AFT Higher Education Semifinalists
Mary Ann Borrello
Professor, Suffolk County Community College, Brentwood, N.Y.
Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College, Local 3038
Professor Mary Ann Borrello has lived a life devoted to helping others—and not necessarily in predictable ways. She began as a teacher in a South Bronx school when she was 19, newly initiated into the Dominican Sisters order and attending Fordham University on weekends to earn a teaching degree. This soon led to work in Spanish Harlem and an immersion into the lives and culture of Puerto Ricans in New York. “I had some of my happiest years among the poor,” she says, recalling how she sent extra food home with children for their hungry families. Looking around, seeing a need and moving in to fill it has been Borrello’s lifelong passion—and not a given of her vocation. In fact, she describes herself as a renegade in the turbulent 1960s of New York, moving outside the Catholic structure. “I was ill-equipped to deal with the challenges and demands facing the families” she worked with, she says—drug addiction, for example, and poverty. She asked to go back to school, eventually earning degrees in sociology and anthropology.
Borrello became a full-time faculty member at Suffolk County (N.Y.) Community College in 1972, where she is also a member of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College. In short order, she had racked up the Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence, received a grant to expand her research in Puerto Rican studies and gerontology, and said yes to innumerable academic service committee requests—on diversity, academic standards, student advising, inauguration, graduation and faculty searches. At the same time, she turned her radar sense to spotting opportunities for helping out. It started with a Thanksgiving Drive at the college’s new Grant campus in Brentwood, N.Y., which helped introduce the college and its community relations efforts to surrounding towns. That turned into a year-round food pantry. Borrello has run flea markets on campus to raise money for scholarships and bring local people to the college. She coordinates semi-annual blood drives, March of Dimes walks and other community relief services. In 2001, she raised $10,000 for 9/11 relief efforts. She raised $6,000 for Hurricane Katrina relief. This past year, she raised $6,000 for Amarya Indians in Peru to sustain their Well Baby Clinic. She was the driving force behind extracurricular programs like the Evening Common Hour, which allows evening students to feel part of campus life. Her Friday Evening Movie Series has been an institution since 1982. She works with people with disabilities.
“Mary Ann has become the unofficial ‘go-to’ person in times of either crisis or celebration,” says Kevin Peterman, FASCC vice president. “From event planning to funeral arrangements, sick-time donations to wedding celebrations, Mary Ann could be trusted to ensure that all parties were covered and cared for through her selfless devotion to her work and this institution for over 37 years now.” “We do a lot of good,” Sister Mary Ann says simply. “We help people. We make a difference.”
Professor, San Diego City College, San Diego State University, Cuyamaca College
AFT Guild, San Diego and Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community Colleges, Local 1931
Larissa Dorman takes her inspiration from her students and, in turn, inspires her students to be part of the struggle to change lives—their own, and those of the people around them. Dorman is a part-time faculty member who teaches political science in two community college districts and at the local state university in San Diego. Only 30 years old, and “despite the lack of any permanent job security as a part-time nontenured faculty member,” notes AFT Guild Local 1931 president Jim Mahler, “Larissa has excelled in every project she has undertaken.” She began teaching at San Diego City College five years ago and was immediately struck by the drive of her students—many of them people of color who are first-generation college students—and how they were buffeted by the political structure. “They were working incredibly hard to stay in school,” she says, “holding down multiple jobs. You could see their desire to be there.”
She thought it would be a good place to promote activism. So with three students, she started a student club, Bringing Education and Activism Together. Within a year, with students talking to students and making presentations, BEAT’s mailing list had grown to 1,000 names and had spread to four other colleges. During spring break in 2010, BEAT activists joined the five-week, 352-mile March for California’s Future. They staged a “Ramen-in” at the governor’s office to protest fee increases that left the students only able to afford Ramen noodles. They’ve set up a food pantry for poor and homeless students, providing free bag lunches to anyone who comes in, no questions asked.
A vice president of her local, Dorman initiated the Guild Intern program, which hires eight paid interns each semester with the goal of showing them how unions work from the inside. It involves students in political actions, voter-registration drives, legislative lobbying and organizing activities. In the day-to-day life of the college, Dorman has helped engage the students on the path of social justice unionism by encouraging them to work with community groups and allied organizations. When a student was murdered on campus last year, she helped organize the campus to respond as a family—to talk about domestic violence, to press the district attorney to apprehend the woman’s husband and to create a fund for the victim’s little girl. With the student interns, she founded a Workers’ Rights Center at San Diego City College. The center provides free basic workplace rights advice to students, nearly 100 percent of whom hold jobs outside of school. “They are at-will employees,” Dorman says. “Many feel they have no options. We empower them to take the labor code to their employers.” After only one semester in existence, the Workers’ Rights Center has already provided needed assistance to dozens of students, says local president Mahler.
Dorman was Local 1931’s main contact with the Occupy San Diego Movement, serving as a liaison between the local and the protestors, and providing logistical and supply support. Dorman sees her work as an extension of the union’s work. “Our local is incredible,” she says. “The type of social justice unionism we practice is inherent in our desire to work with community groups and improve the lives of our faculty, staff and students.” To her colleagues, it is Dorman who is extraordinary. “She has had a dramatic impact on the labor movement and on the betterment of the lives of all working families in San Diego,” says Mahler.
Professor, Henry Ford Community College, Dearborn, Mich.
Henry Ford Community College Federation of Teachers, Local 1650
As an exercise physiologist and health educator at Henry Ford Community College, Bonnie Jobe likes to tell her students: “For good health, we know diet, exercise and sleep are extremely important. The fourth element for a feeling of well-being is to be charitable.” Jobe practices what she preaches. With a lifelong, irrepressible habit of volunteering for good causes, she actually stepped up her game in the last 10 years, she says, after losing both parents to cancer and wanting to mark their lives in memorable ways. After her father died of lymphoma in 2001, she raised $10,000 in a matter of months for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and was named its Woman of the Year for 2002. Her mother had died five years earlier of breast cancer—a disease that has struck serial generations of women in her family—so raising money for a cure is an ongoing project for Jobe. Those efforts merely scratch the surface of her philanthropic work, so let us count some of the ways Jobe channels her charitable impulses.
After serving as co-chair of the White Christmas Ball for St. John Hospital, she chaired the event starting in 2009, and raised enough money last year to buy new dialysis machines and flat-screen TVs for the hospital’s Renal Therapy Department. Since 2002, the ball has raised a total of $1.3 million. She has served as a co-chair for the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, raising $222,000 to buy bioelectrical limbs. She has also raised money for Operation Smile (which provides free surgeries for children with cleft palettes), Children’s Hospital, Henry Ford Hospital, Oakwood Hospital, the Red Cross, the American Heart Association, the Detroit Historical Society, the Detroit Symphony, the Distinguished Clown Corps, the Humane Society—and the list goes on. Jobe has served as auction chair for the Women’s Survival Center, raising money to provide food, clothing and shelter for abused women and their children. She has served as a committee member of Cass Community Services, helping to raise $185,000 in one year to help the needy and the homeless with a food service program and medical services for uninsured families and seniors. She’s been dedicated to the college, where she has taught for 34 years. Since 1978, she has chaired the Women’s Recognition Luncheon, raising money for the HFCC Student Emergency Fund, which helps students overcome unforeseen financial emergencies that could knock them out of school. She enlists her students to help with Children’s Hospital projects: Toys for Tots, the Gift of Reading and Shoebox gifts.
“What impresses me,” says HFCC Director of Business Services Ed Wallish, who nominated Jobe as an Everyday Hero, “is how she involves her students in everything. We’re working on a program to build service learning into the curriculum. She epitomizes that.” It is probably a mark of humility that Jobe did not have any idea how much money she had raised over the years until the AFT asked her for a tally. She was astonished to realize the sum would be in the millions. “I thank the charities every day for the joy and friendships they have given me,” says Jobe.
Steven T. Mezik
Professor, Herkimer County Community College, Herkimer, N.Y.
Herkimer County Community College Professional Association, Local 4355
Bob Gassmann, president of the Herkimer County Community College Professional Association, likes to kid his second-in-command, calling him “another Abe Lincoln.” Steven Mezik “cuts that kind of figure,” says Gassmann, both in his height—the 41-year-old biology professor is 6 feet 3 inches—and in his impact. As vice president of the HCCCPA, Mezik keeps morale up and galvanizes employees—both within the bargaining unit and outside of it—despite the hardships and demands of working in one of the most economically depressed counties in the state. “People wear many hats and are distracted by the many jobs they are forced to do. They are put upon by the long nature of our work day,” Gassmann says. “Steve is the ‘soul’ of our union. He has helped most of the people here realize that we all work on the same campus. Though our tasks are compartmentalized, we all still work under the same roof; we share a mutual understanding of what we are all here to do—educate students. It’s unifying.”
On the other side of the Americas, 3,000 miles away in Quito, Ecuador, Mezik cuts an even larger figure in the lives of a group of castaway children. Through a program he began called Project Niño, he is making it possible for the children at the Casa Hogar Rafaela de la Pasion de Veintemilla orphanage to go to school. Mezik was a high school exchange student to Ecuador in 1989-90. He maintained his ties and returned there in 2005 to attend a wedding. On that visit, he learned of a nearby Catholic orphanage where 20 girls abandoned by their families were being cared for by nuns, but in an environment so impoverished that they could not continue to go to school after finishing sixth grade. In Ecuador, while education is “free,” children have to be able to pay for their uniforms, school supplies and an annual health exam. “Sixty percent of Ecuadoreans live on $2 a day,” explains Mezik. “It costs $80 to $100 to send kids to school. For us, what’s $100? Down there, that’s the equivalent of two months’ income. What happens is, a lot of kids don’t go to school.”
Mezik was determined to change that for these kids. When he came home, he used his connections as a member of the NYSUT Herkimer Teachers Council to raise support for the girls. By January 2006, all of the girls in the orphanage were back in school. In 2008, the first two girls from that group had graduated from high school. Now, they go to college at a cost of about $360 a year. Project Niño currently is covering the costs of sending 32 kids to school, including some boys from the community. It has also raised money for $65,000 worth of renovations at the orphanage and facilitated renovations at a nearby school, Escuela 12 de Octubre. The orphanage has computers and is wired for the Internet. Mezik visits Quito two or three times a year, bringing pencils and supplies collected by the students of Herkimer County. “I have a relationship with every one of those kids. For a lot of them, I am the one constant they can depend on. It’s humbling.”
Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.
Rutgers Council of AAUP Chapters, Local 6323
In the world, America has the highest percentage of its population incarcerated, but is only sixth among developed countries when it comes to college degree attainment. And New Jersey has among the worst ratios of corrections-to-higher ed spending in the United States: It spends almost twice as much on prisons as it does on colleges and universities. Nancy Wolff does not cite any of these statistics when she talks about her work with the women of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J. She talks about people. She is an economist, a professor and the director of the Center for Behavioral Health Services & Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers University. Her curriculum vitae shows the prolific work of a prodigious scholar, but she doesn’t talk about that either. She talks, instead, about programs she has developed that encourage female prison inmates to focus on healing their minds and bodies as they prepare to re-enter society and live productive lives. While her research agenda has her at the prison four days a week this year, she spends another two days volunteering there as well.
Wolff views this work as a reciprocal process. She does research on offenders to learn what helps people deeply troubled by their pasts, mental illness and the deeds they have done. Then she asks them, “What do you need?” Their answers have resulted in the creation of programs and resources used by hundreds of inmates:
• Books Behind Bars encourages reading and discussion in a book club format. Wolff uses her own funds to pay for all the books. Recently, she liquidated her home and used the proceeds from the sale of her artwork and possessions to buy more books. • Community 101, a skills-based, practice-focused program, prepares inmates for successful community living.
• In-prison Community Centers are peer-operated centers that have computers and printers for resume and letter writing; county-specific resource binders containing information on employment, housing, education, food, health/mental health care and so forth; and a self-help library. More than 200 women use the centers each month.
• The Bridge newsletter, edited by Wolff, focuses on re-entry issues for people getting themselves ready to return to society.
• Pounds Off Program is a weight loss, exercise and body image program found by Wolff in 2010. This program addresses the obesity problem among incarcerated women and correlated difficulties with low self-esteem.
Glenda Haskell is a friend and former academic colleague of Wolff’s who has known her for 30 years. She says she will never forget the day she visited Wolff’s prison class as a guest. “She asked people to introduce themselves to me. Spontaneously, they launched into testimonials showing how deeply they knew Dr. Wolff and cared about her. As they did this, I was openly weeping because of the power of the difference she was making in these women’s lives.” Another colleague, center research coordinator Jessica Huening, is Wolff’s mentee. She says it is in the fabric of Wolff’s makeup “to teach, to empower and to disseminate information to whomever she meets.” “When you get people to stop all the negative self-talk, to feel supported, to see what their strengths are—when you build off that perspective—you can see people flourish,” says Wolff. “I am a very fortunate woman in that I get to do what inspires me and gives me passion.”