“We have to understand what the world is and that we have the power to restructure what things can be in the future.” Bless Reece ’18 is a prison abolitionist and rising junior at Williams College. At college, she is working to create change by sharing information about the criminal justice system and creating opportunities for empathy.
Bless, a psychology major, is a leader of the Converging Worlds campus club. This small but determined group partners with Black and Pink, an organization that pairs penpals from inside and outside prison. In February 2020, Converging Worlds brought Reinventing Reentry to Williams. Reinventing ReEntry conducts reentry simulations in order to educate about life post-incarceration. “I thought the idea of a simulation was really interesting; it’s hard for people to envision these processes because they don’t see the humanity in it. I didn’t know if a simulation would feel like a game, but we talked about ways for it to remain serious. It definitely grounds you to remember this is what people really go through.” Students and faculty were given identification cards as part of the simulation and asked to complete multiple tasks during the 90-minute session. “You’re waiting in line for the majority of the time. Some people were yelling. It definitely makes people feel personally attacked in a lot of ways.” Bless also completed a research project over the course of her winter study, culminating in a booklet titled “Returning Citizen’s Reentry: A Second Chance “ on the issues facing those who have been formerly incarcerated.
Bless believes that information is key to radical social change. “In a lot of ways, knowledge is power because there’s a lot of history that people don’t know about this system.” At Friends, Bless was deeply influenced by Director of Diversity and Inclusion Jason Craige Harris. “Jason has had a real impact on me. In his class, we were introduced to Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow).” Jason also introduced Bless to the leaders of Reinventing Reentry, helping her to bring the reentry simulation to Williams.
Throughout her booklet, Bless has inserted sections titled “Keep Your Head Up” which serve to inspire the reader and to highlight possibility. The work of an activist can be demanding; but Bless remains hopeful about the future. When asked about the ways the COVID-19 crisis has made an impact on prisons, Bless replied, “A lot of people want to get back to what normal is, but because this pandemic is so far reaching, it’s exposing all these cracks in the system that no one was paying attention to before. I think that instead of moving back to what we perceived as normal, we have an opportunity to move forward with prison reform.”
I don't recall the first day, per se, but I know that I was nervous. I had taught in a school where the students were predominantly African-American and Latino, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in a setting that was so very different.
What has been the most memorable experience of your FS career?
A few things come to mind: (1) Being scolded by Eva Stengel, the math department chair, for running up the stairs because I was late to class. When she reprimanded me, I told her that I was a teacher, not a student (it was my first year), to which she replied, “Young man, I don’t care who you are! Do not run in this building!” Nowadays, one would say that I had been “roasted.” (2) The first time I taught the “A” section of pre-algebra that had a predominance of 7th graders, four or five 6th graders, and two 8th graders. It was memorable because a colleague at the time, Jono Schrode, who could wrap circles around me mathematically, had somehow been tapped to teach the “B” section. I was extremely anxious about how I would fare, but I did all right in the end. (3) Playing the flute with the 5th and 6th grade ensembles in the Winter and Spring Concerts. I started playing the flute when I was 30 years old; Rochelle Itzen was my flute teacher. Bob Rosen eventually became my ensemble teacher as I moved up the ranks to Chamber Players. The experience of being in his classes meant that I had to work my time around my own teaching duties with that responsibility. I haven’t tried playing the flute in years, but it was a great time!
“The more we can sell, the more we can give away.” Laura Fruitman ‘02 is the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Unilever and Founder and General Manager of The Right To Shower, a social enterprise brand founded on the belief that cleanliness is a fundamental human right. “When we think about people who are experiencing homelessness, we think of food and shelter as immediate needs—and they are—but, hygiene and health are important for a sense of dignity, a sense of self.”
The Right To Shower sells thoughtfully crafted body wash and bar soap nationwide through major retailers like Whole Foods and Amazon. Its business model is designed to provide a sustainable revenue stream to their non-profit partners; 30% of the profits are directed toward NGOs providing mobile shower services. Its main partnership is with Lava Mae a nonprofit that began by converting decommissioned buses into mobile shower units in San Francisco, CA where only 16 public restrooms exist to serve more than 7,000 people experiencing homelessness. Today Lava Mae advises others on how to set up mobile showers and how to create a culture of radical hospitality. “Everyone who comes to a mobile shower is called a guest. Each person is given a clean, safe place to take a shower, a fresh towel and The Right To Shower soap.” Through partnership with Lava Mae, The Right To Shower has supported the establishment of mobile showering units across 18 cities in the United States.
The Quaker testimony of Community pervades Laura’s work and leadership. “That’s what we do with The Right To Shower. We believe in community and everyone is a member.” This deep commitment to community inspired Laura’s participation in The World’s Big Sleepout in December 2019. In 56 cities across the globe, people joined together to sleep out in public spaces, raising awareness and funding for the homeless community. In New York, participants slept out in Times Square. “It was very intense. I spend a lot of time thinking about homelessness, but I’d never spent a night on the streets. You are so very vulnerable. It gave me a new perspective and an increased sense of empathy.”Laura traces the roots of her activism back to Friends. “All my service credits at Friends were working in shelters. The idea of invisibility, that people are not seen, was and is really upsetting to me.”
Laura is using her talent and experience as a professional to build a new kind of business model that honors the dignity in every person. “We all have an ability and responsibility to take care of our community; you have a choice and you can vote with your dollars.” Through her work with The Right To Shower, Laura is helping to bring about a world where the right to cleanliness and communities of care are accessible to everyone. “We have a responsibility to the people we live among: we are all people, we all share rights, we all have an inner Light.”
“It’s very easy to forget you have kids in cages in Greece and they’re not called detention centers, they’re called refugee camps.” Hudson McLane ’16 is currently an undergraduate at SOAS University in London; during each summer and holiday break from school, he works as a grassroots activist for refugees in Greece. “Even when run by the better organizations, you are still putting people in tents or containers. What kind of life is someone going to live if they are living out of a box?”
Originally bound for Occidental College, Hudson took a gap year after graduating from Friends Seminary that changed his life path. After taking an internship at the International Rescue Committee in Elizabeth, NJ, Hudson was referred by a family friend to the Khora Community Centre in Athens, Greece. In its original form, Khora was a seven-story building, providing different services to a community of refugees on each floor. “At least 30% of the volunteers were from refugee and migrant communities. It’s not like I am the giver and you are the receiver of my aid or relief. It’s something more in solidarity, more in building relationships.” At Khora, more than 600 hot meals were served each day; educational classes were provided in English, Greek, French, Spanish and German; there was a fully licensed and functioning dentistry floor, as well as a floor with lawyers and recent law school graduates to support those seeking asylum. Hudson spent most of his time in the family space, where children could come and play. “There were lots of programs—cooking classes, arts and crafts, yoga, even a skateboarding group every Thursday called Free Movement.” Simultaneously, Hudson began working in informal settlements. Following the economic crisis in Greece, Hudson estimates approximately one in five buildings in Athens were abandoned; these spaces became occupied by refugees and activists, and self-determined communities arose within them. “It’s not an entirely viable solution to homelessness, but definitely a pathway that hadn’t been properly explored. In the end this occupation was criminalized and they were evicted. They’ve soldered the gates where I’d been working and no one can go through. It was quite traumatic, the evictions.”
Inspired by the Quaker testimony of Peace, Friends Seminary was the first independent school in New York City to offer an Arabic language program which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. Many of the refugees who Hudson worked alongside were from Syria, and he was able to put his four years of Arabic language education from Friends to good use. “By the time I got to Greece, I was speaking Arabic everyday for many hours. I adopted a Syrian dialect.”
Looking to the future, Hudson imagines a world where self-determined communities and grassroots activism will be supported by policy. “Supporting those small solutions creates a somewhat better world, closer to what ought to be. It’s not perfect, but I think it is, in a lot of ways, better.” The Quaker practices of unity and a belief in the Light in every person infuse both his personal ethos and his work. “I’ve worked in places that operate in a way that is quite different from the mainstream. I’ve really come to believe in and appreciate the kind of activism that involves listening and building networks of solidarity.”
My first impressions of Friends were during my interview in 1994. I was attending the Middle School Meeting for Worship on a warm spring day. Upon entering the Meeting House, I can remember the sweet smell of wood emanating from the benches and floor. Back then, we did not have any cushions and the students were expected to sit in silence for 10-15 minutes. I recall being impressed by how still the middle school students were during worship and looked around to see if anyone was as fidgety as I was. I was sitting directly across from Pam Wood, the Head of the Middle School at that time. She was the one in charge of my interview. I felt more antsy than any of the students. Dressed in a suit on a warm day in the Meeting House did not help calm my nerves as my forehand began to bead up with sweat. I did not have anything to wipe off my perspiration, and I kept wondering if Pam was taking note of this. Fortunately, I did get the job and have been at Friends ever since.
Who is your favorite teacher of all time?
This is a difficult question for me to answer. I have had many wonderful teachers throughout my education, but I would say that the one teacher who truly ignited my interest in learning and teaching Spanish was my middle school Spanish teacher, Señora Amdur. She was an interesting mix of dramatic, demanding, and quirky, but commanded tremendous respect from her students. She often spoke to us about the importance of knowing another language and traveling to other cultures outside the United States in order to develop a better understanding of one another. Later in life, I came across a quote by Mark Twain about how traveling can combat intolerance and racism,* and I often wondered if she was inspired by his quote or if it was her personal experience of traveling that lead her to a similar conclusion.