Archive for March, 2019

Leader’s Message – “April Is National Poetry Month” – April 2019

March 21, 2019

My favorite month is here again – April, when, thanks to the Academy of American Poets, which founded National Poetry Month in 1996, we celebrate poets and poetry. I love poetry, as anyone who knows me knows. I begin and end almost every Sunday platform address I deliver with a poem, and a bag of poems hangs from my office door with an invitation to reach in and take out a handful. Poem in Your Pocket Day is on April 18, so be sure to stop by. On this day, the Academy suggests that you select a poem, carry it with you, and share it with others at schools, libraries, parks, workplaces, street corners, and on social media using the hashtag #pocketpoem. I learned about this practice from my children’s elementary school and remember them gleefully telling me, “You can even stop Principal Heaney in the hall and ask him to read you a poem!”


Here are some ideas from the Academy of how you can get involved:

  • Start a “poems for pockets” giveaway in your school, workplace, or apartment building
  • Urge local businesses to offer discounts for those carrying poems
  • Post pocket-sized poems in public places
  • Memorize a poem
  • Add a poem to your email footer
  • Post lines from your favorite poem on the social media of your choice
  • Send a poem to a friend


For some people, poetry is challenging, which is to say they just don’t like it or understand it, especially if it doesn’t rhyme. There is a fear of poetry that poet Jane Cooper suggests is “Because it demands full consciousness; it asks us to feel and it asks us to respond. Through poetry we are brought face to face with our world and we plunge deeply into ourselves, to a place where we sense, [as poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote] ‘the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and. . . understand. . . in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities.’”


In his essay, “How to Read a Poem,” Edward Hirsch writes “Reading poetry well is part attitude and part technique. Curiosity is a useful attitude, especially when it’s free of preconceived ideas about what poetry is or should be. Effective technique directs your curiosity into asking questions, drawing you into a conversation with the poem.” First, we look at the title, which may give us an image or association; then the shape of the poem, how long the lines are and how they are grouped. When we finally read the poem, word by word, Hirsch suggests we do so aloud. “Listen to your voice, to the sounds the words make.” Reading aloud can be uncomfortable because of the misconception that we should understand a poem after we first read it.


In his poem, “January Morning,” William Carlos Williams wrote a verse addressed to his wife:

All this—
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
but you got to try hard—

He speaks to the poet’s dependence upon his reader to enter the conversation and make a connection.

It is that connection that I find “spiritual.” Recently I met with a student at Columbia University where I serve as Humanist Religious Life Adviser. We were discussing different experiences of spirituality, and I heard myself telling him that, as much as I love walks in the park and listening to music, it is poetry that goes beyond the mundane for me, making it a transcendent experience.


Give it a try this month. Stop by my office and take home a handful of poems.





Leader’s Message – “ERA Now!” – March 2019

March 21, 2019

Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.


We women have been working for a long time to ratify this amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and we are running out of patience. Gaining suffrage in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment did not guarantee us equal rights. Nor did the 14th Amendment, although it has sometimes been used for that purpose. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reminded us of its inadequacy. We comprise the majority of the citizenry and still do not enjoy the full benefits of citizenship.


Alice Paul, a women’s rights activist with three law degrees, wrote the original amendment in 1923. It was introduced that year and reintroduced at every congressional session for half a century. She rewrote it in 1943 (per the above text) using the language of the 19th Amendment. This version passed the Senate and House of Representatives by the required two-thirds majority on March 22, 1972 and was sent to the states for ratification. When the extended deadline of June 30, 1982 expired, only 35 of the necessary 38 states had ratified the amendment.


The text of the traditional ERA bill in the House of Representatives was changed in 2014 to specifically name women in the first section and to add “and the several States” in the second section to affirm enforcement by both federal and state levels of government. In the current session of Congress, bills have been introduced to override any deadline and affirm ratification when 38 states have ratified. These are related to a non-traditional route called the “three-state strategy,” advanced since 1994.


Based on this strategy, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA in March 2017, and Illinois the 37th state in May 2018. One more state is needed. Only one.


Why do we need the ERA? Because without it in the U.S. Constitution, statutes and case law advancing women’s rights are vulnerable to being ignored, weakened or reversed. Congress, the Administration, and the Supreme Court can all permit sex discrimination, and they have. Without the ERA, the words engraved above the entrance to the Supreme Court, “Equal Justice Under Law,” ring hollow.


An historical irony is that our constitution, based upon the confederacy formed among the Haudenosaunee (also known as Iroquois) nations of what is now New York State and the Canadian province of Quebec, excluded women, who were the leaders of these Indigenous people. This exclusion was highlighted in the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY on July 19 and 20, 1848. Earlier that summer Lucretia Mott had witnessed women involved in decision-making as the Seneca nation reorganized its governmental structure. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage specifically described the rights accorded Haudenosaunee women as proof that the subordinate position of white women was neither natural nor divinely inspired.


According to a recent poll commissioned by the ERA Coalition, 94 percent of Americans support equal rights for women, with support among young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans as high as 99 percent. Alas, 80 percent mistakenly believe that the Constitution already guarantees us equal rights.


We, women and men, must support passage of the ERA. We can do that by targeting the states that have not yet ratified it. Only one more is needed. Visit the National Organization for Women website at to learn more and take action.


Leader’s Message – “Transformation, Not Reform: Learning from Black History” – February 2019

March 21, 2019

Last month I saw “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a film directed by Barry Jenkins based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same title. Published in 1974 and set during that time in New York City, it felt contemporary. A young Black man is framed by a white police officer for a crime he didn’t commit, spends time in jail while his family tries unsuccessfully to mount a defense, and finally accepts a plea bargain that commits him to years in prison. This 45-year old story is still today’s reality: an estimated 98 percent of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains; an unknown percentage of the incarcerated are innocent.


My companions were two dear friends: Lisa, the mother of my son’s elementary school friend, and Victoria, my daughter’s high school friend. We had all decided that we wanted to see the film, but not alone; we would be there for each other. I wept but my friends, having grown up Black in Boston and Brooklyn, did not. “That’s our life every day. We can’t afford to get emotional. We have to stay strong.”


Victoria drove home, and I walked with Lisa to her front door where over twenty years ago her son was stopped after school and accused by a phalanx of police officers of having stolen a car. “This was before I had given him ‘the talk’ that my brothers had at an earlier age,” she told me. “But I figured that he wouldn’t need it in this neighborhood.” (We both live in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Lisa’s family home in Boston was firebombed twice, and she and her siblings were often brutally harassed.) It wasn’t until a tenant in their building, a white woman, identified her son and challenged the police that he was released and allowed to go inside.


As we consider criminal justice reform, in light of the passage of the Bipartisan Revised First Step (Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person) Act of 2018 (S.3649) in late December, we need to take a close look at our history. This law targets federal prisons — which incarcerate more than 180,000 individuals — and would allocate more funding to anti-recidivism programs, make certain offenders eligible for early release, reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for some drug crimes and apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively. It also bans, under most circumstances, the shackling of pregnant inmates and mandates that individuals could not be incarcerated more than 500 miles away from their immediate families. Because most crimes are prosecuted locally, this law barely makes a dent in the country’s overall prison and jail population of almost 2.2 million, but it could help to set a standard. (By the way, the United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population and has 21% of the world’s prisoners.)


Elizabeth Hinton, author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, 2016) and one of the nation’s leading experts on the history of criminalization and mass incarceration, said in an interview: “Consistently, and across political and ideological lines, policymakers have been unwilling to disrupt the racial and class hierarchies that have defined the United States historically. The view of black poverty as the product of black cultural pathology—the guiding principle of domestic urban policy beginning in the 1960s—limited the War on Poverty’s possibilities. And throughout the 1970s, even when community-based law enforcement programs and alternatives to formal incarceration proved to not only be cost-effective, but to also respond to the problem of crime far more effectively than the dominant strategies policymakers embraced, officials cut these initiatives short or installed them in rural and suburban communities.”


The NAACP has documented the racial disparities in incarceration:

  • African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
  • The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
  • Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested,
    42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially
    waived to criminal court.
  • African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites.


Paul Butler, author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men (The New Press, 2018), wrote “Cops routinely hurt and humiliate black people because that is what they are paid to do. The police, as policy, treat African-Americans with contempt.” He agrees with Hinton that short-term reforms haven’t brought about long-term change and concludes that “In order to halt this wretched cycle, we must not think of reform — we must think of transformation. The United States of America must be disrupted, and made anew.”


The day after seeing the film, I read Baldwin’s novel. It is poignantly narrated by Tish who, in the opening pages, tells her boyfriend Fonny, who is in jail, that they are going to have a baby. “I’m glad,” she tells him. “Don’t you worry. I’m glad.” They are facing each other through a wall of glass and speaking through telephones. I was struck by her words in both the novel and the film: “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”


In this month designated as Black History Month, let us work to make sure that history does not again repeat itself, to think of transformation, and to keep people from looking at someone they love through glass.