My newly-hired teaching teammate Christin and I had traveled to South Africa with the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and its South African Initiative. It was 2004, 10 years since that country held its first democratic elections and the formal end to apartheid. When Rutgers offered this opportunity via the GSE newsletter, I jumped on it.
We had been studying the American civil rights movement in eighth grade book clubs. Earlier that year, I had taken our students to a performance of Sharon Katz and the Peace Train; it had galvanized me to learn more. My students felt the same. Christin had been to South Africa and was eager to return. I wrote a grant to a local foundation promising an eighth grade project with community involvement to secure funding, and I got it.
I often tell my students that writing has power. Writing was my ticket to South Africa—not once, but twice. It was when I returned from my first trip though that that intrepid act changed everything. I learned that Linda Biehl, the mother of Amy Biehl, was visiting New York City fundraising for the Biehl Foundation.
We had learned Amy’s story while we were in South Africa and had briefly visited the Foundation. She had been killed in the last violent days before the first election, dragged from her vehicle, stabbed and stoned. She had been naive perhaps but innocent, there working to assist South Africans in their fight to end apartheid. She had intended to fly home to the US the next day to begin graduate work at Rutgers.
In her stead her parents embraced Amy’s passion for a better world, forgave her killers through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and engaged tirelessly in the transformation their daughter had envisioned. We wanted to involve our students in this cause and foster awareness of the common struggle for human and civil rights across the globe.
You can read more about Amy and the Foundation and its current work here. In 2004, however, Linda was instrumental in the Foundation and meeting her personally was unlikely; she was extremely busy. When I learned that she would be in New York, I wrote her an email introducing myself and explaining our mission. For whatever reason, she agreed to meet with us for an hour on Sunday morning, 10 a.m.
Meeting her changed everything for us. We now had a personal relationship to underpin our commitment, to sustain us whenever fundraising enthusiasm flagged, either our students’ or ours. We maintained our connection throughout our years-long involvement with the Foundation, raising substantial support to pay for children to attend school and after-school programs in Cape Town.
All because of a few well-chosen words.
(Thanks to the ISOLATION JOURNALS for this invitation to write. If you need a place for inspiration, please check it out.)