Janice Fialka -- Bio
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Emma Fialka-Feldman is currently an elementary school inclusion teacher in Boston. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College where she studied Critical Social Thought and Early-Childhood Education. She recently received a Masters in Education through the Boston Teacher Residency Program. She is interested in inclusive education practices, the relationship between a sibling with a disability and a sibling without a disability, and immigration policies. She blogs at: emmaff.blogspot.com.
In this 2012 interview, Emma talks about growing up with a brother, Micah, who has an "intellectual disability," how he fought in court for his right to live in a dorm, and how their life together affected her decision to become an educator. See American Stories Continuum Interview.
Emma's Senior Speech at Berkley High School, Berkley, MI
Emma's Poem: Reflections on the U.S.-Mexico Border
"Everyday Hero's: Don't Underestimate Them" -- a blog article written about Emma on Leaders Today, a world renowned youth leadership organization, delivering
innovative local and international training experiences to more than
350,000 youth every year.
Click here for a look at Emma's Apple Award-Winning Video on "Lookism" You'll need Quicktime to view this short movie. If you don't already have it, you can download it for free (for Windows XP or Vista) here.
Emma at Cranbrook Peace Foundation's 19th Annual Peace Lecture & Award Ceremony -- History as a Guide to Action
Emma was honored, as the representative of the Youth Leadership Project (YLP), to speak at Cranbrook Peace Foundation's annual program on Nov. 6, 2006. You can watch Emma presenting her speech here.
Emma has contributed to the following national publications:
The Sibling Slam Book, is an honest, non-PC look at the lives, experiences, and opinions of siblings without disabilities. It is edited by Don Meyer, Director of the Sibling Support Project of The Arc of the United States and the creator of the Sibshop model.
Letters from Young Activists (Nation Books) is a collection of letters from young activist to their parents, to past generations, to each other, to the youth of tomorrow and to their future selves. Each author articulates his or her vision for the world as they work towards racial, economic, gender, environmental and global justice. It is edited by Chesa Boudin, Dan Berger, and Kenyon Farrow.
Other writings by Emma follow:
A mutual relationship -- Learning from each other. A sibling shares her story. (from CSHCS of Michigan, Fall/Winter 2004)
Sometimes as I watch kids with special needs in my high school I wonder. Are they being treated fairly? Are kids respecting them? My brother Micah is 19 years old and has some developmental disabilities. I often find myself wondering about what his life was like in high school. He loves to run, watch the news, and surf the web. I, Emma am fifteen years old. I enjoy playing my trumpet and playing soccer.
Living with a brother with special needs has been an experience and it continues to provoke new challenges and accomplishments for both of us. I believe I am a more compassionate, understanding, and most importantly more accepting because I am a sibling of "a Micah." I say "hi" to anybody walking the streets, just like my brother. I learned that from him. I am a caring person. Not only do I make sure I turn my homework in on time but I also care about my brother. As my family has learned over time and we do continue to learn, we ask Micah questions that do not involve just a "yes" or "no" answer. Although sometimes it takes an extra few seconds, I try to think of questions like "How was your day?" or "What did you do." It challenges Micah and allows me to focus on one thing.
The hardest part about being a sibling at this age, is hearing classmates use the word "retarded." When I hear that word, a sharp pain goes through my chest. It hits right at home. It bothers me because when people use that word, they are using it as a put down. Kids and adults don't realize it is unacceptable to use the "r" word to describe a person or thing. When someone uses the word, I usually tell them that it is not cool to say that and it is unacceptable. I don't say anything about my brother because I have found that when I do people just say, "I didn't mean it towards him." Sometimes I don't say anything because sometimes I am just too tired of saying it.
Granted, I am not a perfect sister. When I was young, I knew my brother, Micah was special. He had friends. He was on a soccer team. Everyone seemed to know him. He was my older brother. In the second grade, as I got older I began to understand the "needs" sides of his specialness. I wanted to change him. I tried hard too. I thought if I helped him with his homework, took him away from the television, helped him with his reading than he would change and be like the fifth grader he was "suppose to be." He didn't. As I grew older, I became more knowledgeable. I knew more; I realized his special needs were permanent. When I began fifth and sixth grade, I hated having a "different" brother. He was embarrassing. I didn't like how he stuttered, how he rode a training wheel bike at age thirteen, or how I sometimes was like the older sibling. I wanted a normal brother. I would avoid him. I would go over my friends' houses instead of my friends coming to my house. My parents helped me A LOT. My mom would let me talk to her at night, allowing me to let out my frustration. My dad bought a bike without training wheels so it wouldn't bother me when Micah wanted to ride a bike. This new bike turned out to be not only a match for me, but for my brother. Everyone in our neighborhood wanted to ride his cool bike. He continues to ride it today.
My parents got my brother involved in a lot of activities so he didn't come home right after school. Some weekends he even went away to youth group events. They also started a "circle of friends" when he was in elementary school; where a group of Micah's peers would get together and do activities. These made things better. It allowed me time with myself and special weekends with my parents.
Now in high school after going through many phases as a sibling, I have made the realization that Micah is Micah. Yes, I continue to go back to the phase of embarrassment, not understanding, and sometimes I try to change him. But most of the time I enjoy Micah as my older brother. I love how I can discuss politics and current events with him. We play basketball and soccer. We wrestle. I have taught him to be more assertive. When I first began to push him around like normal siblings do, my parents were concerned. They didn't want me hurting him. Despite their influence I continued to push him around. Now when I shove him he gives me a big shove back, and it doesn't bother me one bit because I know that ALL brothers and sisters fight. And that is the kind of relationship I want to have with my brother.
Dear Staff, Teachers, and Administrators, August 4, 2004
Welcome back to a brand new school year. For some it maybe a new beginning with new students, for others, it might mean familiar faces and back to old ways. This year when you introduce yourself to your students, patrol the halls making sure everyone is safe, or have a friendly conversation with a student I hope you try one new thing.
I am entering my sophomore year in high school. That's over a decade of attending Berkley Schools. I've had a lot of amazing teachers who have encouraged me to enjoy learning. It is obvious that they love their work. However, there are times when teachers have neglected to teach about becoming a considerate and carrying citizen. Sometimes I have had to be the teacher and teach my peers (and adults) about respect and tolerance.
Every day when I get up to go to schoolI get a little afraid. I am not afraid of the teachers or any particular students. For the most part I like most of the people in my school. But there is one thing that happens every day that disturbs me. When I walk out of a classroom and step out of doorway I cross my fingers hoping I won't hear a student call someone a retard. Because every time I do, a sharp pain goes through my chest. My brother Micah, 20, has a cognitive impairment. Every time I hear the r'-word I get the chills and become upset. It's not because I think that the student using the r'-word is referring to my brother, because they probably aren't, but because they've learned that it is acceptable to use that word. The problem is that it is NOT okay to call someone a retard. Just like society has learned that an African American should no longer be called a nigger, because it is a derogatory word, now it is time to learn that no one should be called a retard.
Every time I hear someone use the r-word I have to make a decision. Do I walk up to the student and say, That's unacceptableyou knowto use that word ? The person usually stands there trying to recall their words. I stand there wondering why I have to be the one telling them this. Then I continue. I hope you stop using the r-word becausejust like you would probably never call someone the n'-wordyou shouldn't call someone a retard. It is unacceptable. Or do I not say anything because I am too tired of saying it.
I hope I won't have to be afraid to walk down the halls of Berkley this year. I hope there will be another option when I hear the r-word. Maybe this year there will be another group of peoplethe staff, the teachers, and the administrators behind me. Maybe they will be there when I can't or don't say anything to the student using the r'-word. Maybe they will be the ones standing up to the student telling him or her it is unacceptable to use that word.
At a camp I attended this summer, one camper constantly used the r'-word. Not being able to stand it any longer, I finally asked him to stop. His response was so powerful that it forced me to write this letter to you. He said, Retard is the only word I can get away with at my school. I was shocked and appalled. But I had no reason to be. In my 10 years at BerkleyI've only known ONE teacher who has ever said anything to a student, in front of me, when the r-word was used. Granted there are probably teachers who may have heard a student using the r'-word and pulled them aside and told them to stop. I commend all of you who have done that. Unfortunately there haven't been enough teachers and staff doing it especially in front of the classroom, the hallways, or during conversations. A child shouldn't be able to know they can get away with using a derogatory word in their school.
I shouldn't have to be afraid to walk down my own school hallways because I might hear words that should not be tolerated in our building. School is an important place where students learn not only academics, but also social values.
Changing the culture of any high school to promote values of respect and responsibility do not happen over night, as many of you may know. It happens little by little. Unfortunately I can't and will not tell ever single person I hear use the r'-word to stop saying it. I need your help. In the classroom when a student uses the r'-word tell them to stop. By saying it in front of the classroom, the entire class of students know that they can no longer use the word in the classroom because you don't tolerate it. When they eat in the cafeteria or walk down the hallways they will also grow to learn that they can no longer say it in their conversations on school property because every time they do a teacher will tell them to stop. Hopefully what they have learned at Berkley they will take outside to the movies, to the dinner table, to the car rides, to their work. They will bring what the teachers, staff, and administrators have taught them into the larger world.
Maybe there will be a day when I'll walk down the hallways of BHS and I won't be scared because I'll know that there's a group of people, not only teachers, but also my fellow classmates, who have learned to accept each other's differences and use respectful language. Maybe then there will be no sharp pains through my heart, only a satisfied smile.
Note: The above letter is a shorter version of the one published in the newly released book, Letters from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out.
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