When Kean University professor Dr. Norma Bowe, the founder of Be The Change, announced last week that she wouldn’t be able to give her scheduled talk to the sisterhood at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield this past Sunday, it came as a shock to sisterhood advocacy chair Gloria Brown, who had already sent out publicity for the event.
This is the kind of last-minute change organizers dread. “In all of my years of planning community programs, I have never been in this situation,” Brown said. But as so often happens, the alternative proved highly successful.
Bowe, as the attendees learned, had a good reason for her change of plan: She was asked to come to Florida to make a presentation to a Clinton Global Initiative gathering, which might result in a grant for a Be The Change program in a war-scarred community in Eastern Europe.
And true to the organization’s philosophy — of stepping up to help where help is — Bowe’s husband, psychotherapist Norm Travis, and one of her former students, Cynthia Miranda, now a teacher and a Be The Change board member, volunteered to fill in for her. The sisterhood audience loved them.
The inspiration for the March 8 talk had come from Brown reading Bowe’s biography, The Death Class: A True Story about Life. The book, written by Erika Hayasaki, tells about the enormously popular class Bowe teaches at Kean University in Union, on how to deal with loss and mourning. Based on her own struggles and growing up in a dysfunctional family, the course promotes the idea of healing through helping others in need of support.
“That’s what we do!” a sisterhood member exclaimed.
“Absolutely! That’s why we were so glad to come here to speak with you,” replied Travis.
The two speakers picked up the book’s theme and related how Bowe created Be The Change as a vehicle for her students’ efforts — before and after graduation. Collaborating with community members, the group has assisted in hurricane recoveries in Union Beach and in New Orleans, fed the homeless, and painted and restored homeless shelters.
But their major undertaking has been the creation of a number of urban gardens. The one-day projects generate a shift in the local dynamics, providing contemplative space for the elderly, and play space for children.
“Our relationship with those people doesn’t end with the garden being completed,” Travis added. “Many of the garden projects have spawned their own interconnected community with our members.”
“We’ve done 12 gardens in Newark so far,” Miranda said. “Every time we do a garden, the crime rate in the area falls.”
She continued, “We’re all here for a purpose, and no matter what we’re going through, we can do an act of kindness.”