Today I attended The Ethnic Pen, an annual writing conference at Bay Shore High School, now in its 19th year. Lead by the inspirational educator Nina Wolff and teacher coordinators Shannon Handley and Joanne Dineen, the conference committee proves just how much individuals can change the world around us. Appropriately, this year's theme of "The World We Want" was discussed by prominent poets, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and students.
Keynote speaker Da Chen, author of the highly acclaimed memoir, Colors of the Mountain, spoke about his childhood in Communist China, where the only thing to combat the boredom and indignities of his life in a repressive small village was the gift of a bamboo flute. He described the contrast between his American-born son's childhood with his own, telling the young people in the audience that with the privileged life they have in America comes the responsibility of making the world a better place. Afterwards, he signed copies of his book, giving each person a different message in Chinese calligraphy. Mine, above, reads longevity. The young man in the image with Da Chen is my student Justin, whose family emigrated from the same region of China as the author. His message: good fortune.
Poet Patricia Smith gave a powerful spoken word performance, reading a range of poems, including several from her new collection entitled Blood Dazzler. Her moving, multi-faceted portrait of the victims of Hurricane Katrina haunted me all day, though it was her poem about her son growing up which brought me to tears.
In honor of the conference's theme, the committee recognized several young people who have already become active in changing the world. One of my students, Sofia Rajabali, seen here with her mother and her sister, was inspired by her reading of Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. Reflecting on her own Pakistani background, she organized a fundraiser and cultural awareness night, raising $1100 to send to Mortenson's organization for a girls' school in Pakistan.
This year's conference and those in attendance prove that words are a powerful way to create the world we want.