AN ARTFUL EXPRESSION OF GRIEF
How do you express grief over lives lost to Covid-19 and police brutality? How do you create community in a time of isolation?
For many Princeton-area residents, the answer arose from Japanese tradition: folding thousands of origami paper cranes.
“When Covid happened, so many people were dying, and it seemed so hopeless,” says Heidi Moon Matsukawa, proprietor of Miya Table and Home, a Japanese tableware and gift store in Princeton. “We started thinking about creating cranes for every person who died in New Jersey from Covid, so people could see the enormity of that number.”
Moon teamed on the project with the Arts Council of Princeton and Ross Wishnick, chair of the Princeton Human Services Commission and founder of the Bank of Princeton. Though the idea was sparked by the coronavirus, it evolved to include the Black Lives Matter movement after the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd.
“It can’t just be about Covid; it has to be about everyone who’s affected and who needs an outlet to express their grief,” says Moon.
The organizers acknowledge they may not be able to keep up with New Jersey’s Covid-19 death toll, which in July was well over 15,000. As of early July, the Princeton project had more than 17,000 cranes.
Folding paper cranes in hopes of having a wish granted is a tradition that gained worldwide attention through the story of Sadako, a Japanese girl who developed cancer after the United States dropped an atom bomb on her hometown of Hiroshima to speed the end of World War II. Sadako hoped to create 1,000 paper cranes, but died before reaching her goal.
The Princeton cranes were being exhibited at the Arts Council through August 29; a large mobile that Moon created from some of the cranes is expected to remain on display at the council.
The council’s artistic director, Maria Evans, says folding the cranes has helped people feel calm and less isolated during the quarantine.
“There was this sense of people working together,” she says.
Jerri Parros says “hello” in her newly learned American Sign Language. Photo by Christopher Lane
SIGN OF THE TIMES: LEARNING TO SIGN
Jerri Parros, a customer service agent for Alaska Airlines, recalls an interaction she had with a man last year at Newark Liberty International Airport. She approached him at a self-service kiosk to ask if he needed assistance. Instead of verbally responding, he gestured with his hands. “I felt bad,” says Parros. “I knew a little [sign language], but not much.”
For years, Parros had wanted to learn American Sign Language. Then, in April, shortly after the state went into lockdown to help stop the spread of Covid-19, she discovered a virtual class offered through the Newark Public Library.
“I thought, Now’s the time,” she says. Although still working, she had some newfound free time. She wanted to put it to good use.
She was not the only one. The first virtual class on April 7 drew more than 12,000 viewers from around the world on Facebook Live. There have been several thousand attendees each week since. After each free, one-hour, live class ends, a recording is posted on YouTube.
The popularity can be attributed in part to the charismatic instructor. Thyson Halley, a program events coordinator at the Newark library, brings enthusiasm and exceptional patience to the video classes. Hard of hearing himself, Halley was a language specialist for nearly 20 years. Most recently, he worked with children with autism at the Phoenix Center in Nutley. He also signs at Chosen Generation Ministries in Newark, where he estimates nearly 40 deaf parishioners come to worship.
Sign language instructor Thyson Halley. Photos by Christopher Lane
“I like Thyson’s energy,” says Parros. “He’s very energetic and positive.” Often speaking and signing simultaneously, Halley has taught students how to sign everything from the alphabet and numbers to emotions and timely words—like social distancing. He believes his is New Jersey’s first virtual American Sign Language class.
Parros is excited to use her new skills at work and beyond. While riding the bus to the airport, Parros, who lives in Newark, often encounters people who are deaf. She feels better equipped to interact with that population. “I know how to say, ‘Slow down’ and ‘Repeat’ and ‘Again,’ if I don’t understand something,” she says.
Halley speaks of a health practitioner who sought out the class after treating a deaf patient. “She wanted to know how to sign, ‘Are you comfortable?’” says Halley. “That really was very touching.
“If you can do a little sign language, that will go a long way,” he adds. “A deaf person’s face will light up like no tomorrow.”
For Parros, the class has also served as a welcome diversion from Covid-19. “I needed some positive distractions,” she says.
She’s proud to emerge from quarantine with a new talent.
“God willing, this will be over at some point,” says Parros, “and I can say, ‘During that time, I learned this.’”
Freehold Borough Police Chief Craig W. Dispenza (dark blue shirt) prays with other officers and Pastor Vester Dock of New Hope Baptist Church, June 2, outside the Monmouth County Courthouse. Photo: © Thomas P. Costello–USA TODAY NETWORK
THE CHIEF TAKES A KNEE
The protest was still young when Chief Craig Dispenza first thought it might end in a way that wouldn’t help anybody. It was the first Tuesday in June, and about 150 people were waving signs and making speeches in a public plaza at the center of Freehold Borough, adding their voices to the wave of anger and frustration that had erupted across the nation after the killing of George Floyd.
Dispenza shared their anger at the Minneapolis police officers who were implicated in Floyd’s death. “As a 30-year law enforcement vet, and coming from a law enforcement family, that was just disgusting—it was a criminal act,” he says. When he became chief last year, Dispenza placed on one side of his office the billy club that belonged to his grandfather, who was a New York City police officer. On the opposite wall hang memorabilia of his favorite band, the Beatles, including a large poster of John Lennon emblazoned with a peace symbol and the message, “People for peace.”
But then the voices of some of the protesters grew louder and angrier, and they edged nearer the officers in front of the Monmouth County Hall of Records. Dispenza—his foot in a protective boot after surgery for a bone spur—hobbled over on crutches and, because he couldn’t stand, sat on the steps behind his officers.
“Some of the younger protesters were challenging us to fight and screaming at us to kneel down,” he says. “That’s not asking us to kneel with you in solidarity. That’s just screaming at us.”
The police did not kneel, and some of the older protesters defused the younger ones. They all marched two blocks to the sloping lawn of the county courthouse, where speakers used as a platform the base of the tall monument that commemorates the Battle of Monmouth. Their voices grew louder; the crowd had doubled in size. “That was the second time I thought, This is not going to turn out well,” Dispenza says.
Dispenza got up on his crutches and told one of the older protesters to ask a minister who was there to lead a prayer. “I’ll kneel with anybody because of solidarity and a prayer,” says Dispenza. “I’m not going to kneel with somebody if I’m getting screamed at and ordered to.”
The chief handed off his crutches and managed to get down on one knee. The seven officers beside him kneeled, too, though he hadn’t asked them to. As Dispenza struggled back up after the prayer ended, many in the crowd cheered. The protest ended in peace.
“Some people aren’t going to agree with me, and I don’t have a problem with that,” says Dispenza. “I know there are other law enforcement officers who say, ‘We would never kneel,’ but they weren’t there. It was right for that moment, for this police department and for this community.”
John Walls Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel
ON THE MARCH FOR JUSTICE
As a 27-year-old Black man, John Walls is no stranger to racism, which has followed him throughout his life. Consider, for instance, when Walls was 12 and living with his family in Virginia. He was walking with a white female friend when a car pulled up, and the girl’s brother jumped out of the driver’s seat. In his hands was a shotgun, which he pointed at Walls’s face.
“You can’t run away. You’re just stuck there,” recalls Walls, who was born in New Jersey and now lives in Camden. “I never even told my parents that it happened because I thought it was normal. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do.”
These days, Walls no longer feels helpless. Emboldened by the Black Live Matter movement, he has organized a series of peaceful protests in predominantly white South Jersey towns, including Maple Shade, Medford, Delran and Atco. Week after week, Walls and fellow organizer Boaz Matlack have led thousands of protesters chanting demands for racial justice.
“I choose majority-white towns because those are the places I know there won’t be a protest,” says Walls, who meets with local police officials several days before each march to ensure peace and security. “If they do have a protest, it’ll be white kids from a local school. And that feels incomplete. You need to know what I’ve gone through as a Black man in America. You have to have uncomfortable conversations.”
Remarkably, this is the first time Walls has ever engaged in this type of community activism.
“The biggest thing I ever organized was a blood drive in college,” says Walls, who works in the finance department for Crozer Keystone Health System in Pennsylvania. “This is unlike anything I’ve ever done.”
The idea to organize came to Walls the morning after he had attended a May 30 protest in Philadelphia. What began as a peaceful demonstration to protest the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police escalated into vandalism, arson and looting.
“I knew the media was going to show footage of the few Black people doing this stuff,” says Walls. “I wanted to start peaceful protests to show that we’re not just wild animals and looters.”
On the first weekend of June he chose Cinnaminson, where his parents live, for his initial rally. Just nine participants showed up. Nonetheless, the two white and seven Black protesters marched through the streets, frequently coming under verbal assault.
“We were hearing all the things you’d expect: ‘All lives matter! Nigger! Go home!’ And one of the white people with me said, ‘How do you take this?’ And I’m like, ‘I’ve been hearing these things my whole life. I know how to ignore it,’” says Walls. “But the white people in these towns aren’t used to hearing this kind of thing. They aren’t aware of the racism that exists around them…and the things Black people deal with.”
A week after Cinnaminson, Walls drew nearly 2,000 people to his second march in Delran, using Facebook as his main communication tool.
At every march, Walls says he has endured racism and verbal abuse. “Keeping my restraint is the biggest challenge,” he says. “There are times when I just want to sit there and cry because of the things people say to me.”
By midsummer, Walls and Matlack had marched in nine different towns. Despite the emotional challenges, Walls’s passion remains intense.
“People ask what’s going to happen when all these protests stop. And I tell them, ‘Well, it’s not going to be on my watch, because I’m not stopping.’”
Niki Vitalis Photo by Christopher Lane
A BAKER RISES TO THE OCCASION
Niki Vitalis has a passion for baking bread. She has worked in the kitchens of several noted restaurants and gourmet shops, including Joe Leone’s in Point Pleasant Beach, baking bread in massive quantities. Downsized during Covid-19, she suddenly found time on her hands to revisit her passion, baking artisanal bread—often one loaf at a time—in her own kitchen.
The process is never hurried. “It takes me about 12 hours to make a loaf,” says Vitalis.
Key to the process is a levain, a French sourdough starter that Vitalis created 12 years ago—around the time her son Tod was born. She has been nurturing the boy and the bread starter ever since. “It’s a natural sourdough that I’ve fed and taken wherever I go,” she says. “I bring it everywhere and feed it every day.” Feeding means adding stone-ground wheat and water to half the portion of what she refers to as the “mother.”
Vitalis keeps her levain in a Ball jar until ready to use; after adding sea salt and various special ingredients, the patience begins. Some six to eight hours later, after the rising and fermentation process, Vitalis shapes the bread, refrigerates it for another 12 hours, then finally bakes it in a cast-iron pan. The result is worth the wait.
Now that she is baking at home, Vitalis, who lives in Brick, has begun crafting bread for friends and neighbors. Her most popular loaf: quinoa sourdough. Vitalis is experimenting with all sorts of interesting ingredients, including chia seeds, “a unique flavor and great texture,” she says. Her most distinctive concoctions include a cinnamon-raisin pecan loaf, and a peanut butter–chocolate loaf. “I use a ridiculous amount of peanut butter,” she says with a laugh.
In time, Vitalis hopes to develop her bread baking into a money-making business, perhaps selling at farm markets and elsewhere.
Dan Kurdyla Photo by Christopher Lane
FINDING HOPE (AND HEALTH) IN VEGAN DIET
In late April, report after horrifying report of Covid-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants filled the national news. Dan Kurdyla, an entrepreneur and fervent amateur athlete, took in those reports with an increasing sense of unease. Before the lockdown, the 28-year-old Old Bridge resident had been training for April’s New Jersey Marathon; when it was canceled, he continued to train with the intention of running his own marathon. He began cutting meat out of his diet to see if it might help his recovery from long runs. He liked the way it made him feel, and after he ran that marathon, decided to hire a nutrition coach to help him drop some additional weight through a vegetarian diet.
And then, everything coalesced: The ongoing crisis in the country’s meatpacking plants, Kurdyla’s realization that he preferred vegan cooking to vegetarian, and his understanding, as a longtime environmentalist, of the damage the meat industry could wreak on the planet. Four weeks into the meatless experiment, he told his coach he wanted to try full veganism, and, he says, “I never looked back.”
The change has forced him to cook more, which he enjoys, and to try foods new to him, like tofu and jackfruit. In fact, the new diet offered more than gustatory pleasure and a leaner profile. “It gave me hope,” he says. “During the lockdown, it was hard to find things to look forward to, but I knew I could always look forward to cooking a new vegan dish.”
Kurdyla still runs, but has put marathons on the back burner in favor of cross-training, skateboarding and surfing. “I’m sure more races are in my future,” he says, “but for now, I just want to be healthy and live as long as I possibly can and do as much as I can for the environment—and of course, to kill no animals in the process.”
—Leslie Garisto Pfaff
Genesis Whitlock Photo by Kate Albright
A NEW VOICE FOR CHANGE
When Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets nationwide, Genesis Whitlock was ready. Whitlock, now a senior at Montclair High School, has been an activist since joining the school’s Center for Social Justice in her sophomore year.
“For a long time, I was trying to fit my culture into a place where I wasn’t really represented,” she says. Whitlock, who came to the United States at age 13 from Antigua, initially struggled to fit in with the culture of white suburbia.
“Having that education and community [from the center] gave me the freedom to express what was always inside of me,” she says.
Whitlock has already written for and appeared on local media to discuss representation and education in the school system, and she serves as president of the Montclair NAACP Youth Council.
The BLM movement has amplified her voice. On June 7, she and her high school peers organized the Montclair Unity Walk to raise awareness about the institutional racism they see within the community. For the walk, more than 4,000 attendees gathered at Rand Park, in cooperation with the Montclair Police Department. The event, says Whitlock, advanced the local dialogue about inequality.
“Many people are moving beyond just social awareness and having conversations,” she says. “Lots of people have reached out to me and a couple of my other friends who’ve organized protests and other forms of calls to action. A lot of people want to understand what they can do beyond just being aware, which is so amazing.”
This school year, Whitlock will serve as the first student representative on Montclair’s Board of Education, a new position she advocated for in January. She hopes her presence leads to meaningful change, like a rewrite of the school district’s anti-racism policy. She also hopes to pave the way to leadership positions for other students.
Whitlock and her peers have been “selecting, training and organizing other students to continue to be those effective leaders we will need throughout the school year,” she says. “I think it’s really important that the change that we instill is something that’s everlasting and it’s something that we can do for one another. There’s no person who’s a designated leader, people are constantly evolving just as the movement is.”
—Royal Thomas II
Dr. Lucy Takagi Photo by Christopher Lane
ADVOCATING FOR PATIENTS’ GROWING NEEDS
For Dr. Lucy Takagi, her fellow psychologists and her patients, the Covid-19 pandemic has been personal. “Covid hit the New Jersey community profoundly hard,” says Takagi. “Many of my clients had Covid. Many of those who didn’t, lost someone to Covid. I lost colleagues, friends, relatives of friends. We all did.”
Takagi was named president of the New Jersey Psychological Association in January. Just two months later, Covid-19 sent the state into lockdown and shut the doors of many psychologists’ offices across the state. Advocating for patients and colleagues was always part of the presidency, but the pandemic added a new sense of urgency to the task. Holding traditional face-to-face sessions with patients became a health risk, but so was limiting patients’ access to care.
“As president of the NJPA, I needed to quickly respond to the changing needs of psychologists across New Jersey as telehealth coverage became a public health consideration,” says Takagi, who immigrated to the United States from Brazil and now lives in Cedar Grove.
She and her colleagues sprang into action, drafting plans, contacting lawmakers and advocating at the local and national levels to ensure that patients and practitioners had sustainable virtual options during the lockdown.
The NJPA’s mission is to advance psychology as a science, as a profession, and as a means of promoting health and human welfare. During Covid-19, that has meant advocating for telehealth insurance coverage, reimbursement rates for virtual services that are comparable to in-person sessions, and the extension of the health-emergency order that allowed increased access to telehealth options for at least 12 months. The association has also urged legislators and the governor to measure the impact of legislative and policy initiatives on members of marginalized groups.
The losses, uncertainty and solitude associated with the pandemic made practical access to psychological care all the more important. In her own practice, Takagi, who is dedicated to helping all in need, has started to see some patients pro bono. To her, the beauty of the profession lies in the practitioners’ relationships with their patients. “We care about our patients and they care about us, deeply,” she says. She recalls a patient telling her: “You are a witness to my experience, and by helping me sort it through, you participate in it.”
The impact of Covid-19 was disorienting for Takagi, but she was pleased by the reaction of her colleagues. “It was exciting and humbling to see all hands on deck,” she says. She could never have predicted the challenges she would face in her role at the NJPA, but the circumstances offered a unique opportunity to try new things—some of which could have lasting, positive effects on the field of psychology. “Without Covid, we wouldn’t necessarily have been able to do telehealth as we are now,” she says. “It gave us the opportunity to develop new rules for telehealth, to draft consent forms to use virtually with patients, to educate our patients about telehealth, and to talk and think about privacy in the virtual world.”
Angelica Rosario Photo by Christopher Lane
NAMING CONTROVERSY STRIKES TWICE
A season of social unrest has sparked grassroots campaigns to reckon with the complicated legacies of celebrated historical figures. The removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s venerable School of International and Public Affairs is New Jersey’s most high-profile example. The former president of the university and the nation held racist views that made him “an inappropriate namesake,” trustees said.
Wilson’s name was also excised from a Camden high school, and a statue of Christopher Columbus was removed from that city’s Farnham Park, given that the explorer’s arrival in the New World devastated indigenous peoples.
In Clifton, a campaign to change the names of the Woodrow Wilson and Christopher Columbus middle schools is largely led by young adults—alumni of the schools—who argue that one of the most diverse cities in the state shouldn’t be celebrating historic figures they view as racists. Clifton schools are 57.5 percent Latinx, according to recent state figures, and the district comprises students from around the globe, including many first-generation Americans.
“Clifton is a melting pot of nationalities; these buildings really shouldn’t be named for two people who…targeted minority communities,” says Angelica Rosario, a rising senior at Montclair State University. Rosario started an online petition to change the names that has nearly 4,800 signatures. She and other young activists organized under the banner of Clifton Waves and have hosted Black Lives Matter vigils, voter-education awareness campaigns and other initiatives.
There has been some pushback; 724 people signed a counter-petition to retain the middle-school names. At deadline, school leaders had shelved the debate, saying they are too busy planning if and how schools might reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.
The activists say they will continue to push. “I feel [school leaders] can multitask,” says Rosario, a film major whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic. “If worrying about the minorities who are a majority in Clifton schools isn’t an issue, then it raises questions about where their priorities lie.”
Scott Cooper helped lead the virtual support group for frontline workers at Holy Name Medical Center. Courtesy of Jeff Rhode/Holy Name Medical Center
TENDING TO THEIR OWN WOUNDS, VIRTUALLY
As Covid-19 tore through New Jersey earlier this year, health care workers were terrified they would infect their own families. What’s more, they suffered guilt and grief over the patients they could not save.
Now, with the crisis having eased, they are processing those emotions. At hard-hit Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, for example, as many as 100 frontline workers meet in a weekly virtual support group called Resiliency Rounds, run by Scott Cooper, director of professional practice, and Brenda Marshall, a psychiatric nurse educator and nurse practitioner at Holy Name.
“Nurses go on adrenaline,” Cooper says. “It was understood that when something bad happened, you would cry, but pick yourself up and keep going. Normally, a nurse might lose one or two young patients in a year. Now, we had 30- and 40- and 50-year-olds who were not surviving. I realized this was going to take a toll on people.”
Adds Michele Acito, chief nursing officer: “We realized people needed to talk it out with their coworkers. Even when you talk to family members or friends, they listen and empathize, but you can’t imagine it unless you were there. I liken it to someone who was at war. When you talk to somebody who was also there, you know they understand.”
Health workers describe various coping strategies, including exercise, watching light TV shows, and recalling the success stories of patients who survived.
The crisis led to unbreakable bonds among the Holy Name staff.
“You really got to know people because we leaned on each other so much,” says Christina Gemelli, a nurse who moved from an outpatient cardiac rehabilitation unit to direct patient care during the crisis. “I feel I have a whole new group of friends I never had before.”
After being pressed into new roles, some nurses are seeking additional training and challenges, Acito and Cooper say.
“I’ve seen three nurses put in to transfer to the intensive care unit,” says Acito. “They realize, I can do this, I can make an impact. They might have been afraid in the past, but they rose to the occasion.”
Says Cooper: “At the end of the day, where do you want to say you were? I want to say I was a witness and part of the solution.”
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