Lehman Food Bank Expands from Energy Bars to Seven Tons of Food

By Leonel Henriquez

The Lehman College Food Bank opened in 2017. Photo courtesy of Lehman College.

“To be clear, this is Suzette’s baby,” says Assistant Director of Campus Life (CL) David Charcape of CL’s Associate Director Suzette Ramsundar. The program Ramsundar fostered is the Lehman Food Bank. “She has done a lot to make this program a success,” Charcape said.

As Ramsundar tells it, the idea came to her at work. Hungry students would stop by her office and ask if she had any snacks, especially in the afternoons and evenings. She started keeping energy bars and other snacks in the cubby above her desk to give to anyone who asked. From these seeds, the food bank was born.  

“The most difficult part was at the beginning,” Ramsundar says of the struggle to get the program up and running. “Getting funding and then actually purchasing food to give out. We would get goods from the N.Y. Food Bank, BJ’s, Cosco and even the Morton William’s supermarket on Kingsbridge when we ran out of stuff.” 

From left to right: Shovaine Singh, Student Coordinator for Lehman Food Bank; David Charcape, Assistant Director of Campus Life; Suzette Ramsundar, Associate Director of Campus Life and Coordinator of the H.H.L. Leadership Development Center; Lilian Yang, Graduate Assistant of the H.H.L. Leadership Development Center. Photo by Leonel Henriquez.

The food bank celebrated its one-year anniversary on March 29. It runs on a volunteer staff of three and is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in room 120 of the Student Life Building. It is only for students and currently serves about 40 appointments per week. 

“We serve students by appointment after they make one online at lehmanfoodbank.setmore.com” says senior  Shovaine V. Singh, the Food Bank Student Coordinator. “They schedule their own private fifteen-minute appointment. We want students to feel secure in a no-judgment zone.” 

Lehman alum Dr. Christopher Emdin says, “It is difficult for students to think about doing homework when they are hungry and concerned that they have little or no food at home.” This concern is double in the case of adult students at Lehman. 

“When you consider that adult students around age 27 have their own family and have to consider feeding their children as well, time at school means time not working,” says Singh. “So it creates a difficulty for students to study when they have this concern on their minds that they have hungry children at home.” 

The recent purchase of a refrigerator allows the pantry to expand beyond canned goods and dry items. It now keeps some perishables, as well as fruits and vegetables, most of which come from a partnership with Corbin Hills to supply fresh locally-grown produce. Lehman alum Carlos Ortiz, now with Goya, reached out and secured a pledge of a 14,000 pound food donation.

The food bank also provides recipes for the food items donated, as well as caloric information, nutritional value and portion size. It is also looking to hold culinary workshops. “We want every student who needs help to feel that they are welcome. Any student can get food, no questions asked,” says Ramsundar. “More importantly any one can donate as well and help a fellow student.” 

Long Way Down Tops Reading List

By Leonel Henriquez

Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds. Photo by Leonel Henriquez 

“Long Way Down,” a novel that examines life in urban areas from the perspective of William, a black teenage male, has soared to the top of the Young Adult Reader’s list. Released in October 2017, the novel is National Book Award Finalist and John Newbery Medal winner Jason Reynolds’ eighth book, and his fifth in the last three years.

It chronicles a day in the life of 15-year-old William the day after his older brother Shawn is shot and killed. William’s life is actually an allegory, representing lives broken in part by the ongoing cycle of a drug-driven neighborhood economy, gang affiliation, and gun violence that plagues many of the youth and minority communities in large urban centers like Newark, Philadelphia, New York City, and Detroit. 

Several things make the novel unique. It is written entirely in verse as a lyrical tale similar to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The author also engages the reader by using anagrams and words to create shapes, at one point covering a page with a question mark.

The author’s uncomplicated language and its creative presentation illuminate how the parameters of the character’s world are detailed by the rules of the disenfranchised drug- and violence-riddled neighborhood. For example:

1. Crying. Don’t. No matter what. Don’t.

2. Snitching. Don’t. No matter what, Don’t.

3. Revenge. If someone you love gets killed, find the person who killed them and kill them.

The heart of the story is how William encounters the ghosts of others in his life that were also shot to death, including three family members, his father, his uncle Buck, and his brother, along with William’s friend Dani. 

One thing the book emphasizes most is how the rules of life depend on the environment in which people live. William faces a choice between living by the rules or recognizing that he could do his small part in breaking the cycle of gun violence that engulfs the neighborhood and its residents. The ambiguous ending leaves the reader wondering what happens next, and which would be the correct course of action if they were in his shoes.

This book is more than just about the rules. It also explores the variables that allow the continuum of violence from generation to generation. Beyond that it is about the heart and soul of a brother-to-brother relationship, the agony shared by their family and community as a result of violence and the questions of what to do next in the face of pain and adversity. Overall this novel should be considered a must read for readers of all ages.  

Ghost of Hamlet Rocks Lehman

By Leonel Henriquez

Raised stage at the Studio Theatre. Photo by Eileen Sepulveda.

When audience members walked into Lehman’s Studio Theatre on March 17 to see a raised platform stage on steel girders, they could immediately sense that this would not be an ordinary presentation of Hamlet. 

“The stage was made to look like a boxing ring, leveled up, with the ring side seats,” said senior Ibrahim Traore, who was recast as Laertes just two days before the first show.  

Overall, the production was a fresh, innovative success, with director Rick DesRochers brilliantly adapting Shakespeare’s Elizabethan work. DesRochers presents it in a post-colonial creole setting reminiscent of Haiti after the French revolution, with characters wearing knickers and corsets. He modernizes the staging, however, with the use of projection screens which show flashbacks of the king’s death and pictures of his ghost which startle the audience. 

The performance is pushed along by a score of classic rock music and ritualistic voodoo dance routines choreographed by Amy Larimer. DesRochers also broke with traditional casting, as male characters were played by women, with Nadja Gonzalez as Rosencrantz and Giselley Munoz as Horatio.

One of the best things about the staging of this production was the proximity and interaction of the performers with the audience. Performers would appear in the balcony, climb down to the orchestra and walk up into the gallery. At times the actors placed their hands on people’s shoulders and even took hold of someone’s hand and talked directly to them, bringing the experience to life as opposed to just viewing a performance. At one point, Robert Torigoe as King Claudius places a hand on an audience member’s shoulder and talks to them as if they were a member of the king’s court as the scene plays out. 

Bereket Mengitsu was outstanding in the role of Hamlet. Beyond the prince’s controlled ramblings and bewildered looks, the physical interaction between him and the other characters was masterful. Mengitsu rolls around on the ground with Polonius (Hermanuel Darnis), and climbs on and humps the throne that his mother, Queen Gertrude (Jacqueline Rosa), is sitting on as he confronts her for marrying his uncle so shortly after his father’s death.    

“I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare” said audience member Anna Rodriguez, “but this was fun.”

“I’m so proud of everyone associated with this play. They all worked so hard,” said DesRochers. Tearing up he added, “I couldn’t be prouder.” 

President Cruz Starts Campus Renovation

By Leonel Henriquez

Artist’s rendering of the proposed construction of new Nursing Building. 

When Lehman President José Luis Cruz cut the ribbon at the Lehman Performing Arts Center renovation last week, it marked the start of a host of capital improvements slated for 2018.  Next year will see the campus bookstore moved to the old gym building to make way for a new 50,000 square foot building to house the nursing program. A 350-bed residence hall/dorm and phase II of the Science Hall will further change the campus skyline, at an estimated cost of $ 282.8 million dollars. 

Cruz laid out these plans to students at a lunch with the student government association (SGA) and the general student body in the Student Life Building on Oct. 25. At this event, the president also noted that Gillet Hall auditorium and the Lovinger Theatre would be renovated, with the latter to have its seats re-upholstered and reconfigured to provide greater wheelchair access. 

Senior, biology major, and SGA member Kimberly Pereyra was excited about the announcement, telling the Meridian, “I think it’s really great that they will fixing some of the auditoriums that are run down like the one in Gillet.” 

President José Luis Cruz speaks with students during lunch. Photo by Leonel Henriquez.

Chris Higgins, technical director for Lehman Stages, is impressed with Cruz’ efforts so far. “I think it’s great that the new president has been able to raise so much money in such a short time that he’s been on the job,” he said. But Higgins added that rather than prioritizing new construction, “I would really prefer to see more money going into repairs and renovation, particularly here in the theatre building, where there are so many leaky pipes in the basement.”

Faith Directs Her Way onto Lehman Stage

By Leonel Henriquez

Faith D’Erasmo, currently directing her 16th show. Photo courtesy of Faith D’Erasmo. 

Macaulay Honors College junior, Faith D’Erasmo, is wasting no time growing into her craft, and pushing its boundaries while she’s at it. The 20-year-old theatre major made her directorial debut July 21-23 at Lehman’s Studio Theatre with a production of the musical “Spring Awakening” by Steven Sater, and said the opportunity came in the nick of time. 

“My friends and I really wanted to perform our favorite show, ‘Spring Awakening,’ which is quite risqué,” she explained.  So, D’Erasmo was thrilled at the opportunity to direct a show at Lehman.  “Since last year I began searching for a new venue to perform our summer show. We had been performing at a Catholic grammar school for years and the choice and content of our shows was very much hindered by the kids, priests, and other community members attending. We really wanted to perform more intense theatre. Last summer, we did not find a venue and had to do a different show.”

The search for a new venue brought her to Henry Ovalles, assistant director of Lehman Stages. “She told me she wanted to move on to a bigger location with the freedom of content, one of the things we want to do at Lehman Stages is foster creativity and new work, as long as there is no nudity.” Ovalles also said he was very impressed by how organized D’Erasmo and her staff were. “Usually people her age are still finding their way. I find her very mature…she and her staff had their stuff together, they had experience.” 

D’Erasmo’s passion for theatre began in 2013, with her first performance, in an ensemble of “Legally Blonde,” when she was just 15. “Right after I did my first show, I knew that theatre was what I wanted to do,” she said. “I actually gave up sports because theatre caused me to lose interest in those other things.” 

Though D’Erasmo has performed in eight shows, six of which she directed herself, she does not consider herself a natural performer. “I would love to [be a performer] but I know I’m not cut out for it. I typically struggle with anxiety,” she said. She prefers the comfort zone of the organized chaos backstage, and the director’s chair.  “I’m usually busy running around trying to make sure things are in place and everyone is doing what they’re supposed to,” she said with a grin. 

While she has her heart set on directing, D’Erasmo has also had success as a playwright. This past winter her play “Across the Yard” was directed by Stephanie Stowe at Lehman’s Studio Thearer for the Student’s Playwright Festival. Recently, she finished co-authoring her first musical with her boyfriend. D’Erasmo said she is very happy with her recent achievements. “I got a wonderful opportunity of putting on our dream at Lehman,” she said. 

‘When January Feels Like Summer’ Debuts at Lehman

By Leonel Henriquez

Devaun (Mark Robinson) and Indira (Erica Peña) discuss dating.  Photo by Leonel Henriquez.

From Oct. 18-21, Lehman’s Studio Theatre showcased “When January Feels Like Summer” by award winning playwright Cori Thomas from Marymount Manhattan college. The play follows five characters as they evolve from the redundancy of their lives in Harlem, New York. The warm, funky January weather is a precursor to the changing elements of the characters as they externalize their turmoil and desires. Susan Watson-Turner brilliantly directed and masterfully staged the production.

The moment the lights go up the witty rapid-fire banter between two fast food workers is as electric as the third rail. The two Burger King employees, Devaun (Mark Robinson) and Jeron (Jahdiel Rodriguez), seek a greater purpose to their fast food lives. They set out on a crusade to rid the neighborhood of a sexual predator and prevent him from “homosexing” little kids. 

Joe (Eloy Rosario) is an awkward, reserved, and sincere sanitation worker who finds value in what others consider garbage. Joe has a crush on Nirmala, the sister of Ishan/Indira and the wife of an abusive bodega owner. Sara Rosado gives a phenomenal performance as Nirmala, who deals with a comatose husband. The somber hospital scenes are gut-wrenching as she addresses the monosyllabic response of a life support machine. At one point it feels like the audience wants to pull the plug to free her from her marital prison. Finally, Joe and Nirmala come together as they realize their mutual yearning for companionship.

Meanwhile center stage, shrouded in darkness, Ishan (Erica Peña) transforms to Indira. Peña’s performance is dynamic in the dual role. “I just want to look on the outside how I feel on the inside,” says Ishan of his desire to transition to a woman. Rounding out the cast, theatre major and senior Shawn Lackerson plays the newscaster. 

“People can only truly find themselves when they are themselves.” 

– playwright Cori Thomas

Playwright Cori Thomas wrote the play in 2007 after overhearing a conversation between two young men on the train. The language of the characters, how they speak and represent themselves, is at the heart of the play, she said. “People can only truly find themselves when they are themselves,” she told the Lehman audience.   

“I thought it was great. I loved it,” said senior and environmental science major Jeffrey Townsend. This play is a must-see that will both have the audience laughing and have them leave wanting just a little more of this fantastic production. 

Street Renamed to Honor Rap Pioneer Scott La Rock

By Leonel Henriquez


Street sign at Jerome Avenue and Kingsbridge Road, honoring DJ Scott La Rock. Photo by Leonel Henriquez.

On May 19, Jerome Avenue at the corner of Kingsbridge Road was renamed DJ Scott La Rock Boulevard in honor of the icon, Scott La Rock aka Scott Monroe Sterling. Sterling was the founder of the rap group Boogie Down Productions along with legendary MC KRS-One. The street is by the historic Kingsbridge Armory where he once worked as a social worker, helping the homeless. The renaming took place almost exactly three decades after the rapper’s death. Scott La Rock died on August 27, 1987.  At only 25 years old, he was shot and killed as he intervened to resolve a dispute on University Avenue.

Scott La Rock’s place in music history is cemented in the duo’s breakout album “Criminal Minded” which was released in May 1987, just months before his death. It is considered by some rap historians as the best ever, featuring such hits as “Poetry,” “South Bronx,” and the title track, “Criminal Minded.” The tracks highlighted the basic elements of rap music, a thumping bass line, an MC rapping and a DJ creating beats by cutting and scratching.

At a time when rap music was still a growing underground genre, Scott La Rock was instrumental in elevating the purity in the presentation of the music. The development of rap music was mostly regional in its early stages and the duo produced songs that depicted their pride of place and love of the Bronx, as well as songs about street awareness and social consciousness. The duo was on the verge of signing a third album deal with Warner Brothers Records at the time of La Rock’s death.

“He was ahead of his time and died before his time," said Lehman alumni MC Asti. In regards to Scott La Rock finally being recognized Asti adds, “He’d be on the Mount Rushmore of Bronx artists, a founding father, a visionary, a trend-setter.”

New Muppet Julia Raises Autism Awareness

By Leonel Henriquez
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On April 10, a new red-haired muppet named Julia made her debut on Sesame Street. Although she is just four years old, it took PBS and Sesame Street over five years to create her, in consultation with more than 250 organizations and experts. Julia, the result of these efforts, is autistic, and Sesame Street is hoping her presence on the show will increase awareness about autism. They also hope she will provide the opportunity to educate others on how to positively interact with friends and family who have been diagnosed with the disorder which, according to the Center for Disease Control, is 1 out of every 68 children in the United States.

Julia exhibits several traits typical of many autistic kids: she doesn’t like to shake hands, doesn’t always immediately respond to questions, waves her arms over her head when feeling anxious, and covers her ears when sounds are unpleasant to her.

Parents and educators are responding enthusiastically to Julia. Mabel Concepcion, a mother of three school age children, likes the new character. She thinks it is a great way to not only talk to your children about a sensitive topic but also provide them with an example on how to interact. “I think parents should talk to their kids about other kids with disabilities so that they are aware, so that they know how to act,” she said. “Kids don’t know how to act when they see something the first time.” She added that as a mother, “you want [your kids] to learn to get along with everyone.” Concepcion also believes parents can also learn from Julia. “It is just as important for one parent to recognize when another parent in a restaurant or movie might be dealing with a child that is having a difficult moment and offer help or support.”

Many share the hope that awareness will translate to inclusion, and believe that people with autism and other disabilities live somewhat segregated lives just because others just don’t know how to constructively interact with them. “Sesame Street is taking a step towards an inclusive culture for all students with disabilities,” said Jen Flinn-Knizeski, a special educator with the NYC Department of Education for ten years. “I love that the script explains autism as ‘what autism for Julia is,’ because it is a subtlety that is so important for our children to understand. For one child, the blender may really bother them, but for another child it may be the most soothing noise to them.”

The hope is that children will be able to recognize certain behaviors in their classmates and be able to interact accordingly. “I think exposing preschool students to Julia will help them understand more about how people communicate and play in different ways. They understand social cues from their friends and when given guidance, like Elmo gives guidance about Julia, they will understand how to be patient with children with autism. Indirectly, they may learn how to be patient with others and themselves,” said Flinn-Knizeski, a special educator trained in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention.

Elise Saldana, assistant chair of the Department of Early Childhood and Childhood Education at Lehman, expressed a similar opinion. “Yes, I think that young children are very capable of adapting and accepting the different behaviors, personalities, and situations that they see in each other, without prejudice, because they are not to presumptuous at this age,” she said. When asked if she thought if children ages four to five would be able to recognize similar traits in their classmates she replied, “I do think that young children can make associations and recognize similar behavior in others because they are open-minded and conscience regarding their world, and all that is in it and around it. When trying to mainstream or integrate children, I would think that it is best to highlight our similarities, rather than our differences.”

To learn more you can read Julia’s back story at www.sesamestreet.org.

Lehman Alum Addresses Hood Education

By Leonel Henriquez


Dr. Christopher Emdin and educator Janice Johnson perform cypher at NYCWP conference. Photo by Leonel Henriquez.

At the New York City Writing Project’s (NYCWP) 19th annual Teacher-to- Teacher conference, held at Lehman on March 18, its keynote address was delivered by Dr. Christopher Emdin, a Lehman alumnus and author of the New York Times bestseller, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education.”

The NYCWP models itself on the belief that teachers bring knowledge, expertise and leadership to their profession and that teachers are the best teachers of one another because they bring experience gained from working in actual classrooms. The conference consisted of 25 workshops and panel sessions, all conducted by educators, on topics including literacy, communication, cultural interpretation, writing, math, ethnomusicology, common core standards, and activism.

For Jane Higgins, director of the NYCWP, having Emdin deliver the keynote speech brings her journey in education full circle. Higgins was a high school English teacher, and Emdin, “was one of my students,” she recalled. “Chris Emdin gave me language to talk about what I tried to do in the classroom.”

Emdin’s rousing and charismatic speech was titled, “Teaching to Get Woke: the Teacher, the Preacher, the Healer.” In it, he emphasized that in order to teach effectively in “the hood,” i.e. in urban centers, there must be a different level of comprehension of the hood culture where the school is located, and a better understanding of the responses required of the students that live in the area. White educators, Emdin believes, cannot come to teach in the hood with the idea that they are coming to save the hood. Educators need to better comprehend what the students are saying in response to how and what they are being taught, he said, and better communication between teacher and student fosters better learning relationships.

“Over half the suspensions in public schools as they relate to men of color or boys of color in those schools is a function of a teacher confronting a child head on and creating the dynamic that ushers that you have to respond,”he explained.“Hood rules dictate that when someone calls you out, you have to respond. When a student responds in a manner that is consistent with what his environment has taught him this paints him as a disciplinary problem and sours the student’s taste for learning.”

“The government talks about weapons of mass destruction. We have weapons of mass distraction” he said. Those distractions are things like budget cuts to after school meal programs. Emdin pointed out that some kids go to a home with little or no food and are concerned with the fact they are hungry and don’t think about doing homework. Other distractions he addresses are the debates over funding for charter and public schools. This debate, he said, distracts educators and parents, while many kids continue to go to a school without enough resources.

“I have his book and I was just inspired by him and everything he represents,” said Janice Johnson who joined Emdin in a hip-hop cypher during his address. She is a teacher at P.S. 531 in the Bronx and is earning her Masters through Lehman Teaching Fellows. She said, “I think it’s important being a woman of color teaching in the Bronx and being from the South Bronx that you have to have some kind of knowledge of who you are teaching.”

Billy Green, a teacher at the Frederick Douglass Academy III in the South Bronx, and a former student of Emdin’s concurred. “I came here today because one of the things I learned is that Chris Emdin has given us that platform, that language for us educators who like I said embrace the hood, the rules of the hood,” he said. “This book brings it all together in order for us teachers in urban centers to do our work, and for white educators like Miss Higgins who have to face a lot of backlash” he said.

The NYCWP also sponsors other events throughout the year, including a Spring Writing Marathon at Poets House, a Spring Writers’ Residency from April 20-June 8, two Summer Open Institutes for new K-12 teachers, and an Invitational Leadership Institute both from July 10 to 20, at Lehman.

Those interested can visit nycwritingproject.org.

ReelAbilities Returns to Lehman

By Leonel Henriquez

Kitty Lunn, star of “Dancing on Wheels,” shares her experience with the audience. Photo by Leonel Henriquez.

On March 6 and 7, the ninth annual ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York returned to Lehman for the fifth year running. The festival showcased ten films from all over the world---features, narrative shorts, and documentaries---on the lives of individuals with a wide range of disabilities and their families as they cope with their day- to-day lives. Some were born with disabilities such as Autism or Down syndrome, while others acquired them later in life through traumatic experience, illness or disease. “By bringing these films to the campus we’re really trying to raise awareness,” said Merrill Parra, the Director of Student Disabilities Services at Lehman. “The bottom line is that disability is only one characteristic of what a person is all about.” The festival aims not only to educate people about the lives of the disabled, but also to show the commonality of the human condition shared by everyone, and that each person has a struggle to overcome in life.

For James Roll, a 2009 Lehman grad with an M.A. in recreation attending for the fourth time, the best part of the festival is, “trying to get some of the other students who don’t have disabilities or people in their lives with disabilities to come in to watch and see how much like everybody else they really are. They’re really just like anybody else.”

This year was the first time Doreen Mendez, a 50-year-old who survived a stroke five years ago, attended the festival. Now suffering from aphasia, a form of language impairment, Mendez came because, “I am interested in advocacy for disabled people after this happened to me. That’s why I wanted to see other people that are going through the same thing and what else they need that I have not seen yet.”

One festival highlight was an appearance by Kitty Lunn, the subject of the film directed by Qingzi Fan, “Dancing on Wheels.” Lunn, 66, is a dancer who was paralyzed from the waist down after falling on ice in front of her building in Manhattan in 1990. She spent three years in the hospital and underwent five spinal surgeries.

“Being a dancer was my identity,” she told the audience.“It’s one thing when a dancer decides they want to stop dancing and do something else but that’s their choice. I felt like my identity had been stripped away from me and I didn’t really know who I was.” The film chronicles her life as a wheelchair dancer, teacher and choreographer and is an inspirational testimony to her struggle to identify as a disabled dancer.“ I was terrified,” she recalled.“ I had been dancing since I was eight years old, but I had to find a way.”