Priscilla Kipp

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My Life on the Road is a traveler’s journey like no other, and Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient (President Obama called her a “champion notice-er”), journalist, organizer and activist, is your unique guide.

As a child from Toledo, Ohio, Steinem accompanied her father across the country whenever the spirit—and the need to earn money—moved him. Her mother, suffering from depression and unable to continue her own career, taught Steinem the painful price a woman could pay for staying put and isolated. Leading us on her road trips as a child and later as an activist and organizer, Steinem attaches faces and stories to the many reasons she loves and learns from it all. At 81, she is still at it.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Smith College, Steinem began her global education with a two-year fellowship in India. Here she learned the value of community. Traveling on trains with women who had little but shared everything, Steinem became part of their “talking circles,” where “listeners can speak, speakers can listen, facts can be debated, and empathy can create trust and understanding.” In this age of Twitter, email and texting, she cautions us not to forget the irreplaceable value of face-to-face dialogue in a shared space.

What makes Steinem such a credible activist and organizer for human rights is her ability to listen to and learn from others. For example, she learns from Native Americans that Ben Franklin used the Iroquois Confederacy as a model for the U.S. Constitution (except the Founding Fathers left out women). She asks, what else didn’t we learn in school?

If at the end of this inspiring trip, you aren’t inclined to share her wanderlust, you may at least see your own world—and opportunities for improving it—differently. As Steinem says, “We have to behave as if everything we do matters—because sometimes it does.”

My Life on the Road is a traveler’s journey like no other, and Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient (President Obama called her a “champion notice-er”), journalist, organizer and activist, is your unique guide.

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At 51, his days full of work and travel as an Emmy Award-winning correspondent for CNN, Tom Foreman relaxes in what free time he has. He ignores the added pounds and growing lethargy until the day his 18-year-old daughter asks, “Will you run a marathon with me?” Foreman is too loving a dad to say no, and way too far past his days as a competitive runner to rise easily to her challenge.

In Foreman’s witty and endearing chronicle, My Year of Running Dangerously, we follow his transformation from self-described couch potato to marathoner, then ultra-marathoner. You don’t have to be a runner to understand—and feel—the blood, sweat and tears Foreman pours into his training and his first marathon with his daughter, the one he ran for her and—she later admits—she ran for him, to get him off that couch.

About halfway through this well-paced read, you may be asking, as does Foreman himself, why endure such punishment? The marathons and half-marathons keep coming, and then there is the 50-plus mile ultra-marathon he cannot resist giving a try. His brother survives a heart attack. His mother worries he’s next. His wife and daughters adjust, and readjust, to accommodate his all-consuming obsession. Foreman admits he cannot even manage one night out with his frustrated wife without bringing up his next run. Yet, lucky for him, those closest to Foreman rise to go the distance in offering their support. Together they learn that the goal is to go on challenging yourself, period. Balance comes with the eventual realization that, consequently, life is fuller and each moment richer. 

Anyone who runs, has been inspired by their own child or has tried to accomplish something difficult will find plenty worth pondering in the story of Foreman and his family. Life, he concludes, “is worth more than just living.” You just need to go for it.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

At 51, his days full of work and travel as an Emmy Award-winning correspondent for CNN, Tom Foreman relaxes in what free time he has. He ignores the added pounds and growing lethargy until the day his 18-year-old daughter asks, “Will you run a marathon with me?” Foreman is too loving a dad to say no, and way too far past his days as a competitive runner to rise easily to her challenge.
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Descendants of the biblical farmer Cain can see the world through the shepherd’s eyes of his brother Abel in this memorable journey with today’s Abels, the Fulani nomads of Mali. Modern times encroach upon the ancient paths of their seasonal pilgrimages: New generations trade their Zebu cows and goats for the settled life, cellphones and urban good times. Overhead, warplanes commandeer the skies, working the ever-changing frontlines of terrorism in West Africa. Borders and rules—and risks—adjust with regimes. Climate change distorts the seasons, pummeling these travelers with untimely droughts and ravaging storms.

Yet the estimated 20 million Fulani, the largest nomadic group in the world today, continue their migrations. Following one family’s transhumance through dry and rainy seasons, across desert, river and the timeless, arid lands of the sahel, Anna Badhken shows their resistance to all modern measures of time and context. Living only in the thatched huts they carry with them, sleeping under the sky, they move on. And on.

They carry family ties and a sense of home with them wherever they are, moving forward to the next good thing: food and drink for their cattle, and hence for themselves. They live in the here and now in ways the modern world has lost even the memory of, and their story, told with deftly measured, evocative prose and poetically precise detail, slows the reader down to consider just what that means.

Allowed to embed herself with one Fulani family, the experienced war correspondent Badkhen infuses her story with the kind of authenticity only a fellow traveler can know. A lifelong wanderer herself, she says, “The truest way to tell such stories, I find, is to live inside of them. To write about the nomads, I walked alongside.” And so, thanks to her, do we.

 

Priscilla Kipp is a writer in Townsend, Massachusetts.

Descendants of the biblical farmer Cain can see the world through the shepherd’s eyes of his brother Abel in this memorable journey with today’s Abels, the Fulani nomads of Mali. Modern times encroach upon the ancient paths of their seasonal pilgrimages: New generations trade their Zebu cows and goats for the settled life, cellphones and urban good times. Overhead, warplanes commandeer the skies, working the ever-changing frontlines of terrorism in West Africa. Borders and rules—and risks—adjust with regimes. Climate change distorts the seasons, pummeling these travelers with untimely droughts and ravaging storms.
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When his 15-year old son, Samori, was devastated by the news that Ferguson, Missouri police had been exonerated in the death of Michael Brown, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic and an eloquent, powerful voice on the subject of race relations, felt compelled to address his son’s despair. The resulting book was originally scheduled for publication in September, but was rushed into print by publisher Spiegel & Grau in response to a surge in interest that followed the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina.

An angry, proud, despairing, vigilant, fearful and fiercely loving father, Coates watches his son confront what he calls the barriers, distances and breaches that stand Between the World and Me (the phrase comes from a poem by Richard Wright). Offering wisdom as well as comfort, he guides Samori through these challenges as they concern the African diaspora, the range and significance of which Coates first glimpsed as a student at Howard University. Growing up in Baltimore, he had to learn the culture and ways of the gang-oriented street in order to survive. He was an indifferent student saved from a predictable fate by the discipline and expectations of his own father. He tells his son how he arrived in Washington, D.C., dazzled by the global span of black scholars, poets, music-makers and activists he finds there. He discovers a new kind of power in learning from them his true heritage and legacy, far removed from the white version of the American Dream.

Initially dismissive of the nonviolent protestors of the civil rights movement, Coates is inspired by the more pragmatic Malcolm X. With an honesty that is intimate and endearing, he recounts for Samori the moment when he fully realizes his country’s unacknowledged, deeply troubling history: In 2001, Prince Jones, an innocent African-American friend, is killed by a Maryland policeman. The officer is exonerated.

Coates understands that he cannot protect his son. Children born into African-American families, he says, come already endangered: Parents beat their children first so that police will not beat or kill them later. It is not enough to want or expect police to change. He believes reform cannot happen unless we as a nation change, recognizing that they are us.

In a June 2014 article for The Atlantic (“The Case for Reparations”), Coates catalogued a history of institutionalized wrongs inflicted upon African Americans, ranging from government policies to fraudulent business practices. Now Coates likens such racism to a disembodiment, and he calls on Samori—named for an African king who died resisting foreign rule—to reclaim his identity, his body.

Ultimately, Coates’ powerful message, driven by a parent’s love, remains painfully hopeful. The struggle for change has meaning, and questions matter, perhaps even more than the answers.

 

When his 15-year old son, Samori, was devastated by the news that Ferguson, Missouri police had been exonerated in the death of Michael Brown, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic and an eloquent, powerful voice on the subject of race relations, felt compelled to address his son’s despair.
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Taking your boat out on open water any time soon? Already there? You’ll want to weather life’s inevitable storms by keeping your anchor and flares aboard at all times. If an emergency strikes, you will need something to hold you steady, and lights can summon help. In this tender follow-up to her 2007 bestseller, Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup weathers her own storms—the sudden death of a spouse and the inevitable departure of a child growing up—and calls upon her work as chaplain for the Maine Game Warden Service to help in her most personal ministry, her family.  

What is hope? she asks, and finds it in one bereaved mother’s ability to carry on after her son drowns, frozen in a pond until spring. What is love, if not the embrace a law officer gives to the dead man’s grieving, deadbeat dad? Does prayer work? she asks in despair, and finds the harder answer lies not in its outcome but in its usefulness, in the love it evokes. 

Suddenly widowed with four young children, Braestrup has had occasion to question everything. Her late husband, a state trooper, was leaning toward the ministry when killed, and she follows his path. As chaplain to the game wardens, she helps both rescuers and victims, providing “spiritual triage” for those in need. 

Now her firstborn has decided, at 17, to enlist in the Marine Corps while war erupts in Iraq and Afghanistan. With earthy humor and humbling honesty, Braestrup strikes a balance between the necessary letting go and the enduring parental instinct to protect. 

 

This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Taking your boat out on open water any time soon? Already there? You’ll want to weather life’s inevitable storms by keeping your anchor and flares aboard at all times. If an emergency strikes, you will need something to hold you steady, and lights can summon help. In this tender follow-up to her 2007 bestseller, Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup weathers her own storms—the sudden death of a spouse and the inevitable departure of a child growing up—and calls upon her work as chaplain for the Maine Game Warden Service to help in her most personal ministry, her family.
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Bob Morris may have disappointed, infuriated and befuddled his parents along the way, but he loves them enough to keep trying to get it right. In Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents, a memoir that offers few sentimental excuses while laying bare his big, if often misguided, heart, Morris does an unforgettable job of trying to redeem himself. He even manages to share the humor in it all. Anyone who has ever had to survive that heart-piercing time when the parent becomes the child, the child finds himself a most reluctant caregiver, and both are miserably needy, will see themselves in this familiar familial tale. As NPR’s Scott Simon recently said about his own memoir, Unforgettable, “There are some lessons that only grief and responsibility can teach us.”

When Morris’ mother lies dying after a years-long decline, her son—a successful writer and happily married, middle-aged gay man—questions how well he has done by her. Could he have made her days and agonizing death easier? Yet his name is the last word she utters when he finally, reluctantly reaches her deathbed. Now is the time to commit to being a better son for his father’s remaining years. No easy task: His father is as eccentric as he is lovable, and not one to go calmly anywhere. Soon the octogenarian has a long-distance girlfriend and a longer list of needs, as his health rapidly fails. When the son can manage to overcome his own impatience and annoyance, they have quite the time together. It is a painful, comical push and pull as together they navigate through to that final hour.

Exclaiming “Wonderful!” as he gives up the pump keeping him alive, the father achieves a dignified death. Morris takes this final word as a blessing due a good son. He combines it with his mother’s last word to create the title that begins this story of memorable endings.

Bob Morris may have disappointed, infuriated and befuddled his parents along the way, but he loves them enough to keep trying to get it right. In Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents, a memoir that offers few sentimental excuses while laying bare his big, if often misguided, heart, Morris does an unforgettable job of trying to redeem himself. He even manages to share the humor in it all.
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In the poem she wrote for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, “Praise Song for the Day,” Elizabeth Alexander asked, “What if the mightiest word is love?” In The Light of the World, her memoir about the sudden death of her husband in 2012, the poet, essayist and playwright renders her own exquisite response. Using her medium of words, she illuminates and lyricizes the life of her mate—the painter and political refugee Ficre Ghebreyesus—and the shattering grief that follows his death at age 50. Her tool is the brush of poetic sensibility, casting her words through the filtering lenses of the African diaspora, the couple’s Eritrean and African-American ancestors, and her own sustaining community. Alexander creates an intimacy that coaxes a transformative empathy from her reader, and she rewards with a profound understanding of love and loss.

Yet, as sudden as Ficre’s death is, Alexander describes her grieving as mercifully graded, an evolution that allows her and their two young sons time to retrieve Ficre’s essence. First, there is the gut-wrenching physicality of the moment of his death, all senses erupting as she sees her lover leave his body behind. In the aftermath, she looks for him in what was once the familiar: Ficre in his garden, among the peonies he planted to bloom on her birthday; Ficre in his studio, where brushes still hold his touch; Ficre in the dishes he created as a popular chef. These comforting remainders—intensely sensual—carry her through that first aching year of widowhood. Finally, she moves her family from suburb to the city, not to flee memory’s hold in the house they all had shared, but to resume the plan the couple once had for their future.

Ficre too will live on because, as promised in Alexander’s poem, “Love beyond marital, filial, national . . . casts a widening pool of light.”

 

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In the poem she wrote for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, “Praise Song for the Day,” Elizabeth Alexander asked, “What if the mightiest word is love?” In The Light of the World, her memoir about the sudden death of her husband in 2012, the poet, essayist and playwright renders her own exquisite response.
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BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, April 2015

It’s reassuring to discover that heroes, both ancient and modern, are not somehow supernaturally endowed after all. Indeed, they may come by their skills quite naturally. In the thoroughly absorbing Natural Born Heroes, which tracks heroism from the times of Zeus and Odysseus to the World War II bravery of a motley crew of fighters, Christopher McDougall makes it clear that incredible acts of strength and endurance are doable. His extensive knowledge of fitness training, nutrition and physiology winds artfully around a tale of superhuman resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Greek island of Crete, Hitler’s designated launching pad for the invasion of Russia.

By the time Crete’s WWII heroes succeed, we know every detail of how they did it, and how, by reviewing the knowledge and skills they possessed, it is possible for their modern counterparts to do the same. Our skills are inborn, McDougall argues, forgotten perhaps, but recoverable. These “natural strengths” can make anyone useful in the most challenging situations. Just ask Norina Bentzel, a Pennsylvania school principal who in 2001 saved her kindergarteners from a machete-armed intruder.

At the heart of McDougall’s story lies a similar David versus Goliath duel. The Goliath in this case was Hitler, who never saw these Davids coming. A band of British special forces—described as the least-likely combatants in all of Europe—managed to kidnap Nazi General Heinrich Kreipe in 1944 under the very nose of his fellow commander. Nazi retaliation against the locals was swift and bloody, yet Cretan resisters risked their lives to aid the kidnappers. How did they—both British commandos and locals—manage to flee the Nazi pursuers and traverse a mountain, with very little food or rest, and challenges at every turn?

McDougall, author of the 2009 bestseller Born to Run and himself a highly trained athlete, solves this mystery with a witty eye for every detail, inspiring his own captive audience along the way.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

It’s reassuring to discover that heroes, both ancient and modern, are not somehow supernaturally endowed after all. Indeed, they may come by their skills quite naturally. In the thoroughly absorbing Natural Born Heroes, which tracks heroism from the times of Zeus and Odysseus to the World War II bravery of a motley crew of fighters, Christopher McDougall makes it clear that incredible acts of strength and endurance are doable. His extensive knowledge of fitness training, nutrition and physiology winds artfully around a tale of superhuman resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Greek island of Crete, Hitler’s designated launching pad for the invasion of Russia.
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You don’t have to be an expert on Chinese proverbs to discern what might happen when an egg meets a stone, but you will understand much more about modern China and its struggling people when you meet this fearless egg: Chen Guangcheng, the narrator of the riveting memoir The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China. Born in 1971, blind since infancy, growing up in dire poverty, Chen learns to escape all his constraints. Barred from the village school and its force-fed propaganda, Chen instead learns from his father that the folktales and myths of his homeland carry a message: As surely as empires will rise, corruption will bring them down. Justice must find its way.

Soon Chen becomes a “barefoot lawyer,” self-taught and fighting for rights for the disabled, including himself, rights which exist in Chinese law but not reality. He learns the wisdom of using media to bring victims’ struggles to worldwide attention as he exposes the brutal violence that enforces the government’s one-child policy. The perils of his activism will eventually wreak havoc on anyone who befriends him, endangering their lives as well as his own.

Imprisoned for more than four years on false charges and in failing health, Chen is forced to endure house arrest. He can go nowhere, speak to no one and receive no medical treatment, surrounded by forces hoping he will die. Instead, in 2012, Chen miraculously escapes and flees—despite a broken foot—to the American embassy in Beijing. After a series of diplomatic firestorms, in themselves a gripping tale, Chen finds safety in America. Only broken promises and more troubles, however, befall his extended family left behind.

This is a story that will go on. As a presidential election year nears and foreign policies are scrutinized, Chen, as outspoken as ever in Washington, D.C., will no doubt see to that.

You don’t have to be an expert on Chinese proverbs to discern what might happen when an egg meets a stone, but you will understand much more about modern China and its struggling people when you meet this fearless egg: Chen Guangcheng, the narrator of the riveting memoir The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China. Born in 1971, blind since infancy, growing up in dire poverty, Chen learns to escape all his constraints. Barred from the village school and its force-fed propaganda, Chen instead learns from his father that the folktales and myths of his homeland carry a message: As surely as empires will rise, corruption will bring them down. Justice must find its way.
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Grandparents who love their only grandchild fiercely, but haven’t spoken since their divorce 50 years ago, incite her urgent question: What happened? As she writes in A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France, Miranda Richmond Mouillot hopes to recreate a fairy tale of love found, and somehow lost, amid the turmoil of World War II. But her grandparents, Armand and Anna, are growing frail and their memories of fleeing Nazi-occupied France are painful.

Anna, who lives in New York, deftly dodges specifics, all the while encouraging her granddaughter to move on and seek a life for herself in the French village where the couple’s abandoned house is sinking into ruin. In Geneva, Armand rages at any mention of his ex-wife, while his granddaughter’s probing questions try to stop his memory from slipping into the shadows of dementia.

Mouillot is haunted by her own nightmares that often pitch her into unexplainable despair, fears that, she learns, are the burden that descendants of the Holocaust must carry. Along with her grandparents’ gradually revealed history come details of horror and heartbreak—allowing her to finally understand her dreams.

Mouillot takes the reader along on her quest to learn what went wrong with her grandparents’ marriage, skillfully interweaving past and present as she tries to restore their ruined home and falls in love herself. Written with an almost poetic transcendence of time, place and memory, this moving memoir chronicles an amazing circle of life. No fairy tale, it is as epic as the times in which Anna and Armand lived and the love they inspired.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Grandparents who love their only grandchild fiercely, but haven’t spoken since their divorce 50 years ago, incite her urgent question: What happened? As she writes in A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France, Miranda Richmond Mouillot hopes to recreate a fairy tale of love found, and somehow lost, amid the turmoil of World War II. But her grandparents, Armand and Anna, are growing frail and their memories of fleeing Nazi-occupied France are painful.
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We humans tend to like our maps, our GPS devices, explicit directions and clear instructions. We want the how-tos: how to get there, how to cook, build, decorate and repair things. We need to know how to do it—and that we can do it. How We Are, the first book of Vincent Deary’s forthcoming How We Live trilogy, is such a handbook for the questing spirit.

With the patience and assurance of an articulate guide, Deary invites us to consider intriguing ideas about human behavior. Drawing on his experience as a health psychologist and using a wealth of cultural, historical and literary references that range from the Buddha, to Nazi concentration camps, to Dorothy in the land of Oz, he leads us to examine ourselves. He shows us how, in the “grooves of the heart” and the pathways of the brain, we are conditioned to seek comfort in the status quo.

Human beings are creatures of habit. Change makes us uneasy, whether we seek it (as in a new opportunity at work or in love) or find it thrust upon us (as in grief, sudden illness or the classic midlife crisis). Yet this process of adapting is what elevates us from the automatic responses of a life hardly lived. Change, he tells us with wit and contagious energy, frees us from the stifling weight—and security—of the same-old, same-old.

Deary knows about change. At the age of 40, he moved to Edinburgh and began a new life there as an aspiring writer and, eventually, a single parent of a teenager. He is transformed by the experience. By the time he has helped us examine our innate struggle to accept change and even find comfort there, we too are ready to welcome and appreciate what he calls a new “conscious competence.” Such mindfulness is the higher calling we deserve, Deary says—and with a better understanding of human nature, we’ll be far more likely to achieve it.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

We humans tend to like our maps, our GPS devices, explicit directions and clear instructions. We want the how-tos: how to get there, how to cook, build, decorate and repair things. We need to know how to do it—and that we can do it. How We Are, the first book of Vincent Deary’s forthcoming How We Live trilogy, is such a handbook for the questing spirit.
Interview by

With Ruthless Tide, Al Roker offers a riveting account of the 1889 Johnstown Flood, one of the worst disasters in U.S. history, and shines a light on the human causes behind this tragedy.

Why did you decide to write about the 1889 Johnstown Flood?
This was one of those stories that you hear about in weather folklore, but I didn’t really know the full story. When I started to look into it, I was blown away by its complexity and its underlying layers of class, wealth and power in this country.

Nature alone was not responsible for the flood. Can you expand?
The Johnstown Flood was a confluence of events: severe weather, a disregard for proper engineering and proper planning, and a disregard for the environment and the people living within it who are less fortunate.

Were you surprised by the seeming callousness of the elite society in the face of the disaster? Do you think such upper-class indifference still affects matters today?
I don’t think you have to be a student of societal problems to see that, in many instances, class differences and total disregard for those less fortunate still exist today. And we are seeing a rollback of the protections for environmental and societal issues at a rapid pace. It’s only a matter of time before another natural disaster brings destruction and misery because of the elimination or relaxation of those rules put in place over the years to protect people.

Clara Barton’s Red Cross faced its first real test in Johnstown after the flood, and many doubted that the organization would be effective in providing relief. How do you think this played out?
I think that expectations were low for Clara Barton and her organization’s success, and in a way, that worked to her advantage. She was able to work in and around the establishment to really get things done. And once she started to achieve results, her momentum added to her success.

Lending greater historical reality to the event, you write about the thieves, scammers and exploiters who preyed upon the survivors. Is that something you felt the overall record needed?
Anytime there are human disasters, it follows—just like night follows day—that there are those who will exploit, prey upon and take advantage of those less fortunate or people thrust into a horrible situation. We’ve seen it time and time again after hurricanes, floods or tornadoes. It’s just interesting to note that it’s not just a modern phenomenon.

Tom L. Johnson, who worked to make public transportation free as Johnstown recovered, was a revolutionary urban planner ahead of his time. What intrigues you about people like Johnson and Barton?
In the face of human tragedy and natural disasters, people can be changed forever and can rise to great heights when called upon. Tom L. Johnson went from being a somewhat callous pursuer of wealth to a believer in the greater good for his fellow man. Clara Barton helped expand an organization that to this day is synonymous with help and healing.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Ruthless Tide.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by NBC Universal.

With Ruthless Tide, Al Roker offers a riveting account of the 1889 Johnstown Flood, one of the worst disasters in U.S. history, and shines a light on the human causes behind this tragedy.

Interview by

Haben Girma was born deafblind in California, to refugee parents forced to flee war-torn Eritrea. While her mother and father struggled to cope as immigrants, Girma simply yearned to belong—“a deafblind girl in a sighted, hearing world.”

Today Girma speaks from a global stage, advocating for improved access to education and services for disabled people. We asked her some questions about her new memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, and about making education accessible for all people.


As a child, you confronted a bull. As a teen, you helped build a schoolhouse in Mali. As an adult, you slid down an iceberg in Alaska. To what or whom do you attribute such fierceness when it comes to your risk-taking?
Seeing is knowing for most people. I can’t sit on the sidelines and watch the world. I could settle for not knowing, or I could choose to experience the world. My sense of curiosity urges me to approach a bull, sift sand for bricks, climb an iceberg and learn everything I can about our surprising world.

Your parents were refugees from the besieged country of Eritrea. You were born with disabilities that made you intensely aware of exclusion: Your diminishing hearing and vision often left you feeling isolated from your peers. How do you relate to your parents’ experience, and how has that helped your own advocacy work?
I grew up listening to the stories of my parents’ struggles during the war. They paved a path through injustice, finding their way through thousands of unknowns. Their stories inspired me to pave my own path as a deafblind woman in a sighted, hearing world.

“The biggest barrier [to inclusivity] is society’s underlying assumption that people with disabilities are incompetent and do not add value to society.”

You once saw your parents’ natural protective instincts as a hindrance to overcome. What advice would you give today, as an adult, to parents of a child who is disabled—and to the child?
Parents, please give your kids the freedom to explore their world, make mistakes and develop into confident adults. Whenever you feel yourself about to utter, “You can’t . . .” pause and give yourself time to research the question. Help your child find solutions.

Kids with disabilities, build friendships with other people with disabilities, including adults. You’ll learn new alternative techniques and advocacy strategies from each other.

Your sense of humor infuses your book. You relate how you learned in childhood that laughter inspires warmth and makes communication easier all around. Have you always had this lightness of heart, or is it something you’ve developed?
Many of my family members express love through joking and teasing. When I started joking back, their laughter delighted me. Since then I’ve actively worked on developing my comedic skills, and recently I’ve been taking improv workshops, too.

You employ a cane, a Seeing Eye dog and electronic technology as assistive tools. What are your hopes for the future of adaptive aids, and how can access to them be broadened?
Some of the most crucial assistive technologies, like Braille computers and power wheelchairs, are not affordable to the people who need them. I’m hoping that future innovations will bring down the cost of assistive tech.

At Harvard Law School, assistive technology and the school’s enlightened approach (providing interpreters, for example) helped you to succeed. Do you think it has become any easier for disabled students today? How can schools do more?
Overall, students with disabilities have greater access now than in the past. Many barriers still exist, though. Schools continue to buy inaccessible learning tools, and teachers continue discouraging disabled students who express interest in math and science. We need all schools to remove barriers so that disabled and nondisabled students can contribute their ideas and learn from each other.

When you are out with people, you ask them to describe in detail the environment you are in, as if, as one friend says, they are setting the scene for a book or movie. In doing that, they become more aware of their surroundings as well. Do you think this is one way to build community between people who are sighted and hearing and people who are disabled?
Disabilities invite people to become more aware of their surroundings. You might tap into senses you rarely pay attention to, like smell and touch. You may notice barriers in the environment, such as garbage cans blocking sidewalk access for wheelchair users. Spending time with someone who experiences a life different from your own will increase understanding and pave the way for meaningful relationships.

“Spending time with someone who experiences a life different from your own will increase understanding and pave the way for meaningful relationships.”

Your ambivalence about acquiring and training a Seeing Eye dog is likely something a sighted person would not consider. What advice would you give to blind or deafblind people when making that decision for themselves?
Blind people need to develop strong travel skills before training with a guide dog. Without travel skills, the blind person and dog will both end up lost. The dogs depend on their human partners to feed them, offer water and provide directions on how to get home. I love traveling with a guide dog and have encouraged many friends to apply to guide dog school. One must master cane travel first, though.

In your “Brief Guide to Increasing Access for People with Disabilities,” you offer clear advice about how not to marginalize disabled people and how to, instead, work together for creative solutions that can benefit the entire community. How do you think children can be sensitized and educated at an early age to be the empathetic, informed adults needed for such cooperation?
We can help children grow into empathetic adults by introducing them to diverse stories at an early age. We can also encourage kids to identify when someone might feel left out and teach them how to reach out and build friendships with kids who may feel marginalized.

In 2015, you met President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You were honored for your own work. What would you say to leaders today, to help ensure the ADA remains viable?
The promise of the ADA depends on enforcement. Leaders need to insist on the removal of barriers that have denied access for people with disabilities for far too long. In cases where stubborn institutions refuse to create inclusion, then leaders can employ the ADA to remove barriers through the legal system.

In your epilogue, you say that today your mission is to “help increase opportunities for people with disabilities through education-based advocacy.” As a public speaker on a global stage, what are you hoping for specifically as the results of your own advocacy?
Through my advocacy I hope to shift the dominant narrative from one where businesses think of disability entirely in terms of charity, if at all, to a world where businesses recognize that choosing inclusion drives growth and innovation.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles today to the inclusivity you seek for disabled people?
The biggest barrier is society’s underlying assumption that people with disabilities are incompetent and do not add value to society.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.

 

Author photo credit: Sean Fenn

Haben Girma, the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School, answers some questions about her new memoir and about making education accessible for all people.

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