Joanna Herman, Teacher, Volunteer

Joanna Herman is a retired professor and education activist who has worked and volunteered in a variety of Civil Rights campaigns.

 Interviewed by Erin McNally

I was born in Waterbury Connecticut in the late 1940s to a working-class Italian family. Hard-working and loving parents as they were, my family was the sign of times, racist and close minded. It was not until high school until I got a close glimpse of just how racist my community was.

My sister started working at a summer camp in the ghetto. I listened to her stories of the fun at the camp and all of the activities there. There was one story that changed the course of my life forever: There was a group of African American girls that participated in a dance competition. She told me of their ability and rhythm that was unmatched by the other groups. Solemnly, my sister ended the story that she knew that the group would never win, because of the color of their skin. As it brought tears to my eyes, I knew that I had to do something about this in my life. I made the decision then and there that I had to do something more.

Fast forward years later, and at Boston University, a solution presented itself. It took the form of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the 1960s in one of the most urban places in the country. Being at BU during this time, the Civil Rights Movement was a piece of theater in our hands, having us be part of history because that’s just what you did. There was something in the air then and Boston brought me into the larger world. While attending university, I served as an au pair for a local family. The father was a minister at the local colleges, such as Harvard and MIT. He was also a huge Civil Rights activist and the family home served as a meeting place for activist leaders. They taught me what it meant to be American and how to make it out in the world. College served as the catalyst into my political activism and married both my work and activism into a single outlet.

I came to New York after college to pursue a career in teaching, with my own activist ambition in the back of my mind. I started at a Day Care center in the Bronx and library in Harlem, where I found a connection between activism and my work. After some time there, I started a job at a private elementary school in Manhattan where I furthered my ambition by taking classes out of the classroom, pursuing a policy of finding connections between coursework and real-life education.

I then started working at City College, which I called my home for over 40 years. There, I taught basic writing courses when a lot of my students were under-educated and from under-resourced communities. At City College, there was a large international population, where students had come from Pakistan, parts of Africa and so many other disenfranchised countries. These students were also most likely undocumented and marginal in American society. I found it my duty to service these kids as they had gone to such great lengths to not only come to America, but to further their education and become active members of society. One of the students literally stored himself in a checked suitcase, traveling from a country in Africa to come to the States. For these students, they came from more

traditional cultures and there was so much at stake for them to even seek to educate themselves. These were the students that worked the hardest. There was also a large population of African American students from poor public high schools. I knew that some of these students were never going to make it due to their lack of formal education. Even though I was teaching a basic writing course, many of these students did not know how to write even a standard paper. The only way they were going to make it was through heart. And I would match that heart every step of the way. I gave blood to nourish those students willing to put the work in. On the flip side, if these students’ hearts were not in it or school was not their priority, then I was not going to put the effort in.

There is one student that stays with me to this day. Yim For was student from a refugee camp in Southeast Asia, where his father and brother were killed. After coming to America, he joined a gang in the Bronx, the Kingsbridge Gang. He struggled in my class and I had a lot of difficulty with him as my student. But I just knew by instinct that there was so much more that he could give and called him out on his BS. He then revealed his struggles and difficulties being in the States of finding himself as well as his identity and all of the baggage that he was carrying from his home country.

After working at City College, I began working at the Center for Worker Education, which was structured for working adults to achieve a higher education, with classes taking place in the evening and on weekends. The majority of my students were minority females from about 20 to 25 years old with a mixed student population. By this, I mean that there was about half that wanted to just slide by to get a degree and the other half that were sincere in their pursuit for higher education. A lot of these women, although sincere in their goals, just didn’t know academic work. They didn’t know how to write an academic paper, use critical analysis and accurately structure a coherent argument. I told them to read anything that they could get their hands on. Funny enough, I found the New Yorker to be a great tool. And then they become readers, which ultimately led them to become writers.

Turning away from basic writing courses, I wanted to pursue a new direction, one in which I was actually interested – creative writing. Going back to City College, I became a graduate creative writing professor. I found this to be the height of my political activism as I discovered that trouble affects all classes. Again, the majority of my students were minority women that sought to put their heart and soul into their work. My standard for who to focus on and who to put in effort to make better students were those that were there in good faith. There is one instance where we did a lesson on children’s books and I remember these women making the most beautiful, fascinating and substantial children’s books. It reminded me of why I do this work, that these women have lives and families and everything to lose; yet, they still come and try their hardest to find a better life for themselves and their families.

I then retired, with my husband, to Morningside Heights. Built in 1957, Morningside Heights is an old leftie community that sought to stop Harlem from coming down Broadway. It is a totally integrated community with working class and professional families, graduate students, and a diverse resident demographic. Although I retired from my career, I still had a fire of political activism in me and I looked for my next project. After the Syrian refugee crisis and the current Presidential administration, I wanted to become involved with the immigration crisis. There then began a group of us in the apartment complex that sought to sponsor and give refuge to an immigrant family. Through the guidance of the International Rescue Committee, the five of us began making accommodation for the refugee family but the community board shut us down soon after. We then started a petition to go to the neighboring institutions, as Morningside Heights is close to Columbia University as well as other universities. That Halloween, another resident, Elizabeth Horowitz, and I sat in the building’s lobby, exchanging one piece of candy for one minute of resident’s time. We gathered 401 signatures in this initiative.

After going to neighboring institutions, we found a friend with Union Theological who said that we could house the family from August 1 to May 31. The family moved in on August 1. There is Binta, a 42 year old mother of two, Mpiana who is 11 years old and Jayden who is only two and half years old. I felt an instant connection to the family and did everything I could to help the family out the best I could. Unable to give the family any money directly, people in Morningside Heights also opened their hearts and donated what they could to the new New York City residents, such as laptop computers, linens, dishware, winter clothing and so much more. I remember an instance where I found out that one of my neighbors was selling a beautiful antique desk and I thought Mpiana would love it. Although I was not supposed to buy something for the family directly, I thought Screw it. After I handed the woman the check for the desk, we began chatting and I told her that I was buying the desk for the new refugee family. The woman immediately grabbed back her check, exclaiming that she wanted to initially give the desk to the family but did not know who to contact or where exactly they lived. She insisted that I not pay for the desk, as if I had a choice.
Some ask me why I do this work. My initial thought is because I like a project and I thought, Ok, let’s do this. But there is more to this. Immigration is one the greatest crises in today’s geopolitical climate and although one family is nothing, it’s something. I wanted to become involved locally, face-to-face with a family and found this to be a doable task in this pursuit. Thus, although I had retired from my day job in which I combined my work and political activism into one pursuit, I still found a way to make a difference in my community and the change the lives of a mother and her two children forever. It’s nothing but it’s something.

These interviews were by Fordham University students in Prof. Chris Rhomberg’s Fall, 2018 Urban Poverty class on behalf of Labor Arts and the National Writers United Service Organization. More at Laborarts.org

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