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Southern Cayuga Conversations: History Club reflections on truth tellers

Elaine Meyers Special to The Citizen October 15, 2022

The Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project invites our community to join the conversation with Robert Shetterly’s Truth Tellers from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 20 in the Southern Cayuga High School Auditorium (sccsannefranktree.org/event-schedule). This conversation began in the spring of 2021 with the purchase of 20 portrait prints of Americans painted by Shetterly. Portraits have been displayed in the school and plans are underway for community displays as well as a raffle at the Oct. 20 event.

At the event, we will view a new documentary film that chronicles the lives of Americans fighting for peace, racial equality, environmental justice and indigenous rights. The film explores the intersection of these issues as we come together to confront them and galvanize our resolve to uphold our country’s founding ideals. After the showing of the film, we will speak virtually with Shetterly about the issues and actions being taken in our own community.

In a recent call with Shetterly, I told him I would be talking with Southern Cayuga’s Junior and Senior High School History Club members about issues explored in the film. He and I talked about the growing number of young people who are making a difference in their communities and in our country. Steve Baumes, Southern Cayuga seventh and eighth grade history teacher and a fellow Anne Frank Tree Project board member, is the faculty advisor for the History Club and worked to distribute questions to club members prior to our Oct. 6 meeting.

Our meeting began with a discussion of racism and how it impacts other issues like the environment. A ninth grader began with a comparison to the abuse of power by some in law enforcement using excessive force and those who abuse the environment without considering the impact of their actions on a wider community. Another student followed up with the observation that many older generations dismiss the environment as a problem to be solved by younger generations who say “I don’t think this is just our crisis. … Don’t they realize the future is now, and everyone needs to step up to the environment and other issues that negatively impact our community.”

The group sadly recognized a fundamental lesson of history — we take two steps forward and often they take four steps backward.

I asked students how old one had to be to make a difference in righting injustices and environmental activism. A student remarked that change begins in the heart, and we all have hearts. Our hearts tell us where we should spend our time. Another club member talked about powerful people enabling people of all ages and economic resources to make an environmental impact. She discussed Team Trees and Team Seas, an international collaborative fundraiser started by YouTubers MrBeast and Mark Rober. The project has raised millions for planting trees in the rain forest and cleaning debris from the seas.

We moved from examples of those who use their power for good to those who neglect those who elected them to power. Examples of government officials who can be bought to ignore their constituents need for health care, clean water, safe housing and excellent education were mentioned.

We discussed a hypothetical case for a history club where a student proposed a trip to a Confederate memorial sight that would be fully funded by a parent and where money for nice accommodations, great food and free transportation would be furnished. Club members only had to agree to make this trip. A high school student said that she would thank her club member for the information and then would ask how the trip fit the values, and goals of the history club. Another student picked up on the conversation. “How would the trip enrich their understanding of civil wars and how to prevent them?” They continued, “Could we discuss ways to add other sites to the trip that would enhance understanding?”

Steve Baumes and I listened and wished for a political scene with this kind of civil discussion.

We ended the conversation with suggestions for who in our community Robert Shetterly should consider adding to his gallery. Emily Howland was mentioned for her commitment to equal justice and educational access for all. The last minutes were for any questions that students wanted to ask Shetterly on Oct. 20. These questions were raised: “Do you publish the ideas of those whose who see situations differently than your truth tellers? How do you work with those who do not agree with you?” and “Who was your muse? What made you begin this project?”

The photo of the History Club in today’s column captures so much. History Club advisor Steve Baumes and photographer Elaine Meyers were brought to their knees with the insight of the students. History kicks off great conversations and teaches us about how to learn from the past to make all our futures brighter.

Southern Cayuga Conversations: Around the Anne Frank tree

Southern Cayuga students celebrate Anne Frank’s birthday, June 10, around the tree in her name at the school.

Elaine Meyers Special to The Citizen Jun 25, 2022 Updated Jun 25, 2022

Anne Frank was born in Germany on June 12, 1929. Eighty-four years later in June of 2013, a chestnut tree sapling from the original tree outside Anne Frank’s secret annex was planted on the grounds of the Southern Cayuga Central School. Our school was one of 11 sites in the United States to receive a sapling. It has been lovingly tended and each year, a photo documents the growth of the tree. As always, keep updated on the tree by visiting sccsannefranktree.org.

We celebrate our tree every day of the year, but on Anne’s birthday we take time to read about Anne, have a birthday treat at lunch, gather, remember, sing and take photos. It is always a joyous occasion, and this year was no exception. At our June 10 birthday celebration, I joined fellow Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project board member Natalie Kimbrough to distribute Popsicles to all Emily Howland students during their lunch times. We discussed Anne’s birthday and the celebration around the tree that would begin at 1:45 that afternoon. Teachers had been reading books about Anne Frank to their classes, and the children knew about Anne and her tree. Many remembered celebrations from previous years and thanked us for the Popsicles.

At 1:45 p.m., classes began to arrive at the tree site. White paint marked a large heart shape around the tree and students sat within the heart. Ricky Gessler, Emily Howland’s music teacher, played his guitar as students settled around the tree. His guitar music calmed the group, but when he began to sing James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” the crowd quieted. The appropriateness of the lyrics focused the entire audience, who sang the refrain, “You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I’ll come runnin’ to see you again.” Gessler sang of our darkest nights, a dark sky full of clouds, cold winds and people who hurt you and desert you. The refrain and promise of a friend who is yours for winter, spring, summer and fall, with only a call to be there, was a perfect beginning to the celebration.

As the song ended, Emily Howland Elementary’s new principal, Boyan Mnahoncak, took the microphone. She welcomed the students, staff and guests. Her smile, words and energy had the students waving and cheering for Anne and her tree. She ended her remarks and introduced this guest columnist, who would speak about the tree and the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project.

Only a few people had seen me scrawling notes and crossing out most of my prepared remarks. James Taylor’s words had given me new insight to the event. I approached the microphone and began:

“We just heard a song about a very good friend. We all need friends who help us and bring us hope and comfort. As we gather around our tree, I am thinking about two of Anne Frank’s friends. The first friend was a horse chestnut tree outside her window. Unlike you and I, Anne could not leave her secret annex. She and her friend Peter could only look at the tree from the attic window. But the tree brought great comfort. Anne wrote about her tree in her diary. She wrote about the blue sky, like the blue sky over our heads today. She wrote of the comfort of the birds in the air. Anne said that as long as she could see the sunshine, the cloudless sky and her tree, she could not be sad. To quote Anne, I know that there will be solace for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances. I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all who suffer.”

I continued, “Anne’s second friend was a diary that she received as a birthday gift when she was 13. She named her diary. Does anyone know the name of her diary?” Hands shot up throughout the heart-shaped student body. “Call out the name of her diary.” Voices chanted, “Kitty, Kitty, Kitty!”

“Yes! She called her diary Kitty and she told Kitty how she felt about her family, being cramped in the secret annex and most importantly all about her hopes and dreams. Anne wanted to be a writer — a journalist. She wasn’t sure if her writing was good, but she knew that she had to write. She hoped one day that people would know that she had talent as a writer. Anne’s diary is available in 40 languages and is read around the world. She brings hope to all who read her words. We join the world as we celebrate Anne Frank birthday, her tree and her writing. We are especially grateful to be only one of 11 places in the United States who can glance out of the window or walk outdoors and see her tree.”

The celebration ended with singing. Mr. Gessler led the school in singing a song written by former faculty member Cathy Mullarney. The lyrics say all we need to know about the hope that Anne Frank and our Southern Cayuga community bring to our daily lives:

We’re a family and we’re a tree,

Our roots go deep down in history.

From Emily Howland reaching up to me,

We’re a green and growing family tree!

Native American Storytelling brings legends to life

Perry Ground brought legends to life, with his high-energy, interactive storytelling, in his recent visit to Southern Cayuga.

Third and fourth-grade students learned the traditional Haudenosaunee stories of the earth’s creation along with Dehoñtjihgwa’és (the game of lacrosse). He reminded students, that they may have all heard different versions of these stories, and that these differences within cultures should be celebrated. He then visited seventh and eighth-grade students to discuss the Haudenosaunee influence on American democracy and the difference in the leadership roles of women in our emerging democracy and the Native American culture.

Perry Ground is a Turtle Clan member of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.  Perry has been a storyteller and educator for over 25 years and enjoys working with students of all ages to teach about the history & culture of Native Peoples. Learn more here.

Anne Frank Birthday Celebration

We had a beautiful day to celebrate Anne Frank’s birthday this past Friday (6/10). Students read books about Anne’s life, enjoyed popsicles at lunch, and gathered around the tree in the afternoon.


Opening remarks by Principal Mnahoncak welcomed students to the event with words of excitement, followed by SC Anne Frank Tree board member, Elaine Meyers speaking of the power of friendship and nature. Students ended the event with the Emily Howland school song led by music teacher, Mr. Gessler, singing “we’re a green and growing family tree”.


Thank you to all who helped make the celebration a success!

Photo credit: Kiana Racha, CiTi PR

Anne Frank’s Life

Anne Frank and her family had to stay in an attic from July 6,1942 until August 4, 1944, when  the Nazi soldiers found them where they were hiding. Then they brought Anne Frank to one of the German concentration camps. They also had to follow a special schedule in the Secret Annex which is where they were hiding for 2 years. There was a bathroom in the Secret Annex but if they did use the bathroom they could not flush the toilet during factory hours.

From 1940-1944 the Holocaust took place in Holland. The Jews were required to wear yellow stars to determine that they were Jews. They had to turn in their bicycles and they were not allowed to ride bicycles, ride in cars, not even their own, and they were not allowed to have their own companies. They were not allowed to use athletic fields, and they only could go to Jewish schools. They went into hiding in the Secret Annex on June 12th, 1942.

We talk about Anne Frank because our lives are so much easier, because she could barely sleep without being scared, Anne barely had anything to eat, Anne had no people to talk to because Anne had to be quiet. They were crowded in an attic, they also had to share rooms. The only food they ate was what they got and they didn’t complain. They were just happy to have food. They lived with another Jewish family and a single man, they got supplies and food from Christian friends.

Anne Frank was captured because she was Jewish. They had to start wearing the yellow star of David on their clothing. Hitler’s group used the symbol to identify that they were Jew’s and so they could be targeted. Jewish people got their rights taken away from them on September 15th, 1935, when they issued the Nuremberg laws. They also created 44,000 incarceration sites which included detention centers, forced – labor camps, and killing centers. They functioned independent of any judicial review, and torture, starvation, and mass murder were frequent. The life that Anne Frank lived during the Holocaust was hard, scary, anxious, worried, fearful, and crazy for only a 13-year-old to be living in that time. 

We are very lucky to have the sapling of the old Anne Frank horse chestnut tree that inspired her every day, when Anne was in the Secret Annex hiding from the German’s. Another importance is that 6 million people died in the Nazi period. Not many people survived in the concentration camps, because they were starved to death, given poor clothing, and got sick from not being warm in the winter’s, and not in sanitary conditions.

The facts we learned about the Holocaust are what it was like at that time and how the people lived. This article was to bring you facts about Anne Frank and how she lived at that time in 1942-1944, in Holland, Germany during World War 2. In school we have done projects to learn about the Holocaust for example we read Number The Stars, did a packet all about the Holocaust, and learned about the importance of the Anne Frank’s horse chestnut tree. By : Dylan and Victor 

Student Article by Cody, Caylee and Evan

This is our last 6th grade project about Anne Frank and the Holocaust. When we read Number the Stars, we learned about the Holocaust.  We learned that Jews had no rights and were being killed and taken away. This caused Danish people to help hide and take care of the Jews. The story, Number the Stars may be fictional, but it is very similar to the real life story of what happened to Anne Frank during the real Holocaust. She stayed with her family and other strange people in the Secret Annex for two whole years. The Nazi Party eventually found the Franks, and Vann Daans and sent them to concentration camps. In the camps everyone but Otto Frank died.

Anne Frank and her family were together in the Secret Annex 24/7 from July 6, 1942 until August 4, 1944 when they were found and captured by the Nazi Party. When they were in hiding, they were around each other all the time and had to be silent from eight in the morning until the store closed. This meant that they couldn’t talk, use the bathroom, or do anything that made noise. 

When they walked during the day, they had to wear socks or they would make a noise that someone might hear. In her diary Anne wrote, “As if I don’t hear ‘shh, shh’ enough during the day because I’m always making ‘too much’ noise, my dear roommate has come up with the idea of saying ‘shh, shh’ to me all night to. According to him I shouldn’t even turn over.” 

When the Nazi Party came to Holland in 1942, they started taking Jews to concentration camps. The Franks went into hiding. When the families were in hiding someone broke into the warehouse. This caused Mr. Van Daan to become nervous that they would be discovered so he made new, very strict rules to keep them safe. “For the last ten days Dussel hasn’t been on speaking terms with Mr. Van Daan, and all because of the new security measures since the break in. One of these was that he’s no longer allowed to go downstairs in the evening. Peter and Mr. Van Daan made the last rounds every night at nine-thirty, and after that no one may go downstairs. We can’t flush the toilet anymore after eight at night or after eight in the morning.”

While Anne Frank was in hiding, she was not allowed to go outside so her only sight of the outside world was a window in the attic that was next to a Chestnut tree. This tree was her only sense of freedom and happiness. When she felt down, she stared at it and wrote in her diary, it was the only way for her to get her mind off of the war.

Anne Frank’s diary today is written in more than 70 languages. It has detailed information from the Holocaust. Because Anne’s diary has this information it was sent to Mrs. Roosevelt, the president’s wife at the time and she personally wrote the introduction. This is why the tree and Anne’s diary are so important today. It is a great honor to be lucky enough to have a sapling from the real Anne Frank tree here at our school.  By Cody, Caylee and Evan

Southern Cayuga Conversations: Americans who tell the truth

Our conversation begins as we gaze at the faces of 20 Americans painted by Robert Shetterly. The artist draws us into their thoughts and feelings by the contrast of the soft background with the intense texture of color and facial form. Some are familiar faces and some we do not know. Some speak to us individually because of their expression, their age, their gender or their race. As we approach them more closely, we hear them speak.

Muhammad Ali: “If I thought going to war would bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me.”

Helen Keller: “When one comes to think of it, there are no such things as divine, immutable, or inalienable rights. Rights are things we get when we are strong enough to make good our claim on them.”

Oren Lyons: “The law says if you poison the water, you’ll die. The law says that if you poison the air, you’ll suffer. The law says if you degrade where you live, you’ll suffer. … If you don’t learn that, you can only suffer. There’s no discussion with this law.”

Sherri Mitchell: “Rights and responsibilities cannot be separated. Every right that we stand upon must be balanced by a set of corresponding responsibilities. We cannot legitimately make a demand unless we are willing to take responsibility for creating a world were that demand can be met.”

Ai-jen Poo: “The 21st century way to create social change is to determine where we can create win-win-win situations around our values. These values are simple: ensuring we can take care of ourselves, our families, or communities and future generations to come.”

The portraits are displayed in the halls of the Southern Cayuga middle and high school, and were purchased by the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project from Americans Who Tell the Truth. These portraits bring to our community American citizens who have courageously addressed issues of social, environmental and economic fairness. The Southern Cayuga Central School District and Anne Frank Tree Project share Americans Who Tell the Truth’s commitment to providing a variety of resources to inspire a new generation of engaged Americans who will act for the common good, our communities and the Earth.

Elishia Hoatland, Christine Bartolotta and Sarah Birmingham had the challenging task of selecting these 20 Americans from a group of 250: “We want our students able to meet people who empower them and help them find their voice,” Christine reflected. “We want them to expand their world through conversations with those from different races, places, times and purposes.”

Sarah added, “Our middle school students are struggling to find their identity and expand their vision and voice. They are bombarded with media that often drowns out the voices that will allow them to grow. We want them to see the world through a wider lens.”

Elishia and Bill Zimpfer nodded in agreement. “We were committed to diversity in our truth tellers.” Bill, Elishia, Christine and Sarah comprise the team that teaches English language and literature at the middle and high school. Elishia continued, “As English teachers, we are used to discussing the truth in the literature we study together. We explore different cultures in a wide range of print and media and notice both the uniqueness of various voices and the commonality of human goals and aspirations. We know people have the power to change themselves and their world.”

Bill Zimpfer, who is also the president of the Anne Frank Tree Project board, added, “The New York State Board of Regents and the New York State Department of Education is in the process of drafting diversity and inclusion standards. Americans Who Tell the Truth puts us ahead of the game in these critical educational goals.”

I had spoken with the artist Robert Shetterly by phone the day before my conversation with our teachers. He spoke about his intimate relationship with his art: “Art allows me to communicate with myself. I paint an image; the image then speaks back to me, informs me of ideas and concerns beyond what I knew I had. The painting becomes a tangible fact in the world whose reality tells its own story. If it tells that story to me, I’m confident it will speak to others.”

All of us who have stood before these portraits have heard the stories and long to continue our conversation. Robert promoted the use of the website, americanswhotellthetruth.org, by students and the community. I have made many trips to the website and have been changed by meeting new Americans who share my goals and challenge me to engage more courageously with the environment, community and social justice. I cannot wait to talk to students about their reaction to Americans Who Tell the Truth. The conversation is just beginning, and the table has many places for those from the past, present and future who are committed to our country and our world.

Elaine Meyers Special to The Citizen

Watch Americans Who Tell the Truth on Facecbook

Southern Cayuga Conversations: Connecting at Wells’ Hallway for Cultural Humility

Elaine Meyers Special to The Citizen Jan 9, 2021 Updated Jan 10, 2021

Wells College Senior Kianna Stamps

As the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Community Read team looks at 2021, we have a clear mandate to continue conversations begun in October with our discussion of Angie Thomas’ “The Hate You Give.” Sixty participants encouraged us to discuss racism throughout the coming school year and to develop partnerships that initiate and sustain conversations. Our hope is that continued sharing of ideas will foster understanding and equity.

Our next formal meeting occurred on Nov. 7 at Wells College in Stratton Hall and provided an opportunity for Community Read members to learn about the Hallway for Cultural Humility. A Wells’ college news release (wells.edu/multicultural-center) explains the concept of “cultural humility,” which originated in the health care field as a way for practitioners to better connect with patients of diverse backgrounds. The belief is that a humble and respectful attitude toward individuals of other cultures pushes us to challenge our own inherent cultural biases. The movement stresses the need to: maintain a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique; to have a desire to fix power imbalances where none should exist; and to forge partnerships with other individuals and groups who advocate for positive social change.

As we settled into the Hallway for Cultural Humility, community members joined two Wells students, Jazzmyne Williams and Kianna Stamps. The meeting began with an introduction from Jazzmyne, who greeted the community and told her story of selecting Wells for her undergraduate work. She delighted her listeners when she recounted her first visit to Aurora and her memory of watching Hallmark movies with her grandmother. She could not wait to show her photos of this beautiful small town and historic campus to her family when she returned home to San Antonio, Texas. Jazzmyne gave an overview of her work promoting community connections and understanding as a student summer worker at the Aurora Farmers Market, and living off campus in her own apartment. The group then did self-introductions and broke into small groups to discuss books and issues associated with racism and community culture.

The highlight of my individual group conversation was getting to know Kianna Stamps, a Wells senior from the Bronx. Kianna is a double major in political science and sociology/anthropology, and is in the process of preparing two thesis proposals for the Wells Research Institutional Review Board. One thesis is on foster care and the second is on immigration. Kianna is graduating in only three years and will be spending her holiday break working on finalizing both proposals and beginning her research. During her self-introduction, she credited the skill of her professors in knowing when to offer guidance and when to let students follow their own instincts and use personal experiences in developing their research.

During our small group discussion, Kianna was asked directly her opinion on a matter of race. She paused and began her reply with, “I am one person and can’t really speak for everyone. I can’t really speak for all Black people just as I can’t speak for all women.” At another junction, Kianna told the group members that the most important question they should be asking themselves is what each person is doing to be actively anti-racist in their community. She talked about her experiences with “code-switching” and learning to be comfortable in academic and professional settings, as well as with her personal culture of family and friends. As the small groups reconvened and shared their insights, it was clear that some of us would make plans to meet again. I told Kianna I would love to assist her in her research if community connections were needed. We exchanged emails and our adventure was underway.

In the last month, Kianna and I have discussed foster care. Her research is limited to New York state, but she encouraged me to reach out to friends and family with experience in foster care. Community partners were identified as potential avenues to finding research families for her interviews. She has referred me to academic articles contrasting private and public foster care and adoption agencies. I look forward to providing any support she needs in linking with our community. I will bring my experiences in Arizona and locally with migrant families to our conversations on immigration and look forward to creating additional connections to those who can aid her research. What I treasure about these conversations is that Kianna’s work will make a difference in many communities, and our community connections are the needed next steps for equity for all.

2020 Southern Cayuga Community Read Recap

Each year the Aurora Free Library, Hazard Library and the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project come together to sponsor the Southern Cayuga Community Read. This year’s discussion of The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, needed to look different due to the challenges of the COVID19 health crisis. As a result, our community came together in both small in-person and virtual groups in record numbers. We doubled our participation from years past with nearly 70 people taking part in this year’s Community Read. We are truly thankful for all of those who participated, and for those who moderated these discussions.

While we had many meaningful discussions, our work is just beginning. We are heartened that participants have asked for follow up programming around the themes of racial injustice and furthermore, want to join together in actionable ways to make our own community a more equitable and inclusive one. We are currently planning future events and welcome your partnership. Whether you have suggestions for books, movies, speakers, programming or wish to donate towards future events we would love to hear from you. Please email scfranktree@gmail.com with any ideas or questions you may have.

With your support and partnership, we can continue to offer programming that honors the life and legacy of Anne Frank.  

Southern Cayuga Conversations: Anne Frank tree gathers community

Elaine Meyers Special to The Citizen

Spring encourages us to rejoice in all things green and growing. The Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project continues to gather the community for conversations that celebrate our ability to learn and grow. As the community assembled for spring programs, I could almost hear Anne Frank’s voice: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

On March 22, the community gathered to share a meal, discuss books and view the film “Book Thief,” based on the book of the same title by Markus Zusak. Zusak was inspired by a true story his mother told him. She related watching Jews being marched down the street by Nazis when a boy offered a struggling old man a piece of bread. In response, the German soldiers took away the bread and whipped the man and the boy. Zusak saw this as the ultimate symbol of the difference between kindness and cruelty. Death narrates the story of Liesel, a girl growing up in Germany during World War II. Liesel is raised by foster parents and first steals a book from the gravediggers who bury her young brother. Books sustain Liesel for their power to preserve the truth and overcome even death in keeping stories alive. Program participants were encouraged to bring a book that they would hide from any tyrant wanting to control the truth by burning books. One young reader needed the group to vote on the proper pronunciation of “Aesop,” with either an “A” or “E” as initial sound. The vote was inconclusive, and her wise mother commented, “It really doesn’t matter how you pronounce the author’s name, you just need to read the Fables and discuss them.”

Some adults brought books that had been required reading. “Of Mice and Men” sparked a conversation by a group who vividly remembered discussing the nature of evil in English classes in the 1960s. Conversations sprang up between those whose books were by the same authors, John Steinbeck and J.K. Rowling, and by those who loved fantasy, science fiction or classics like “Crime and Punishment,” the Bible or “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

May 1, 2019