What About Via’s Cookies?

When entrepreneurs develop their business models, typically they identify gaps in the market that their bright ideas can fill. Via Carpenter, a 2022 business graduate from Ithaca College took a different approach.

When she entered the school’s “Demo Day” startup competition, she envisioned creating a business that could help fill the finances gap that many college students experience every day.

She won that competition and its prize money, and later others, helping her to professionally launch Via’s Cookies in Ithaca three years ago.

By now, Carpenter’s Cookie Crumble Madness, Snickerdoodle, Lemmie Boy, and Chocolate Chip cookies are known far and wide throughout Upstate New York.

She sells them at pop-up sites such as Angry Mom Records on the Ithaca Commons and The Downstairs venue on Martin Luther King Jr. Street. She delivers her sugary treats to retailers like The Strand Cafe and Ithaca Bakery, and caters heaping platters to countless business and social gatherings across the region.

What may not be so well known by those munching on Carpenter’s confections is the philanthropic social justice mission at the core of her business. She uses a portion of earnings to make cash donations, as she calls them, to students struggling to meet essential expenses.

“One of my professors asked, ‘If you’re starting a business, you have to solve a problem. What problem do you want to solve?’” she recalled. “My mind jumped straight to ‘Giving back to students.’”

Carpenter made her first donation of $120 three months after launching Via’s Cookies, to Amaechi, a student attending college in New York who faced a hold on their registration.

Soon, she made another donation, to Tracie, a student in Chicago. Then another one to Yahaira, an undergrad at Ithaca College. A recent recipient is Sage, a student from Ithaca who experienced racism in high school and is now studying forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Thus far, Carpenter has distributed $2,063 in small donations to over a dozen students.

Carpenter promotes her gift-giving on her website and Instagram, through social justice partners like the Village at Ithaca, and by word of mouth. Her latest call for applicants ended on September 9, with a plan to provide five college students with donations of $200 each.

“I want to help people so that they can focus on their schoolwork,” she said. “And I have been able to do that. It’s been awesome.”

The premise of her philanthropy, Carpenter explained, is giving a percentage of her profits to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBTQ+ students. “I chose those designations because these are a lot of people I relate to,” Carpenter explained. “I am within these communities where there are typically very oppressed individuals.”

Carpenter’s mission is rooted in her own life experiences, including racism and bigotry as well as financial hardship. She grew up in rural Ohio, where she was one of a mere handful of students of color at her high school. She never went on field trips, because she knew her parents would have to struggle to come up with the fees.

She understood that she would have to excel in school in order to win scholarships, and take out college loans, and she did.  But still the financial squeeze followed her all the way to Ithaca.

“They don’t tell you that when you get there, they expect you to pay thousands of dollars for things like laptops and books and all of this stuff,” Carpenter said. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute! How am I supposed to do this?’”

The answer: she worked three jobs during her freshman year to help pay the expenses. “In the midst of that, I am thinking, ‘This is the problem I want to solve.’ I want people to be okay. I want people like I was to know that there is something else out there that is valuing them, that knows they are struggling even though they have made it this far.”

Carpenter is a self-taught baker, having begun as a kid paging through a Betty Crocker cookbook in the kitchen of her childhood home. “I never took any baking course,” she said. “I just experimented for a long time.” Via’s Cookies began in her downtown Ithaca apartment’s kitchen, but now she leases space in a commercial kitchen to produce up to 500 cookies a week. Besides an inviting assortment of textures and flavors, Carpenter offers gluten-free and vegan as well as regular cookies.

She first came up with her own cookie recipe at 13 and cherishes baking cookies as a family tradition. “When I look back, I have made cookies with every single woman that mattered to me,” Carpenter recalled. “My great-grandma, my grandma, my mom. Every one of them had their signature cookie recipes.”

Her business actually has its origins in Olivia’s Cookies, which she started in her teens and sold to classmates to earn some needed cash. But her high school shut her down, she said, claiming that she was taking away business from the school lunch program. “This was some weird bias,” she recalled. “I think it was probably racism.”

Carpenter does not have a particular ambition to become a star pastry chef, but she has enjoyed her business versatility in expanding her brand. One of her partnerships is with Sweet Melissa’s Ice Cream Shop, creating ice cream cookie sandwiches and pairings such as lemon cookies with Key Lime scoops.

But Carpenter’s passion for social justice is something else. “It took me a while to even think of myself as a baker,” she said.  “I have a sweet tooth. Essentially, I really like cookies. And I’m using cookies to spread a message.”

“The goal,” she added, “is to get my business to a place where I can form a foundation that gives thousands of dollars.”

In an interview about Via’s Cookies with her college newspaper in 2021, she said: “I want to pursue social justice, I want to make change in the world, I want to build up the people around me because as a student of color, I know the struggle. That’s what I include in my pitch because it’s the truth.”

She admires The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, powered by ice cream profits, whose website says it supports “grassroots groups that are led by the people most impacted by the legacies of white supremacy culture as they organize for racial equity, and social and environmental justice.”

When she is not pulling cookies out of the oven or making deliveries, Carpenter is busy with other aspects of her mission. She is frequently invited to lecture on entrepreneurship,  and give motivational talks on racism and perseverance in the face of adversity. Recently, she was a guest speaker at the Community Foundation of Tompkins County’s Annual Celebration and a donor brunch hosted by the Ithaca College Alumni Association.

Carpenter’s fans may be in for another treat before long: The Ultimate Cookie Plate Cookbook, with recipes from pastry chefs around the world, and some of her own. “The base cookie recipe that I use is almost exactly the same from the one I made in high school,” Carpenter said. “So it’s come a long way.”

Our Teen Girls are Seriously Struggling with Mental Health

[TW: suicide, sexual assault] A new report is raising a loud alarm about the mental health of American teenagers, especially girls.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2011-2021, issued on February 13 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed disturbingly elevated numbers and trends in mental health, sexual assault, and suicidal behaviors for high school girls.

National PTA President Anna King: “Our children need us, right now.”

Another troubling finding was the high percentage of depression and suicidal behaviors among teens identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, or another non-heterosexual identity.

“America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence, and trauma,” said CDC Chief Medical Officer Deborah Houry, speaking at the release of the nationwide student survey results, which drew from 17,232 students in 152 schools across the country.

“Over the past decade, teens, especially girls, have experienced dramatic increases and experiences of violence and poor mental health and suicide risk,” she said. “These data are hard to hear, and should result in action. As a parent to a teenage girl, I am heartbroken.”

One of most distressing results was that 57 percent of female teens reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the previous 12 months. That was a significant increase since 2011, when 36 percent of girls reported those feelings. It also represented a notable spike from the 2019 YRBS survey, just before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted school life, when the figure was 46.6 percent.

In 2021, 29 percent of male teens reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 21 percent in 2011. By race and ethnicity, 46 percent of Hispanic youth, 41 percent of white youth, 40 percent of American Indian youth, 39 percent of Black youth, and 35 percent of Asian youth signaled persistent depression or sadness.

Overall, 42 percent of high schoolers reported those sadness and hopelessness feelings in 2021. The report considered a teen’s feelings to be persistent if they “felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped doing their usual activities.”

Looking for help? DOWNLOAD the 2023 Mental Health Support and Crisis Services guide for Tompkins County

The CDC report also found a rise in sexual assault against teen girls. After holding steady at 10-11 percent for a decade, 14 percent of female high school students in 2021 reported being forced to have sexual intercourse. Girls were more than three times as likely as boys to experience forced sexual intercourse. By race and ethnicity, 9 percent of all Hispanic youth, 8 percent of all white youth, 7 percent of all Black youth, and 4 percent of all Asian youth said they were forced to have intercourse.

A total of 18 percent of all teenage girls reported experiencing some kind of sexual violence, including forced kissing and touching as well as intercourse.

“This is truly alarming,” said Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health. “For every 10 teenage girls you know, at least one of them, and probably more, has been raped. This tragedy cannot continue.”

The YRBS data on teen suicide was also very concerning. According to the survey, 22 percent of teens “seriously considered attempting suicide,” 18 percent had made a suicide plan, and 10 percent had attempted suicide.

Girls were two times more likely than male teenagers to engage in suicidal behaviors. According to the report, 30 percent of female teens said they seriously considered suicide, 24 percent had made a plan, and 13 percent had attempted to take their own lives; for males, the figures were 14 percent, 12 percent, and 7 percent, respectively.

The percentage of girls who seriously considered attempting suicide significantly increased from 19 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2021; for boys, the figure remained steady, going from 13 percent to 14 percent.

Students who identified as LGBQ+, or had same-sex partners, experienced the highest rates of sadness and hopelessness. By far, they also had the highest percentages of suicidal behaviors.

According to the survey, 69 percent of LGBQ+ students, and 78 percent of teens with same-sex partners, reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

In the same pattern, LGBQ+ teens were roughly three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to engage in suicidal behaviors. The report said that 45 percent had seriously considered suicide, 37 percent had devised a plan, and 22 percent had made an attempt.

The rates were even higher for teens with same-sex partners: 58 percent, 50 percent, and 33 percent, respectively. Seven percent of LGBQ+ teens and 14 percent of teens with same-sex partners reported having been injured in a suicide attempt, compared to 1 percent of heterosexual youth.

By race and ethnicity, 27 percent of American Indian youth, 23 percent of whites, 22 percent of Black youth, 22 percent of Hispanic youth, and 18 percent of Asian youth said they had considered suicide; 22 percent of American Indian youth, 19 percent of Hispanic youth, 17 percent of white youth, 18 percent of Black youth, and 17 percent of Asian youth had made a plan; and 16 percent of American Indian youth, 11 percent of Hispanic youth, 14 percent of Black youth, 9 percent of white youth, and 6 percent of Asian youth had attempted suicide. Overall, 3 percent of high school students reported being injured in a suicide attempt.

According to CDC, poor mental health can result in serious negative outcomes for the health and development of adolescents, which can last into adulthood. Young people who feel hopeless about their future are more likely to engage in behaviors that put them at risk for HIV, STDs, and unintended pregnancy, it says. Suicide risk not only places the life of the adolescent at risk, but is also a marker for experience with trauma and other mental health issues, CDC notes.

Anna King, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, reacted to the YRBS report during a CDC media briefing.

“This YRBS data is extremely heartbreaking to see,” she said. “This is especially heartbreaking to see the data for female students and LGBQ+ students. We’ve been saying our nation is facing a huge mental health crisis, and this data makes it even more devastating.”

King called on schools, families, and community organizations to address the youth mental health crisis together as a matter of urgency.

“It’s critical that everyone come together, school staff and community organizations, collaborate and work together to help our families and our children with comprehensive support,” she said. “Our children need us, right now.”

Schools should support a school climate where all students feel welcome, supported, and set up for success, she said. “We suggest that our schools start by educating their staff and their families on what mental health is, what supports are available, and how they can access their services. This includes teaching about social and emotional learning, connecting students with counseling, and providing families with tools they need to have mental health and great conversations at home.”

King spoke about losing her own 15-year-old niece, Lana, to suicide five years ago, and urged parents to develop a strong understanding of their children’s wellbeing.

“She was a happy child,” King recalled. “She was very engaging. She ran track and basketball. She was a dancer, and she was a cheerleader. We never knew what signs were, or what to look for. I wish my family had these resources, and knew what to look for earlier.”

“I’m urging our families to come together, look for signs, look for ways that you can have these conversations with your children. It’s critical to talk with our children about what they’re feeling and their concerns, things happen at school with their friends, and how current events are always impacting them, and to share their own feelings and challenges are extremely important, as well as your own.”

WATCH: CDC media briefing on Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2011-2021

Schools are on the front lines of the youth mental health crisis, and must be equipped with proven tools to help students thrive, CDC’s Ethier agreed.

She called for teachers to be trained to help manage the mental health problems they see in their classrooms, mentors to help foster positive connections, and schools to ensure that they are safe places for vulnerable youth.

 She added that schools should connect youth to needed services, and provide quality health education that teaches skills like understanding sexual consent, managing emotions, and communication.

Ethier said such critical lifelines for students and found in CDC’s What Works in Schools program. “Research has shown that schools that implement the program see significant benefits for their students,” she said.

Ethier said that the 2011-2022 YRBS report contains the first national youth risk behavior data since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but noted that “data have shown that many measures were moving in the wrong direction before the pandemic.”

Note about transgender data: The CDC report said that because the survey did did not include a question on gender identity, the report did not highlight data specifically on students who identify as transgender. That’s why the report references “LGBQ+” omitting the letter T that is commonly used in the acronym LGBTQ+, the report explained. “However, strategies to improve adolescent health should be inclusive of all students who identify as LGBTQ+, so the full acronym is used when highlighting actions,” the report said. It added that future YRBS surveys will include a question on gender identity.

If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741

A Mother’s Movement Against Bullying

Jane Clementi is the founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which works to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces, and faith communities. She started the advocacy organization in 2011 to honor her son, Tyler. He died by suicide at age 18 in the first month of his freshman year at Rutgers University. Among the foundation’s programs is the Million Upstander Movement, in which enlistees pledge to stand up to bullying and treat others with kindness, respect, and compassion. The Sophie Fund’s Anna Moura spoke to Jane Clementi via Zoom on October 28, 2020.

Tyler and Jane Clementi [Courtesy Jane Clementi]

THE SOPHIE FUND: What drove you to create the Tyler Clementi Foundation?

JANE CLEMENTI: It was in the wake of my son’s death. He died by suicide in the fall of 2010 after he had been just started his freshman year. His roommate live-streamed him in a sexual encounter with another man. And then, as he read the comments and quotes on social media, his reality became twisted and distorted, and he made that permanent decision to a very temporary situation, and he died by suicide. It was to honor his legacy.

There were several high-profile deaths in the fall of 2010, but Tyler’s seemed to rise even up to the top of those and his story held national headlines for several weeks after that. Several noted celebrities continued to talk about Tyler over the course of time. As my fog lifted from the extreme distress that I was in after Tyler’s death, I realized that there was a lot of good positive conversation that was happening, and that those conversations were helping to create change, to make life better for other LGBTQ youth as well as just other marginalized youth that were being targeted.

I wanted to make sure that the world knew more about Tyler and the kind, caring, resourceful young man that he actually was. I also have come in years since to realize how distressed he truly was as well. I recently moved, within the last six months, and I came across more writings that Tyler had documented some of his pain and sadness and anger. It was someone I didn’t even recognize. I had no idea. So not everyone exhibits symptoms of their pain.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you define the problem of bullying?

JANE CLEMENTI: I think it’s a complex issue with a complex array of solutions. I think it’s helpful for us to share our stories so that people are aware of the great consequences and harm that can be caused from bullying behavior. I like to make sure people know that not all bullying situations end in the same devastating way that Tyler’s story ended. But with that said, all bullying hurts when it is happening, and it often leaves lifelong scars, whether physical or emotional, psychological scars.

I also think it is an issue that needs our constant attention and immediate attention. I don’t think it’s “kids just being kids.” I don’t think it magically disappears when someone turns 18. It’s behavior that goes on uncorrected and unchallenged. We have to identify that behavior early—the earlier, the better—to make change. Legislation is important, but I think it’s just a small component of creating change. I think most legislation sets the boundaries, which I think is key and important, but after that once the boundaries are crossed, it is very punitive. It mostly deals with punishment or suspension. I don’t think that that changes the behavior. I think we need to implement more behavior modification, and maybe reward positive behavior and call out positive behavior as part of the solution.

We are working preventing bullying online and off, as well as in schools, workplaces, and faith communities. Because I think it happens not only to youth, and not only in schools, but also through legislative inequalities as well as religious dogma that targets especially those in the LGBTQ community. We can go further down to the root of the cause and that will help prevent it for other people.

THE SOPHIE FUND: What can we really do to make an impact on bullying behavior?

JANE CLEMENTI: We have a few initiatives ourselves with the Tyler Clementi Foundation that we think will impact that behavior. First of all, we think it’s important to realize that there’s more than just the target and the aggressor in a bullying situation. But there are bystanders. Almost all situations have bystanders, people who see what’s happening. And those are bystanders because they’re passive and remain silent. That is like condoning and supporting the aggressive behavior. So, we want to empower those bystanders, and we call them “upstanders” once they become empowered. We think that there are many ways to do that.

You can intervene and interrupt a situation if you feel comfortable and if you know the people involved. Because we never ever want anyone else to come into harm’s way. Sometimes it’s as easy as, if you know the people and maybe think they are using racial slurs or homophobic slurs as jest or some type of humor—which they are not—and calling it out and saying that this isn’t funny.

It might even be as simple as coming beside the person being targeted and calling them away and pulling them physically out of the situation, saying, “Come with me, I want to show you something I saw outside, or down the hall,” or whatever.

If you don’t feel comfortable in that situation, or if the behavior doesn’t get changed, it’s about reporting it to a trusted adult or a youth. Or reporting it to the proper people if it’s happening in the workplace, up your ladder, your chain of command, your human resources department, something to that effect.

If you have someone’s best interest at heart, it is not tattling, or telling on someone. It’s about finding them the right support, which takes us to the third easiest way. That is to reach out to the target. I think that that is important. I think if someone had reached out to Tyler, it would have made all the difference for him. Making sure they know where their resources are. Tyler had resources at Rutgers, and he had resources at home. But no one made sure he knew how to reach out. And when you’re in a really dark place, and I learned personally, you don’t often see your resources. You just see the pain and the bleakness. So reaching out to the target, making sure, sometimes it’s just about making sure they know you’re there, you’re a friend. I think those are key elements of being an upstander.

We also believe that its more than just a one-on-one but about creating safe communities as well. We believe that someone, if they say on a first day of a group meeting together, whether it’s a sports team, or a club, or a classroom, or an entire school, having a person of authority set the boundaries, and say that we value everyone here, we will not accept anybody being targeted or humiliated for any reason. And then calling out and enumerating the reasons. Such as body shape and size, or abilities, or what language they speak at home, or their sexual orientation, or their gender identity, or whatever else makes somebody special and precious.

We do think people are targeted because of their differences, and we need to enumerate those differences so people understand that, and then get an acknowledgement back from the group that, yes, they understand. It is not a magic wand. The aggressor needs to hear where the boundaries are sometimes. It is also a huge message for someone who is marginalized to hear, to know that they are welcome and included in this space regardless of whatever makes them special.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Tell us about the “Upstander Pledge”?

JANE CLEMENTI: We started it several years ago. We wanted to reach a million people with our upstander pledge by October of 2020, and I’m pleased to say that we did just reach a million people. We’re really thrilled about that announcement, but we also know that a million people sounds like a lot, but it still needs to reach more. So we are going to continue our message.  It is also a message that needs to be heard over and over again.

Every time you are faced with a situation, it’s not like, “Oh, I signed the pledge, I’m good.” You have to really think about it. One of the things I’ve learned is that there is something called the bystander phenomenon. The more people that see an incident happening the less likely that somebody is to stand up to that incident. That’s why we need to have it fresh on our mind: “Wait a minute, nobody is saying anything. That’s me. I need to be that person that stands in the gap. I need to be the person to be empowered enough, and to have the courage enough, to stand up here.” And then hopefully you’ll be the leader to create a wave of people that will stand up to that.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How does the foundation’s work specifically impact LGBTQ youth?

JANE CLEMENTI: Our mission is broad in that it speaks to anyone’s difference. With that said, I think that allows us to speak specifically where we go and where we are invited in to talk. We are not quite as problematic for some schools or for some businesses that might not be able to or want to invite, say, GLSEN, or GLAAD, or HRC. And yet, for us, that is a huge focus of our work because that is part of Tyler’s story. Tyler was a gay youth, so we can speak to that. We have a gentle way of bringing that conversation to the organization that we are speaking in.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you view the problem of cyberbullying?

JANE CLEMENTI: With Covid we are spending so much more of our time in the digital cyber world, so the incidences of cyber-attack or bullying are so much greater. We have to be sure and think about the words that we’re using, and say the words that are building other people up and not attacking their character. I think it’s important that we see the humanity behind something and being willing to back up whatever we say by saying it to someone’s face, not saying it just through words on a screen.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Can you talk about the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act?

JANE CLEMENTI: A little history. It was created and introduced into the Senate initially by the New Jersey’s senator at the time, which was Senator Frank Lautenberg. He realized a truth which I still see today, that there is no federal anti-bullying legislation at all. Since Tyler was a college student, he initiated the bill to speak to colleges and universities, higher education institutions, to create policies and programs to protect all their students.

In 2010, in the fall, there were very few state laws for anti-bullying. I think New Jersey instituted one of the first. New Jersey’s law is called HIB—Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying. That passed shortly after Tyler’s death. At this point, all 50 states have some form of anti-bullying legislation. Which also means each state has a different definition of what bullying is. There are 50 different definitions out there. And so I do think we do need a federal law.

There are several that are out there. The two that are most known are the Safe Schools Act, which would be K-12, and that is supported by the Human Rights Campaign, and several other organizations. And then there’s theTyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act. That is also supported by HRC and a few less organizations than the Safe Schools Act. But it does not seem to get passed legislatively. Maybe with the new Congress we can get that moving forward.

THE SOPHIE FUND: What do you think is needed specifically in higher education?

JANE CLEMENTI: One of the things with LGBTQ support is that many colleges and higher education institutions do not have a resource person or an LGBTQ center on their college campuses. Out of 6,000 institutions, only less than 10 percent had a resource person, one FTE employee who was in charge of the resource center. So, I think that there needs to be more resource availability available through a center through a place where people can gather together and receive the support that they need.

Most institutions also need policies in place to protect all students and calling out and enumerating classes including LGBTQI+ students as well. With those policies they should have trainings for staff as well as for students. Those are components of Tyler’s bill also. Having not only policies in place but trainings for staff and students.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Can you talk a little bit about the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers University?

JANE CLEMENTI: We have a Memorandum of Understanding with Rutgers that created the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers. It falls under the inclusion and diversity chancellor. They are working towards having research and symposiums. For all marginalized students, but the last two symposiums have been specific to LGBTQ, creating safe LGBTQ spaces on the college campus. They just did a web conference, the topic was “Out of The Closet.” It was discussing the safety aspect of being in the closet against the harm of being in the closet, which usually outweighs the safety. It was about not forcing people to come out before they were ready to come out. But how to rather encourage people to see the positive aspect of being out, and the better emotional mental health of it.

The Clementi Family at Tyler’s high school graduation 2010 [Courtesy Jane Clementi]

THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you view bullying in the context of today’s divisive political scene?

JANE CLEMENTI: We never will agree with everyone completely on solutions. But I do think it is key that we learn how to have those conversations respectfully and to talk about the issues and solutions to the problems without attacking someone’s character or the person. I think that’s one of the things that we haven’t achieved very well in our political system right now. As a nonprofit, we don’t endorse any candidate at all, but we certainly need leaders that will exemplify and model good behavior for us and not call out and target and attack a person’s character but have those respectful conversations.

 Until we do, I think it definitely affects youth today. You might dismiss it, but there was a research project out of the University of Virginia that talked about the last political campaign for the last election. It showed that bullying behavior increased among youth after certain political leaders exhibited it on the television screen or their news media screen, and visualizing someone calling out news reporters for their disabilities, or calling out other people and attacking their personality.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Why did the foundation reach out to the 2020 presidential candidates to take the upstander pledge?

JANE CLEMENTI: They were going to occupy so much of our time through news, we thought it was important that the candidates, all of the candidates, would take our pledge and to live out our pledge in their campaign. We reached out in a bipartisan way to everyone running at the time, and we posted them on our website.

It is multi-faceted the answer as to why some people did not take the pledge. Obviously, it was interesting to me that all the candidates were from the Democratic Party that did sign our pledge. But even within that Democratic Party, there were some that did not take it. Some responded that they don’t sign pledges, and they don’t put their name to things that they don’t have control over. And I accept that. But we got most of the top contenders who were running which I think speaks volumes. If someone actually engages in bullying behavior, I would imagine that they wouldn’t want to sign the pledge.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you assess the “Be Best” initiative of First Lady Melania Trump? People have accused President Trump of engaging in bullying and not setting a “Be Best” example.

JANE CLEMENTI: I concur. I don’t think he would be the best example. I don’t think her initiative is as robust as it should be either. I see very little about it. Maybe I’m just missing it in my news area. I do know that she had one conference and I know some people who attended the conference. I didn’t even know that it was happening until after the fact. I think it was shallow at best, and I think she could have had a larger and stronger voice in this area. Although it’s very difficult when you are trying to reap change for good and one of the people involved on the other side and is occupying so much media attention is actually being the aggressor in many situations. and being the aggressor without knowing that he even is the aggressor. I have to have a good view of everyone. I can’t imagine someone wants to be an aggressor or wants to inflict cruel pain on someone else. I think sometimes it is just not even in their consciousness that they are being that type of an aggressor.

—By Anna Moura

Anna Moura, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2021 Writing major and Psychology minor at Ithaca College

[To learn more, check out local, state, and national resources on bullying at https://thesophiefund.org/bullying]

Transgender Connections

Lack of acceptance, discrimination, and even abuse are common challenges faced by those in the transgender community. After Natasha Schreib joined the Ithaca Transgender Group (ITG), she quickly met another member, Ellen Marie, and they have been best friends ever since. “We talk to each other daily,” Schreib recalled in a recent interview with The Sophie Fund. “We get together weekly, constantly keep in touch through phone calls, give each other advice, and discuss some of our shared interests.”


Ithaca is a relatively LGBTQ-friendly place, and perhaps nothing exemplifies this better than the existence of ITG. Established in 1999, the organization offers an essential space for transgender people to share their knowledge and experiences and to learn about local medical and mental health resources. And as Schreib notes, ITG provides “an opportunity to find other people to socialize and connect with.”

The heart of ITG can been seen and felt every other Sunday afternoon when members gather for biweekly confidential peer-support meetings to share gender-related experiences, perspectives, and advice. The sessions are for people who have transitioned as well as those who wish to transition or are questioning their birth gender assignment. Meetings are also open for significant others, families, friends, and allies—or SOFFA, for short—as a way of helping others understand the transgender condition and experience.

ITG also provides useful online information to the transgender community through a website rich in local resources. According to Schreib, to help avoid hassles or discrimination when seeking health services, ITG proactively has sought out and listed local medical providers, private therapists, and social workers who are knowledgeable about the needs of people in the transgender community. Some of the physicians listed highlight the provision of the hormone replacement therapy used in gender transitioning. In a sign of ITG’s strong presence in Ithaca, Schreib said that many organizations initiated listings on the website to assure ITG members of their trans-friendly approach. Other services listed focus on legal rights, alcohol and drug addiction support, suicide prevention, and LGBTQ issues.

Schreib, however, highlights the critical importance of ITG simply as a place where transgender people can feel at home. Research has shown that because transgender populations experience stigma, social isolation, discrimination, and victimization, they are especially prone to depression, anxiety, unhealthy sexual practice, and alcohol abuse. As Schreib notes, in the United States about 42 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide, a rate nine times greater than that seen in cisgender Americans.

Schreib is pleased to note that many members of ITG, including herself, have been able to form close relationships with each other. The ITG website includes a calendar packed with many local as well as regional and national activities. There’s the city’s “premier queer night” at a downtown nightclub every Thursday, or to slow it down a bit, there’s “Queers Go Bowling” at some local lanes. A half dozen or more members regularly skip the calendar and organize evenings where everyone finds a way to laugh and enjoy visits to favorite restaurants.

—By Amber Raiken

Amber Raiken, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a rising senior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

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: