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Alumni news.

Six Ironmans In, Cooney ’83 Is Still Devoted to Supporting the Wes Experience

(By Karl Ortegon ’18)

Gretchen Millspaugh Cooney ’83, who played field hockey and swam at Wesleyan in the late ’70s and early ’80s, recently returned home to Philadelphia after competing at the Ironman World Championships in Hawai’i. The race is synonymous with a super triathlon: swim 2.4 miles, hop on your bike and cycle through 112 miles of terrain, and finish it off with a 26.2-mile marathon. No breaks.

For the World Championships, one can only compete by first racing in a qualifying Ironman prior, and going fast enough at the qualifier to secure one of a few slots designated for one’s age group and gender. Cooney claimed her spot at the Ironman Maryland in 2016 to punch her ticket to Kona for this fall’s World Championship.

Palmer ’98, Pope to Showcase Semester’s Work on Dec. 9

Palmer, a singer/songwriter in Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, and the musical duo The Dresden Dolls, played ukulele at the Humanities Festival.

Singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer ’98 will perform on campus on Saturday, Dec. 9, as part of a free event that will also feature a screening of her new music video.

This fall, singer-musician-writer Amanda Palmer ’98 and award-winning independent filmmaker Michael Pope teamed up to teach The Art of Doing: Creative Project Production and Making It Happen. On Saturday, Dec. 9, at 8 p.m., Palmer, Pope and their students will screen the class’s final project—a music video for an original song by Palmer, inspired by a free-writing exercise with the students—at the Goldsmith Family Cinema at Wesleyan, followed by a short performance by Palmer. Seating for the free event is limited. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

In this Q&A, Palmer and Pope reflect on their experience this semester.

Abel ’98 Builds Skate Parks, Community in the West Bank

Adam Abel ’98 (right) and his collaborator Mohammed Othman

Adam Abel ’98 has been a frequent traveler from New York City to Qalquilya, Palestine, in the past six years to join his colleague and friend, Mohammed Othman, in reimagining what “normal” might mean in Palestine. Their vision involves helmets, skateboards and a whole lot of concrete.

They call it SkateQilya, as a reference to the city in which their program began. And as its name might suggest, it’s an organization that offers skateboarding instruction. But Abel and Othman see skateboarding as much more than a recreational activity. SkateQilya teaches community building and art: it’s a way to transform perspectives, galvanize communities and teach children to express themselves.

To run these various aspects of the organization, Abel has leveraged his own individual skills and those of others. An installation artist and filmmaker, Abel teaches photography and video and serves as the program’s development director. Othman is the executive director and uses his talents to offer lessons in building community trust. To teach skateboarding they recruited Kenny Reed, a former professional skater, who has taught his skills worldwide.

Their curriculum is also coeducational, which is unusual in Palestine today. In fact, parents don’t hesitate to enroll their kids, especially their daughters. This is because SkateQilya provides a much-needed service in Qalqilya—structured and productive activity for youth.

Though now a nonprofit, the Skateqilya initiative actually began as something entirely different—an art installation. Back in 2011, Abel traveled to Palestine to research his project, Terra Infirma, which employed images from Google Earth to explore geographical, social and political divisions. Qalqilya, which the Israeli West Bank Barrier nearly encloses, became a subject of his project; from above it looks like a peninsula of dense concrete amidst a sea of Israeli farmland.

While visiting Qalqilya for his project, Abel learned that there was a skater there. This piqued his interest and he sought the help of a local guide. That guide was Othman. They traveled together to meet the skater and were stunned when the athlete showed them videos of himself and his fellow skateboarders “flying, [performing] hip-hop and beatboxing.” It was a unifying moment for Abel and Othman.

As an artist, Abel immediately felt the urge to document this unique collective of skaters. He posed the idea to Othman, but Othman felt hesitant at first. “[I was] an activist, not a filmmaker,” he remembers thinking. But Othman also was looking for a change of pace. Collaborating on the documentary project allowed him to improve his community while offering some relief from the tense politics.

However, as the two embarked on their documentary project, they became rapidly immersed in the lives of their subjects. They got to know the children and their families and it wasn’t long before they were constructing skate ramps out of plywood for the locals to use. Their documentary had begun to take a back seat to their community involvement and they quickly realized that building a skate park was not enough.

“If you just open up a skate park and leave it, how are kids going to get boards, how are they going to pay for boards?” asks Abel. “You can’t just build a facility; you have to do something more.”

From this vital question, SkateQilya was born.

Currently, with the help of their partners at Playgrounds for Palestine, an organization that has built playgrounds in Gaza and the West Bank for over 17 years, Abel and Othman are working on expanding their organization. They have just opened a second skate facility, in the village of Jayyous–just a few miles outside Qalqilya. This new skate park was built with the help of SkatePal, another organization that promotes skating in Palestine. Here, Othman and Abel plan to open a small computer center and expand their arts and community-building programs.

While Abel’s work has helped to strengthen the community of Qalqilya, it has also given him something in return—a close collaborator and a lifelong friend. “Mohammed and I have a very special relationship,” he remarks, “He is a son in my family and I am another son in his.”

 

Davis ’17 Pens Debut Novel, “Everything Must Go”

Jenny Fran Davis ’17

Jenny Fran Davis ’17 recently published her first novel, Everything Must Go, with St. Martin’s Press. 
(Photo by Taina Quiñones)

Since graduating just last May, Jenny Fran Davis ’17 has become a published author with the fall release of her debut novel, Everything Must Go. The story revolves around Flora Goldwasser, a teenager from New York City who has just transferred to a rural, Quaker boarding school in her junior year. Through a collection of journal entries, e-mails and other archived materials, Flora pieces together her experience and lets readers into her tumultuous period of adjustment.

Davis wrote the book in her freshman year of college and spent the next few years editing, before landing a contract for two novels with St. Martin’s Press in 2016. In this Q&A, Davis discusses how it feels to be a published author, in what ways her time at Wesleyan has impacted her writing and what readers can expect from her next book.

She Makes Comics: Award-Winning Film by Stotter ’13, Meaney ’07 Available on Netflix

When Patrick Meaney ’07 and Marisa Stotter ’13 wanted a logo for their award-winning documentary, She Makes Comics, they commissioned artist Courtney Wirth. “We wanted something that evoked Rosie the Riveter, which we loved and thought it would be both recognizable and resonate with our audience,” says Stotter. ”I have original hanging on my wall, and whenever I see that strong, confident pose it’s a wonderful boost, a surge of energy to my heart.”

She Makes Comics, a documentary directed by Marisa Stotter ’13, and produced by Patrick Meaney ’07 and Stotter, won Best Documentary at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International Film Festival, and was released on Netflix on Oct. 15.  Also available on iTunes and Amazon Prime, the film tells the story of the women—artists, writers, executives, as well as ardent fans—in the comic book industry. The documentary has played at film festivals around the world since its release in December 2014.

Both a thoroughly researched history—featuring luminaries such as Karen Green, the comic librarian at Columbia University, as well as women who wrote and drew comics in the 1950s and ’60s—and a lively story for a general-audience, She Makes Comics is a collaboration between two Wesleyan alumni, one a film major and one an English major—whose years as undergraduates had no overlap.

Zeitlin ’04, Janvey ’06, Quinn ’05 Produce Brimstone and Glory Documentary

The documentary Brimstone and Glory, captures a sense of both danger and exultation in the weeklong festival in Tultepec, Mexico, where pyrotechnics are the major industry. The film is produced by film studies alumni Benh Zeitlin ’04, Dan Janvey ’06, Kellen Quinn ’05 and others.

Brimstone and Glory is the feature-length documentary produced by Benh Zeitlin ’04, Dan Janvey ’06, Kellen Quinn ’05 and others, on the annual festival in Tultepec, Mexico, where pyrotechnics are the major industry. The weeklong celebration honors San Juan de Dios, patron saint of firework makers, and celebrates the artisans who dedicate themselves to pyrotechnics. Directed by Viktor Jakovleski, and edited by Affonso Gonçalves, the film is scored by Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer, the two who collaborated on the Beasts of the Southern Wild score.

Dubbed “Best Documentary Feature” at the San Francisco Film Festival, Brimstone and Glory opens in theaters this fall. In preparation, Quinn spoke about this collaboration in this Q&A:

Q: What was the genesis of this project?
A: Viktor, the director, was shown some photographs of the festival by an artist who had recently been there. He was amazed but completely baffled by the images of people “raving in the fire”, as he puts it. Sometime later, during a Berlin techno party, the crowds and sensory experience reminded him of one of the images. He recognized a connection between the collective effervescence of the techno scene that is a big part of his life and the ritualistic elements of what he had seen in those pictures of Tultepec. His initial idea was a short film, but after doing an exploratory first shoot, it became clear that there was something bigger and more ambitious to be made. Ultimately, the film shot over three consecutive festivals.

Q: And what brought you in?
A: In 2014 I was just beginning to move into producing and I was eager to work with friends. Dan Janvey told me about the project and it was immediately intriguing. Also, my mother grew up in Mexico and I spent a lot of time there as a child visiting my grandmother. I felt that working on a documentary in Mexico would offer a really meaningful way of reconnecting with the country.

WNYC’s Walker ’79 P’21 at Werk It: ‘Lean In to Podcasting’

Speaking at the third annual Werk It Festival, Laura Walker ’79, president and CEO of New York Public Radio and creator of the festival, said, “What drives Werk It is the premise that more women can play bigger roles in the podcasting movement…. Women needed to be inspired and have the confidence to lean in. You’ve brought your superpowers and your vulnerabilities…”  Walker also will be a featured speaker at a WESeminar on campus for Homecoming/Family Weekend on Saturday, Nov. 4. (Photo by Gina Clyne)

Laura R. Walker ’79, P’21, president and CEO of New York Public Radio (NYPR), has an agenda: She wants at least half of the podcasts produced to be hosted or co-hosted by women. “We’re making progress,” she reported at Werk It 2017, an annual festival she helped to create in 2015 to give women the tools they need to become creative forces in podcasting.

Walker came up with the idea after she’d read a report on this new medium and discovered that of the top 100 podcasts on iTunes, only 20 percent were hosted or co-hosted by a woman.

“Podcasting was headed in the same direction as every other entertainment medium—flooded with men….the gender dynamics were the same old story,” she told the attendees at the this year’s festival, recounting its history. And after a conversation on those findings with Patricia Harrison, president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Walker originated the first Werk It Festival, a gathering of women with the goal of creating a paradigm shift. The festival offers the tools of entrepreneurship, production, and broadcasting—and the confidence that comes with knowledge—in a women-helping-women model.

Now dubbed “The Woman Working to Make Podcasting More Diverse,” by Fast Company, Walker reported to this year’s festival that the most popular podcasts on iTunes are now nearly 35 percent women-hosted—and of those originating at her home station, WNYC, nine out of the 20 podcasts, or 45 percent, are created by women. “In podcasting, everyone in this room can create your own characters, tell your own stories. We don’t have to be relegated to fitting ourselves into the roles that a group of male decision makers deems to be appropriate, sellable or allowable,” she told the crowd.

Held this year in Los Angeles, at the Theatre at Ace Hotel with 600 attendees (last year’s festival in New York welcomed only 100), Werk It 2017 featured a number of notable participants including  Death, Sex & Money‘s Anna Sale, Note to Self’s Manoush Zomorodi, and Latino USA’s Maria Hinojosa, as well as Nina Jacobson (producer of The Hunger Games), EMMY award-winning actress Lena Waithe, Recode’s Kara Swisher, TV producer Ilene Chaiken, and podcasters Ester Perel, Nigel Poor, Nora McInerny, and Kelly Mcevers. Many of the sessions are available as podcasts at no cost on a site hosted by WNYC Studios.

Note: Walker will be on the Wesleyan campus for Homecoming/Family Weekend, speaking on “Journalism in The Trump Era: Public Media’s Role as a Trusted News Source and Convener of Public Discourse” at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4, in a WESeminar to celebrate Wesleyan’s Koeppel Journalism Fellows. Anne Greene, University Professor of English and director of Wesleyan’s Writing Certificate, will serve as moderator. Walker holds an MBA from the Yale School of Management and a BA in history, magna cum laude, from Wesleyan University, where she was an Olin Scholar.

Follow Laura Walker on Twitter: @lwalker; WNYC Studios: @WNYCStudios

And listen to her Careers by Design podcast interview, “Encore: Don’t be Scared by Ambiguity,” hosted by Sharon Belden Castonguay, director of Wesleyan’s Gordon Career Center.

In this 2016 conversation, Walker told Castonguay: “For me a lot of the fun of it, and the challenge of it, and the kind of stuff I love to do, is the mix of the creative and the business… I think that actually started at Wesleyan… There’s something about seeing connections and drawing them and reveling in them…and not being scared by the ambiguity, but being challenged by it.”

‘Very Fortunate’ Handler ’92 Featured on PBS Series Articulate

Daniel Handler ’92, featured in the PBS series Articulate, believes that children fare better by hearing the truth—rather than a sugarcoated explanation—about life’s difficult situations. (Photo by Meredith Heuer)

Author Daniel Handler ’92 enjoys a prolific career as a celebrated novelist, best known for using the pseudonym Lemony Snicket to publish A Series of Unfortunate Events. This 13-book series about three orphaned children and their increasingly tumultuous lives—which has been adapted for film, video games and, most recently, a Netflix series—established Handler as an appealingly sinister storyteller, a writer with a penchant for narratives without happy endings. The first episode of Articulate on PBS delves into some of Handler’s inspirations and how he came to develop his dark approach to children’s writing.

In the clip, titled “The Very Fortunate Daniel Handler,” he points out that one goal of his writing is to create worlds more exciting than the one we are offered. But while his stories teeter on the absurd and fantastical, they largely operate by exploring the tragic realities of the world we already inhabit—the kind of grim truths that children are already catching onto and, Handler argues, deserve to have addressed. As a young kid, with a father who had escaped Nazi Germany and a family that discussed war as a standard topic of conversation, it was made clear that the human experience could be dark and disastrous. A reflection of his upbringing, Handler refuses to sugarcoat misfortune or grief for his readers, regardless of their age.

Taylor ’07 Teaches Design Thinking Workshop at Wesleyan

On Oct. 19, students, staff and faculty learned about design thinking and creative problem solving through a Wes Design Tank. During this two hour workshop, participants learned the methodology and solved a problem experienced in their own life. Their mission? To reimagine a personal behavior.

The event was organized by Posse Scholar and Patricelli Center Fellow Lance Williams ’20 and facilitated by Brent Taylor ’07, a design thinking practitioner and coach at Stoke.d in Nashville, Tenn. Coaches at Stoke.d help individuals and teams get back in touch with their inherent creative abilities.

Participants worked with a partner and created experiences through interviews, ideas, written words, sketches and ultimately a physical prototype.

“What does this idea look like in the real world,” Taylor asked. “Bring your idea to life in as much detail as you can.”

At the end of the workshop, partners shared their ideas and prototypes with each other.

Wesleyan currently offers two courses in design thinking – Thinking with Things and Participatory Design – both taught by Barbara Adams, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Design.

Photos of the workshop are below (Photos by Olivia Drake):

CNN’s Santana ’98 Reports from Puerto Rico: Desperate Shortages, Little Relief

CNN's Maria Santana interviews the mayor of a Puerto Rican city after the Hurricane. In the photo, a CNN cameraman points a video camera on the interview.

CNN’s Maria Santana ’98 interviews the mayor of the town of Aguadilla (pop. 60,000) in Puerto Rico. “To help his people, he’d set up three locations where people could gather water from the local aqueduct. Daily, he traveled the two hours to San Juan at 4 a.m., hoping to pick up FEMA aid. Other mayors were also making that same trip, because each town still lacked a way to communicate with the central government. The mayors would have to show up in person to find out if any aid was available.”

When CNN en Español journalist Maria Santana arrived on the island of Puerto Rico on Sept. 25, five days after category 4 Hurricane Maria tore over the land, she was eager to do her work—tell the stories of those in the center of the devastation and report on the efforts to support the victims and rebuild. But the situation was not what she expected, and—though her job has taken her to many places in the United States that had been ravaged by natural disasters—this was nothing like what she’d seen before.

While she and the crew stayed at a hotel in San Juan—with internet accessibility to transmit her reports—even short trips into the countryside showed massive devastation, but little aid reaching the people.

Williams ’89 Reads, Sings, Signs at Bookstore Event

Singer-songwriter Dar Williams '89 performed, and read from her new book, at Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore on Oct. 10.

Singer-songwriter Dar Williams ’89 performed—and also read from her new book—at the Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore on Oct. 10.

Dar Williams ’89 read, sang and signed copies of her new book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run & Open-Mike Night at a Time (Basic Book, 2017), for an appreciative audience made up of members of both the Wesleyan and Middletown communities during an appearance at the Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore on Oct. 10. The book is a journey through America’s small towns, where the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter has toured over the past 20 years,

Fraser ’82: When Fat-Shaming Precludes Medical Care 

Laura Fraser's sister Jan, smiling, with her arms around her dog, Sunny.

Laura Fraser’s sister Jan. with her dog, Sunny, at her home in Colorado, several months before Jan died of endometrial cancer, Jan had sought medical attention earlier but her symptoms had not been met with attention they warranted, says Fraser ’82.  (Photo by Cynthia Fraser Taylor)

“My sister’s cancer might have been diagnosed sooner — if doctors could have seen beyond her weight,” wrote Laura Fraser ’82, in an article that detailed how medical personnel ignored her sister Jan’s serious symptoms as the whinings of “a fat, complaining older woman.”

The article, published on Statnews, a site focused on medicine, health, and science journalism and produced by the Boston Globe Media, received more social media shares, Fraser said, than anything else she has written.

Fraser’s first book Losing It: America’s Obsession with Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It (Random House, 1997) had given her a background knowledge of the biases that work against those with obesity and what she saw in her sister’s quest for help. “Sometimes I think fatness is the last bastion of acceptable prejudice in the United States,” she reflects.