Archive for : Heroes

Repair the World Highlight: Nisha Blackwell of Knotzland

By Rachel Bukowitz

Nisha Blackwell is a self-taught seamstress and founder of Knotzland, a company dedicated to sourcing and rescuing high quality materials and repurposing them into unique, handcrafted bow ties. Born and raised in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Nisha now works with local women in the community by teaching them to sew and make bow ties for Knotzland. Nisha has created a business that supports people and the environment, all the while creating fabulous bowties!

What was your inspiration in starting Knotzland?

I love reuse and reclaiming. Essentially, I’m really passionate about using things that exist already to make things that we want to exist. I initially made a hair bow for friends daughter, and then one thing lead to another and now I’ve ended up in bowtie space.

Can you share a story or example of the impact that Knotzland has had?

There are so many stories, one of my favorite impact areas is working with local women in the seamstress industry. I train women [to make bow ties]. They come in and pick up their supplies and then do their pieces at their home and then they bring them back. The community of women is really special and has impact on the outside community.

What has been the biggest challenge you faced in founding and running Knotzland?

It’s challenging to always be thinking about what growth looks like. People want to scale fast, but I want to scale intentionally and ethically. The bowtie world doesn’t mean scaling fast.

How has investing in sustainability been good for your business?

It’s refreshing for people to see and hear how impactful it is to reuse things that already exist. There has been a huge education component involved. This is slow fashion; it’s not at your doorstep like Amazon Prime. I usually have to have that conversation with customers, explaining why slow fashion is good for the environment.

What is something you are working on now that you are proud of or excited about?

My most recent project was commissioned by City of Pittsburgh through Innovation and Performance (IMP) Inclusive Innovation Week. On the project I was proud to continue working with Darrell Kinsel, a local artist from BOOM Concepts, to make bow ties that were very direct and powerful. We got together and made bow ties with words on them like “Collaborate”, “Peace”, “Equity”, “Innovation”, and “Inclusion” The bowties were then purchased by the City for the ambassadors to wear during Inclusive Innovation Week.

I am proud to make a statement with a brand. Knotzland focuses not just on environmental aspects of the world, but also on social good.

What was it like to be chosen for Facebook’s Small Business council?

[Nisha was chosen to be in the 5th class of Facebook’s Small Business Council which is a private group that consists of 60 members from all types of different companies]

It was a crazy experience! I flew to the Facebook headquarters in San Francisco and had two days of intensive training on topics ranging from creating great content, to advertising, to actually using products. They provided us with a lot of Instagram insight on how to capture audiences and create effective content. Overall, they advised us on tools that help small businesses. Since small business owners usually do a little bit of everything, there is not as much time to learn some of these things like there is in a large business where they can hire a person to do one thing full-time. They answered a lot of our questions and offered us amazing networking opportunities.

Is there anything else you (Nisha) would like me to know, or have included in Repair the World’s blog?

I would like to say that I really appreciate Repair the World. Repair the World provides a platform and space for social justice. Also, Fellows have been customers of Knotzland! Zack [Block, Repair the World Pittsburgh’s Executive Director] and the Fellows have been really supportive of Knotzland.

From Queen Esther to Emma Watson

It’s no coincidence that the Jewish holiday of Purim typically falls in March, AKA Women’s History Month. Okay, maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s a great one. The Purim story, after all, is built around two mighty women: one who stands up for her rights (Queen Vashti) and another who stands up for the rights and safety of her people (Queen Esther).

As we remember and celebrate Jewish tradition’s early female heroines, it is also important to remember that women’s rights issues – everything from gender pay inequality, to women’s healthcare and education access – are still critically important both in America and around the world. That’s why, this Purim, we want to shed light on this ongoing work.

Who better to do that than Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, Emma Watson, herself? In addition to giving a killer speech about gender equality at the UN a couple years back, Watson is a leader of HeforShe, a UN Women campaign focused on bringing all voices around the world together in support of women’s rights.

In the video below, Watson teams up with Broadway star Lin Manuela Miranda (of Hamilton) for an amazing beat box/freestyle flow session about gender equality. It’s worth a watch – we may have watched it twice – and a visit to the UN’s HeforShe campaign page.

And for more on Purim’s heroines, check out this post on My Jewish Learning called Vashti & Esther: A Feminist Perspective.

Repair Inspiration: Auschwitz Survivor Meets German Hip-Hop Duo

File this under awesome: A recent New York Times article told the story about an 89-year old Holocaust survivor who is teaming up with a German hip-hop group called Microphone Mafia to spread music and a message. Read an excerpt below and find the whole article on the Times’ website.

NEW YORK TIMES
Amid the Rap Music, Echoes of an Orchestra Playing in a Dark Past
By: Sally McGrane
June 27, 2014

“BERLIN — AT various points during shows, the German rapper Kutlu Yurtseven gestures to a bandmate sitting demurely off to the side. That’s the cue for 89-year-old Esther Bejarano, a diminutive woman with a snow-white pixie cut, to jump in with a song. “When will the heavens open up, again, for me?” is one favorite, the refrain of a local carnival tune. “When will they open up?”

It is an unusual pairing. Ms. Bejarano is one of the last surviving members of the Auschwitz Girls’ Orchestra, the only all-female ensemble among the many Nazi-run prisoner musical groups in the camp system. Among other duties, the Girls’ Orchestra was responsible for playing the marches that imprisoned women had to keep step to as they went out to work in the morning and, even more cruelly, as they returned, half-dead, at the end of the day.

Five years ago, hoping to reach more young people with her story and her message of tolerance and anti-fascism, Ms. Bejarano teamed up with Microphone Mafia, a German hip-hop duo with Turkish and Italian roots. They have released their first album, and have been playing concerts throughout Germany and Europe ever since.

The music combines songs like the poignant Yiddish resistance song, “We’ll Live Forever,” composed in the Nazi-run Jewish ghetto in Vilna just before it was liquidated, with rap passages about current problems like racism that, in Ms. Bejarano’s view, show that the lessons of the Holocaust still need to be learned.”

Read more…

Repair Inspiration: Malala’s Dad

By now you’ve likely heard of Malala Yousafzai, the courageous teenager who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for the simple act of getting an education. But have you heard about her father, educator Ziauddin Yousafzai?

In today’s bit of Repair Inspiration, here is a video of Mr. Yousafazai giving a TED Talk about his amazing daughter. It begins: “In many patriarchal societies..fathers are usually known by their sons. But I’m one of the few fathers who is known by his daughter, and I’m proud of it.” Let the chills subside, then check out his words in the video below:

Hungry for more? Find more than 1,000 inspirational TED Talks on their website.

Meet Laura Kassen!

Meet Laura Kassen, our Education Campaign Fellow and AVODAH Corps Member! We asked Laura a few questions about her decision to join AVODAH, and her work with Repair: 

Why did you decide to serve with AVODAH this year?

In December 2011, during the fall semester of my senior year in college, I was forced to face “reality.” After constantly being asked various forms of the question “What are you doing next year?” I decided to bulk down and actually figure it out…or at least come up with something I could say in response. At one point I was so overwhelmed with the process that my go-to answer became making up various professions and telling something different to each person who asked. Many people may actually think that I am becoming an astronaut or a professional fortune-cookie writer—I apologize that neither one of these is true, but in my opinion I am doing something way more exciting.

I knew that I wanted to work in some capacity at a non-profit organization, particularly in the Jewish world. I also have always had a strong interest in education and education reform. While perusing Idealist.org, I stumbled upon all these job opportunities that sounded amazing. Then I noticed that they all had something in common—they were all AVODAH placement organizations.

I spent time doing research on AVODAH’s website, talking to Corps members and participating in informational conference calls. AVODAH seemed like it would be a great opportunity to do meaningful work after college. I was excited about the possibility of working at a highly effective non-profit, while living in a communal environment, and engaging in learning opportunities that would help me become an agent for social change. I thought AVODAH would be a great way for me to learn from my peers and help me gain an understanding of what I’d like to do in the future. So in January 2012 I applied to AVODAH, and in May I was thrilled to learn that my placement organization would be Repair the World!

What excited you about serving at Repair the World?

I was super excited (and still am!) about becoming a part of an organization whose mission is something I really value. I have always been proud of my Judaism and interested in service, so it was thrilling to find an organization that seeks to truly connect these two important facets of my life and make them a defining aspect of American Jewish life. I am excited to spread the word about Repair the World and help the organization flourish.

What are you looking forward to this year?

I am looking forward to learning more about structure, and what goes on “behind the scenes” at a non-profit organization. I feel like Repair the World is a great place to do this because it is growing rapidly in terms of outreach, resources and education. I am also looking forward to applying what I learn through AVODAH to my work at Repair the World, whether it be by hearing from my fellow Corps members or learning something during our educational programming.

What would you say to college seniors who might be thinking about doing a year of service post-graduation?

I say if you are able to commit to a year of service, I would definitely encourage you to go for it. A year of service has really put things into perspective for me. I have had the opportunity to learn so much about myself, about social justice, and a wide-spectrum of unique opinions and ideas. And if you cannot dedicate a whole year to doing service, try to become involved in other capacities. Volunteer with your friends on weekends, read up on social inequalities, and attend events with topics related to social justice. You may find something that really grabs your attention!

How do you see this year informing your future career plans?

I think both my experience at Repair the World and AVODAH will help me figure out what I would like to do in my professional career. I hope that I will be fortunate enough to find something that combines all of my interests, and even if I don’t I would like to find out other opportunities to stay involved. I am very excited to grow professionally, expand my interests, and do my part to help with Repair the World’s mission.

Laura Kassen is from Westport, Connecticut. She attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she was an American Studies major and History minor.

 

Repair Hero: Rabbi Stephen Roberts on Providing Spiritual Service After 9/11

Rabbi Stephen Roberts is a professional chaplain – the person to turn to in a crisis for support, advice and spiritual counsel. But he’s also a deep believer in service, both within and outside his official job description. So when the New York branch of the American Red Cross wanted to build an interfaith team of chaplains to serve New York City residents after disasters, he jumped at the chance to volunteer and organize.

That group, which coincidentally started their official service about one week before the attacks on September 11th, ended up playing a pivotal role in providing spiritual care and comfort during the country’s darkest days. Rabbi Roberts took the time to speak with Repair the World about his commitment to serving others, his definition of the word “mazel” (luck in Hebrew), and the role we all play in rebuilding and looking forward after a tragedy.

A couple of years before 9/11 you’d started to recruit chaplains for the American Red Cross. What inspired that?
It was really a story about paying it forward. A close friend of mine – really more of a brother – was killed in a plane crash close to 25 years ago. When he died, one of the ways I got through it was because of some amazing spiritual care from a Rabbi. It really made a difference in my life. Many years later I heard that the American Red Cross was putting together a team of chaplains to provide spiritual care after aviation disasters. I believe deeply in service, and wanted to help create a core of colleagues to do this work. About 2 years before 9/11 I began recruiting a diverse group of chaplains in New York from all the faith traditions. We had actually just completed our preparatory work a week before 9/11. We had been working as a group for months – we were ready to knock on doors, we even had an application form for volunteers.

Wow, what incredible timing!
You know, we normally think about the Hebrew word “mazel” as meaning luck, but I think there’s something more to it. If you read the word backwards, the letter “lamed” (L) stands for limmud, or study, the letter “zayin” (Z) stands for zaman or time, and then there’s the letter “mem” (M), which stands for makom, or place. The notion is, if you have put in the “time” and the “study” into preparing for something, when you finally arrive at the “place,” you are ready for it. That’s really what luck is all about.

What types of care did your team of chaplains provide after 9/11?
We basically had to ramp up our efforts much faster and larger than we’d expected. When I showed up to the Red Cross they told me, “Rabbi – you’ve done all this planning…well now you’re live.” I got on the phone and called my team in. I said, “We’re live starting tomorrow morning – if you can show up, then show up.” We began screening volunteers – imams, rabbis, ministers, and buddhist priests, men, women, black, white, hispanic. Our team ended up including 800 volunteers.

In the first few days after 9/11 we served in front of the family assistance centers – the place where people came to report who was missing, or where biological material was brought to make matches. People stood in line for hours trying to determine if their loved ones were alive or not. So our chaplains wandered the lines and made themselves available. Sometimes, the most powerful spiritual care is about being present. Our presence allowed people to let out their shock and make it through those darkest first days.

How did the work change as the days and weeks went on?
A week and a half or so later, when the memorial services began, we had chaplains there. We handed out water and napkins, and through that work people came to us. We were really a ministry of presence. A month after 9/11 we took over at ground zero, providing chaplains 24/7 in the recovery. We created things like a non-denominational prayer for whenever a body part was recovered. That was for the workers and volunteers – they need a sacred moment, and a reminder that the work they were doing, even if it was happening in the most horrible conditions possible, was sacred. We were there for 9 months until they finally closed the site.

What can rabbis, chaplains and community leaders be doing now – 11 years later – to help their congregations and communities move forward while honoring and remembering?
I co-edited a book with Reverend Will Ashley about training clergy to deal with disaster and spiritual care. I recommend that people read that because it talks about how disasters are a given in life, but what’s most important is how well you’re prepared for them. Our job as clergy is to help the community come back to a new beginning after a tragedy, but really anyone can help facilitate that for their community.

Learn more about the American Red Cross’ work around Disaster Relief, and find out how you can get involved.