From the Globe to Greece to Gannon
Maria Karagianis, the power of story, and an upcoming gallery pop-up bring transformative change
Maria Karagianis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Katie Dickey, a college social work major, are separated by age and career experience, but they have a common message: The way to spark change is to listen to each other and share our stories.
Karagianis told her story — about how the daughter of a blue-collar Greek immigrant ended up winning a Pulitzer, exposing racism here and abroad, and becoming an advocate for social justice — during a recent visit to Gannon University.
Katie is preparing to introduce Erie folks, including her Gannon classmates, to a unique form of storytelling, through the "Empathy Pop Up Gallery" on Mar. 13. There is no cost to attend. "The price of this event is an act of empathy or kindness," Katie said.
"I'm always interested in connecting with other storytellers, because that's been my lifelong job." Dickey continued. "It's more urgent than ever to employ our listening and learning skills in Erie right now, when we have a tendency to measure success in revitalizing our community by counting construction permits and tallying grand investments while overlooking those who might be left behind."
Erie's rebuilding is taking place at a time when our country is falling apart. We're angry. We're divided. We're frightened. We're forlorn. It feels like the worst of times. How do we reconnect and move forward?
Sometimes it happens by chance, although the follow-through must be deliberate.
I was on my way into Gannon's Yehl Ballroom on Feb. 5 to hear Karagianis speak when Ashley Caldwell, program assistant for Gannon's Honors Program, called out: "Liz Allen!"
I didn't recognize her, but Ashley reminded me that in 2013, I had written a column about the frantic journey she and her husband had made from Mexico to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. They had gone on vacation to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her husband's safe return after his deployment to Iraq. While they were outside the country, their seven-year-old son fell ill at a birthday party and was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Ashley wanted to send a Mother's Day thank-you to all those who had assisted the couple during that traumatic time, which had occurred in 2010. I used my column to help her share her gratitude.
I wrote more than 700 Sunday columns when I was at the Erie Times-News, so sometimes I'm hazy on the details, but Ashley's call-out was a good reminder about how lucky I've been to meet people who allow me to let readers walk in their shoes.
That's exactly what Karagianis did during her Gannon lecture, part of a speaker series sponsored by the university's College of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences (CHESS) and hosted by the Honors Program.
The theme this year is "#MakeChange: Stand Up, Speak Out," chosen to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage. Speakers brought to Gannon through the Woodrow Wilson Traveling Fellows program serve as visiting professors during their stays.
Karagianis told the mostly student audience about the challenges she faced growing up in Boston. Her immigrant father didn't believe women should go to college. Nevertheless, she enrolled and commuted to Simmons College, intending to become a teacher. After a professor praised her writing talent, she fell in love with journalism, later landing a job at the Boston Globe at a time when most female reporters were stuck in the women's section.
Karagianis "didn't have much interest in debutante balls," she said, so when the editor sought volunteers to take on what could have been a dangerous assignment, covering the violent opposition to court-ordered desegregation of Boston's schools, she stepped up. "A couple of us girls said, 'Send me in coach,'" she recalled.
She was part of the Boston Globe team that won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism "for its massive and balanced coverage of the Boston school desegregation crisis," according to the Pulitzer judges.
Karagianis described the riots she covered and the attempts to intimidate the federal judge who had issued the desegregation ruling. She showed photos of the confrontations, including one in which a white man wields an American flag to menace a black professor. It looked like a war zone, she said.
"There were soldiers on the (school) roof with machine guns. I like to say to young people, 'If you think it's hard now, go back and read recent history.'"
Racism, she reminded us, has never been confined to just one part of the country.
After three years on the desegregation beat, her editor proposed another risky assignment: covering apartheid in South Africa. "It was a police state," she said. "Whites lived in one reality. Of course, if you weren't white, you lived in another reality," she said. "We were trying to be good reporters and tell people in the Western world what was going on."
Karagianis believed strongly in the power of the free press. "We thought that we were speaking truth to power," she said.
But she also craved new experiences, additional education and, after she married and had two daughters, a measure of security. In 1983, she declined an assignment to fly with Filipino politician Benigno Aquino from Boston, where he had lived in exile, back to the Philippines. "I didn't go, and he was assassinated on the runway," Karagianis said.
Seeking "substance in a new place," she enrolled at Harvard Divinity School. "All of my colleagues at the Globe thought I had gone crazy," she said. Later, she started a program in Boston called "Discovering Justice," to teach inner-city children about civics and democracy, and followed that as the Director of US Operations of Greece's Anatolia College.
Now her passion is to spotlight the ongoing refugee crisis. She has witnessed the horrifying conditions at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, crammed with 14,000 people forced to flee Syria and Afghanistan. "It looks like a massive prison camp," she said. "It's a nightmare. It's hell."
What ideas does she have to reach Erie people who might be fearful of refugees and immigrants in our midst? The answer could be as simple as inviting them to have coffee with a refugee, she said. "We make assumptions about people. Let's talk to a lot of people and live a lot of experiences," she said.
After Karagianis' talk, Katie Dickey, a 20-year-old Gannon student from the Pittsburgh area, introduced herself to me. She told me about her work on the Gannon campus to raise awareness about the need for empathy. To learn more, we talked over coffee and tea at Ember + Forge.
Her idea for the Empathy Pop Up Gallery started to percolate when she attended Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School in suburban Pittsburgh, where she and an English teacher, Theresa Long, began to talk about creating a museum of empathy.
Katie Dickey (right), a Gannon University sophomore (pictured here with Alicia Fenton), is working on a collaborative project called the Empathy Pop Up Gallery, which will be open to the Gannon community and the public on March 13. Admission is free.
Dickey used a coffee mug to illustrate the concept. Imagine walking into a museum where you could scan a barcode on the coffee cup and learn about the people who grew and picked the coffee beans in Haiti. As you walk up the museum's steps, you learn the names and read tributes to the people who built those steps.
The Empathy Pop Up Gallery, a collaborative venture of Gannon's Social Work Club and Empathy Unbound, a project organized by Dickey and Long, won't be quite that technologically sophisticated. But participants will be able to move from booth to booth and talk to people to learn about their experiences — workers who provide Gannon's food service, students from abroad who attend Gannon, people who have experienced homelessness, a photographer who sheds light on mental health challenges, advocates who work with sexual assault victims, and fraternity brothers who ponder what it means to mature as a male today,
"It's the idea of peeling back the cover," said Dickey, who is candid about her struggles with mental health issues when she was a young teen.
After growing up surrounded by the "hallmarks of a perfect childhood," she wound up in the in-patient mental health system at age 14. "For the next six years, I was bouncing in and out of recovery and systems," she said. "I really had a choice. I could shut myself out from the people around me and the suffering around me or I could embrace empathy."
That's not an easy choice. "Experiencing your own pain and hardship is hard. It's super-challenging to choose to want to experience somebody else's, despite your own," she said.
Yet at a time when she felt forgotten, deciding to "tap into the stories of people around me was life-changing," she said.
But don't mistake "empathy" for some squishy sentiment on a greeting card. For her, learning empathy "wasn't just a soft and gooey emotion. It really, at times, was a means for survival," she said. "That change of heart, that metanoia, is a super-radical experience," she said. "It's that thing that comes before a social change. We don't want to change the things that we don't understand on a human level."
How appropriate, I realized, that a lecture by a scholar with Greek roots would lead me to meeting Dickey, who can speak with such ease and wisdom about metanoia, from the Greek for a "transformative change of heart."
Liz Allen recalls the power of hearing Erie activist Willie McAdory speak about racism when she was a student at Villa Maria Academy in the late '60s. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Pop Up Empathy Gallery takes place in room 219 at Gannon University's Waldron Center on Friday, Mar. 13, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Participants will receive a ticket with prompts to take part in the experience. Admission is free and open to the community.
After a one-hour "debriefing" at Gannon's counseling center from 6 to 7 p.m., there will be an open mic session at 7 p.m. about overcoming challenges, in which people can read poetry or short stories or share their experiences in other ways.
For more information, visit the Empathy Bound page on Facebook.
Hear Parkland survivor
Samantha Fuentes, who was injured in the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., will speak at Gannon University on Thursday, Mar. 19, at 7 p.m.
Her talk is part of the CHESS lecture series sponsored by Gannon's College of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences with the theme "#MakeChange: Stand Up, Speak Out." Her topic is "Uplifting the Voices of the Silenced."
Fuentes has shrapnel permanently embedded in her legs from the school shooting and manages symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. She works closely with Angel Faces, an organization that serves girls who have endured various types of trauma.
Her talk is at 7 p.m. in Gannon's Yehl Ballroom.
The event is sponsored by Aetna and the Crime Victim Center of Erie.