“Shaping Grief with Language”: Gregory Orr featured on On Being

Posted on by Victoria Russell

If you attended the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival last October, you might remember that Krista Tippett recorded several conversations in Prudential Hall at NJPAC for her Peabody Award-winning public radio show and podcast, On Being.

Her conversation with Sharon Olds, “Odes to the *****” was released on March 14–you can listen here.

Krista’s conversation with Gregory Orr, “Shaping Grief with Language,” is available today.

Dodge Poetry Festival 2018 651 Dodge Poetry Festival Newark, New Jersey 10/18-21, 2018 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.net

Dodge Poetry Festival
Newark, New Jersey 10/18-21, 2018
Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

In honor of the release of this beautiful conversation, we’re re-posting our Ask a Poet Q&A with Gregory Orr, originally published October 12, 2018:

XorrHey! What’s new with you?
After teaching at the University of Virginia for forty-four years and designing and setting up its MFA Program in Writing, I’m preparing to retire at the end of the spring 2019 semester. I just brought out a book with Norton—A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry—that I’m very happy about—in a way it let me sum up and close out all my long time as a teacher—what I learned as I did my best to persuade my students of what they already knew in their hearts—that lyric poetry is a great cultural and personal tool for discovering and expressing the dignity and miseries of being a person. Poetry saved me as a young person (first, the trying to write it; later, the learning to read it) and I hope my Primer (with its craft topics and writing exercises) can bring some of my excitement and insight to readers now that I am on the verge of retiring from face-to-face teaching. Also, I’ll bring out a new collection of poems in the spring of 2019. It’s called The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write. At the Festival, I’ll be performing a “concert” of poems and singing with the Parkington Sisters—it will be a mix of singing and reciting based on a long sequence of “beloved” poems that I’ve been writing, off and on, for the past fifteen years. I’m extremely excited about that. As someone who can’t sing the simplest tune, I’m in awe of the human voice when it’s skilled enough to explore all the nuances of melody and phrasing, so this event is really exciting to me. The poems in that sequence are incantatory and more “musical” than many I write, so I’m very very curious to see if they can be “lifted” right up into actual song.

When did you first discover poetry?  What poets made you want to write?
I first discovered poetry through my high school librarian in the small upstate New York village where I was raised. Her guidance and encouragement opened up the whole world of writing to me and when I stumbled on the expressive form of lyric poetry,  I knew I’d found what I needed to live fully and deeply and to survive certain miserable and traumatic events that marred my childhood. I’ve written about that in my memoir, The Blessing.

After sixty years of writing poems, I’ve come to this conclusion: many of us who are going to live and love poetry begin either excited/impatient to write it (to write expressing our feelings or experience) or we start by reading some poem(s) and get inspired to write ourselves (in imitation of what excites us that we read). Most of us (especially me) start with the urge to write a poem or poems because we feel something bursting or gnawing inside us and sense that poetry is one way to get it OUTSIDE us by turning it into words and putting those words down on a page. Such a relief/release—exhilarating and scary at the same time if you are dealing with difficult emotional or experiential material—is so powerful. I needed that as a young person. Truth to tell, it was a while before I could calm down enough to read other poets and discover that reading was another main way to learn the art and deepen the experience. What poets did I read first? Keats. His poems and then his letters (great letters for a poet to read). I still read my favorite poems of his every other year.

What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about? 
See answer above. I was sixteen when my high school librarian showed me poetry by way of writing. I was part of a small group of “honors” English students in a small upstate NY village public school (graduating class: 36 students). This teacher/librarian, Dorothy Irving had us read and write constantly and one day the writing assignment was to write a poem and that was it for me. I immediately knew/felt that language in poetry was “magical”—that it created reality instead of describing it (as language in prose tends to do). I needed that “magic” because the “real” world inside me was kind of nightmarish and intense and I couldn’t write about it in ordinary language—I needed the intensified language of poetry (and song) to express what I felt and knew.  Honestly, most of the poetry I read in high school English classes didn’t help me—I hated the way the poem became an excuse for questions that had “right” and “wrong” answers. I felt closer to the heart of what mattered to me when I heard the Beatle’s sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the only jukebox in town (Lawlor’s drug store, 1963). I think the process of introducing young people to the essential art and joy of poetry has gotten a thousand times better than when I was young (proof of that: the Dodge Poetry Festival).

Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
Yes. But the good news is: if I have written something, then I have already had the experience of sharing it with the page. The page “listened” to me and didn’t judge me. Maybe later, I’ll have the courage and/or opportunity to share what I’ve written with another person, but meanwhile, the page has heard me and so I’m already less alone. I knew early on that I would need to write about the traumatic deaths of my younger brother and my mother and that made me ashamed and scared, even though I knew I’d need to do so to survive. Poetry is there for people like I was: a place to bring your joy, sorrow, trauma, confusion. So it seems to me.


Gregory Orr is the author of eleven collections of poetry. His more recent volumes include The River Inside the RiverHow Beautiful The Beloved, and Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved. His most recent book, A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry, serves as an innovative and accessible guide in bringing the young poet toward a deeper understanding of how poetry can function in their life, while also introducing the art in an exciting new way. His memoir, The Blessing, was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the fifty best non-fiction books of 2002. Orr has received many awards and fellowships, including an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Rockefeller Fellowship at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence.

Posted in Ask A Poet, Poetry, Poetry 2018 Festival, Poetry Archives, Poets | Leave a comment

Sustainable Jersey: Starting with the lunch line, students push for sustainable solutions

Posted on by Sustainable Jersey


Raritan High School and Cape May City Elementary work to ditch plastic

Students across New Jersey are pushing for their schools to operate more sustainably, starting with the lunch line. Working with teachers and district staff, they are helping schools figure out how to compost food waste and get rid of single-use plastic products; ultimately, they want washable, reusable products in the cafeteria.

Lunch Trays, Water Bottles and Food Waste Composting at Raritan High School

Members of the Raritan High School Environmental Science Club and the Raritan High School Green Team spearheaded the switch from polystyrene (Styrofoam) trays for hot lunches to a fiber-based tray that can be recycled. This change will help reduce the amount of cafeteria waste sent to landfills.


Polystyrene trays are convenient, but they take up landfill space and are suspected of releasing carcinogens according to the federal government’s National Toxicology Program. Before making the case for switching, the students of the Raritan High School Environmental Club conducted research on alternative tray options that included the advantages and disadvantages of each option.

The students presented their findings to the club advisers and to the Raritan High School Science Supervisor, Michael Miller. Miller shared the information with the Hazlet Township Public School District Business Administrator, Christopher Mullins, who then contacted Maschio’s Food Service to give them permission to order fiber trays that are recyclable. The students in the environmental club helped to promote the change to the student body through the morning announcements.

To further reduce cafeteria waste, the Raritan High School Environmental Club, in cooperation with the cafeteria staff, installed composting bins in the Outdoor Environmental Learning Center. These are used to compost the food scraps generated from the cafeteria and the culinary arts classes. Every Friday, or the last day of the school week, students collect the food scraps from the cafeteria and culinary arts classroom and place the food scraps into the compost bins. The compost produced is used in the outdoor planting beds and greenhouse. The vegetables and spices grown in the beds and greenhouse are used in the culinary arts classes and cafeteria.

The school also took action to cut down on plastic use. Eight water bottle refilling stations were installed throughout the high school to encourage students and staff members to reduce waste from plastic water bottles. In the first four months, the students and staff saved approximately 8,400 plastic water bottles from entering the waste stream.


Hazlet Township Public School District Superintendent, Dr. Scott Ridley, added, “In any worthwhile venture, and this undertaking certainly qualifies, it is always a sound strategy to involve those who will eventually inherit their surroundings from the community where they live. Our green team is one such group of young people who are absolutely committed to making the planet ‘greener’ and a better place to live for all, as society continues to grapple with these environmental challenges.”

Currently, six schools in the Hazlet Township Public School District have achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification including Cove Road Elementary School, Lillian Drive Elementary School, Middle Road Elementary School, Raritan High School, Raritan Valley Elementary School and Sycamore Drive Early Childhood Learning Center.

Straws and Plastic Utensils at Cape May City Elementary School The Cape May City Elementary School Green Team spends a lot of time brainstorming about how the school can educate the community on, and support solutions to, the ocean plastics problem. In 2018, Earth Club member and Student Council Vice President, Theo Parker, set a goal to end the use of plastic utensils in the school lunches by proposing the return to silverware.

The Cape May City Elementary Green Team and Earth Club supported the initiative, securing administrative and cafeteria staff approval. By replacing disposable utensils, the school also eliminated additional costs associated with their handling — storage, unpacking, and disposal (after only twenty minutes of use). The Cape May City Elementary School Green Team includes members representing students, parents, teachers, support staff, the community, the Cape May City Education Association, the Board of Education, facilities management and administration. The Earth Club includes students from fourth through sixth grades.

In a collaborative effort using social media, school flyers and conventional media, the school received enough donated silverware to achieve Theo’s goal before he transferred from the school mid-year with his Coast Guard family. In the classroom, teachers focused lessons on reducing, recycling and the proper disposal of waste.

Sandy Sandmeyer-Bryan is an educator, mentor and leader in New Jersey’s environmental community. She wears many hats; she is the Program for Academic and Creative Enrichment (PACE) teacher, the literacy teacher and the library manager at Cape May City Elementary School, as well as the coordinator of the Cape May City Elementary School Green Team. Sandy said, “I see a big part of my job as opening

up doors for the kids to peak through. I show them the possibilities and provide opportunities, and they take it from there. I see students move from awareness to action all the time and it fuels my energy and gives me hope for a sustainable future.”

The Cape May City Elementary School sponsored an Ocean Festival at its annual STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) event. The green team hosted a booth with the focus on plastic reduction. In April 2018, Cape May City Elementary was the first school to host a showing of the movie “A Plastic Ocean” in partnership with the Surfrider Foundation-South Jersey Chapter. This year, the school continues to strive toward ending single-use plastics. With input from student representatives, the green team voted to end the use of all plastic straws for grades 3-6 (unless requested for special needs). The ban includes breakfast and lunch. Both Cape May City Elementary School and Cape May City have achieved silver-level certification in the Sustainable Jersey and Sustainable Jersey for Schools programs respectively.

Compostable trays and silverware are more environmentally-friendly options than Styrofoam trays and single-use plastic utensils. These schools that are working to become more sustainable are an inspiration to others. Over 55 percent of New Jersey public school districts are participating in Sustainable Jersey for Schools. From energy audits to integrating sustainability into student learning to boosting recycling efforts, over 3,900 sustainability actions were completed by schools and districts working to achieve certification in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program.

For more about Sustainable Jersey: Website  Facebook  Twitter   Instagram   LinkedIn

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Technical Assistance: Choosing to change board culture

Posted on by Laura Otten, Technical Assistance Faculty

The hands of two colleagues in a meeting at work by Gender Spectrum Collection

Diversity has been the talk of, and about, boards for a long time, albeit with more talk than action. Boards of nonprofits remain, according to BoardSource’s 2017 Leading with Intent:

  • Overwhelmingly white
  • Pretty evenly split between male and female, but with no ability to know about gender self-identification
  • Skewed to the 50 and older crowd.

On these overwhelmingly white boards, there is typically little information on indicators of privilege around the board table, or understanding of problem-solving strategies, or any of the other variables on which a board might need, and should want, to diversify.

The current expansion of the diversity push for predominantly white boards (although it often feels more like pulling and tugging boards, kicking and screaming) to address equity, diversity, and inclusion makes the achievement of the desired goal even more challenging for many boards, as these are terms that are associated with varied interpretations and a great lack of clarity.

Too often, however, these boards magnify the challenges inherent in adding anything “different” to a group by their own processes — or, rather, lack thereof. In adding “difference” to a group, we first must make sure that the group is ready, willing, and able to welcome that difference. We cannot simply sprinkle in a few variations and sit back and conduct business as usual. To do so is both a waste of time and an insult to those you bring on.  There is pre-work that must be done if you truly want to achieve the desired end and not just do it for show.

The first question that a board should ask is “Why? Why do we want to add difference to our mix? Why do we want to be inclusive?” These days, there seem to be two answers.

The first: We want to be able to check the right boxes on a grant proposal; in other words, we want to do this because a funder wants us to do it.

The second: We understand the value and importance of being both a diverse and inclusive board and organization, and understand that we, as the board, must model the desired and valued behavior of the organization.

Answer one is not a pathway to success. We have learned from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and other similar laws, as well as what the research shows, that attitudes and thinking cannot be legislated. Were that the case, we would not be where we are more than 50 years later. Legislation can mandate behavior change, but not a change in thinking, attitudes, and heart. Doing something just to try and make a funder happy, to look good in a funder’s eyes, will not change your organizational culture. And it is culture — the ways, beliefs, norms, etc. of a group — that needs to change if real progress is to be made.

Thus, it is only the second answer — we understand and value the importance of being a diverse and inclusive board and organization — that will lead to the eventual achievement of a diverse and inclusive board and organization. A board must have this conversation before any intentional efforts to diversify are made, unless it likes wasting its time.

After asking the first question, the most important question a board must ask, but only if it is willing to answer honestly, is the question that puts the rest of its work into play. That second question, phrased in different ways, is: Would these “different” people want to and be able to join our board?

  • Would they find our culture welcoming and open to the serious consideration of new and diverse ideas?
  • Have we created barriers for achieving diversity and inclusion, such as holding meetings at times challenging for parents of young children, or those who are classified as non-exempt and thus lacking flexibility in their work day, or those with disabilities and dependent upon others for transportation?
  • Do we have donation expectations that could immediately rule out some?
  • Are we accessible via public transportation? Is our meeting place ADA compliant?
  • How well do we use technology? Are we still dependent upon paper, or do we take advantage of virtual options, such as a password protected page for board members on our website, or the equivalent?  Do we offer virtual attendance at meetings?
  • Do we use a vocabulary of accessibility and inclusivity? Or do we use short cuts, like acronyms and vague language, in our communication or talk in our own short-hand because the board has been together so long?
  • Do we expect new board members to assimilate into the current board culture or are we open to learning from new ways of working and thinking? Are we recruiting for diversity and onboarding for sameness?

While it is essential that the full board sees the importance of, and is ready to embrace diversity and inclusion, there must also be a good number of people — and especially people in key leadership roles — who are intractable proponents of being a diverse and inclusive board and organization. It is essential that the board chair, chair of the governance committee, and the executive director see the need for diversity and have a sense of thoughtful urgency in its achievement and the tenacity to do the work that is necessary to get there.

But it is also necessary that these advocates, particularly the board chair, as well as the others involved, create a safe space for exploration, learning and acceptance of past mistakes as just that, as opposed to a space filled with finger pointing and vitriol.

The self-reflection and conversations that must happen are not easy ones to have in a public arena, such as a board meeting. Thus, if tensions and factions (even just dyads and triads) already exist around the board table, it is best to resolve those before moving into the diversity conversation.

One of the biggest and most unfair mistakes boards make when they move too quickly to try to diversify is when they bring on just one individual who is different — a “token.”

When that is done, we put on the shoulders of one individual the unfair burden and ignorant expectation that he/she should know of and speak on behalf of the entire group he/she is representing. There is an expanding body of research that reveals the stress and hardship this places on people brought into any group as a representative of diversity.

It has always been a best practice, and is common language in most bylaws, that new board members be brought on once a year, as a class. By bringing on a group of “different,” you are ensuring the empowerment of those individuals, providing them a group of immediate peers while they become integrated into the larger group, augmenting their new voice so it is not alone, but rather one of multiples, decreasing their feelings of being outsiders, and increasing the chances that these new board members will stick around to help move the organization forward.

Sadly, though, too many organizations ignore that bylaws dictate and the best practice, bringing new board members on as they are found. One of the great downsides to this is the failure to do comprehensive orientation of these new board members, as this takes planning, effort, and coordination, which we can muster once a year, but not constantly.  The downside to this approach to onboarding when you are seeking to move to a diversified and inclusive board is that it actually works against the intended goal and decreases the likelihood of success.

One of the first rules to the successful addition of any new board members is first to clean up the board culture — such as getting rid of “dead wood,” making sure the committees are all performing well and that board meetings are being used appropriately and engaging board members.

After all, you don’t want to expend the time finding the right and best board members only to have them learn bad behaviors of a unwelcoming board culture so that they feel uninvolved and unappreciated so that they leave. But if you want to bring on board members that will reflect the desired end goals of diversity and inclusion, you must do that work and the much heavier work of deep, honest reflection and, most likely, culture change.

To do otherwise will result in a revolving door for diverse board members and a remaining core of same ole, same ole.


Photo at top is courtesy the Gender Spectrum Collection

Posted in Board Leadership, Diversity, equity, inclusion, Nonprofit, Philanthropy, Technical Assistance | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What we’re learning: The question I wish I asked Ntozake Shange

Posted on by Sharnita Johnson, Dodge Foundation


Ntozake Shange, the legendary poet, playwright, dancer and feminist, died this past Oct. 27 in Bowie, Md at 70. A public memorial honoring Shange, Celebration of the Life and Work of Ntozake Shange, is today at The Public Theater in New York.

During the prior year, I shared a stage with and had the honor of interviewing Shange not once but three times at various venues in New Jersey, including at the 2017 Newark Arts Festival and the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, which was, as I understand it, her last known public interview.

For me, the opportunity to meet and be in conversation with Shange was both unique and unbelievable. Shange wrote my soul, hopes, and fears in her Obie Award-winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

I was in my early 20s and emerging as a young woman and professional, and tending to my first broken heart, when I discovered the choreopoem and the line, I found god in myself and I loved her fiercely.” Those words filled me, affirmed and even scared me. I remember promptly typing them onto my computer as a screen saver. Each time they scrolled across the monitor, the words seeped deeper and deeper into my consciousness.

I was starting to understand at some deep level that as a black person, and a woman, I would have to rely on my inner strength and summon sometimes enormous amounts of courage to get through the many challenges life had in store for me.

I was beginning my career in the nonprofit arts sector, yet to realize the significant impact Shange’s work had on the theater, arts, poetry, and feminist movement. I went on to learn about her many books, Betsey Brown, Liliane, and Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, and the numerous honors and awards she earned. She published her last book, Wild Beauty, in November of 2017, about a month after I first met her.

I checked in with her before each time I interviewed her to ask about topics she wanted to cover, poems she wanted to read, and what they meant to her. She was generous with her life and stories and talked admiringly of her daughter and granddaughter. She talked about overcoming the many physical challenges she endured as a result of several strokes she had over a decade ago, and how she had to use a typewriter because she couldn’t hold a pen or navigate a computer keyboard. She said she needed a mechanism to get a poem that had been making itself known out of her head and on paper.

When I asked if she thought she was born to be a poet, she said no, she thought she was born to be a dancer.

I was stunned to learn of her transition via an early morning call with her manager the morning after her death. I was shaken, and although I had known her for only a short time, I felt connected to her, and so lucky to have spent that space and time on this planet with such an icon.

She was fierce, always in bold red lipstick, and warm and accommodating to fans, friends and this random interviewer she happened to meet in New Jersey. When I posted the news of her death on Facebook, my friend Chad commented, “What do you wish you had asked her that you didn’t?”

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering that question since her death several months ago, and I now know what I would have asked her.

“Did you know your words set me free?”

Posted in Arts, Poetry, Poetry 2018 Festival, What We're Learning | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sustainable Jersey Celebrates 10-Year Anniversary

Posted on by Randall Solomon, Director, Sustainable Jersey


Decade of empowering communities to create a better tomorrow

Looking back to the launch of Sustainable Jersey in 2009, we can track some remarkable changes. Where once sustainability wasn’t present in the local conversation, now there are hundreds of new green teams created as formal bodies of local government and charged with driving change on these issues.


Collectively, these communities have implemented and documented over 9,000 discrete actions from our list of best practices. It’s amazing how far New Jersey has come and we’re proud of the role Sustainable Jersey has played in this movement.

Sustainable Jersey turns ten this year; our anniversary theme, “Celebrating Progress, Envisioning the Future,” is a recognition of past accomplishments and a renewal of our resolve to work with communities for a sustainable New Jersey.

Sustainable Jersey is Built on Partnerships

sjat10 1Our year-long celebration will highlight what is important to Sustainable Jersey —our partnerships. Sustainable Jersey’s success is shared; our strength comes from the dedicated and informed participants including mayors, municipal and school district staff, environmental commissions and green team members, together with state agency and non-profit employees, academics, funders, businesses and the interested public. We are thankful for our dedicated sponsors and funders. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation was the program’s first funder and continues to be a program underwriter 10 years later.

Partnerships are at the heart of our certification and grants programs. These opportunities to work toward a more sustainable tomorrow strengthens our communities and propels us all toward our potential–not as isolated individuals but as interdependent ones. In this way, our ability to work toward a more sustainable tomorrow is amplified exponentially.

We’ll engage in many activities this year to recognize all the relationships that have gone into making Sustainable Jersey a success and to ensure our success will continue to grow for many years to come. To create a vision for the future, we’ll conduct a listening tour, which will include online engagement and in-person events.

Sustainable Jersey has the opportunity to reach even more people in New Jersey. What matters most is what we do next. We recognize that we must continually evolve in order to achieve even greater impact. We will build on the foundation and accomplishments of the past ten years.

We’ve begun profiling the individuals and organizations who have been involved with Sustainable Jersey over the past 10 years. The first stories are starting to appear in our hero profiles, and you can read them by following the links below.


Making a measurable impact is important to us. It has been exciting to reflect on some of our accomplishments:

  • Sustainable Jersey has created over 150 best practices and performance standards for communities to move toward sustainability.
  • From the first forty municipalities that registered to become Sustainable Jersey certified in March 2009, to the 448 municipalities currently registered in 2019, Sustainable Jersey has inspired municipalities to complete thousands of sustainability actions. Eighty-nine percent of the New Jersey population now lives in a registered or certified Sustainable Jersey community.
  • The Sustainable Jersey Grants Program has grown from distributing the first $100,000 of grants in June 2009, to distributing over $4.9 million in grants to municipalities, schools and school districts over ten years for community-based projects that improve quality of life in New Jersey and help participants complete program actions for certification.
  • From the first four school districts to register for Sustainable Jersey for Schools in November 2014, to the 1,172 schools and school districts currently registered in 2019, Sustainable Jersey works to provide “a brighter future, one school at a time.”
  • Sustainable Jersey hosts an annual New Jersey Sustainability Summit and creates an annual Sustainable State of the State Report to provide a vision and baseline for New Jersey. It’s a report card on our progress.
  • Sustainable Jersey has been recognized internationally from Taiwan to South Korea; we’ve hosted delegations and travelled abroad to share the innovative Sustainable Jersey model.
  • Sustainable Jersey launched nine regional hubs. Working through collective action between municipalities, county agencies and nonprofit partners, the regional hubs have made significant progress on important issues.
  • Sustainable Jersey has received recognition throughout the years; awards include the Ashoka/Community Matters Changemakers Strong Communities Award (2010), U.S. EPA Environmental Quality Award (2011), Economic Development Association of New Jersey Sustainability Award (2012), New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association Leadership Award (2015), Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award (2017) and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Recycling Leader Award (2018).
  • Sustainable Jersey supports work at the national level. We hosted the first national convening of state sustainability programs and released the Statewide Change, One Community at a Time: A Comparative Study of Collaborative State-Local Sustainability Programs. With Sustainable Jersey’s guidance, three states have used the Sustainable Jersey model to launch programs: Maryland, Connecticut and New York.
  • Sustainable Jersey developed Gold Star Standards in Energy and Waste that provide a roadmap of the specific actions and levels of performance that municipalities can, and must, achieve to reach the goals for a sustainable New Jersey. Woodbridge Township is the first to achieve the Gold Star Standard in Energy. 

For more about Sustainable Jersey: Website  Facebook  Twitter   Instagram   LinkedIn


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Sustainability in Action: Taking out the trash at the Dodge Poetry Festival

Posted on by Naeema Campbell

Clean Water Fund’s Rethink Disposable Green Team leads zero-waste effort at Dodge Poetry Festival

Have you ever hosted an event or meeting and were left with overflowing trash bins at the end of day? Did you wonder how your event ended up with so much trash, paper, and plastic stuff to throw out in the first place?

To mark Earth Day, we are excited to share the story of how we helped reduce the amount of waste that our own large event produced. In a new video we are sharing today, we showcase what a zero-waste effort looks like in action and documents the steps we took.

Every other year, the Dodge Poetry Program hosts the country’s largest poetry festival, which draws more than 9,000 people to Newark over four days. When that many people come together, they have the potential to produce a lot of trash.

It takes a village


For the fourth time, Clean Water Fund, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the City of Newark, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Poetry Program teamed up to recycle and compost as much waste as possible from the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, held Oct. 18-21, 2018 at NJPAC and other venues in Newark.

We brought on Clean Water Fund as a partner to implement their ReThink Disposable program through their team of volunteers, whom we fondly refer to as the Festival Green Team. Our contract with them supported the coordination of the work over four days with paid staff and volunteers, training and supplies. Since we knew that the Festival would have a lot of visibility in the City of Newark, this was an ideal opportunity to connect the Foundation’s values of environmental stewardship to the city’s own sustainability goals.

The challenge is simple but by no means easy — reduce the use of plastic food packaging, coffee lids, straws, plastic bottles, hot cup sleeves, napkins, utensils, and other items that add up to a big problem not just for Newark, but the entire state of New Jersey.

As we have learned, plastic stays around for a very long time. One of the Foundation’s partners, NY/NJ Baykeeper estimates that at any moment, 165 million plastic bits are floating in New York Harbor alone. Additionally, Clean Water Fund’s study from 2011 estimates that 80 percent of ocean litter comes from land-based sources, and 67 percent of litter in our streets is comprised of plastic food and beverage packaging.

We realize that many people may not know that much of New Jersey’s trash ends up in Newark, at a waste-transfer station and incinerator that burns it, making the air and water less healthy for the residents that live nearby.

Our shared goal was to educate festival-goers, vendors, and NJPAC about the zero-waste practices that could decrease the amount of trash created while also increasing the collection of recyclable items and food waste for composting. Food waste recycling is especially important because it reduces methane — a greenhouse gas — production from landfills.

The approach: Reduce plastic from the start


Overall, we knew focusing our efforts on reducing the amount of plastic disposable packaging throughout Festival operations would give us a better chance of meeting our goals. Together with Clean Water Fund’s team and NJPAC operations, housekeeping, and catering teams, we devised a plan.

Clean Water Fund’s Green Team advised us not to use compostable cutlery because the composting facility we worked with doesn’t accept them. The better option from a waste perspective is to switch to washable and reusable forks, knives, spoons, and serving ware, whenever possible.

The Green Team worked with food truck vendors so they served in reusable food baskets lined with a single sheet of compostable paper instead of Styrofoam. Instead of stocking individual condiment packets, we created a station with bulk condiments and single-pull napkin dispensers. Inside NJPAC, catering spaces used washable plates and cutlery instead of disposables.

Also, we swapped out NJPAC’s regular trash containers to create zero-waste stations that attendees could bring their trash to and sort accordingly. The Green Team would then take all the separated trash, recyclables, and food to NJPAC’s loading dock to be sorted on last time, weighed and placed in their designated collection bins. The waste-sorting process used ensured little to no contamination of the compost.

Community Compost, a New York-based company, provided five collection bins to store food waste throughout the Festival, and picked them up to bring to their facility at the end of the four days. They also provided detailed posters featuring what items could be accepted and provided compostable bags that were appropriate for their compost facility.

The Poetry Festival organizers contributed to the effort by printing less paper programs and encouraging Festival goers to download their mobile phone app. The programs that were not used were recycled. Additionally, each Festival Poet received a refillable water bottle instead of a disposable bottle to use during their time at NJPAC. Also, the bookstore did not offer plastic bags to customers.


What we learned

  1. Small changes add up!

We collected 1,360 pounds of paper, 192 pounds of recyclable bottles and cans, and 857 pounds of trash, and composted more than 1,000 pounds of food.

Compared to the 2016 festival, we collected double the amount of paper and double the amount of food for composting. Although the amount of trash collected increased, it could be a result of better sorting efforts.

  1. Identify important partners and create a plan

We started meeting with the Poetry Program, NJPAC operations, housekeeping, and catering services and Clean Water Fund more than six months before the event to discuss and decide on what we would do and what kind of support we would need. In those meetings, we decided what kind of packaging to offer at the concession stands, how to handle the waste sorting, and when and how to train the kitchen staff in the recovery of food waste.

  1. Never go solo in the plaza, lobby, or kitchen

When trash and recycling receptacles were placed side by side, more recyclables were captured without a lot of sorting. When a Green Team volunteer was present to monitor and work one-on-one with each visitor, materials sorting was nearly perfect.

  1. Educate festival goers, staff, vendors and volunteers

Based on feedback from the previous festival, we created more communications materials to explain the zero-waste program. We created a colorful program insert, added information in the mobile phone app and regularly shared information through the Poetry Festival’s social media channels and mainstage. Additionally, the Green Team provided on the spot trainings to all Festival volunteers, NJPAC kitchen and operations staff, and food truck vendors.

Overall, we set a we set a big goal and it seemed hard at first, but with the support of strong and willing partners like Clean Water Fund and NJPAC, we did it. By making small changes throughout the event, they added up to bigger impact.

We hope this information, video and the messages of Rethink Disposable reach far and wide to every festival producer hungry to apply their values related to sustainability to the way they run their event, at the end of the day.

I spearheaded the zero-waste effort at Dodge as the program associate of the Foundation’s Environment program.

We couldn’t have done this without the guidance and energy of Clean Water Fund’s Kim Gaddy, Amy Goldsmith, Jeanette Mitchell, Maura Toomey, and their whole team of volunteers. We are grateful to the staff at NJPAC for adapting to the new practices and all the behind the scenes work they did, including Chad Spies, Ginny Bowers Coleman, Jay Dority, as well as to Anthony Rosa of ISS, David Truesdale of Theater Square Events, and Erin McConnell, Jon Reininga and Margaret Titus, all of NICO.

We are grateful to Newark Sustainability Officer Nathaly Agosto Filion for sharing the city’s sustainability goals with us.

And we are so grateful for the support of Dodge team members, including Cynthia Evans, Martin Farawell, Ysabel Gonzalez, David Mayhew, Victoria Russell, Meghan Van Dyk, and Margaret Waldock for all they did to make this possible.

Our videographer, Nyier Abdou, went above and beyond in capturing this story.

Resources to help you make your next gathering a zero-waste event

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What your organization needs to become resilient

Posted on by Hilda Polanco


The term “financial resilience” has proliferated in the capacity-building community as a north star for nonprofit organizations. But how do you get resilient, especially when it comes to your finances?

Based on FMA’s 20 years of supporting small to mid-sized nonprofits around the country in financial management, I’m happy to tell you that it’s no quick fix that only the lucky discover. It turns out that financial resilience — the ability of an organization to address and survive financial adversity — grows out of an ongoing commitment expressed through an organization’s values, practices, and resources.


It Starts with Values

While it may be easier to point to necessary practices or resources, financial resilience actually starts with values.

Over and over, we have seen four values prove critical to an organization’s fiscal wellbeing:

First, a culture of inclusivity, in which financial data is shared with diverse stakeholders and not limited to the executive director and board. Inclusive organizations are generally stronger and more networked. They are not beholden to a single decision-maker, and they have institutionalized leadership across the organization.

Second, a penchant for continuous improvement around processes and systems. What financially resilient organizations understand intuitively is that operational improvements are not a one-time fix. The need to turn a critical eye to process and bring a standard of excellence to infrastructure is never-ending.

Third, an appetite for using data in making decisions. This can be a culture shift for many nonprofits, who are accustomed to relying on mission or gut and not hard data for key insights. While it’s true that data for data’s sake can be a waste of resources, trustworthy, accessible, and relevant data is a goldmine.

Fourth and finally, financially resilient organizations recognize that financial performance as well as the finance team itself are inextricably tied to their mission. The Finance department would have no reason to exist apart from the larger organization. Conversely, strong financial results make mission achievement possible. Resilient organizations consider the Finance team a core partner that helps them realize their missions, rather than a standalone transactional unit.

Practices for the Present and Future

Emerging from these four core values are, of course, the actual practices of financial management. At FMA, we categorize these practices among three key functions: planning, performance management, and operations.

Planning ranges from annual budgeting to multi-year projections that map numbers to the organization’s strategic priorities. Regardless of the timeframe, planning is about connecting program goals to resource decisions.

Performance management is about understanding the financial status of an organization and anticipating future needs. Often, this is relegated to budget-to-actuals monitoring, but financial performance management has the potential to be a much more dynamic endeavor that engages staff across teams, facilitating communication and guiding strategic decisions. Key performance metrics and dashboards can provide real-time information that allows for quick action, and the growing use of these types of tools is a promising trend toward resilience sector-wide.

Operations boils down to the fundamental building blocks of people, processes, and systems. For planning and performance management to happen, operations need to work. This means having the right skills and roles on the finance team, having efficient and effective workflows for core processes, and investing in appropriate systems and customizing them to the organization’s needs.

Resources: Financial and Human

When the values and practices are in place, we find that the resources follow. Leaders must understand and optimize their organization’s business model—that is, what drives revenue and expenses and how their nonprofit creates impact. Having a sustainable business model means resources are used in alignment with mission goals and that revenues reliably cover the full cost of operations.

Do you have sufficient financial resources to ensure resilience? Yes, of course, it means having enough revenue to reliably cover core operating expenses, but if resilience is the goal, “sufficient” must include resources to build and sustain a financial reserve as well.  Many nonprofits stop at a balanced budget, yet aiming for an annual surplus is the key to building this capital. We call it “capital for change and security,” as it buffers the organization against future uncertainty and allows investments in growth and change.

Values, practices, and resources are the keys to financial resilience, but, in the end, every organization needs one particular kind of resource to thrive: people.  People hold those values, implement and maintain those practices, and put those financial resources into action.  And, in our experience, a well-balanced leadership team can set the tone from the top, modeling a collaborative and data-informed decision-making process to deliberately set the cultural norms that support the three key elements of financial resilience.

For more learning on the topic of financial resilience, please check out the webinar recordings of Achieving Financial Resilience: Part 1 and Part 2 presented by Hilda Polanco.


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Sustainable Jersey: Dying trees get new life as vibrant public art

Posted on by Sustainable Jersey


Highland Park High School students lead movement to repurpose twin Oak trees

Two magnificent oak trees that had stood on the front lawn of Highland Park High School for at least 80 years were cut down because of disease on December 27, 2017. The Highland Park High School staff, administration, and the Environmental Club wanted to preserve the memory of these noble trees and sustainably repurpose their wood.

Working together, the high school’s environmental club and the administration created a plan to honor the trees. The goal was to salvage the wood and memorialize the two tree stumps as artistic carvings of the school’s mascot–the owl. The group reached out to the Highland Park community and local artists for help.


The high school partnered with Nature’s Fell, a local mill that specializes in repurposing fallen trees into wood products. The owner, Scott Alexander, worked with the high school to design the project elements. The mill made cutting boards, candle-holders and dimensional lumber from the wood.

Through a GoFundMe campaign started by the Environmental Club, these items were offered in exchange for donations along with the opportunity to be listed on a plaque made of the oak wood that is now proudly displayed in the school foyer. In less than a year, the campaign raised almost $8,500. The funds were sufficient to pay for the salvage operation as well as the carvings.  Additional funds were raised from alumni to replant trees on the school’s property.

Using a cross section of one of the historic oaks, the mill also created a giant table and a miniature owl sculpture that are now located in the school’s library. Every day, students work at the beautiful oak table, which is a piece of art in its own right.

Part of the money was used to commission a Pennsylvanian artist to fashion the remaining trunks into two giant owls that stand outside of the school doors. The owl carvings were designed and carved by Joe King, who has nearly thirty years of experience making unique carvings from trees.  The new owls are in place on the front lawn, watching over the high school students.


Well-known for her commitment to sustainability, Sophia McDermott-Hughes, a senior, is president of the Highland Park High School Environmental Club and a student representative of Sustainable Highland Park, the municipal green team. McDermott said, “It was really incredible for us to see a problem in our school and community, come up with a solution and work to see it come to fruition. Going to school every day, we see the owls outside, a visible reminder of the work we did that will still be there years after we’ve left the school.” She added, “I think most young environmentalists don’t feel like they have agency over their school community, but this project goes to show that, with determination and hard work, young people can be sustainability leaders and make a difference.”

This inspiring project that combined creativity, sustainability and community is a perfect example of the tremendous impact that Sustainable Jersey green teams are having on the local level. Highland Park Borough has an active municipal and school district green team. The municipal green team, Sustainable Highland Park, has achieved Sustainable Jersey certification at the silver-level for Highland Park Borough and all four of the schools (Bartle Elementary, Irving Primary School, Highland Park Middle School and Highland Park High School) in the Highland Park School District are certified with Sustainable Jersey for Schools.

For more about Sustainable Jersey: Website  Facebook  Twitter   Instagram   LinkedIn


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Poetry & Democracy in New Jersey

Posted on by Victoria Russell
Dodge Poetry Festival 2018 698 Dodge Poetry Festival Newark, New Jersey 10/18-21, 2018 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.net

© T Charles Erickson Photography

We’re just about one week away from our upcoming event—“What Is It, Then, Between Us?”: Poetry & Democracy, happening on March 23 from 1:00-8:00 p.m. in our neighborhood of Morristown, New Jersey.

We’ve got some more information about the amazing poets, conversations and organizations who will be leading a variety of interactive sessions next Saturday. To register, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the link!

Below is the full schedule of events and short bios of the poets and special guests who will be leading conversations and giving performances.

Please note that space is limited. Register today and arrive early to secure your spot! 

12:00-1 pm: Check-in

Sessions from 1:00-2:30 pm: 

Ain’t I a Child?: A Conversation on Juvenile Justice (Reading & Conversation with New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and Reginald Dwayne Betts)

The Unseen: Democracy and the Working Poor (Reading & Conversation with Jan Beatty, Catherine Doty and Joe Weil)

Poetry & Pride: LGBTQ Rights (Reading & Conversation with Janet Aalfs, Rigoberto Gonzalez and Rachel Wiley)

The Stakes of Erasure (Writing Activity with Cortney Lamar Charleston)

Sessions from 3:00-4:30 pm

Crossing Borders: Immigrant Stories, Immigrant Rights (Reading & Conversation with Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center and Rigoberto Gonzalez)

The Skin You’re Living In (Reading & Conversation with Reginald Dwayne Betts, Cortney Lamar Charleston and khalil murrell)

A Bridge Across Fear: When Poets Work Toward Change (Reading & Conversation with Janet Aalfs, Jan Beatty, Joe Weil and Rachel Wiley)

Class Dismissed (Writing Activity with Catherine Doty)

6:30-8:00 pm 

In Praise: A Hundred Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Earth (Celebration, Reading & Music Performance with Janet Aalfs, Jan Beatty, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Catherine Doty, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Joe Weil, Rachel Wiley and musicians the Parkington Sisters)

Dodge Poetry Festival 2018 238 Dodge Poetry Festival Newark, New Jersey 10/18-21, 2018 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.net

© T Charles Erickson Photography


JANET E. AALFS poet laureate of Northampton, MA (2003-2005), 7th degree black belt, and master Taiji/Qigong instructor, has been sharing her poetic movement weavings locally, nationally, and internationally for 40 years. Founder and director of Lotus Peace Arts at Valley Women’s Martial Arts, a non-profit school since 1977, she is dedicated to helping create sites for revelation. Recipient of the 2013 Leadership and Advocacy in the Arts Award(UMass/CWC), and prizes for her poetry, Janet practices everyday peace-building through arts activism. She has been a Dodge Festival Poet, a cultural exchange teaching artist in Cape Town, South Africa, and presenter/performer at numerous events and conferences. Her poetry is widely published in journals, anthologies, and online. Her books include Bird of a Thousand Eyes (Levellers Press), Reach (Perugia Press), and several chapbooks including Of Angels and Survivors (Two Herons Press) and Full Open (Orogeny Press).

JAN BEATTY’s fifth book, Jackknife: New and Collected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press) won the 2018 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her book, The Switching/Yard, was named by Library Journal as one of …30 New Books That Will Help You Rediscover Poetry. The Huffington Post named her one of ten women writers for “required reading.” Books include Red Sugar, Boneshaker, and Mad River (Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize). Beatty worked as a waitress, welfare caseworker, and a social worker and teacher in maximum-security prisons. She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University, Madwomen in the Attic Workshops, and co-directs the MFA program.

REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS is a husband and father of two sons. A poet and memoirist, he is the author of three books. The recently published Bastards of the Reagan Era, the 2010 NAACP Image Award winning memoir, A Question of Freedom, and, the poetry collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm. Dwayne is currently enrolled in the PhD in Law Program at the Yale Law School. He has earned a J.D. from the Yale Law School, an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College’s M.F.A. Program for Writers, and a B.A. from the University of Maryland.

CORTNEY LAMAR CHARLESTON’s debut collection, Telepathologies, was selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, he also won a Pushcart Prize, was a two-time finalist for The Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize and received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, New England Review, Granta, The Nation and many other publications. A poetry editor at The Rumpus and member of the Alice James Books editorial board, Charleston is originally from Chicagoland and now resides in Jersey City, New Jersey.

CATHERINE DOTY is the author of Momentum, a volume of poems from CavanKerry Press, and Just Kidding, a collection of cartoons published by Avocet Press. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, among them Garrison Keillor’s More Good Poems for Hard Times and Billy Collins’s 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day. She is the recipient of a Marjorie J Wilson Award, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and fellowships from The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Ms Doty has worked as a visiting artist for the Frost Place, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the New York Public Library, and many other organizations.

RIGOBERTO GONZALEZ is the author of 17 books, including five books of poetry. The recipient of NEA, Guggenheim, NYFA, and US Artist fellowships, he is professor of English and director of the MFA program in Creating Writing at Rutgers-Newark.

JOE WEIL is an associate professor in the creative writing department at Binghamton University. For many years, he was active in New Jersey as a host of reading series at both Baron Art Center in Woodbridge and the Sumei Multidisciplinary Art Center in Newark. Weil worked with the Geraldine. R. Dodge Poetry program as a Poet in the Schools and Festival Poet, as well as in the Paterson school system and as an instructor for Arts High School in Middlesex County. He now makes his home in Binghamton, New York with his wife, poet Emily Vogel, and his two children, Gabriel and Clare. His most recent books are A Night In Duluth (2016) and The Great Grandmother Light (2013).

RACHEL WILEY is a queer, biracial poet and performer from Columbus, Ohio where she somehow holds down a rather boring day job. She is an ardent and intersectional feminist and a fat positive activist. Rachel is a fellow and faculty member of the Pink Door Writing Retreat held each year in Rochester, New York for women and nonbinary writers of color. She has toured nationally performing at slam venues, colleges, and festivals. Her work has appeared on Upworthy, The Huffington Post, The Militant Baker, Everyday Feminism and PBS News Hour. Her first poetry collection, Fat Girl Finishing School, was published in 2014 by Timber Mouse Publishing. Her second collection, Nothing is Okay, was published in March 2018 by Button Poetry and spent some time as Amazon’s #1 Gay & Lesbian Poetry Collection.

The mission of the NEW JERSEY INSTITUTE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE is to empower urban residents to realize and achieve their full potential. Established in 1999 by Alan V. and Amy Lowenstein, the Institute’s dynamic and independent advocacy is aimed at toppling load-bearing walls of structural inequality to create just, vibrant, and healthy urban communities. The Institute employs a broad range of advocacy tools to advance their ambitious urban agenda, including research, analysis and writing, public education, grassroots organizing, communications, the development of pilot programs, legislative strategies, and litigation. Using a holistic approach to addressing the unique and critical issues facing New Jersey’s urban communities, the Institute advocates for systematic reform that is at once transformative, achievable in the state, and replicable in communities across the nation.

WIND OF THE SPIRIT is a faith-based organization for all immigrants and non-immigrants who are moved by the tradition of hospitality. Wind of the Spirit strives to create an environment free of discrimination and, at its core, is motivated to act by the challenges that immigrants in the United States continue to face. Wind of the Spirit works with immigrant communities to ensure their access to information that will strengthen their leadership abilities and will also allow them to realize their power as social and political actors. Wind of the Spirit currently supports communities in Morristown, Dover, Madison, the city of Orange, Wharton, East Orange, Moonachie, Ridgefield Park, and New Brunswick, in addition to advocacy on the state and federal levels. On the state level, Wind of the Spirit is a core member of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice and also forms part of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Alianza Americas, an international organization fighting for the well-being of immigrants across the Americas.

Sessions will be held at the Mayo Performing Arts Centerthe Morristown & Morris Township LibrarySt. Peter’s Episcopal Church and Church of the Redeemer.

Register today!

Posted in equity, Morristown, News & Announcements, Poetry, Poetry Coalition | Leave a comment

Janet Aalfs on Poetry & Democracy

Posted on by Victoria Russell

Leading up to our “What Is It, Then, Between Us?”: Poetry & Democracy event in Morristown on March 23, 2019, we’ll be sharing blog posts with some of the poets and organizations who will be part of the day.

Today, we’re sharing a reflection on Poetry & Democracy written by poet Janet Aalfs.

Janet Aalfs 200 x 200In democracy’s terrain, where each citizen counts and is accountable to each and every other citizen, poetry that is brave and honest invites us to listen more deeply with our whole selves. Shifting is what we notice; it’s what energy does. Lucille Clifton‘s “I Am Not Done Yet” reminds us that we are individual and collective works-in-progress: “a changed changer/ i continue to continue/ where i have been/ most of my lives is/ where i’m going.” Poetry, from poiein, to make. One deeper breath, one truer word, one kinder step, one more generous action at a time, and barriers become less dense. Hope, then, is between us.

I am inspired by countless poets whose voices carry the powers of breath, bone, muscle, blood, the full range of senses. Enheduanna, the first known author in the world, inscribed her living words in clay tablets 4300 years ago: “You have hung them over your fingers,/ You have gathered the many powers, You have clasped them now/ Like necklaces onto your breast.” That I am able to feel her spirit these many centuries later encourages me in the belief that what one human body creates can make a lasting difference, and that the energy we each generate day by day matters to the entire web: past, present, and future.

In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in the same stanza as the title phrase, Whitman asserts, “That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.” When I was in my late teens, and coming out as a lesbian, Audre Lorde inspired me in the art of moving through fear. I believed her words, on the page and in person, with every fiber of my being, “So it is better to speak/ remembering/ we were never meant to survive.” After a reading she gave in the late 1970’s, I had the opportunity to thank her, and to hear from her in response, “Not only can you do this work – you must.” Catalyst and catapult, the energy that she directed through her full-bodied language, voice and arms uplifting, thrives in my cells.

Another salient moment and turning point for me as a young adult was when I shared with Adrienne Rich that hearing her poems made me want to run home and write. The generosity in her response, “that is the greatest compliment one poet can give to another,” is for me what constitutes the foundation of democracy – reciprocity in all dimensions. In The Dream of a Common Language, Rich reminds us that it is possible to keep honing our skills of discernment and protection when freedom is threatened in any way: “in these hands/ I could trust the world, or in many hands like these/…such hands might carry out an unavoidable violence/ with such restraint, with such a grasp/ of the range and limits of violence/ that violence ever after would be obsolete.”

Calling on our potential to continue evolving, in How We Became Human Joy Harjo invokes: “Remember the earth/ whose skin you are:/ …Remember all is in motion,/ is growing, is you.// Remember that language comes from this.” However, we are vulnerable to forgetting, and to being silenced by force. Fear, then, is between us. Our differences become walls without doors, chasms without bridges, words without roots. These stuck places of pain, when we pay attention, can provide important information about what and how we need to change. Poems encourage us to take notice. Rumi, for one, keeps calling us to action: “There is no companion but love,/ No starting, or finishing, yet, a road./ The Friend calls from there:/ Why do you hesitate when lives are in danger!”

Poems that face and move through fear, mysterious at the heart and welcoming from every angle, transform suffering into healing. These poems converse across perceived barriers of time, space, and identity. They interrupt cultural assumptions and stereotypes. They expose and work to dismantle the odious constructions of patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism. They ask difficult and necessary questions, layer after layer, incisive and expansive. Quest, a journey, + ion, energy. A poem-question offers sustenance for the challenge of each step.

One poetic movement meditation that I enjoy sharing, Triple Ripple, is useful in supporting people to engage regardless of opinions and beliefs. This activity uses a simple rocking motion, sitting or standing, three expanding circles with the hands, and these call-and-response lines: “This fear I face/ Is a deeper breath I take/ Is the courage I share.” In creating sites for revelation, healing, and cultural exchange, a friend and colleague, Ingrid Askew, who is African American, and I, descended from European immigrants, made a version that expresses Ubuntu. This universal principle from southern Africa clarifies humanity’s essence, and gives us the heart of what democracy needs: “I am because you are/ You are because I am/ We are all connected through spirit. Ubuntu.”

The poetry that most moves and informs me imagines a world in which we recognize, as in Cheryl Savageau‘s Dirt Road Home: “Everything is a gift,/ there is no such thing as necessity./ Even the air we breathe, the sunlight,/ this mysterious music of breath and heartbeat.” Gratitude, then, is between us. Unconditional positive regard arises from spirit confidence – no place for shaming, blaming, undermining, destroying. Courage – couer, core, corazón, kokoro – in any language, heart. Like Mary Oliver‘s “wild geese, harsh and exciting –/ over and over announcing their place/ in the family of things,” real democracy affirms that we are all made of each other.  Sun-Buer, a 12th century Taoist poet and Immortal Sister has said it this way: “Before our body existed/ One energy was already there.”

The following poem I’ve woven from core strands of three movement languages that I practice and teach – Taiji/Qigong, Okinawan karate, and Filipino stick arts – beckons me onward: “Follow the natural/ Flow, that which comes from within,/ As the lotus flowering rises through mud/ Of the river pool into sun,/ Vast, vast, vast is Divine Wisdom.” In brilliant paradox, democracy both celebrates and transcends differences to nourish the whole. This one sky we share supports and sustains every celestial body, infinite in scope and variation, in constant motion guiding. One earth. One dark and light. One moment. This, between us.

–Janet Aalfs

Posted in Poetry, Poetry Archives, Poetry Coalition, Poets, Tidbits | Leave a comment

Gallery at 14 Maple: Seeing the Unseen explores our shared humanity

Posted on by Courtesy of Morris Arts


Morris Arts invites the public to attend the reception and opening of seeing the unseen, a new Gallery at 14 Maple exhibit featuring works depicting people and aspects of our world that sometimes seem “invisible” in our society, on Thursday, March 14 at its offices in Morristown.

The reception for the exhibit is 6 to 8 p.m. on the 3rd Floor of the LEED certified building and is free and open to all.

The Exhibition Committee of Morris Arts and guest curator Greg Leshé selected works created by 10 outstanding artists. It includes painting, mixed media, photography, sculpture, collage, and digital art.

Top to bottom: Ed Kashi’s portrait of Ahmed, an African torture victim and U.S. detainee before being granted asylum; Jeffrey Campbell’s digital composite/found photography, Here Be Dragons; Nyugen Smith’s  mixed media and collage on paper, Bundlehouse: Like oil + water; Detail from Hanna von Goeler’s multimedia work, Hung Out to Dry: From Riches to Rags and Rags to Riches; Tian Hui’s  acrylic and oil on canvas, Friedrich Hayek.

The exhibit features works by distinguished artists, many of whom have also had careers as curators, documentary photojournalists, and artists deeply concerned by injustice.

The 10 artists featured in this exhibit are: Jeffrey Campbell of Wanaque, Patricia Cazorla of New York, Angeles Cossio of Jersey City, Hanna von Goeler of Montclair, Grace Graupe-Pillard of Keyport, Tian Hui of South Orange, Ed Kashi of Montclair, Nancy Saleme of New York, Nyugen Smith of Jersey City, and Wendel White of Galloway. Each artist brings a unique perspective to the theme of seeing the unseen.

Top to bottom: Wendel White’s Woman’s Hood NJ WKKK, Southern New Jersey Cultural Organization, Cape May, NJ; Grace Graupe-Pillard’s oil, Dadaab Camp/Kenya; Patricia Cazorla and Nancy Saleme’s charcoal pencil, ink marker, liquid silver leaf and acrylic on wood, The Garden of Opportunities, little boy; Angeles Cossio’s styrofoam, coffee cups sculpture, Conglomerate.

“Within the show’s compass I regard the artwork as the beacon, the lighthouse, the signaler-object of the unseen, transmitting a critical light, projecting warning rays while asserting and proclaiming what’s out there that we can’t or choose not to see,” said Guest Curator Greg Leshé about the exhibit. “These forces and realities pose a danger to an individual, a community, an environment, an ethnic group, a nation – and, if ignored or left untended, will imperil some level of our collective humanity.”

Through these artists’ eyes, we visualize the beauty and poignancy of migrant farm workers, people who survived extended detention, political imprisonment, or torture as well as tangible emblems of racism, environmental degradation, and, ultimately, our shared humanity. It is at once an exhibit of great beauty and profound awareness — making the viewer mindful of the truly important and fundamental matters in our world.

Additionally, at the opening reception, the winners of the Ehlers and Coladarci Arts Scholarships will be introduced and recognized for their achievements.

Posted in Arts, Gallery at 14 Maple, Morristown, News & Announcements | Tagged | Leave a comment

The story behind the new Atlantic City Community Fund

Posted on by Elizabeth Murphy, Creative New Jersey

By the people

Atlantic City residents, nonprofits, and community organizations are invited to apply to the Atlantic City Community Fund for grants supporting work that enhances the quality of life in the city.

The Board of Advisors to the Atlantic City Community Fund last month announced the new opportunity to organize and mobilize their city’s capacity and resources to advance causes identified by and for the residents of Atlantic City after fundraising $30,000.


The announcement was the public launch of the Atlantic City Community Fund, an initiative with roots in Creative New Jersey’s Call to Collaboration held in Atlantic City in 2015.

At that community gathering, more than 145 people, including nonprofit stakeholders, community activists and neighborhood ward leaders, business owners, higher education professionals, corporate personnel, and others dedicated two full days to deliberate about the future of Atlantic City. The convening inspired creative-thinking, cross-initiative and cross-sector collaboration, and sparked the question among Creative New Jersey partners, “Could we create a new philanthropic fund, led by the people of Atlantic City for the betterment of the people of Atlantic City?”

AC Question

In the months following, and inspired by the tremendous commitment of the people of Atlantic City, Creative New Jersey assembled a small group of residents around the idea of creating a community fund.

Through ongoing dialogue, we affirmed that the people who live and work in this city — those whose families have been there for generations as well as new residents who now call Atlantic City their home — have a wealth of knowledge about their neighborhoods and understand the challenges facing residents and local business owners. Therefore, we knew that any community fund we might launch had to be designed and led by Atlantic City’s people.

Our goals were to harness the power of local philanthropy, build community leaders, and fuel community-based initiatives that leverage sustainable change at the neighborhood level in Atlantic City.

Month after month, we met at the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University to begin building the structure of the new Atlantic City Community Fund. We affirmed the mission, we passionately discussed the kinds of impact we want the fund to have, and we developed a process for identifying, cultivating, nominating and stewarding a board of advisors to lead the fund.

Fueled by the values of transparency, inclusion, and equity, the working group in 2017 welcomed applications from individuals interested in serving on the board of advisors. The nomination process continued for nearly a year, and the working group reviewed more than 80 applications and conducted dozens of interviews.

From the earliest conversations, we knew we wanted the majority of individuals on the board to be residents of Atlantic City, and all members had to either live and/or work in Atlantic City. This was so important to our working group that the Atlantic City Community Fund by-laws state that 70 percent of board members must be Atlantic City residents.

In 2018, this inaugural board of advisors took the helm and began developing the guidelines and process by which the Atlantic City Community Fund will conduct its grantmaking.

The board has also set an initial goal of raising $1 million so that the Atlantic City Community Fund can be a sustainable source of funds for community organizations and projects for many years to come.

With seed funding of $30,000 from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Community Foundation of South Jersey, we are very excited the fund is currently accepting its first round of grant applications for general operating and project support for activities within Atlantic City that improve the conditions and quality of life for all who live, work and play in Atlantic City. The Fund is a component fund of the Community Foundation of South Jersey.

The partnership with Community Foundation of South Jersey allows the Atlantic City Community Fund to benefit from the organizational structure and grantmaking expertise of a community foundation. I cannot overstate how appreciative we are to the Dodge and Community Foundation of South Jersey for making this early investment.

Grant guidelines and application instructions can be found at ACCommunityFund.org/apply and the deadline for submitting an application is April 1.

The Atlantic City Community Fund is driven by Atlantic City residents committed to transparency, and comprised of community, organization, and business leaders focused on Atlantic City. I believe this kind of board is the board of the future.

Atlantic City Community Fund Board of Advisors (left to right) seated: Sheila Hull-Freeman, Joyce Hagen, Tina Watson; standing: Libbie Wills, Evan Sanchez, James M. Rutala, Maharshi Patel, Benjamin Zeltner, Esq. (not pictured: Derek K. Cason)

Atlantic City Community Fund Board of Advisors (left to right) seated: Sheila Hull-Freeman, Joyce Hagen, Tina Watson; standing: Libbie Wills, Evan Sanchez, James M. Rutala, Maharshi Patel, Benjamin Zeltner, Esq. (not pictured: Derek K. Cason)

The board of advisors includes:

  • Evan Sanchez, Board of Advisors’ President (Cofounder, Authentic City Partners & Hayday Coffee)
  • Benjamin Zeltner, Esq., Board Vice President/Secretary (Partner, Levine Staller)
  • Derek K. Cason (Educator, Dr. MLK School Complex, Atlantic City Public Schools)
  • Fernando Fernandez (Social Worker, The Salvation Army and Rotary Club of Atlantic City)
  • Joyce Hagen (Executive Director, Atlantic City Arts Foundation)
  • Sheila Hull-Freeman (President, Bungalow Park Civic Association)
  • Maharshi Patel (Member, AC Economic Development Advisory Commission)
  • James M. Rutala (President, Rutala Associates, LLC)
  • Tina Watson (Educator, Venice Park School, Atlantic City)
  • Libbie Wills (President, First Ward Civic Association)

I am honored to serve as an ex-officio member.

It has been my great pleasure to have worked on the development and launch of the Atlantic City Community Fund. Our inclusive, methodical, patient and equitable process went against the grain of today’s zeitgeist. Society’s insatiable appetite for immediate results steers us away from taking the long view.

Our nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are determined to solve the biggest problems, but systemic change takes time. Working inclusively takes time. Reaching and involving people who traditionally have not been invited to take a leadership role in their city takes time.

Our willingness to take the time has now birthed a fund created BY the people of Atlantic City, FOR the people of Atlantic City, with board members who are comprised OF the people of Atlantic City.

The Atlantic City Community Fund Board of Advisors will lead this critical effort. Their passion for the city is evident in the work they have all been doing in Atlantic City for many years and reinforced by their commitment to fund community-driven projects in a city they call home.

We all hope that Atlantic City’s corporate and philanthropic leaders will join in support of this innovative community-led Fund so that this work can thrive for generations to come.

CNJElizabeth A. Murphy is the Founding Director of Creative New Jersey. She is a recognized strategist and facilitator and regularly consults with other nonprofit and philanthropic organizations through her consulting firm, The Murphy Group, Inc.

Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, collaboration and inclusion by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.

Posted in Creative NJ, Creativity, equity, inclusion, Philanthropy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Joe Weil on Poetry & Democracy

Posted on by Victoria Russell

Leading up to our “What Is It, Then, Between Us?”: Poetry & Democracy event in Morristown on March 23, 2019, we’ll be sharing Q&As with some of the poets and organizations who will be part of the day. 

Today, we’re chatting with Joe Weil

Joe Weil 200 x 200How does the title “What Is It, then, Between Us?: Poetry and Democracy” resonate with you?

I like the complexity of “between us.” The expression implies that we might share something, but that there is also this separation, this space that makes each of us confront how we will enter and define what is shared and respect what is separate. This can’t be negotiated without a great deal of uncertainty and conflict. People are afraid of uncertainty, terrified of conflict, but don’t always realize a lot of their violence and failure to achieve democracy comes not from uncertainty or conflict but from doubling down on all sorts of cheap certainties and avoiding anything but their cherished comfort zones. Poetry and democracy call me to be consciously and willingly uncomfortable—to live in that space as an aesthetic and moral decision. Poetry and democracy also insist I confront the truth that many citizens have been forced to be uncomfortable all the days of their lives beyond any real choice in the matter. They don’t get to sit at the table and wax eloquent about their discomfort. They are the table rather than being invited to the table.

What many folks call trauma, is the normal pattern of the working poor from whom I came. What does my trauma consciousness do both to join and separate me from democracy and how can both the points of meeting and the points of convergence bear fruit? How can my trauma be more than a threat to democracy and contribute to it?  Have I ever lived in a democracy? Is it like Agamben’s other— another in infinite regress, while I keep moving towards? How does the body of the marginalized, the oppressed, the unseen, the mentally ill, the non-human (for humanity is a conferred privilege bestowed by power) become those who sit at the table, who truly enter the discourse? Who gets to really speak and be heard, and not just “represented” by the “best and brightest?” Who gets to be told, perhaps for the first time: “Your words are not intrinsically wrong. Your being is not a mistake.”

How can poetry start engaging conversations among people with differing views?

Simplest answer is I don’t know. Each poem might be Jacob wrestling with the angel of that question and there might be someone out there who doesn’t like my analogy of Jacob and angels. I don’t even know if that’s the right question. If I say I want to respect your right to have a different view than me, if I pretend my poems are variations on a theme by Voltaire, I best be practical about that: how far does your differing view go towards erasing me, marginalizing me, excluding me, incarcerating me, ignoring me, making me a figure of ridicule or allowing you to feel superior to me, and how far does my view maybe do the same thing to you? I mean in a bar, or at a family gathering, I might have no problem with a good argument, but when one side is able to control the discourse, or run the cops and the jails, and I am not even considered to have spoken even when I am screaming at the top of my lungs, (and you may even censor my cry of pain as a mere rant), well then I might have to say to you: “Enough already. Your view is killing me.”  That’s also democracy.

Maybe the question can be: how can poetry start making us realize all views fortified by purity and righteousness are potentially murderous, and that doesn’t mean we should stop having views, but we ought to always know that this is a possibility before we put words to paper. Perhaps poems can approach uttering as one might an animal we know has been tortured and hurt: carefully, respecting that animal’s ability to kill us, but also feeling the legitimacy of its fear, its rage. And maybe, the poem of someone who has been hated or marginalized can’t share the same poetics as the poems of someone who has been reasonably comfortable. Maybe my hydrangea bush isn’t the same as yours. Maybe your hydrangea is an opportunity for Zen silence and contemplation. Maybe mine is a place to hide from the cops, and while I’m hiding, a part of me notices how blue the flowers are, and how they reflect in the river and I grow sad at the same time I am terrified because wouldn’t it be nice to just sit here for a while and look at the hydrangeas with all sorts of deep thoughts instead of hiding from the cops?

I know we like to think we all share the same level of suffering. We enforce aesthetics we think are universal, but that’s kind of dangerous… Perspectives are by incongruity.  This isn’t empathy so much as carefulness that approaches a possibility for empathy. A friend of mine went to Monk’s funeral. All these famous jazz musicians were there, and he got excited when he saw Miles Davis so he went up to Miles Davis and said: “Mr. Davis can I have your autograph? Miles Davis said: “Man…this is a funeral.” My friend said: “I’m so sorry Mr. Davis.” And Miles Davis replied: “Don’t be sorry; be careful.”

Poems can negotiate being careful, but they can’t be safe. There’s no need to be careful when you’re safe, is there?  Safe people aren’t careful. They get to act like they own the joint. Care is respecting that things are tentative, and you don’t own them.  No poet owns the language. Hell, a poet doesn’t even own the poem they write. True carefulness is knowing it’s a matter of life and death that you show respect where it is due and disrespect where it is necessary. If I can’t speak to you, and if I can’t listen to you, we might both die. If the one who is having a sublime experience of the hydrangea doesn’t at least try to understand the one who is hiding from the cops, we may as well give up. Maybe a good poet can bring each of those readers into the same room, because when you look at a hydrangea, that’s a sort of reading, isn’t it? Maybe a poet needs enough care to at least want to have different readers come to the hydrangea and get something out of it—even a reader the poet might not be consciously inviting. I doubt Wallace Stevens was waiting with bated breath for me to come along and read him.

What are some of your favorite poems or who are some of your favorite poets that engage with poetry and democracy?

My favorite poems change over the years. Recently Wanda Coleman’s “Wanda, Why Aint you Dead” is a favorite because I think it beautifully expresses how people’s expectations and assumptions and judgments are, in some respects, always attempting to murder us  or silence us and then they are amazed when we aren’t  dead. It’s funny, it has a great sense of voice and humor, but it is accurate, too, especially about what it means to be othered.

There’s a poem by Muriel Rukeyser I read in a Longman Anthology many years ago and I loved it. I want to mention this because I can’t remember its title and that means it’s like someone I saw and fell in love with who vanished in the mist. I almost don’t want to remember its title… A sister is cutting her brother’s hair at the kitchen table. It’s during the Great Depression and she’s calmly telling him he’ll get a job today, but you know she and he realize it’s a lie. The lie is a form of love between them and it blew me away because Rukeyser caught something for me of what it means to wager love against futility.

Poems for me are not always on the page, so my grandmother saying: “Never marry a short man; they’re a bag full of cats,” is a poem. My daughter Clare, who is autistic and largely non-verbal, looking out the window and saying, “ I see the night,” is a poem. I love Whitman’s Sixth part from Song of Myself, but it’s dangerous to think “I receive them the same” is necessarily hopeful. It could just as well be interpreted as, “the only time people are allowed to be equal and things are democratic is when everyone is buried”—and that may be true. We at least have to entertain the possibility that it may be true.

To me all these poets, including my daughter, are engaging with democracy. If I remember my daughter’s voice, which shocked and moved me with so much emotion in the middle of my ignoring the dusk, and if I remember how much I loved her, and how much of a momentary but true poem her speaking was for me, maybe I won’t be as big a jerk as I was before and that has to help democracy, doesn’t it?

What does democracy mean to you?

It means a ferocious longing to be allowed to fully participate in what I feel is just and for the good of myself and for the other. Robert Hayden in his poem “Frederick Douglass” saw the promise of democracy as “where none is lonely, none hunted, alien.”

I have a student right now whose brother is being deported. He’s been in America since he was two, but undocumented through no fault of his own. He had some trouble with drugs like a lot of our teenagers and, let’s face it, he’s been here since two, so to me, that means we formed him. Of course, they invoked the more than two-hundred-year-old immigration act about good moral character, which I could maybe see if the kid came here as a teenager or grown up, but he came here at two. Our society created him, not Argentina. His “character” is native to this soil. How the hell can we deport him? It is such garbage to me.

Lonely is a strange term, I guess, to pair up with democracy but I think the lack of freedom and the lack of being allowed to enter into the workings of freedom does make us feel exactly that: lonely—cut off from both others and from our own full humanity. That kid shouldn’t be deported. He should be offered rehab. My student shouldn’t have to apologize to me for missing a few poetry assignments. She was so kind, so apologetic when she came to my office. I hadn’t asked her for the make-up work. I don’t want her heart to be broken. Damn. She’s living one of our worst and most disgraceful poems.

Democracy to me is measured by how we practice the laws of Xenia: How we treat the stranger. I think we’re getting a big fat F. If this is making America great again, it’s the fake greatness of the Cyclops: a grotesque, devouring and feeble giant who is blind even before it is blinded.

Posted in Poetry, Poetry Archives, Poetry Coalition, Poets, Tidbits | Leave a comment

Poetry & Democracy

Posted on by Dodge Poetry Staff

We’re so excited to announce our free, public event coming up on Saturday, March 23 in Morristown: What Is It, Then, Between Us?: Poetry & Democracy.

Each March, every member organization of the national Poetry Coalition offers programming related to a shared theme of social importance. In 2017, it was migration; it 2018, it was the body. This year, it’s democracy.

Dodge Poetry’s contribution to this national project is a free, public event we’ll be hosting in our neighborhood of Morristown, New Jersey on Saturday, March 23 2019 from 1:00-8:30 p.m.

This event will feature poetry readings, conversations, q&a, panel talks, performances and writing activities led by poets including:

Janet Aalfs • Jan BeattyReginald Dwayne BettsCortney Lamar CharlestonCatherine DotyRigoberto González • Joe WeilRachel Wiley 

We’ll also be joined by speakers from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and musicians the Parkington Sisters.

Dodge Poetry Festival 2018 698 Dodge Poetry Festival Newark, New Jersey 10/18-21, 2018 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.net

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson
© T Charles Erickson Photography

Afternoon sessions will take place from 1:00-2:30 pm and 3:00-4:30 pm at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, the Morristown & Morris Township Library, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and Church of the Redeemer.

These sessions will include:

  • several poets reading poems & joining in conversation with participants
  • conversations and panel talks
  • writing activities

The subjects we’ll be exploring together include youth incarceration and voting rights for previously incarcerated citizens; LGBTQ rights; the lives of the working poor; and more.

Dodge Poetry Festival 2018 689 Dodge Poetry Festival Newark, New Jersey 10/18-21, 2018 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.net

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson
© T Charles Erickson Photography

The evening’s music and poetry performance, “In Praise: a Thousand Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Earth,” will celebrate gratitude across boundaries of race, creed, sexual orientation, ethnicity and gender and will feature music by the Parkington Sisters.

You can register for the afternoon sessions only, the evening event only, or both!

Register here

If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to reach out to us at poetryprogram@grdodge.org

Posted in Poetry, Poetry Archives, Poets, Tidbits | Leave a comment

What we’re learning: We all have a Freddie Mercury moment inside

Posted on by Sharnita Johnson, Arts Program Director

Like many fans of the band Queen, I anxiously awaited the release of the film Bohemian Rhapsody. It chronicles the band’s rise to super star status, and spotlights Freddie Mercury, its flamboyant lead vocalist. My co-worker and I snapped up the last two tickets for a show on opening night in November. The theater was so crowded we couldn’t even find seat together.

freddie-mercury-71848_640Unlike many critics, I loved the film. The music was amazing, the costumes sublime, and don’t get me started on the re-creation of the iconic Live Aid performance, but what stayed with me the most was Rami Malek’s performance as Mercury. He nailed it. He embodied Mercury’s style, gyrated, and floated across the stage and pulled off a dizzying array of 70’s and 80’s fashion with comfort and flair.

I enjoyed the movie so much I went on a one-woman campaign encouraging everyone I knew to see it. I also became a forensic Malek fan. That is, I had been totally unaware of the actor prior to seeing the film, so I began a Google research marathon, looking up his filmography, magazine articles, and watching old interviews on YouTube. I uncovered a hefty list of bit parts, voiceovers, and small, but meaty roles in several gritty, war-time films. No shade to Malek, but his television and film resume was relatively thin prior to his role in the USA Network’s  Mr. Robot, and now Bohemian Rhapsody.

I became confusingly intrigued by the actor. I thought, “I’m way too old to be crushing on a movie star.” I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something thoughtful and quirky about the actor that I found interesting. Watching him on interview shows, he was a great storyteller and a quick wit. Of Egyptian heritage, I appreciated that he proudly considered himself a person of color.

At some point, I was again sharing my enthusiasm for the film and Malek with someone, and I explained that nothing in the actor’s past work definitively added up to his ability to play the Mercury role so convincingly. He was often cast as a very young, oddball characters with little depth, but in interviews he had a presence. He never reflected on the bit parts, or lame roles with embarrassment or a diminished view. He seemed more confident than the roles warranted, but not arrogant.



I read that even before he was officially cast as Freddie Mercury, he traveled to London to begin movement, piano, and dialect coaching that he paid for himself. It was as if he somehow knew he was taking on one of the most important roles of his career. And it paid off, Malek has won all the best actor awards that often signal a possible Oscar win (Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA, Critics Choice).

Malek has come to represent something more than a great performance in a fun movie to me.

Malek reminded me that we are all working toward the things that we are created to do – a breakout performance in a blockbuster film, a dream job, a great relationship. The thing that will push us, scare us, and bring out our best. We must invest in ourselves, practice patience, continue to prepare, believe that sometimes our big break happens much later in life than we thought we’d peak (Malek is 37), and even when our past doesn’t seem to add up to a spectacular future, don’t give up.

I’ll be parked in front of the television on Oscar night rooting for Malek because if the same guy that started out with only three lines on the Gilmore Girls wins the trophy, I am convinced, we all have a Freddie Mercury moment inside.


Sharnita Johnson is the Arts program director at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.


Posted in Arts, Diversity | Tagged , | 1 Comment
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