Angela Ards, far right, with this year's Revson Fellows.
Last month, Angela Ards quit her 9-5 job. Considering she's spent the past decade working as a youth activist and advocacy journalist, it was no small thing for her to turn in her resignation letter and gather up her files. But Ards had good reason: she was accepted as a 2002-2003 Revson Fellow at Columbia and knew it was an opportunity she could not pass up.
As a result, Ards now has the chance to spend the next two semesters working on a book that chronicles the post-civil rights generation through a most personal lens: her own. She'll take courses in sociology, anthropology and creative writing that directly relate to her project and interact with a variety of scholars and fellow activists to explore the defining moments that have shaped the radical thinking of young people involved in social justice movements. In the process, she'll focus on what she calls the "big issues" such as educational reform, environmental activism, and the impact both have on various communities.
"In addition to the context of a strong academic environment, I'm hoping this book will be grounded in a lot of personal stories, my own but also other activists, all in an effort to chart the work that's been done around the country," Ards said.
Ards's professional experience and vision reflect the type of individual the Revson Fellowship program has always been interested in. Established in 1979 by Eli N. Evans, president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, who recruited Eli Ginzberg, then professor of economics and health policy, to direct the program [and who has directed it since], the fellowship appeals to mid-career professionals in grass roots organizations, government agencies, independent media and education for the purpose of enhancing their understanding of how to improve the City.
"No one at the start of the program, including Eli Evans and myself, would ever have assumed that the program would be operating for six renewals of four years each; and with a broadened existence and life to follow," Ginzberg says. "Since foundations seldom give such long-term support, the Revson Foundation deserves special credit for enabling the program to grow and to develop an extraordinary network of almost 250 present and former fellows."
By bringing activists away from the frontlines of their work and into an academic atmosphere, the fellowship affords them a chance to "refresh and recharge," according to Karen Vrotsos, program manager for the Revson fellows. "We look for people already doing key work in the city who have questions in their fields that might not have answers in the resources available to them. The fellows take advantage of the resources at Columbia and of the opportunity to learn from one another to improve their ability to contribute to the city."
Ards is one of ten fellows selected from hundreds of applicants. Each year, a committee comprised of Ginzberg and four Revson alumni carefully examines the applications and then interviews 35 prospective fellows to narrow down the selection. Vrotsos wishes there were more programs like the Revson program, which receives more worthy applicants than it can accept. The committee intentionally limits the number to ten to maintain a sense of intimacy and foster lasting connections between the fellows. Once selected, New York fellows are given a small stipend for an academic year that they design according to their interests and work.
Most fellows choose to enroll each term in two to three courses from disciplines across campus. In addition, they meet regularly with faculty mentors from a variety of schools [such as the Mailman School of Public Health and the School of International and Public Affairs], attend weekly seminars with other Revson participants and work together in creating an interdisciplinary spring conference that is open to the Columbia community. And the fellows also visit local organizations for field research and participate in regular discussions.
"There is a strong interactive component to the program," Vrotsos said. "By being on campus, the fellows infuse new life in the courses they take because to them this is not theoretical stuff. They bring real life experience to the classrooms." While some Columbia alumni apply to the program because they've encountered Revson fellows during the
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ir academic careers here, the reverse is also true in that some fellows even begin additional degree programs at Columbia as a result of their Revson experience.
"One of the many striking accomplishments of the Revson Program over the last twenty four years has been the greatly expanded role and responsibility of the fellows past and present," Ginzberg says. "They continuously reshape the program and assume ever more leadership so that it can serve the fellows and the City of New York more effectively."
When the year ends, the goal for fellows is to return to their respective careers with new perspectives and a network of support that includes some 200 former fellows still working to make a difference in New York City. And in Ards's case, that's worth writing about.