Archive for the ‘Ethical Culture Fieldston School’ Category

Founder’s Day, May 4, 2012 – Dr. John Lovejoy Elliott, A Neighbor to All

May 4, 2012


Good morning and welcome to our shared home here in the auditorium of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

Since this is Founder’s Day, and Dr. Felix Adler’s portrait is on display, I’m guessing that you all know him, right? How many of you know something about his good friend, Dr. John Lovejoy Elliott?

Some people who knew them said that Dr. Adler was the head of the Ethical Movement, because he was always thinking and writing about how we should live, and that Dr. Elliott was its heart, because he was a good neighbor and believed that was the best thing you could be.

Dr. Elliott was born in 1868 on a farm in Illinois and raised by his father Isaac, who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and his mother Elizabeth, whose childhood home was a station on the Underground Railroad, a safe place where slaves could fine food and shelter on their journey to freedom. His family was neither rich nor poor; their farm provided them with plenty to eat and enough to sell so they could buy books to read. He thought that everyone lived the way they did until one day a neighbor knocked on their kitchen door begging for food. She had several children, and couldn’t feed them. She was crying, and young John was frightened, so he hid in the hallway. He came out when he heard his mother comforting the woman, giving her food, and inviting her to come back.

Many years later Dr. Elliott said, “The Guild began in me then.” What he meant was the Hudson Guild, a settlement house he founded in 1895 that is still active in Chelsea today. Of course, before he could do that, he had to meet Dr. Adler, which he did in 1889 when he was a student at Cornell University and heard him talk about “a new profession, one that endeavors to teach people how to live.” That summer the student John attended the Summer School of Ethics in Plymouth, MA, where he met Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, and soon he was on his way to Germany to study for his doctorate.

When John became Dr. Elliott and an Ethical Culture Leader, he moved into a rented room in Chelsea, one of the worst slums in the city at that time, and began his lifelong experiment with “neighborliness.” He started by renting a place for a gang of boys called the Hurley Burlies to hang out. They were a rough bunch who got into all kinds of trouble, and their parents didn’t know what to do with them. But Dr. Elliott saw the good in them and created conditions under which they could make their lives better. Soon there were clubs for girls, too, as well as their parents, who started the first neighborhood council in the country. Hudson Guild started the first all-day summer play school in the city and one of the first mental health clinics.

Some of those Hurly Burly boys kept getting into trouble and landed in prison, so Dr. Elliott wrote to them, visited them, and when they got out of prison, he found them jobs and places to live. As one of his friends said, “His heart ached most and he worked hardest for those boys and girls who had become lost in the mazes of life in our city and had become its victims. They, whom society found it convenient to disown, to punish and then forget, were his children.”

I’m telling you this story to let you know how Dr. John Lovejoy Elliott continues to inspire me and the members of the New York Society for Ethical Culture today. We honor his memory by supporting the Hudson Guild and continuing his work in prison reform, especially helping children who are arrested. Now that the secure facilities in upstate New York are being closed, and incarcerated children are returning home, there is much work for us to do to be good neighbors to their families and create environments in which they can learn and grow. We hope that you and your families will join us.

In 1942, Dr. Elliott caught pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. During his illness, flowers came to him from the First Lady of the White House and the cleaning woman of Hudson Guild. His last words were dictated to a nurse. He signed the page on which she wrote and asked her to give it to his friend Dr. David Beck. Here they are: “The only things I have found in life worth living for and working for and dying for are love and friendship.”

And now it is my great privilege to congratulate the Class of 2012. May you, too, always be good neighbors.

Founder’s Day May 2010 – “Justice for Juveniles”

May 17, 2011

Good morning and welcome to our shared home here in the auditorium of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Today we commemorate and celebrate our history. An Ethical Movement, begun in 1876 by Felix Adler, gathered to it women and men of conscience who understood that different religious beliefs could pull people apart, but that concerted ethical action could bring them together. What became their “ultimate concern” (in the language of theologian Paul Tillich) was finding ways to make the world a safer, healthier, and more loving place to live for themselves, their families and communities, and for many generations to come. They put their faith in the human capacity for goodness.

This school was one of several institutions founded by members of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It began as a Workingman’s School with the understanding that everyone deserved an education. The excellent education offered here attracted families from across the city. Indeed, word of the “learning by doing” educational philosophy of the Ethical Culture School reached across the country and drew John Dewey, a philosopher from the University of Chicago and a friend of Ethical Culturist Jane Addams of Hull House renown, to New York City to enroll his children here. Dewey is best known as the Father of Pragmatism. The goal of education for him was to prepare us to become activist citizens in a thriving democracy.

Now why am I telling you about John Dewey? Because he was a philosopher of the people, and his classroom was not only in the university but also in the streets. He understood, as the founders of this school did, that education is never private – to benefit oneself alone; it is always public – to benefit everyone in society.

How many of you have heard of Lewis Hine? He taught photography at the Ethical Culture School for many years, and spent his vacations working with Ethical Culture members who founded the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Its goal was to take children out of the mills and the fields, the sweat shops and the mines into safe, healthy environments where they could grow up learning. His cameras were not the size of the ones that many of you have in your cell phones. They were huge and weighed a lot. It wasn’t easy sneaking them into the places where children worked so that the Committee could publish the photographs he took and bring this social injustice to the public eye. Lewis Hine risked his life on many occasions.

Child labor ended in the United States, but it continues in many parts of the world: the topic for another talk. Today, right here in New York City and State, one of the greatest challenges we face is reforming the Juvenile Justice system that incarcerates more than 1,600 children – the overwhelming majority of color and from under-privileged families – in facilities, often far away from their homes, at a cost of $240,000 per child per year. At the same time, funds that could put these children into alternative education programs are being slashed. This is a social injustice that members of the New York Society are addressing. On April 24, we held a conference of concerned organizations and individuals demanding immediate changes in the government agencies charged with caring for children in trouble. We will hold a follow-up conference here on July 21 to promote an activist agenda.

Ethical Culture Fieldston School was never meant to be a learning community for only its students and families; it always had a mission to reach out to society and challenge its injustices, especially when they impact children. Let us work together again to right this wrong. Join us back here on July 21 and contact me to learn more about our activities.

And now, let us look to the future and congratulate the Class of 2010!

Founder’s Day May 2011 – “Children Leading the Way”

May 17, 2011

Good morning! I always enjoy welcoming you on Founder’s Day here in the Meeting House of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It is an occasion to recognize our shared history and ethical aspirations.

After bringing families together to start this Society in 1876, Dr. Felix Adler wanted to establish free kindergartens so that the young children of poor working parents could spend time away from the crowded tenements where they lived and get a better start in life. The Workingman’s School, started in 1878, eventually grew into an eight-grade elementary school and then a high school dedicated to progressive education that combined theory with practice. So successful was Dr. Adler’s plan that members of the Society enrolled their children, too, and it became the Ethical Culture School, bringing together students from different backgrounds who would develop important and lasting relationships. They would realize our founder’s lifelong commitment to social reform.

Over the years our two institutions – the Ethical Culture Society and the Ethical Culture School – have grown apart, something that can happen when people are busy doing important work, and today most of our members enroll their children in public schools. They come here to participate in our ethics program, and I want to tell you about two of their projects this year – one halfway around the world, the other just a couple of blocks away.

A few years ago, Andeisha Farid came here to tell us about the first parwarishga, or “foster haven,” she started to serve the needs of children in Kabul. She had grown up in war-torn Afghanistan and dreamed of helping orphans, victims of child labor and street children who were forced to beg, so she founded The Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO). That year our children held a fundraising dance to raise money to help her.

Every year Andeisha returns, and in March she brought three of her students with her. Together the children wrote a song, “Same Dream,” which they performed at an event to encourage families to sponsor students in six new orphanages and schools for 300 new girls and boys. The next Sunday Clara practically flew into her ethics class, excited about a skype conversation she had just had with a student her family sponsors.

In addition to helping out with our homeless women’s shelter downstairs in Social Hall, our teens volunteer at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church Shelter on Thursday evenings to cook a fresh, nutritious, and delicious dinner for the guests. They have a lot of fun cooking and serving the meal, and don’t even mind the cleaning, dishwashing and mopping that follows. Here’s what a couple of them told me:

“Going to the soup kitchen really opened my eyes and helped me appreciate what I have in my life. This group also helped me believe that people of different backgrounds can come together for a specific reason.” – Anabel Sosa

“My favorite experience was getting to meet Afghan orphans who were my age and learning about how they overcame their hardships. I think it’s important to learn about world issues so we can improve people’s lives, starting in our own community and working our way outward until we have a global impact on the world.” – Julia Cohen

“Helping out at the soup kitchen taught me how to have fun while doing something good for our society. This program has let me be someone who I truly am, and let me realize that I can do something good for our community one step at a time.” – Ali Riemer

Since the NY Society is a member of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, some of the teens will join me on June 1st for “Blessed Night Out,” an annual event when activists spend the night in City Hall Park to call attention to the needs of the homeless. This year we are especially concerned about the drastic cuts in state and city funding that will put more of our neighbors on the streets.

And now from all of our children to all of you, and on behalf of the members of the NY Society, I wish you a Happy Founder’s Day and congratulations to the Class of 2011!