New School Alumni tackle COVID-19 with creativity, humor, and justice.
“It feels meaningful to act as an entrance to opportunities for people who might feel hopeless.”
By Stephanie Leone, BFA Communication Design ’15 & BA Literary Studies ’15
By now, the small and large-scale impacts of COVID-19 have already been analyzed, written about, and broadcasted. While each industry wrestles with its own challenges — read a interview with The New School’s new president, Dr. Dwight A. McBride, wherein he tackles those of higher education — the individuals comprising those industries are battling in unique arenas to keep the world turning. We talked to ten New School Alumni across the globe who are using their resources, platforms, and innovative thinking to help those in need — and inspiring the kind of world we might become when this is all over.
Communications + Design
Anthony Hayes, BA Liberal Arts ’10, President and Founder of The Hayes Initiative, an LGBTQ-owned public affairs firm, immediately offered his experience as a crisis communications expert to struggling small businesses and artists in New York.
“We helped some of our clients who have more resources to quickly build programs that have a real impact which includes financial donations, sourcing Personal Protection Equipment as well as providing over 150,000 meals to local residents in the South Bronx,” Hayes said.
Others, like Silvia Coco, BFA Illustration ’15, have used design to think outside the box about what help looks like. Coco, who currently lives in Lugano, Switzerland, co-created Teniamoci Per Mano (literally, “let’s hold each other’s hands”), a spontaneous association of people offering free, virtual tutoring sessions to children worldwide. Teniamoci Per Mano has 50+ volunteers who ensure homework is finished, and that their kids are getting socialization and personalized learning attention that is surely falling to the wayside as teachers worldwide struggle to meet the demands of virtual learning.
Coco herself created the database that manages volunteers and families’ availability — she’s also tutoring three children — and though she’s a freelancer, she has hope.
“My New School and New York City experience has taught me to stay productive no matter the situation, to keep believing that if I am determined in looking for an opportunity, one will arise, or I will be able to create it for myself,” she said.
“My New School education has encouraged me to create work that is honest, investigative, innovative, and well-informed. And on a deeply personal level, there is a bit of bravery that I needed to learn and practice in order to become an exemplary thinker.” —Gabriela Damato, BFA Communication Design ‘14
Gabriela Damato, BFA Communication Design ’14, echoes Coco’s statement: “My New School education has encouraged me to create work that is honest, investigative, innovative, and well-informed. And on a deeply personal level, there is a bit of bravery that I needed to learn and practice in order to become an exemplary thinker.”
Damato is a Senior Designer for Brand and Product at Working Not Working, a platform of 80K creatives of all disciplines to give or get work, and, recently, she won a product design competition aimed at finding solutions for small businesses and craftspeople affected by the pandemic. Her project, Prolific, imagines a social network where professionals can offer their services to good causes — transaction free. “Anyone with a creative background knows that the climate of creative work is ever-shifting. COVID-19 has made things shift at quantum speed,” Damato said.
“When we heard about the severe shortage in PPE from family members who work in the local NYC hospitals, we knew we could put our fabrication experience to use and help protect frontline workers.” —Robert Bezrutczyk, BFA Product Design ‘14
Robert Bezrutczyk and Cole Bennett, both BFA Product Design ’14, are already merging design with social good. Bezrutczyk and Bennet are co-founders of Thirdkind Studio, a CNC-based, digital fabrication shop in Bushwick, many of whose clients are small, slowing businesses.
“When we heard about the severe shortage in PPE from family members who work in the local NYC hospitals, we knew we could put our fabrication experience to use and help protect frontline workers,” said Bezrutczyk. “We have since adapted our facility to produce high quality, medical-grade face shields. We’re donating all the face shields we make for free to frontline workers.” (Note: every dollar helps Thirdkind Studio continue their great work—you can donate to their GoFundMe here.)
Like true New Schoolers, Bezructczyk and Bennet are unafraid to design new solutions in an uncertain future. “We’ve already begun the process of designing products that can improve the sanitary conditions of office spaces and business places so that companies can keep their employees and customers safe when they eventually reopen,” Bezructczyk said. “We expect to manufacture more in-house and use local suppliers, rather than relying on overseas supply streams.”
For those of us who are able, reading books, watching film, and binging television have been a source of solace during quarantine. Kenneth Anderson, MA Media Studies ’12 and co-founder of Bowery Film Festival in NYC, knows the relief art provides, which is why he’s opened a free film submission category, allowing filmmakers to submit shorts that capture the mood of the COVID-19 global pandemic, which Bowery screens on its social media channels weekly. For Anderson, Media Studies screening events at The New School inspired him to start Bowery in the first place.
“I wanted to give filmmakers the same wonderful opportunity of screening in front of a live audience that I experienced at The New School,” he said.
Jennifer Benka, MFA Creative Writing ’07 and President and Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, reiterated the importance of art in times of crises. She noted an influx of visitors to Poets.org, and led her team in developing the Shelter in Poems project, which encouraged readers to share works that were inspiring them and culminated with a live reading. The Academy of American Poets also created Artist Relief — a new initiative open to all artists and writers offering immediate grants of $5,000 to those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. The organizations will continue to fundraise beyond the launch of the grant program to assist with the rapidly escalating needs of the country’s creative community.
News + Media
No industry knows the pressure of crisis better than journalism. Anna Del Savio, BA Journalism and Design ’18, worries for local publications, which are largely dependent on advertising revenue to support staff. Del Savio, a reporter at the Columbia County Spotlight, a weekly paper in Columbia County, Oregon, said it’s hard to think beyond the week ahead.
“I really have no idea what my role, and local news in general, will look like in the aftermath of the pandemic,” she said. “I’d like to think there will be a lasting impact on journalism, because business as usual hasn’t been working well for a long time.”
Harrison Golden — BA Culture and Media Studies ’14 and reporter and weekend anchor with WVLA-TV, the NBC station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — echoes Del Savio’s concerns for their industry: “COVID-19, like nothing else, has tested an industry so reliant on meeting others — all at a time when misinformation could mean grave harm.” The most urgent challenge, Golden says, is keeping communities and reporters safe.
“The financial hurt in newsrooms is already showing. It’s hard for TV stations to make money when advertising clients are closed and without money to give,” he said. “I fear some newsrooms won’t recover, leaving communities without outlets to expose the unreported — and filter out the noise.”
“COVID-19, like nothing else, has tested an industry so reliant on meeting others — all at a time when misinformation could mean grave harm.” — Harrison Golden, BA Culture and Media Studies ‘14
Both Del Savio and Golden count their time at The New School as critical to the work they’ve chosen and how they approach that work.
“The lessons from instructors like Alvin Chang and Allison Lichter instilled a belief in me that journalists have a duty to the communities they report on and for, to report thoroughly and accurately and constantly question their own reporting decisions and assumptions,” said Del Savio. “Reporting locally, I frequently get to be the sole audience member at city council meetings, getting to know the good and bad of a community and building trust with readers and sources.”
Golden said his years at The New School underscored the consequence of words: “Language is a concept beyond ourselves, but it’s on each of us to advance our world with those words. This understanding drew me into the university, and it pushed me once I left.”
Social Work + Mental Health
New School Alumni in social work organizations or mental health counseling services already shoulder the stories of Americans impacted by inequality, which have only intensified during the crisis. Scott Percelay, BA Culture and Media Studies ’14, a therapist for Citron Hennessey Private Therapy in New York, is already bracing to be on the frontlines for years to come.
“For my clients, physical and social distancing may exacerbate their symptoms or further negatively impact their overall mental health,” Perclay said. “So many communities already lack access to care and the need for mental health resources, and it’s only expected to increase during and after the pandemic.”
Catherine Gobel, BA Psychology ’13, a Mental Health Counselor for Goodwill Central Texas, also balances worry for her clients with her own anxiety. Gobel meets regularly with employees of Goodwill Central Texas’s 32 retail locations, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck or have criminal backgrounds, making it difficult for them to find work anywhere else.
“The majority of the employees I meet with regularly (virtually now) are panicked about feeding themselves and their kids and getting the rent paid and taking care of their basic needs,” said Gobel. “Many of them are having a lot of difficulty getting through to the unemployment office, even over the internet, as there is way more traffic right now than they are set up to receive. Many of them don’t have easy access to the internet, so they filed their taxes by mail and won’t receive their stimulus checks for another few weeks or even months.”
“It feels meaningful to act as an entrance to opportunities for people who might feel hopeless. My education at The New School gave me the tools I needed to be prepared to enter into nonprofit organizations which fuse services and advocacy.” —Victoria Iglesias Nieves, BA Psychology ’17
Likewise, Victoria Iglesias Nieves, BA Psychology ’17, a Senior Court Report Writer for The Fortune Society in Long Island City, Queens, has worried for poor and marginalized people long before COVID-19 outbreak.
“I am on a team of advocates, social workers, and analysts, and we all perform a function that helps our clients access alternatives to incarceration while they fight their cases,” she said before mentioning most of her clients haven’t been convicted of a crime, rather, they don’t have the means to post bail. Many of her clients can’t avoid crowds since the outbreak because the shelter they stay in is packed. Still, Nieves has hope. “It feels meaningful to act as an entrance to opportunities for people who might feel hopeless. My education at The New School gave me the tools I needed to be prepared to enter into nonprofit organizations which fuse services and advocacy.”
Percelay also counts his New School education as the beginning of an intersectional relationship to mental health. “My time at Lang helped me conceptualize mental health as a form of storytelling. Mental health is part of someone’s story, and our stories are inherently informed by identity, culture, art, politics, history, economics, etc.,” said Percelay. “This interdisciplinary lens allows me to better understand my clients and help them achieve holistic wellbeing.”
Gobel feels the same: “Prior to Lang, I had not had much exposure to social justice issues,” she said. “I believe I would’ve ended up in the mental health profession regardless, but I doubt I would have gone on to get my Masters in Social Work and focused my career on serving people who have been victimized by our society.”