhyming words, and the fourth teacher recommends some books in the “O” bin to help Lyssa, who stands in her braces in the middle of the room, waving at her friends: “I love you,” she says to the room.  

In the middle of a Tuesday in New York, this fourth-grade classroom is a ballet of individuation and inclusion. In 2005 a trio of parents who had children with Down syndrome opened the IDEAL School. Public schools are required to accommodate children with special needs, and private independent schools have forms of instruction that the founders of IDEAL School appreciated. But with an ideal of inclusion in mind that had no counterpart in the classrooms they visited, the three parents — a lawyer and two financial analysts — set up their own school.

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Three parents who have children with Down syndrome founded the IDEAL School. Photo by Chris X. Carroll

Most schools pay lip service to the issue of ability: it is the rarest of schools that can accommodate kids with mobility challenges and neurological issues as well as engage potently in diversity, including socioeconomic and racial equality. At IDEAL, the definition of diversity is expanded explicitly to include ability — children with a range of cognitive skills across the spectrum are in classrooms with typically developing children, many of them high-achieving, such as the six essay writers in Sabrina’s fourth-grade class. Twenty-five percent of IDEAL students have cognitive abilities across the autism spectrum. The rest are, as the teachers call them, “neurotypical.” At the same time, the school is committed to socioeconomic justice: sixty percent of its students are on financial aid. In any given classroom, the mix of abilities, races, ethnicities and socioeconomic classes gives the visitor a haunting sense of what the nation’s classrooms could be: a panoply of collectivity, of diversity.

The school’s innovation is that, in order to teach children across such a broad cognitive range, social justice is at the core of the IDEAL curriculum. At IDEAL, empathy is not just an affect or a moral attitude. Empathy is a cognitive, neurological matter, an intellectual tool nurtured and practiced in explicit lessons. Empathy defines how students succeed: it is an academic skill.

Above all, children learn about perspective: from kindergarten to the recently opened twelfth-grade classes, anti-bias lessons and multicultural values thread through all subjects. Students grow and learn from owning their identities. But more important, as they begin to grasp their identities, they grow and learn from understanding the identities of their peers.

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The IDEAL School has an innovative “no pull-out” policy in place. Photo by Chris X. Carroll

Danny in the sixth grade is crafting a script for a movie for history class. He has compiled an impressive annotated history of immigration in the United States, from the 19th-century Chinese Exclusion Acts to Donald Trump’s executive orders. In his immigration research folder, he writes in paragraphs, in robust detail. Andy, sitting next to him at the table, also has a folder on immigration designed for his special needs: he answers multiple-choice questions, fills in bubbles, writes one-liners where Danny fills a page. Danny and Andy will each produce a video-letter to Donald Trump on his executive orders.

The scripts of both boys question the president’s exclusion of Syrians, Afghans and other vulnerable groups from entering America. “On the inside we are alike,” one script says in its letter to the president. “But on the outside we have different features.” Both scripts will take a stand against the president’s proposed Mexico-U.S. wall.

Such parallel learning in small groups, with differentiated, individualized plans for each student, marks classroom lessons at the IDEAL School. Both Danny and Andy are contemplating this month’s school-wide social justice theme — Change in America. Through their lessons in history they are reflecting on the nation’s problems in terms of an ideal embedded in their own classroom’s structure: inclusion.

Issues of social justice are intentionally mirrored in the structure of classroom learning at IDEAL School. Parallel play, differentiation, collaboration, group work and multiple-learning-styles assessments occur in some form at various other independent and public schools. But at IDEAL, parallel learning and differentiation are emphatically at the center of the classroom, with social justice both as a theme and a practice. The school’s innovative “no pull-out” policy ties this all together.

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*Jacqueline conducts an experiment in science class. Photo by Chris X. Carroll

The stigma of being the other — the disabled, the poor, the person of color — has no room at IDEAL. For instance, the child with Down syndrome in a traditional classroom might need to be taken out regularly for therapy sessions: this separation from her peers thus marks that Down syndrome child as “other” in the traditional classroom. Though children with Down syndrome also have the right to be treated equally, it is rare that a classroom structure offers them that equal right. Inclusion at IDEAL School means no child is ever pulled out from class because her special needs segregate her. IDEAL’s innovation is to use elective time for all.

At elective time, all children have the choice to do tasks that fit their needs. Thus, four children in the fourth-grade classroom will write essays that enrich their interest in literature as Sabrina sits beside them doing parallel work on her rhyming words and Lyssa goes away to test her reading skills as two of the boys on the storytelling mat, Ollie and Leo, choose to prep each other on their speed at math on the classroom’s Chromebooks.

At the end of the day in an eighth-grade science classroom, Denise is contemplating how a human heart compares to a pig’s heart, Timothy wonders which solvent will cause transformation in a jellybean and Jacqueline has been gathering ingredients for her science fair experiment — a hard-boiled egg, a milk bottle, a strip of newspaper and matches. For an hour, the science students have been writing up their proposals for science fair, all of which involve experiments that will produce some kind of change. Jacqueline finally finishes her proposal, based on her chemistry research, and she comes up front to test her ingredients.

“Something’s definitely gonna change,” she says, “or else my experiment fails!” She has her goggles on, and she puts the egg on top of the milk bottle, lit up by a flaming piece of paper — and pop! The look on Jacqueline’s face as she watches how she has precisely transformed the nature of an egg by her intentional mix of chemical elements is priceless.

So, too, is the intentional, elemental charge the IDEAL School hopes to make with its powerful ingredients — inclusion, social justice, and empathy.

*All students names have been changed.

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Gina Apostol’s third novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award, and her first two novels, Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, both won the Juan Laya Prize for the Novel (Philippine National Book Award). Her essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Policy and others. 


Chris X. Carroll took the photographs used in this story. Carroll is a human, husband, father, photographer, writer, poet, teacher, firefighter, hunter, bassist and astronaut. Well, maybe not that last, but day ain’t over yet.


Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.

A Salon Where Women Who Cover Their Heads Can Let Their Hair Down

By Barbara Spindel

The January opening of Le’Jemalik Salon and Boutique in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn was, for Huda Quhshi, the realization of a cherished, long-held goal. “At 17, I sketched out what my dream salon would look like,” the 37-year-old cosmetologist recently recalled. “I’ve always loved beauty. It’s something I always had a passion for.”

Yet for Quhshi, a Yemeni-American from Greenpoint, Brooklyn who wears a hijab, her passion came with a complication. Women who cover only allow men who are close relatives to see their hair, making salon visits a fraught endeavor.

“When I wanted to get my hair curled or blow-dried, I’d try to find the most secluded area, a salon that was on a side street, that barely had any windows, and that seemed small enough that there wouldn’t be too many clients walking in,” Quhshi said, adding that a stylist once hastily moved her into an uninviting hallway after a man walked in midway through her appointment. Over the years, hijabi clients told her stories of beauty parlors that stuck them in basements or others that erected makeshift dividers but then rushed them through in an effort to remove the unsightly barriers as quickly as possible.

Le’Jemalik means “for your beauty” in Arabic. Photo by Sue Jaye Johnson.

Quhshi, who had spent most of her career freelancing, carried her supplies from home to home because many of her clients didn’t want to worry about being in a public space where men might enter. She found herself coloring hair in settings without proper ventilation or doing makeup without adequate lighting.

And so her vision for her own business involved making it a women-only space; Le’Jemalik (“for your beauty” in Arabic) is thought to be New York City’s first salon to cater to hijab-wearing women. Men are allowed in the reception area but not through the double doors that lead to the salon floor and to the downstairs bridal shop, which houses a collection of brightly colored, intricately laced and beaded gowns.  

Quhshi stresses, though, that Le’Jemalik is “open to all women”: among her clients are Muslims who don’t wear hijabs and Orthodox Jewish women, who, like hijabis, only allow males who are close relatives to see their hair. A beaming Quhshi says the community response to her opening has been “unbelievable.”

She has been especially moved by the encouragement she’s received from women of all faiths, whether in person or on social media. “I think women are excited to support another woman who opened a business that’s specifically for women,” she said. The support has been meaningful given the widespread misconceptions about Muslim women who wear hijabs. “A lot of people have this misunderstanding that we are forced to be covered up by our husbands or by our family, and we’re not,” Quhshi, who is married and has three teenage children, said firmly. “It’s a decision that we make based on our faith.”

“If a woman goes out in a bikini, she made that choice on her own,” she continued. “I can’t tell her, ‘You’re underdressed.’ And it’s the same thing for us. Just like she has a choice to reveal her body, we have the right to cover our bodies. It’s a beautiful thing, to me, to be able to cover up and kind of say not everybody gets to see my beauty. I show it to who I want to show it to. It’s my choice.”

Quhshi is aware that some see a contradiction between covering up out of modesty and focusing on beauty. (She’s been asked, “Why would you even do your hair if you’re going to smush it under that scarf?”) “Just because we cover it up to the outside world doesn’t mean we don’t want to look beautiful,” she explained, adding that she socializes often without her headscarf, but at women-only parties. “We want to pamper ourselves as well. We want to get our nails done, we want to get facials.”

“With everything that’s going on, I feel like everyone’s come together more than ever,” said Huda Quhshi. Photo by Sue Jaye Johnson.

The timing of the salon’s opening is striking. In a period when hate crimes against Muslims have surged, when the Trump administration has tried twice to restrict travel to the United States with what many consider a Muslim ban, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions is threatening to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, Quhshi has created her own sanctuary for Muslim women.

She demurs a bit at this interpretation. She is, in her words, “not a political person,” and she says the daily conversation at the salon revolves around personal lives, not politics. Still, she does see serendipity in the timing. “It took so long to build this place, but I think it was meant to happen when it happened,” Quhshi said. “With everything that’s going on, I feel like everyone’s come together more than ever. All religions are coming together and saying we are all human and we’re here to support each other. Sometimes something bad happens but a good thing comes out of it, and I think that’s what’s happening right now.”

Of course, there are concerns. Quhshi and her husband have family members in Yemen; they worry about the worsening conflict and humanitarian crisis there. Closer to home, she hears troubling stories from her community: travel postponed, Muslim-Americans who were out of the country when the ban was announced and who struggled to get back home. “It’s installed a fear in all of us. It just makes no sense,” she said. Then she smiles and adds, assuredly, “But we’ll get through it.” 

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Barbara Spindel is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Slate, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Barnes & Noble Review, Details, Tablet and other publications. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies.

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Photographer Sue Jaye Johnson is a documentary artist working in radio, photography, film and interactive technologies. A two-time Peabody Award winner and a 2017 TED Resident, Johnson’s work frequently looks at the role of women in society.

Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.