Changing the World One Word at a Time

Marisa Katz and her students

Marisa Mazria Katz and her students on graduation day.

At 551 Hudson St., between West 11th and Perry, sits Café Panino Mucho Giusto, a small Italian eatery that boasts tasty sandwiches, artisan desserts, and European flair. Inside sits an upper-middle class woman, legs crossed, eyes straight ahead, sipping on her freshly brewed coffee. Unbeknownst to her fellow cafe goers, she is an acting student, turned filmmaker, turned journalist, turned teacher, whom only months earlier had been working with children in the dank and dangerous shantytowns and slums of Casablanca, Morocco.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Marisa Mazria Katz trekked across the country in 1994 to study acting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her interest in acting quickly molded into a fascination with film, and Katz graduated Tisch with honors as well as two awards, the Warner Brothers Award and a directing award from NYU’s First Run Film Festival. After graduating, Katz worked in television, but was becoming disenchanted with the film business, feeling that sitcoms weren’t where she felt connected. In 2000, Katz received a grant to write a screenplay and ended up moving to London for an experience that would take her out of the Hollywood world.

“I’d been doing sort of the New York/LA shuffle for my whole life and when I was in London, I started to feel more plugged in to the rest of the world,” said Katz. “Although I did love writing screenplays, I also got a chance to work on documentaries for people out there, and that kind of got me drawn into more journalistic news.”

On the fateful day of September 11, 2001, a whole new wave of thinking was brought on to many, including Katz.

“I started to become more interested in my Middle Eastern background,” said Katz. “I wanted to really understand what was happening. That’s when I officially decided when news, and also television and documentaries, was where my passion lied.”

Katz’s newly discovered passion soon brought her to Tel Aviv where she earned a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern history. Feeling that she wasn’t really connected to the Middle East while living in Tel Aviv due to both physical and mental barriers, Katz moved back to New York to make connections with more stateside publications. It was a year and a half after she left the Middle East when Katz was introduced to Boubker Mazoz.

During his 30-year tenure as a public-affairs specialist for the U.S. State Department in Casablanca, Mazoz was first drawn to working in the city’s slums. Mazoz created an association called Idmaj, which means “integration” in Arabic, which was designed to empower severely marginalized youths, and expose them to different extracurricular activities. Mazoz also aided in the construction of the Sidi Moumen community center, where many of the children’s classes took place.

Katz had been following Mazoz for a story she was working on and quickly became enchanted with his work and the children he was working with, waiting less than 24 hours after meeting him to ask if they could work together again.

“ I’d never seen a man garner so much respect and actually really do what he says he’s going to do,” said Katz. “He was just a really amazing person and I felt that the kids that I had met, I didn’t sense that their lives and what they were going through could really reach beyond the periphery without someone like me or another journalist coming in and helping them learn how to write.”

With no experience in teaching whatsoever, Katz was able to pull from her studies of communication through her acting and film roots to devise a month long journalism course. During that month, she would teach students ages 12 to 20 how to interview, research, transcribe, and craft opening lines, all things that she had learned on her own, not having ever received any formal journalistic schooling.

Katz’s class of 20 students would meet nightly, after all of their regular schooling was completed, some kids traveling long distances to arrive in Sidi Moumen.  Katz was joined by two women who acted as translators between her and the students, creating a perfect rhythm that was necessary in order for the students to understand the lessons and for Katz to understand her students.

Although some children are lucky enough to receive an education, Katz stressed that there are many problems in Casablanca and kids are forced to stay behind and help their families. This past January, with the help of Mazoz and the U.S. Embassy, Katz returned to Morocco. Upon her arrival, Katz saw one of her former students, but she wasn’t in school.

“I saw her there and I was like ‘what happened, why aren’t you in school?’ and she had dropped out because she just didn’t feel like it was for her,” said Katz. Schools there are different. There’s no conversation, and there’s not a lot of freedom. It seems like people don’t want to go back in a way.”

Vowing to make her second trip as worthwhile as possible, Katz set out with one goal in mind: to get the voices of her students heard around the world. She decided to have them create blogs where they could freely express themselves to anyone willing to listen. She named her project Words for Change.

One blog in particular, called “The Tales of Zineb,” really stood out for Katz. She described Zineb as a poet and a writer, whose stories were both heartbreaking and beautiful, openly sharing the abuse that she faced while growing up. Zineb had also expressed an interest in singing, which Katz happily aided by recording her so she could post it on her blog.

Not all students had as easy a time as Zineb when choosing what to write about. Katz found that it was necessary to make the environment as comfortable as possible for the children so that they would feel openly about sharing what they thought and felt without being reprimanded. She did so by choosing to talk about herself.

“I really did talk a lot about myself with them, to explain to them that I’m not just some white woman coming here for two weeks and I’m out,” said Katz. “I wanted to share the moment with them and tell them a little bit about who I was and what I was going through.”

And Katz had been going through a lot. Her visits to Morocco had coincided with the economic recession, and for a journalist, the recession was no small deal. Katz felt that although she didn’t have to worry about where she was going to sleep at night or rain falling through her roof, the recession brought about its own uncertainties both in her own life and in the field of journalism as a whole, that allowed her to feel a certain connection with her students.

“You know, the whole recession changed me because it just made me feel vulnerable, so I felt as though when I was with them, and they’re so vulnerable to so much of the things that surround them – the poverty, the housing situation –I thought that yes, we’re so different, but I didn’t feel the difference,” said Katz.

Since Katz has left Morocco, she admits that the students have not kept up with their blogging, due in part to the current lack of funding as well as the fact that there’s not someone physically there to keep her organization going. Katz has applied to return to Morocco four different times over the course of the next year, budgeting money for use in her absence, and has also enlisted in the help of a Moroccan blogger to work with her around the clock.

Katz is also trying to expand Words for Change beyond Casablanca, hoping to pitch the idea for a concept similar to the Peace Corpse, though in respect to journalism. She envisions a program where journalism and communications majors can enter after graduation and work in the field, while still helping out a greater cause. This idea also coincides with her belief that reporters should spend some time out of their comfort zones to challenge themselves and really stretch their potential for learning.

“Sometimes I feel that Americans can tend to think that the world revolves around them, and in a sense, when you leave and go abroad, you realize we’re not the center of the world, and it’s really important to understand,” said Katz.

Regardless, Katz continues to stress the idea of finding one’s passion and writing about it. Whether it’s abroad or within the American border, and no matter whom one’s stories will reach, it’s important to be self-encouraging.

“You have to really believe in yourself and go for it, with everything you have. Even when you get to a certain place, it still doesn’t stop,” said Katz. “You still have to keep going, and you still have to keep working; it’s about tenacity and persistence and then trying to hone in on that story you love to tell.”

To view the students’ blogs, click here.


Immigration Reform Under Obama’s Presidency

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When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, his platform included broad immigration reform. Immigrant groups around the nation supported Obama and believed that he would provide crucial and necessary change in American immigration policy. However, these immigrant groups were left disillusioned by his presidency. In the face of growing political pressure as he prepares to run for president in 2012, Obama is reviving conversation about the issue.

This time, however, both immigrant voters and immigrant right advocates are more speculative of Obama’s agenda. His failure to provide comprehensive immigration reform during his presidency has made people wary of his ability to apply the necessary pressure in government to bring about change. Furthermore, now that there is a Republican majority in the House, some reforms will be much more difficult to put into effect during the next term. Representative Luis Guiterrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, talked to Lou Dobbs on Fox News about his disappointment with Obama. Guiterrez said, “The president does have a great jeopardy at loosing mass amounts of support from immigrants and the Latin American community because the president has not brought about comprehensive reform. We need some balance in our enforcement procedures.” Guiterrez argues that balance in American enforcement procedures would include things such as granting citizenship to spouses of immigrant soldiers or passing legislation such as the widely discussed and contended DREAM act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act).

The DREAM act, if passed, would grand legal status to illegal children under the age of sixteen who were brought into the United States by illegal parents. It was recently re-introduced to the Senate and the United States of Representative on March 26, 2009 but was blocked by a Senate fillibuster on December 18, 2010.

Margarita Manduley is an immigration lawyer at the International Legal Alliance Group. Based in Los Angeles, where there is the highest concentration of Latin American immigrants in the country, Manduley has defended over sixty cases in the last three years. Manduley explains that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is in charge of deporting illegal aliens, states that their purpose is to deport illegal immigrants guilty of serious crimes. She says that in reality the vast majority of immigrants are deported because of fraud in such cases where immigrants use fake social securities in order to work. Manduley is frustrated by the current system. “Many immigrants have done everything by the book after the initial mistake of coming unlawfully into this country,” she explains. “And many of them came here because their countries were not offering a way to support their families.”

She says an even bigger crime is being committed against the children of illegal immigrants. There are children who came into this country against their will and are now unable to get jobs despite the fact they are law- upholding and contributing citizens. Manduley gives the example of a girl who was brought here when she was three and despite graduating with a Bachelors Degree and honors is unable to get a job in the country because of her parent’s decisions. Manduley argues that children such as her should have the chance to apply for legal standing.

Currently, permanent residency is difficult even for lawful immigrants. Marcelo Castro, an Investment Banker at Banco Santander, says that he and his family “were privileged in [their] path to citizenship but it took [them] over ten years from point A to point B.” Castro, his wife and his three children (the reporter included) had five types of Visas before they were qualified to apply for a greencard which would make them legal permanent residents of the United States. For over ten years, Castro had to renew the family’s visa every six months in an embassy in Mexico and pay taxes without being able to vote.

Castro has no regrets but he does think that there should be ways for others to have a path to citizenship. “There are never good solutions, there are only trade offs,” he explains. One trade off that he thinks is judicious is passing legislation like the DREAM act. “These kids grew up here, they went to school here. You can’t create this class of invisible people that are in limbo. It was not their fault.”

An attorney with the Executive Office for Immigration Review, who would prefer to remain unnamed due to strict ethics rules at the Department of Justice, explains that “There are currently approximately 42,000 cases pending before 33 immigration judges at the New York Immigration Court, the Varick Street detained facility, and three upstate courts.” The attorney explains that a large number of cases are asylum cases, and there are many other causes for deportation.  “There are many, many, many reasons why someone can be removed from the country,” the attorney explains. “The U.S. immigration law is not particularly forgiving at times.” The Attorney points out that the last big change in immigration reform happened in 2005 with the Real ID act which was an Act of Congress that modified U.S. federal law pertaining to security, authentication and issuance procedures standards for the state driver’s licenses and identification laws. The attorney argues that little to no immigration reform has been implemented under Obama’s presidency.

Maria (whose name has been changed for her security) came into this country illegally thirteen years when she was nineteen. She came to work as a cleaning lady in order to provide for her family. She and her husband have paid taxes, have taken English classes and have done everything in their power to integrate into American society. Three years ago, she had a son here in the United States. However Maria, like millions of illegal immigrants in the United States, lives in constant fear of being deported. “I want my son to grow and be educated here because he would have more opportunities than in Mexico,” she explains. “If they want to deport me later, they can.”

Obama may have trouble getting support from the immigrant minority in the upcoming election, but as of late, he is making an attempt to bring the issue back to the forefront. In April, President Obama held a White House meeting to discuss immigration reform. In a White House statement, Obama said that he remains committed to “restoring accountability to the broken immigration system.” In the face of congressional opposition, this intended goal may prove easier said than done.

College Students Process Bin Laden’s Death on Facebook


A screenshot of updates as people continue to post about Bin Laden's death.


May 9, 2011

The quiet in the library was punctuated here and there with the click of laptop keys as students worked on papers due Monday morning. Lindsay Strasser, a sophomore at NYU, was sitting at a table with her sorority sisters when one of them looked up from her cell phone and said, “Osama bin Laden is dead.”

“Everyone at my table thought it was a joke,” recalled Ms. Strasser. “It was so random. We kept working , no one said anything about it. About five minutes later, another girl at a different table who had her headphones in, said, ‘Huh, Osama bin Laden died.’ Apparently she’d read it on Facebook. So at this point, I logged onto Facebook, and I started noticing different friends from home and NYU had statuses popping up saying that Bin Laden had died. And another of my friends said that Obama was supposed to be on air in about a half an hour.”

This is how many students first heard about Bin Laden’s death, via text message or on the internet. The result was news that spread like wildfire. Ms. Strasser was one of many who heard about the content of the President Obama’s speech in rumor form before he gave it.

Ms. Strasser and her sisters gathered around a laptop to watch a live stream of the president’s announcement before going back to work and occasionally checking on the online community. “It was cool seeing Facebook explode with statuses. Because there were a lot of funny posts that night. I realized how funny my friends could be.

According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the Washington Post, 21 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 heard about Bin Laden’s death online, 14 percent of that on social networking sites. This is part of an ongoing trend in which 65 percent of young people list the internet as their primary source of news, double the percentage of 2007. More and more, news is being passed around online on websites like Twitter and Facebook. Furthermore, the Pew Research Center reported that the top theme in response to Bin Laden’s death on these two websites was humor.

Responses like, “R.I.P. Osama bin Laden- the World Champion of hide-and-seek,” populated Facebook’s News Feed. Humor, traditionally offensive in a case like this, thrived on twitter and Facebook because of the focus on saying something witty or entertaining for your friends to ‘like’.

Around this time an alleged quote from Martin Luther King Jr. made its way around the web through various social networking sites. The sentiment was noble, the wording was perfect. Too perfect. After more than nine thousand hits on Google and a viral following on Twitter, it came out that the quote had been misattributed through a series of posting and repostings. Is it any wonder that few people first trusted the news about Bin Laden’s death after seeing it on Facebook?

There is no doubt that social media creates an avenue for expression that is faster, more opinionated, and full of mediated content.

Sonia Weiser, a photojournalism student at NYU, felt that in some cases it comes down to trying to feel connected. “People in our generation who wouldn’t necessarily care, now that they have an outlet, they feel like they have to show that they care. Now that people have a way to express it, they want to show they’re aware of what’s going on in the world,” she said.

Ms. Weiser was in her room paging through a magazine when her friend saw the news on Facebook. “Everyone was so happy when he died. Everyone’s statuses were funny. People were making jokes about it,” she said, adding, “I had to grapple with why they were celebrating.”

Ms. Wesier said she felt that Bin Laden was so far removed from daily life that his death meant very little. Despite the throngs of college students at Ground Zero, there were some who echoed her ambivalence.

Elyssa Cherry, a sophomore at Texas Tech, said that she had mostly forgotten about Bin Laden until she heard the news. “[Sept. 11] doesn’t cross your mind every day. It is not something I think of when I get up in the morning. So it shook that up and made me realize that this happened as a kid and now I’m an adult. It was more astonishment at how times and the world have changed in the last 10 years,” she said.

However, she was skeptical about the impact of his death after growing up in a world at war. “It’s not going to change overall daily life.”

Chelsea McAuly, a freshman at Lamar University, was working on the conclusion to a paper about September 11, when she found out. She immediately updated her Facebook to reflect the irony. “It was odd that I was literally typing my paper when Obama’s announcement came on,” she said. But as far as her personal response to the news, she was not as enthusiastic. “My paper was about 9/11 but not about Al Qaeda or the terrorism behind the tragic event. So, I was feeling proud of our government and the Navy seals on the mission, but not much else.”

Jon Hecht, a freshman at NYU, felt that the response of jubilation among his generation was because of the new connection forged by the technological age. “We feel things together in a way that is incomparable to anything before now,” he said.

His essay on the matter discusses how America has been waiting for a moment to celebrate this newfound power to connect, ever since we saw the influence it could have in places like Egypt and Tunisia. We have been waiting for something that we can come together for, to spread the news and the emotional high all at once.

This then, is a defining moment for Americans not because of how it has changed them necessarily, but because it is a reflection of their desires as a nation touched by post 9/11 patriotism and cynicism.

“We need something good,” he said.

The Zimbabwe Situation: Identity Challenges in The Diaspora

As political revolts against President Bashar al-Assad prevail in Syria and as Libyan rebel forces continue to ravage a fiery war against Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi, Zimbabwe faces political uncertainties of its own.  As a new Zimbabwean constitution is in the process of being drafted, and as the country looks towards elections that will take place next year, generations of Zimbabwean immigrants grapple with questions of dual citizenship, political participation and cultural inheritance as they envision a new Zimbabwe, after a decade of human rights violations, a persistent steel fisted dictatorship, and a record breaking inflation rate.

Zimbabwean Passport. Photo Credit:

Nothing is certain. Not even what it means to be a Zimbabwean in the Diaspora, living in New York City, with a Zimbabwean passport.

“People have had to adjust – creating new lives in a new place. What does it mean to carry a Zimbabwean passport?” said Vusa Sibanda, who has been living in New York for more than a decade. “People have to constantly redefine themselves. The Zimbabwean Diaspora community in America is something new–something that is still in formation.”

Many are particularly concerned by the fact that Zimbabwe does not allow dual citizenship, forcing those that live in the Diaspora to relinquish their Zimbabwean citizenships if they choose to seek citizenship status in another country, and cutting ties that officially bind them to Zimbabwe.

“There is the misconception that you are only Zimbabwean as long as you hold a Zimbabwean passport. The crisis we had forced many people to the Diaspora. A lot of those people don’t have Zimbabwean passports,” said Amson Sibanda, a Zimbabwean who has been living oversees since 2003. “If you look at most advanced countries, dual citizenship is accepted. We have to think of the kids. Do I have to tell my son that when he is eighteen years old, he has to give up his American citizenship to be Zimbabwean? ”

The investments made in other countries, as well as the heritage that many Zimbabweans abroad hold dearly-belonging to their home country, has complicated the meaning of being Zimbabwean but not in Zimbabwe. Some feel that they do not have a political voice in Zimbabwe and that they are being unfairly excluded from political dialogue.

“We need to be given the right to vote. That’s what the new constitution needs to address. South Africans in the Diaspora can vote, all Namibians vote, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Amson Sibanda.

Discussions about  including the dual citizenship in the constitution have been seen as a move to somehow politically include those in the Diaspora, who already cannot vote, but contribute financially to the country.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with it [Dual Citizenship]” said Rumbidzai Mabuwa, a lawyer based in New York City. “It benefits the country, and it’s a choice for people who are already Zimbabwean citizens. Also, it’s an incentive for people to go back to Zimbabwe after acquiring expertise in other countries.”

The government of Zimbabwe has faced a plethora of economic problems which, according to UNDP (United Nations Development Program) has forced a large population, estimated at least 3 million (about a quarter of the country’s population), to flee the country. It’s involvement in a war in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1998 to 2002 cost the government millions of dollars. The government’s land reform program, which aimed at redistributing farm land from a small Zimbabwean minority to the larger population, has been largely disastrous, tainted by corruption and lack of production,  and has harmed the countries agriculturally based economy.  The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, until 2009, printed money to remedy the budget deficit which caused the highest hyperinflation rate in history, at 500 billion percent.

“We became a state that could not attend to the basic fundamentals of a state. You can’t call it hyperinflation. You have to call it something else,” said Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe’s minister of finance, in a speech at Africa House, New York University. Biti, since becoming minister of Finance in 2009, and as part of a new coalition government between the ruling party ZANU-PF and the opposition party MDC, had led reforms that have eradicated use of the Zimbabwean dollar, and have replaced it with the American dollar, which has stabilized the economy. However, even with economic storms calming down in Zimbabwe, socio-economic unrest continues inside as well as outside the country.

“The thing that statistics don’t capture is the social cost of the matter. How do we measure the cost of dictatorship? These figures don’t actually portray the real story,” said Biti.

Tendai Biti Speaks to Students At New York University

The story is of families that have been separated because of the crisis, of a community in the Diaspora that has worked hard to acquire goods that have caused psychological as well as economic stress on their families.

“Sometimes we try to so much for our families, to the detriment of our own lives. But our lives here are important as well. It’s a harrowing shift,” explained Vusa Sibanda.

Family members in the Diaspora continue to send money to their families in Zimbabwe, to a population that has an alarming unemployment rate. According OCHA (United Nations office for The Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) out of the country’s 12 million people, only 480 000 had formal jobs in 2008. Those who have left have done so to find employment elsewhere, and a vast majority of the population in Zimbabwe is sustained by foreign currency send by family members from abroad. Yet even with the financial support, tensions arise from questions of political involvement from the population in the Diaspora.

“Zimbabweans are already so skeptical of their own country. Sometimes Zimbabweans at home don’t trust Zimbabweans in the Diaspora because they walked away from the country,” said Mabuwa. “Yet we were only pushed away by circumstances. Some of us got the money we have under difficult circumstances-abuse, working without immigration papers, disconnected without support in a foreign country.”

Some address the speculation that because so many Zimbabweans have fled to the Diaspora, coups against the government have not been formed, and that the Zimbabweans that have remained have been left to bear the burden of a dictatorship are weak, timid and unable to fight.

“Are Zimbabweans passive? No. It’s a question of values. We believe in order. We know what war means and we know about its destructive capacity. We also want to preserve our infrastructure. We had a huge economic dip, but our infrastructure was not destroyed. We keep it in place, we fix it after,” said Amson Sibanda.

Others address preconceived notions they face in the countries they inhabit that the political atmosphere in Zimbabwe is simply a fight between the opposition and the ruling party- and that the Zimbabwean peoples’ identities are limited to their political tags.

“Zimbabwe hates bloodshed. They panic when they hear a civil uprising in other countries like in Rwanda or Nigeria. Zimbabweans do not like mass violence, where people get into an uprising. That’s “unZimbabwean” culturally. Zimbabweans would sacrifice anything for peace, and that’s a cultural aspect that the Zimbabwean government has manipulated,” said Mabuwa.

Nothing is ever simple in Zimbabwean politics, and in decoding Zimbabwean identity. “It’s so unclear-the brutality in taking power. You have a lot of people standing on the sidelines. After the liberation war [against British colonial rule in 1980] and independence, there was a clear sense of what needed to be done,” said Vusa Sibanda. “The situation is more complicated than that now. I resent being put in a box where it’s either one or the other.”

The ultimate challenge that Zimbabweans face is in the Diaspora is one that concerns the future. Whether the dictatorship will last and whether there truly will be elections next year, or whether the supposed constitution in the works will represent their interests as an intricate part of a global Zimbabwean community are questions that will be prevalent in the next years.

“I have high optimism. I have confidence that they will come up with a constitution,” said Amson Sibanda.

Another challenge is waiting to see if foreign countries will intervene in Zimbabwe or whether immigrants will face perpetual political exile, and if going home will even be an option.

“I don’t ever plan on going back to Zimbabwe. I don’t see any reason why I should permanently go back there. I will visit Zimbabwe occasionally, unless there is some massive change of plan by God,” claimed Nkosilathi Vuma, a Zimbabwean graduate student at NYU and a U.S permanent resident.

The final query is whether a Tahrir square is even a possibility in Zimbabwe. “The North African situation won’t be easy to replicate in Zimbabwe,” said Amson Sibanda. “But you never know, you can’t always predict what will happen.”

Gourmet Desserts, On the Go

By: Claire Schmidt

Good Humor employee dressed in the classic white uniform.

There is nothing quite like the sweet, refreshing taste of ice cream after spending the day in New York City’s hot summer sun, especially when the process of getting that perfect, frozen treat is the ultimate experience.  With ice cream trucks lining almost every street, satisfying one’s sweet tooth is not a difficult task. However, ice cream trucks are not at all what they use to be. Offering a more innovative, higher quality product, these new “gourmet” trucks have come a long way from selling ice cream bars on a stick. Wrapped in flamboyant colors, from pale yellow to bright blue, gourmet dessert trucks are popping up across the entire city, and they are absolutely impossible to miss.

With the popularity of gourmet food trucks increasing, the owners of 32 trucks have come together to form the New York City Food Truck Association (NYCFTA). They have also hired the lobbyist Capalino and Company in order to advocate on their behalf and push for fair licensing practices as the industry continues to expand. “It’s good for all the trucks to ban together,” says Laura O’Neill, co-owner of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream and a member of the association. “So if there are issues, we can deal with them as a group.” The bureaucracy of street vending is not always easy to maneuver, and while the journey to become established has not been without challenges, gourmet food trucks are thriving. As vendors continue to improve their product and hold themselves to stricter standards, people are starting to take notice of the increasing trend, and their perception of what street food once was is slowly starting to change for the better.

One of around 250 Mister Softee trucks currently operating in New York.

Although the gourmet food trucks in New York City are not just limited to ice cream—the types of cuisine stretch to all corners of the world from Korean barbeque to Turkish tacos—there is something both nostalgic and iconic about ice cream trucks. As one of the first really successful food truck businesses, they have become a template for all the others.  “The ice cream man is something of an American icon,” says David Belanich of Joyride, a truck that pairs frozen yogurt with Stumptown coffee. “The ice cream truck is not only a New York street food phenomenon, it’s a national phenomenon.”

The history of the ice cream truck dates back to the 1920’s when Harry Burt of Youngstown, Ohio created the Good Humor bar, a chocolate coated ice cream dessert on a stick. To market his product, Burt sent out 12 chauffeur-driven trucks, complete with bells, and men dressed in white suits to promote the company’s wholesome image. The idea was a success and just thirty years later in 1956 brothers William and James Conway had a similar plan, to create Mister Softee. With over 700 trucks currently in the system, Mister Softee is now one of the most recognizable ice cream truck franchises in the country.

The Joyride frozen yogurt and coffee truck provides customers with joy in every cup.

A lot has changed since the first Mister Softee truck was rolled out over 50 years ago; the business of selling ice cream from a truck was a lot less complicated. “There was no such thing as vending licenses and health departments or any of that kind of stuff,” says Jim Conway, the current owner of the Mister Softee franchise. “They could just go out and do their own thing,” he adds of his father James Conway and his uncle Bill.

Today the requirements for obtaining a mobile food vending license are extensive and the process is often tedious. To sell food on the street a vendor must acquire both a food vendor license and a permit from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In order to pass the department’s health inspection and secure a permit, there are many standards that a food truck must meet. According to the City of New York’s permit inspection requirements, processing trucks, like the gourmet ice cream trucks, must have stainless steel interior surfaces, a two compartment sink with a swing faucet, a 40-gallon portable water supply tank, a 46-gallon permanent waste tank, and a sufficient ventilation system, in addition to following other sanitation methods.

There is no limit on the amount of available operator licenses, but there are only 2,800 citywide food permits that may be issued. With the lengthy waitlist it can take years for new vendors to receive a permit, if at all. Some vendors who need a permit, but are unwilling to wait, turn to the black market to obtain this documentation illegally and for a price. “There are no permits for trucks out there,” says Bryan Petroff, co-owner of The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, who rents a truck from a depot in order to avoid the bureaucracy and the cost of the permit distribution. “It’s a lottery system, so if you want one you are searching on the black market,” adds Petroff, who needs only a vendor’s license to run his seasonal business.

Even with a license and a permit in hand, the government does not make it easy for people hoping to make a living in the food truck business, especially when it comes to hiring employees. “The city is basically as unhelpful as possible,” says Joyride’s Belanich. Each employee must secure a tax I.D., a process that can take two or three months. “It’s the test of how serious someone is if they are willing to go through that,” says Natasha Case, CEO of Coolhaus Ice Cream Sandwiches. In addition, all vendors are forced to take a two-day long food protection course through the Department of Health.

The Van Leeuwen ice cream truck called "the turtle" sells refreshing treats at Central Park's Tavern on the Green.

Despite the adversity, there is a lot of innovation taking place in the world of gourmet food trucks. In particular, New York City ice cream trucks are finding unique ways to dress up a simple dessert. “I think street food is getting fancier. It’s not just hot dogs anymore. Waffles, gelato, burritos, fancy ice cream, cupcakes, you name it, New York’s got it,” says Malarie Gokey, a Coolhaus supporter whose favorite sandwich is the combination of a snicker doodle cookie and dirty mint chip ice cream. Vendors are constantly morphing their product to be more original and visually appealing than before. “Our most popular dessert is the cone called the salty pimp. It’s vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt, and it’s all dipped into the chocolate,” says Petroff of Big Gay. “We love continuously experimenting. We like it to be fun, and we like to bring people back either for their favorites or something unique each time they show up,” he adds.

As a result, people are beginning to see street food in a more positive light. “As the quality of the food rises, so do people’s expectations,” states Perry Resnick, of What were once termed “roach coaches” are now called “gourmet.”

The charm of these gourmet dessert trucks rests in their changeability, as well as in their mobility. “There’s definitely a big appeal of moving around and having the flexibility of being able to go to different events,” says Ross Resnick (no relation to Perry), the founder of, a website that tracks gourmet food trucks in many major cities. “It keeps it really fresh and it keeps people really interested,” adds Resnick.

Social media has played a big part in the evolution of these gourmet food trucks. Twitter and other specialized mapping applications have made it possible to know where the  food trucks are at every moment. “It’s essential to the business,” Ross Resnick says of these networks. “It’s a cornerstone of the whole movement because if you don’t know up to a second whats going on, you might miss the truck.” For the trucks in New York City that have a set schedule, social media can still be useful, even if only to get the word out about the business. The idea of social media is to get people talking about them, how they look, how they differentiate” says Dan Iehl, of and

However, the question remains whether or not there is a sustainability in the industry of gourmet food trucks, or if it is simply a fad, like Livestrong wristbands and razor scooters. “I think like everything it will have its hugest moment, which was last year and this year,” states Petroff.  “I don’t think it can sustain that type of popularity, but it’s definitely built a foundation to keep these around for sure.”

Come to the Dark Side

By Jacobi Hollingshed

He walks up to a mirror admiring his pristine white skin in its reflection. He begins to slather on shoe polish to blacken his skin being careful not to come too close to his lips as it would make them look smaller. Everything needed to be exaggerated. He puts on his woolly wig, gloves and any other ragged clothing to complete the transformation. William H. West was one of the most famed minstrel (black face) performers and producers of the late 1800s. Little did he know that he along with a select few would be the start of a practice that would give African-American painter Iona Rozeal Brown enough material to last for the rest of her life.

Iona Brown

Born in 1966, Brown was raised in Washington D.C surrounded by Japanese cultural outlets. When she was seven her mother took her to see Bunraku, the Japanese puppet theater. Her mother took her to see Kabuki at 11, which is classical Japanese dance-drama, and then being amazed at the incredible stylization of the performers, she went to see the performance again two years later. She also grew up watching Japanese television programs such as Ultraman, Kimba, and Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot. All of this occurred in Washington D.C and gave Brown interest in a culture that would become the staple and influence of her life’s work as a painter—black facing.

Receiving a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a MFA from Yale University, Brown’s life was already set up for something great. In 1997 her classmate at SFAI took her to the library an showed her an essay entitled “Yellow Negro” by Joe Woods in a journal called Transitions. It explained the assimilation of African-American culture into a sub hip-hop culture within Japan. This movement interested Brown from the start, but it didn’t occur to her to start making her work until 2001, after she visited Japan.

“The trend had died down quite a bit by then and I didn’t return to Japan until 2005,” said Brown. “That time I saw one girl that was tanned up with the gear: the fubu jacket, and extensions in her hair. She looked great.”

Hip-hop was initially said to have become popular in Japan because of Japanese attraction to the small peek into the U.S. West Coast hip-hop culture in clubs and seeing shows like Soul Train and movies like Flashdance. The attraction to the music developed into a love for the entire culture including clothes, graffiti and break dancing. Some Japanese hip-hop followers would even tan their skin to become darker and change their hairstyles into afros and dreadlocks to look more like African-Americans.

Ganguro Trend

More recently a new fashion style has appeared in Japan, which is prevalent among mostly young women. The trend is called “ganguro” which derives from the phrase “ganganuro,” which means “exceptionally dark.” In this trend, a severe tan is applied to the girl’s skin to make her dark. It is normally combined with dyed blonde hair, black ink for eyeliner, and white concealer used for lipstick and eye shadow. The look is complete with an assortment of rings, necklaces, and bracelets.

“I didn’t see any other tanned up “blackfacers,” said Brown. “I did, however, see ganguro and a good many of them too. I find them fascinating to look at like the geisha even though they are polar opposites. I don’t get the feeling that the Ganguros are looking at black people and trying to emulate them the way that the blackfacers are.”

The ganguro trend is said to be practiced in order to challenge Japanese traditional ideals of beauty.

“What traditionally is suspected of Japanese women is lightening of the skin, not darkening the skin,” said New York University Japanese language professor Christophe Thouny.

Brown found this play on traditional beauty combined with the concept of black face attractive. She began sampling African-American hip-hop culture and Japanese history to create paintings that connected the world of hip-hop with the traditional Japanese world of the geishas, samurai, and Kabuki actors. The majority of the subjects in her painting are ethnically Japanese whom she then black faces.

Iona's Work

“At times it seems to me that black face and it’s offense is difficult to understand for non-blacks,” said Brown. “So, for me, blackface in real life, sucks.”

The public seems to respond better to black face in art rather than real life. Even though a permanent implication of racism remains on the canvas for as long as the painting is visible, real life black face practice seems to be more offensive.

“Her work is very attractive and good looking. It seduces you and when you get up close and recognize what is being said, you notice that it’s not that aggressive at all,” said New York University Art Professor Keith Miller.

Brown’s experimentation with her work at its core challenges thought on identity. Black facing her subjects is her paintings provides that outlet among other elements. In the end the ganguro women, black facing themselves, dying their hair and wearing elaborate makeup is an identity. While the social implications may be grave, it remains an act of freedom of expression and creates an identity in a country where homogeneity prevails.

After being asked about the body of work that has emerged from this experience, Brown says, “it speaks to how we assume new identities through clothes, hair, and makeup. To the ganguro, it’s all just drag.”

AAMI Seeks Funding to Support Youth Development in Harlem

Boys play ping-pong during program.

by Jenna Haines

Ten boys circle around a table with math worksheets.  Instead of solving simple equations, the boys crunch NBA statistics.  Fascinated by their favorite players’ shooting ratios, they process mathematic principles with relative ease.

These boys are students in the African-American Male Initiative’s Steps to Success program.   As the boys prepare to close down for the summer on May 14th, the administration’s work just begins.  The first wave of multi-year endowment contracts that have supported the program are up for renegotiation at the end of the term.  Though the program has been consistently funded since its start in 2006, the resurfacing of contract negotiations causes administrators and educators to reflect on the program’s goals and progress.

Composed of a staff of life coaches, arts teachers and tutors, the program facilitates a supplemental, academic support system for select African-American males in Harlem.  AAMI Director Clifton Watson, who recently joined the program in August 2010, summarizes the program’s mission statement.  “It is a program set up to provide comprehensive, academic and social support to African-American males to ensure they perform up to their capabilities,” said Watson.

AAMI currently provides mentoring to about 50 boys, most starting during their 2nd grade year.  They receive tutoring from area college students from Columbia and NYU, weekly mentoring sessions from life coaches, teacher conferences, weekend activities and everyday hero seminars, which are group discussions with successful black men in various fields.  Each element of the program is designed to foster academic growth and a heightened sense of community involvement.

Because of the vast amount of viable candidates in Harlem, AAMI originally began their search for applicable students in familiar territory, where families already demonstrated a need for community involvement, according to Watson.  “Through Children’s Aid Society, we have 3 community centers in Harlem,” said Watson, “and we decided to target those first.”

Charles Emmanuel, a life coach for the program, has worked with many of the children since the beginning of AAMI.  “It’s very intimate with a lot of the boys,” said Emmanuel.  “I’ve known most of them since the 2nd grade, and it’s interesting to see them develop.  For the most part, they know it’s a mentor-student relationship.  But it can be challenging sometimes to maintain the boundaries, so they don’t confuse you with being a father figure.”

As a life coach, Emmanuel spends immense amounts of time with the boys.  He visits their schools, talks to their teachers, meets with the boys individually and participates in the Saturday Cultural Academy, a weekly 3-hour long series of enrichment classes.

However, his role in the program began on a more administrative front.  “Initially, I started out with the research team.  I identified problems, like academic standards, and tried to find the solutions.  We discovered that the 4th grade syndrome was one of the primary obstacles, and we hope to dispel its effect through early intervention.”

The 4th grade syndrome, according to Emmanuel, is the identifiable grade point by which African-American students have fallen too far behind academically to catch up or to care.  AAMI thus admits students in the 2nd grade, targeting the average, B or C scoring student in Harlem, in order to better test the effectiveness of the program.  Though income is not a candidacy requirement, the parent(s) or guardian(s) must be wiling to occasionally volunteer, and the child must have been born in the United States.

Parent participation is large component of the program, according to Watson, because the reinforcement of AAMI’s ideals at home is necessary for the student to progress.  “The program has a large emphasis on working with parents,” said Watson.  “We almost do as much work with parents and families as we do with students.”

Beyond volunteering, the family’s main role is simply to get the child to the program.  David Garfinkel, an America Reads tutor for AAMI, also tutors at MS 45, a public middle school in East Harlem.  According to Garfinkel, the students at MS 45 don’t fall behind because of academics.  They fall behind because they don’t show up.  For him, the student’s participation at AAMI is a refreshing contrast.  “It’s great to see kids that are willing to give their time outside of school,” said Garfinkel.  “It’s something the community really needs.”

Academics and participation may set the students at AAMI apart, but Roger Ball, another life coach at AAMI, notes a more fundamental difference between it and other programs or schools.  “The nature of this work questions and moves some boundaries,” said Ball.  “When working with these children, you are invited into their lives to create meaningful relationships.  You have to maintain your professional role while becoming a human resource.  You have to have the human capacity to relate, and it’s personal.  I have to be both a mentor/model and an orchestrator of resources.”

To orchestrate these resources, however, Watson notes that ends must be met.  “We have a budget of $500,000 yearly,” said Watson.  “The money needs to supply staff and materials.  For instance, we’re currently looking for someone to coordinate our academic support program because I’m only half of that job.  We also have boys who need reading remediation programs with students at Columbia, but that all has to be paid for.”

Fortunately for the program, according to Emmanuel, AAMI’s students have demonstrated ample evidence of improvement to the program’s investors.  “As of now, we haven’t had any boys held back,” said Emmanuel.  “Socially and emotionally, we’ve seen a lot of them grow up.  We started with an average bunch of boys, and now we have boys who are honors, A+ students and C students who became B students.  We also have some who haven’t made the jump yet, but they are progressing, as well.”

Despite hard economic times, the program’s success is acquiring more financial interest.  The Black Male Donor Collaborative donated $100,000 to AAMI in 2010, allowing the program to provide the students with more materials and individualized attention.  “The program is required to evolve,” said Ball.  “Boys have changing needs, so the program has to be nimble.  We are not serving a static population.”

Boys present at ceremony.

Learning to Rock

By Samantha Riley

Campers at Willie Mae Rock Camp. Photo courtesy of WMRC

The five ladies of the punk band Deux Chattes took the stage of Cameo Art Gallery last night- sporting high heels, airy dresses, skinny jeans, and artistic face paint. Everything about them projected rock stardom. They all stared slyly into the audience and suddenly flashed huge grins before grasping onto the microphones. “This one’s for our moms!” the lead singer yells excitedly. After paying a musical tribute to all of their mothers, they sang out with vigor “Willie Mae is the mother of this band!”

These girls range from fourteen to seventeen years old.

Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, a nonprofit organization committed to mentoring young girls through music education and empowerment has been the birthplace to bands like Deux Chattes and many others who have rocked before them. “We’re a noisy program, kind of by definition,” Karla Schickele, Executive Director of WMRC, laughs as she explains the organization she began.

Founded in 2005, WMRC offers summer incentive and after school programs to girls ages 8-18 and women in Clinton Hill/Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “One of the compelling aspects about the program,” explains Toya Williford, Program Director for Brooklyn Community Foundation, one of the first supporters of WMRC, “was the combinations of music instruction and youth development for younger girls and their ability to bring a variety of young people together from various economic backgrounds all around music.”

Willie Mae Rock Camp has its roots in its weeklong summer day camp, which includes girls from all different communities, backgrounds, and musical experiences. Over two, six day sessions they convert two floors of the Urban Assembly School of Music and Art into a band factory. Tuition is on a sliding scale so everybody who is accepted can create bands, have workshops and practices, and finally participate in a showcase performance in which they share their original song. “They form bands that have band names and logos and a song that they’re so proud of and they’re ready to present it to the world in only six days,” Schickele explains. “It’s completely extraordinary and inspirational.”

But the girls just want to have fun. “They call me the female Kurt Cobain,” beams Henessey Bello-Diaz, Willie Mae camper and guitarist for Duex Chattes, as she gently sweeps her bangs away from her eyes. Deux Chattes was originally formed at the 2010 WMRC summer program and the band has continued ever since with the Rock Camps support.

“Willie Mae really has helped us out so much,” continues Bello-Diaz, 17 . “We started here. They give us a place to practice. They set up all of our shows. We opened for Titus Andronicus at the Mercury Lounge. It was so insane. They did all of that.” Dimitria Carpenter, mother of the lead singers of Deux Chattes expands, “They [WMRC] do so much, even down to buying pizzas during their practices.”

The type of influences that Willie Mae Rock Camp has for girls ranges from this sort of organizational support to helping to develop girls’ characters and self-esteem. “Some girls come in here at the beginning of the week and they’re kind of quiet and shy,” explains Schickele. “But over the few days, you can see them really open up. By the show, they’re going crazy like rock stars up on the stage. They quite literally find their voice.”

For parents, this sort of service is priceless. “It’s not just about playing music,” says Vicky Bello-Diaz, Henessey’s mother. “It’s about empowerment. To see her [Henessey] love what she’s doing so much is really great to a parent… As soon as she played that final show during her first summer at Rock Camp, there was no turning back.”

Williford continues that this sort of empowerment is what makes them a valuable part of the Brooklyn community. Together with 15 other local, girl-serving organizations, they form the Brooklyn Girls Collaborative. The purpose of this is to help coordinate professional development, curriculum design, and community organized and led conferences focused on the topic of youth choice and progress. “They put youth development first and the music second,” she continues. “It’s very focused on providing the social and emotional support that young women need but again, the music is fun. I definitely see them as an up and coming youth organization within the youth development field.”

Up and coming indeed. Over the past six years, the summer camp has expanded to include approximately 160 girls, a sharp increase considering that their inaugural session consisted of 66. Even with this increase, they still have to turn down one-third of their applicants each year. Willie Mae Rock Camp has worked to add more programs to provide for their expansive nature and increasing demand, including Willie Mae Music Lab and Ladies Rock Camp.

The Music Lab offers after school instrument lessons, band mentoring, resident bands, gear loans, public programs, DJ labs in conjunction with UAMA, and Ladies Jams in which women can practice their instruments and work together in a band setting. Ladies Jams are similar to the Ladies Rock Camp program, which is a fundraiser where women from all different backgrounds and musical capabilities spend three days in workshops, instructions, and band practices. “At the end I got to put on black lipstick and wear extensions and just jam out,” says Carpenter, who also participated in Ladies Rock Camp to rock out like her daughters. “It was pretty different from the church singing I’m used to.”

A Band Formed at Ladies Rock Camp. Photo courtesy of WMRC.

And Schickele sees no end in sight. “I want to see the Rock and Roll High School for Girls,” she proudly grins while she drapes her arm casually over the back of the couch on which she sits. “If we had those kinds of resources to just have a place where girls could come and empower themselves and learn and rock. It would just be incredible.”

For now, Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls continues to establish itself as a kind of second home to these girls- a place where they come to learn, empower themselves, laugh, create, and simply rock out. “I’ve been here for so long, I can’t believe I’m leaving soon. But I’m definitely going to come back and volunteer,” Henessey explains as she sorrowfully looks down to the tiles in the Willie Mae Rock Camp office. But the she glances up, grin in place. “You know, when I’m a famous rock star. I’ll say ‘look girls, I started out at Willie Mae too.’”

Singing in the Subway

by Katharine Ulrich

Her voice echoes beautifully, not competing with the din of the school children chattering and the homeless people shouting and the clicks of turnstiles and clattering of shifting train tracks, but complementing it. The harried commuters rush by to get to Penn Station to take the LIRR, the hipsters head to Brooklyn on the NQR, and mothers pushing strollers rush to catch the uptown 6, but for just a moment, people in the Union Square subway station are brought together by that age-old unifier: music. And in that moment, there is a community in the subway, one of the least friendly places in New York, all because of Natalie Gelman, subway chanteuse.

“You have to be prepared for anything. You don’t know who you will connect with, who will open up their heart to your music,” says Gelman. “You’re throwing people out of their normal daily commute…you’re giving them something more substantial to think about than ‘what’s for dinner?’”

As a native New Yorker born to musician parents, Gelman began performing at open mic nights in clubs like CBGB and The Bitter End when she was only 17, but it was the subway that really influenced her music style, allowing her to sing for a wider variety of listeners.

“In a perfect world, the term alternative would still mean what it used to in the ‘90’s,” she says of her genre. “But it [my music] straddles the line between the quieter and more intimate stuff, but also powerful and rocking. It’s alterna-rock punk-pop.”

After a few attempts at “busking” (as street performing is called) nine years ago, a friend encouraged Natalie to start playing guitar and singing in the subway for money. It was here she realized the influence not only she can have as a performer, but subway performing can have on her. As a member of Music Under New York, or MUNY, Natalie now has a schedule of where to perform, her MUNY permit affording her protection from harassment by police officers for starting crowds.

MUNY was initiated by the Mass Transit Authority in 1987 to promote the music culture by “presenting quality music to the commuting public” according to its website. With over 100 musical acts performing music of various genres, from folk to opera to blues, the popular program is positively changing our commutes. Just ask Cathy Grier, or NYC Subway Girl, a MUNY member since 1999.

“The message of MUNY is just ‘good sounds’,” says Grier. “Whether you like the genre or not, any music is definitely more pleasing than door alarms and metal scratching and grating train brakes. The program is to create and provide diversity, and as a performer, your lofty ideals of life, career and success are turned around. It’s a humbling experience.”

Despite having performed her “folked-up blues” music everywhere from bars in Key West, Florida, to across Germany as a member of a touring French girl band, Grier is most inspired by subway performing, favoring three spots within Grand Central (each location has different acoustics and atmosphere, so she “changes rhythms and tempos accordingly”). She is even recording an album of songs about the subway in the subway.

“Music becomes different in the subway. I’m influenced by what’s around me,” says Grier. “I’m not just standing there-it’s different every time. You pick up on the energy around you.”

Tom Swafford, a classically trained composer and arranger with a PhD in composing from UC Berkeley, also recorded an album about performing in the subway called 7th Avenue. At first, he did not even realize he was improvising the same songs repeatedly, but when he did, he decided to make an album.

“An album would literally give me a record of what I’ve been doing with my life lately,” says Swafford. “I played so often at the 7th Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, people who knew my music appreciated it.”

Although Gelman, Grier and Swafford have had very different performance experiences, all describe the subway as one of their favorite venues due to the inherent spontaneity of busking underground.

“It took me awhile to understand the concept of performing in the subway. Live performance is a type of art in itself,” says Cathy. “The immediate reaction, or no reaction. Either way, you’re part of the fabric. It’s a pass-through because people are not coming to hear you [like at a concert]. This is a way to just make people happy.”

This is a sentiment shared by all subway musicians; regardless of what type of music they are playing, it is about how that music makes the listeners feel that matters. Across the board, the goal is to put a smile on the face of just one person.

It is not a requirement to be a MUNY member to perform in the subway, however. Plenty of musicians perform without a permit due to a variety of reasons, including the competitiveness of becoming a MUNY member.

Morgan O'Kane taking a break in Union Square subway station

“The nice part about playing on the streets and in the subway is there are no real rules,” says O’Kane. “The city just wants a piece of everyone, and I’m doing my part to give it with my music.”

In other words, he does not need MUNY because it’s the freedom that comes with performing that he enjoys. O’Kane does not have another job besides busking around Union Square and Lorimer stations, but does make “a decent living.”

This is what makes playing in the New York City subway the ultimate performance: you do not need a permit, contract, producer, album, or big name. You need your voice, perhaps a musical instrument, and that is it. Commuters can come and go, but that experience of performing will last forever. You were there and sang a song, and even if only with a smile, you changed someone.

“Subway performance is just about the music,” says Swafford. “It’s about the expression of the players, what we are communicating to the commuters. It’s not about flashy labels and showing off. It’s about expressing a genuine love for music, plain and simple.”

Digital Immigrants Making the Move

By: Elan Bird

An large digital divide exists between those born into today’s technology generation and those who did not grow up using a computer, but Abby Stokes believes that anyone can learn to use a computer, no matter what age.

“I refer to anyone over the age of 40 as a digital immigrant and anyone under 40 a digital native,” says Abby Stokes, a professional actor, turned teacher, turned author. “Any immigrant, even if the food is good, is never home in a country that is not theirs.” This is one of the principle tenets Stokes uses to “demystify” computers, a process developed through the inspiration of her own mother and presented in her book Is This Thing On: A Handbook for Latebloomers, Technophobes, and the Kicking & Screaming. Her patient approach of teaching details has allowed her to help over 135,000 individuals, throughout seventeen years, most of them senior citizens, to make the move and become connected in this digital age.

The Pew Research Center’s “Generations 2010” report, by Kathryn Zickuhr, measures Internet use among six different groups and the impact on American life. Statistics show that 58 percent of the Silent Generation (ages 65-73) use the Internet and account for 5 percent of the total online population. 30 percent of individuals in the G.I. Generation (age 74+) use the Internet, which accounts for 3 percent of the total online population. While a lack of money and resources contribute to this dearth of seniors online, one fact remains certain—learning to operate some of today’s technology can be a source of great frustration, even for the most plugged-in people.

“It’s exasperating,” said Marion Matthews, a New Yorker who has tried many different approaches to learning e-mail and the Internet. “I’ve learned how to use a computer through different ways and people over time but e-mail is so difficult.”

It may be a failure of design or a fault in one’s own internal wiring, but those who have not grown up using computer technology simply have a difficulty understanding it. That is where Abby Stokes steps in.

“I think of a computer as a car,” says Stokes, in a presentation at the New York Public Library’s Senior Jamboree, held on May 5th at the 23rd Street Epiphany Library branch, “I can drive a car, but I don’t need to know how it works to operate it.”

A December 2009 Nielsen study reported that from 2004, the number of seniors using the Internet increased more than 55 percent, from 11.3 million users in November 2004 to 17.5 million in November 2009, and the numbers continue to grow. The New York Public Library has increased these statistics through programming.

“We have about 90 branches and we’ll send Abby to ten different ones to give her presentation, and they love it,” says Brigid Cahalan, a Librarian for the New York Public Library who schedules Abby at events in various NYPL locations around the city. “Abby makes them realize that they can do it.”

Programming at the New York Public Library has proven effective and inspirational to many who want to learn but can’t afford expensive or complicated methods.

“We’ve had people coming in all day since we started at 10:30, like ‘When is the computer presentation? When is she coming? I saw her at Kips Bay, I saw her at Morningside Heights,” says Epiphany Library head librarian Elissa Kling, who organized the Jamboree on May 5th.

Stokes also works with Older Adults Technology Services, OATS, a non-profit organization that sees technology as a way to improve the lives of older adults.

“It can be very difficult for an older person, who is supposed to be older and wiser, to cope with the feeling of not knowing how to use technology or to feel like they are being left out,” says Renee Coronado Martinez, Director of Digital Communities for OATS, who has worked closely with Stokes to teach computers to seniors in the New York area. “Technology is so youth focused, but the more older adults are online and involved in discussions, the more our society sees them, understands them and values them.”

The average computer-user does not realize that the smallest function, like using a mouse or typing on a keyboard, is difficult for a digital native. Stokes understands this and explains every step, from turning on the computer, to ultimately learning how to visit her website. Shirley Farnsworth, at seventy-eight years old, has seen her computer skills evolve.

“I was given a computer by my kids, but I had no idea how it operated at all. The classes they give in the library are lousy.

They assume you know something,” she says. “I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know when they said touch the mouse there’s the left side and the right side.”

For Farnsworth, like many seniors, learning to use a computer and the Internet opened the door to new opportunities. Born into a family of actors, and once a singer herself, Farnsworth found a way to satisfy her artistic desires through the computer after her singing voice was destroyed from a colon operation gone awry.

Stokes and Ainslie at a 2011 book signing in Arizona

“I found a woman in a forum who produced free graphics. [The graphics] helped me create images and put them together to make cards, and I’m sort of noted for it,” she said. “It’s been a joyous thing, and becoming more disabled all the time it really helps me.”

Many seniors want to learn but just haven’t found the correct method to truly understand that they are in fact capable of learning to use a computer.

“I bought several books that I thought would help me, Yahoo for Dummies and The Internet for Dummies were two, but nothing really seemed to help,” said Larry Ainslie, whose wife found Stokes’ book after a serious of discouraging attempts to learn to use a computer.

Abby Stokes, despite no formal training or instruction, made a business out of helping people realize that they can do what she does.

“I didn’t go to college, I didn’t take a class on computers,” she says, surprised at her own accomplishments, “If an offer comes your way, the answer should be yes. I can’t fly a plane but I could probably learn how to fly a plane.”