Barry Jenkins’s Story

Moonlight is a powerful film depicting the struggles of growing up poor and black in urban America. Chiron, the gay main character, is bullied by schoolmates, raised by a crack-addicted mother, and grows up to become a drug dealer. But director Barry Jenkins believes that Moonlight’s story of the search for personal identity is one of the reasons that audiences everywhere strongly relate to the film.


Moonlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards, is based on an unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Jenkins came across the play while looking for a story to film, and discovered that he and McCraney had both been raised in the same Miami housing project, Liberty City, by mothers addicted to crack. Besides winning for best film, their collaboration collected the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film scored some other important firsts, too: first LGBTQ film to win the Best Picture award; and first Muslim to win an acting Oscar (Mahershala Ali as Best Supporting Actor). Ithaca connection: Jharrel Jerome, an Ithaca College sophomore, plays Kevin, Chiron’s teenaged best friend.

Jenkins recently spoke with CNN about the film and its connection to life in Liberty City:

“I’ve been consistently amazed at how often, no matter where I go, no matter how far away from Miami we screen the film, people are finding a way to see themselves in the main character. It’s all about this journey, to sort of figure out who we are, to decide for ourselves what our identity truly is…

“This character is a character who is trying to find his voice. The reason for that is he feels he is unworthy of love. When his mom, this character Paula, comes through the other side of this addiction, she is there to open this door for him to ultimately walk through, to find a way to love himself, and be secure in who he is…

“I basically am this kid. I’m from this background. I am from this world. For a long time, the people from this world couldn’t grow up to harness the tools of filmmaking to tell their stories. I feel very fortune to be able to create visual stories that can speak to this common experience…

“I have always considered myself an ally of LGBTQ causes. I wanted to find a way to take my craft, this visual story telling, and put [it] into active empathy.”

Watch the CNN interview here:

The Sophie Fund’s Advisory Group

The Sophie Fund is proud to announce the formation of its Community Advisory Group, consisting of four individuals with strong experience in health services, civil society, social advocacy, and college campus life in the Greater Ithaca area.


The Sophie Fund was established in April 2016 in memory of Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell University art student who succumbed to her battle with depression in Ithaca on March 26, 2016. The focus for the fund’s work is supporting mental health initiatives aiding young people.

The members of the Community Advisory Group, which will provide guidance for The Sophie Fund’s financial grants and advocacy initiatives, are:

David Evelyn, MD, is vice president for Medical Affairs at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, New York. He previously served as vice president for Medical Affairs at A. O. Fox Memorial Hospital in Oneonta, New York. He earned his medical degree from the Robert Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, and a master of public health degree from Columbia University. He is a member of the American Association of Family Physicians, American College of Physician Executives, and the Statewide Steering Committee on Quality Initiatives of the Healthcare Association of New York State.

Aliana Heffernan is a New York City-based marketing associate for Condeco Software, an international workspace technology company, and a freelance writer and social media consultant. She is the Class of 2014 Facebook manager for the Cornell Alumni Association, a member of the NYC Cornellians Board, and a Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador.

James (“Jim”) Johnston served for 40 years as president and chief executive officer of Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca, which supports, promotes, and strengthens the wellbeing of individuals and families by providing high-quality, accessible mental health care and related social services with a particular sensitivity toward the needs of children.

Nicole LaFave is the program coordinator for Community Service and Leadership Development at the Cornell University Public Service Center. She is a member of the Ithaca Board of Education and the Ithaca City Community Police Review Board. She holds a BA degree from Ithaca College in Sociology with a concentration in juvenile criminal studies and race and ethnic relations.

The Sophie Fund’s mission is to make a tangible impact on the wellbeing of young people facing mental health challenges in the Greater Ithaca community, by providing funding for effective initiatives, being a catalyst to raise awareness about mental health, and supporting suicide prevention efforts.

The Sophie Fund is a donor-advised fund within the Community Foundation of Tompkins County. Established in 2000, the foundation is led by Chief Executive Officer George Ferrari, Jr. The foundation is home to 95 funds supporting a broad range of organizations in the areas of education, environment, arts and culture, health and human services, and community building. Sophie’s parents, Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, serve as the fund’s donor advisors.

Removing the Stigma for LGBTQ Teens

An important new study says that suicide attempts by American high school students decreased by 7 percent in states that passed laws to legalize same-sex marriage. The rate decreased by 14 percent among students identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.


“State same-sex marriage policies were associated with a reduction in the proportion of high school students reporting suicide attempts, providing empirical evidence for an association between same-sex marriage policies and mental health outcomes,” said the study, published by JAMA Pediatrics, a journal of the American Medical Association, on February 20. “We estimated that, each year, same-sex marriage policies would be associated with more than 134 000 fewer adolescents attempting suicide. These results reflect an important reduction in adolescent emotional distress and risk of mortality from suicide.”

The study concluded:

“We provide evidence that implementation of same-sex marriage policies reduced adolescent suicide attempts. As countries around the world consider enabling or restricting same-sex marriage, we provide evidence that implementing same-sex marriage policies was associated with improved population health. Policymakers should consider the mental health consequences of same-sex marriage policies.”

Study leader Julia Raifman of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health speculated that the same-sex marriage laws diminished a social stigma by making LGBTQ people feel equal and supported by the wider social community.

Victor Schwartz, a chief medical officer of the JED Foundation, told the PBS NewsHour that the feelings of being accepted and connected to society have “a protective effect in relation to suicide risk, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behaviors. It’s a real risk factor, a feeling that you’re at odds with your family or community. It’s very painful, and can be very frightening. You feel like you’re going to be left out on your own.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents between the ages of 15 and 24 years. The prevalence of suicide attempts is four times greater among LGBTQ youth.

The Johns Hopkins study looked at 32 of the 35 states that legalized same-sex marriage between 2004 and 2015, comparing suicide rates in those states to suicide rates in states that did not legalize same-sex marriage. In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage for all Americans.

Download a PDF of the study here.

Vijay Pendakur’s Story

Vijay Pendakur, the new dean of students at Cornell University, pronounces himself an active advocate for student wellness. It’s a position that seems driven from personal experience.


During a talk on February 2 at Cornell’s Center for Intercultural Dialogue (reported by the Cornell Daily Sun), he revealed how he and his sister were harassed and bullied growing up in Chicago as the children of immigrants from India. He spoke candidly about how he struggled socially and benefited from seven years of psychotherapy.

From the Cornell Daily Sun’s report:

He recalled moving to the north side of Chicago as “challenging” and “transformative,” because he and his sister experienced harassment and bullying as minorities in their community.

Even after moving out of Chicago, Pendakur said he continued to face microaggressions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, he said he was challenged to adjust to a predominantly white, rural student population.

Pendakur also struggled to make friends and used hypermasculinity as a coping mechanism to face his fears.

“As a man, I did not talk with anybody about how I really felt,” he said. “I was deeply scarred and troubled inside but the outside was just like chip on my shoulder all the time because that was the learned behavior for me to stay safe.”

Pendakur said his academic pursuits in American history, Africana studies and gender studies helped him contextualize his struggles. While he continued to struggle socially, he found a mentor through a job at the campus multicultural center, which eventually led him to find a vocation in social justice and diversity education.

During his career he received psychotherapeutic help for seven years—a decision he made after a low point in his late 20’s—and found that he was able to “rewrite [his] history.”

“It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “For me, the psychotherapeutic process allowed me to actually go back and turn the mirror inward.”

In an interview with the Cornell Chronicle published January 18, Pendakur addressed the mental health struggles of today’s college students:

Across higher education, we are seeing a rising prevalence of complex mental health concerns, stress and medical needs. Wellness is part of the fundamental investment college and university campuses need to make to enhance learning. For example, if you are not sleeping, or are dealing with a body image issue or a deep sense of isolation, your organic chemistry or calculus class becomes secondary.

Pendakur comes to Ithaca from California State University, Fullerton, where he served as associate vice president for the Division of Student Affairs. He earned a B.A. in History and East Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 2001, an M.A. in U.S. History from the University of California, San Diego, in 2005, and an Ed.D. from DePaul University in 2013.