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The esteemed Phyllis Lerner shares her expertise in cultures across seas

By Jac St. Jean

On Friday, Nov. 12, past and present Springfield College students filed into the Dodge Room in the Campus Union to listen to master teacher, education volunteer, and Fulbright specialist Phyllis Lerner — or, as others would call her in Rwanda, Auntie Phyllis.

Lerner was introduced to the small crowd by Dr. Calvin Hill. The Vice President of Inclusion and Community Engagement was “super excited that Phyllis Lerner, Class of 1971, has come back to campus.” Both Lerner and Hill have a strong passion for social justice and inclusion and cultured a bond over the last few years.

“One of the things you’re going to hear today,” Hill explained to the crowd, “is Phyllis is going to speak about what she gained, in terms of awareness, while she was here at Springfield College. But we also talk about social justice as action, and that’s, ‘What am I going to do with my newfound knowledge?’”

Right off the bat, Lerner asked the crowd for a moment of silence as she presented a slide to honor the Native American nations in the New England region and across North America.

“We affirm, honor, and respect the sovereignty of these and hundreds of other Native American nations across North America, today and for all time forward,” Lerner expressed.

Lerner then went into detail about her upbringing in high school, recounting the unfairness in her high school as a woman. In her senior year of high school, she was awarded the Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year. The Outstanding Male Athlete, the same year, was given a large trophy, while she received only a small pin. 

Later on, after college, Lerner would be recommended to be inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame of her high school, but wouldn’t meet the criteria because she had not been on a varsity team. However, there were no varsity teams for women during her time in high school.

Lerner headed to Springfield College to study physical education, and embraced the Humanics philosophy that reminded her of a previously-learned philosophy growing up in a Jewish community in Bethesda, Maryland.

“As someone who grew up in a somewhat active Jewish community,” Lerner explained,  “and had heard the word tikkun olam: to heal the world, I felt responsible for these phrases: spirit, mind, and body, and paying it, or in my case, playing it forward.”

Lerner highlighted a series of cultural events that impacted her time at Springfield, including the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Feminist Movement. She and many of her classmates were involved in these events, and faced “co-curriculum challenges.” 

Dr. Hill highlighted some of the challenges that students faced today, including the political divide strickening our country, the COVID pandemic, the LGBTQ+ movement, and the BLM movement.

The presentation then led to Lerner’s journey to Rwanda. Lerner acknowledged that her experience at Springfield and in life does not represent the experiences of everyone from her time, nor the experiences of students today.

After graduating from Springfield in 1971 and teaching at a Quaker school in Philadelphia for a number of years, Lerner got a master’s degree while on a “semester at sea”, traveling to Taiwan, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, and the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand.

Decades later, Lerner was awarded the 2013 Distinguished Alumna Award at Springfield College. Despite being in her 60s, Lerner was not done with pursuing and practicing the Humanics philosophy that she learned at her alma mater. She got a call from an old friend, Jane Gutman, who persuaded and invited Lerner out to a community school in Rwanda, the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV).

In 2016, Lerner first arrived in Rwanda, which was still recovering from the genocide that occured over two decades ago. The ASYV was founded by Anne Heyman, a woman from South Africa who traveled to attend college in the United States. 

When Heyman discovered that there were millions of orphans in Rwanda left alone after the genocide, she traveled there and founded the ASYV, creating it based off of the late 1940s post-Holocaust Israeli villages that cared for orphaned children.

In her first visit, Lerner walked cautiously in the ASYV. The school was separated into families, with “mamas” as the head of the families. The mamas in the ASYV were mothers who lost their children in the genocide. Lerner took this sort of apprentice role as an “auntie” since she was not a native of the country.

During the presentation, Lerner showed pictures of the classrooms and curriculum at the ASYV, including a lesson on prepositional phrases that she assisted in, using some small objects in her backpack to demonstrate how to speak the English language.

A video showing a handful of alumni of the ASYV performing a touching cover of “Lean On Me” was played after. Lerner expressed that through this deep presentation of her experience, she hopes Springfield College will one day provide and offer an opportunity to a Springfield College graduate to travel to Rwanda on a fellowship, and Springfield College will connect with the ASYV, and create a relationship through the power of Humanics.

“We hope you had an opportunity to see what your Springfield College education, or what you do as employees of Springfield College,” Hill said, “can do to engage, and motivate our students.”

Hill added to close the lecture that “Phyllis is a prime example of committing herself to action.”

The event ended in a Q&A with the attendees, and brought hope to the potential relationship between Springfield College and the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. Lerner has been in conversation with the Office of Development at Springfield, and is hopeful that Springfield will continue the spread of the Humanics philosophy in Rwanda, and around the world.

Photo Courtesy of Springfield College

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