Lisa Jardine

Column: Living the dream, 50 years later

J.J. Pryor, left, and Jean Strauss.

J.J. Pryor, left, and Jean Strauss.

In August 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before hundreds of thousands of people calling for peaceful change. He inspired the entire country with four small words, “I have a dream.”

In the crowd on that day were students from Manhattanville College, who boarded a bus from Purchase to be a part of that monumental day.

Flash forward 50 years on that same day, J.J. Pryor, a graduate student in the masters in fine arts creative writing program at Manhattanville, was sitting in her advanced seminar class listening to the director of the program, Mark Nowak, assign the semester’s final project. One of the options given was to create a syllabus and essay about a community-based writing workshop that the student has always dreamed of teaching.

Conferring in the back of the class with her friend and fellow MFA candidate, Jean Strauss, the first lady of Manhattanville College—she is married to the president—the seed was planted for “The Grandma Project.”

Assunta Amicone Alicata

Assunta Amicone Alicata

“It was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech and Jean and I were reflecting on the emotions we felt watching President Obama give his speech, standing right where Dr. King stood at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, and it inspired me to create ‘The Grandma Project,’” Pryor said. “I wanted to find undergraduate students at Manhattanville who would be willing to interview their grandmothers about what their dreams were 50 years ago at about the same age these girls were today and to see how much change had actually come about. I wanted them to compare their dreams with their grandmothers.”

The project began with seven students who enthusiastically got behind it despite the fact that it was extra work and there would be no credit received. Not only did the students love the idea, but the grandmothers were very excited as well. The only requirement J.J. asked for was a photo of each student and each matching grandma. They were to write about the aspirations and dreams of both their grandmas and themselves and the writing could be in the form of prose, poetry or a written account.

Communications major Mia Alicata, 21, was one of the first to join the project.

“I’m very close to my 90-year-old grandma, Assunta Amicone Alicata. She’s the only grandparent I have left. I wanted to do something to honor her,” Alicata said.
Some of the information Mia learned about her grandma was surprising, like the day she came through Ellis Island as a 6-year-old girl with a cough and her mother stuffed cotton in her throat to muffle the sound.

Mia Alicata

Mia Alicata

“My grandma had dreams, but I don’t think she ever believed they were attainable. She had to make sacrifices to help support her family. I think she is overwhelmed with the opportunities that her grandchildren have today,” Alicata said. “She’s bowled over by the fact that I am the senior class president and that I get to take extra-curriculars. Options like that were never on her radar.”

As much as things have changed over the past 50 years, Alicata and her grandma spend a lot of time discussing social injustice that still exists in 2014.

“I compare the challenges of today to what she went through as a young woman. She’s open minded and, if I take the time to explain it, she gets it,” she said.

Indiadora Nicholson, 21, majoring in English and film studies, was also one of the original seven participants.

“I chose my grandma who lives in Daytona Beach, Florida. I don’t get to see her often and I didn’t know much about her childhood,” Nicholson said. “What I learned really surprised me. We had more in common than I thought. Despite having children at a very young age, she was able to accomplish a lot in her life. And she loved being involved in the project.”

When the original project was complete, Nicholson, the president of the Black Student Union, wanted to take it further and do something to get the public involved for Black History Month in February.

Indiadora Nicholson, second right and Marjorie White, third left.

Indiadora Nicholson, second right and Marjorie White, third left.

“I thought of creating an ‘I Have A Dream Wall’ and I approached J.J. [Pryor] about my idea,” she said. “At that point, Jean Strauss got involved and rallied behind it. The new project, ‘Living the Dream,’ was launched.

“The upcoming exhibit that J.J. set in motion and the students ran with crystallizes the evolution of Manhattanville College. The dream that Martin Luther King had 50 years ago now belongs to the world. That is clearly evident in the difference in the makeup of our student body today from 50 years ago.”

The project grew to include 13 students, three of whom are young men, one from China, another from Pakistan and one from the United States.

“Manhattanville’s student body is quite diverse, which made the project even more interesting,” Pryor said.

On Wednesday, Jan. 29 at 4 p.m. in the Berman Student Center at Manhattanville College, the “Living the Dream” exhibit will open to the public and will remain in place for several months. The exhibit consists of two large wall images—one that’s 15 feet wide and six feet tall, that consists of three images from 1963: Manhattanville students getting on the bus and then off at the March on Washington, and King speaking. The second wall panel is a single image, a rainbow swath, 48 feet wide and six feet tall, with the stories of 12 of the students contrasting their lives to the lives of their grandparents, many of whom were college age in 1963.

There will also be a large corkboard for the public to post stories about their grandparents and their dreams and aspirations. The students will be on hand to talk about their experience and perhaps read from their work.

“These students have created a ripple in the pond that will continue until the time that they become grandparents one day,” Strauss said.

Living The Dream
Jan. 29, 4 p.m.
Manhattanville College
Berman Student Center
2900 Purchase St.
Purchase, NY 10577

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