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.

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About Kristen Cordero
I'm currently a student in the Gallatin School of Individualized study at New York University. I enjoy movies, photography, writing, and being entertained. Carpe momentum et cetera sequientur.

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