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The 2013 Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest Winners: Reflections of a 2012 Alum

Last year, I was lucky enough to have my essay read and rewarded by Professor Elie Wiesel, Dov Seidman, and the rest of the judges for the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity Prize in Ethics, an annual competition that challenges college students in the U.S. to submit essays on urgent ethical issues that confront us in today’s complex world. Today, as we award the winners of the 2013 Prize in Ethics contest, I can’t help but reflect on my experiences as a winner, and the journey I’ve been on since the Elie Wiesel Foundation brought me through LRN’s doors for the very first time.

LRN has been the exclusive corporate partner of The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity's Prize in Ethics since 2008.  Since, the organizations have been working together to create a more just and ethical future through the cultivation of a new generation of ethical leaders. 

When I stepped into the LRN’s offices last September, a few days after my 22nd birthday and a few sobering months into my post-grad job search, wearing the job interview suit that my parents had bought me, I had no idea what was waiting for me in LRN’s conference room named “Gandhi.”  The seminar LRN held for the prize-winners reanimated me after the disillusionment of post-graduation life as we spoke candidly about each other’s essays and shared our stories of how the award had affected our lives.  The crux of the day, for me, came when Dov Seidman had lunch with us andtold the story of how he stumbled into the field of philosophy.  I was struck by our shared love of philosophy and the way in which Dov had built a for-profit business on a foundation of asking hard questions.  This inspired me to pursue a deeper connection with the company, and the more colleagues I spoke to, the more I was certain I was on the right track.  I shook the hand of any LRN colleague, board member, or affiliate that I could find at the awards reception that night, and made sure to introduce myself:

“Nice to meet you, I’m Aimee Griffin and I want to work at LRN.”

My subsequent internship, and now 2-year fellowship at the company, have both allowed me to apply Professor Wiesel’s mantra of “think higher, feel deeper” in my work every day. 

One of the things I love about the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest is its call to action, demanding that undergraduate students exercise their minds and their hearts in a way that few class papers require.  Without fail, the winners of this contest reach into themselves and pull out the thoughts that are the most vulnerable, the most controversial, and the hardest to explain, working through them on paper with honesty and hope.  As a former philosophy major, to me this is the discipline at its finest: analysis of issues interwoven with the deep sense that we as humans can reflect and improve. 

Seeing the diverse themes of the winning 2013 essays makes me proud to say that I was in their shoes just a year ago.  These students are asking difficult questions about topics like the ethics surrounding self immolation, forced abortions in Communist China, and applying the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas to their own experiences.  It heartens me that these extremely busy students, possibly in the middle of their senior theses like I was, took the time during their fall semester to write something that no one would grade or count toward graduation because it meant something to them.  This is the first in a series of blog posts that I’ll write over the course of the next few weeks to share the winning student essays in their own words.

Let’s start with first-prize winner Gavriel Brown, whose quest to help others in the wake of Hurricane Sandy led him to deep reflection about himself and the way he interacts with others.  His search for human connection as he volunteered at a shelter in the aftermath of the storm draws universal insights from a snapshot of humanity dealing with a specific disaster.

            My Facebook feed was awash with personal pictures of the storm: houses washed away in Far Rockaway, flooding downtown, the National Guard patrolling the streets against looters in front of another friend’s house. Pictures of flooded synagogues and waterlogged Torah scrolls filled the local Jewish newspaper. With no way to travel to heavily damaged places to help, existential cabin fever set in.

On   Thursday,   friends   displaced   from   the   storm   came   over   for   dinner.   As   is customary after storms, we trafficked hurricane stories. At the end of dinner, a text came through to our phones. “Volunteers needed at 192nd and Audubon. George Washington High School is now evac shelter. Need Help ASAP.” We finished washing the dishes and then walked the ten blocks to the high school, uncertain of what we would find. From a distance, we could see buses in front of the school. As we walked closer, it became apparent that a massive intake effort was underway. Women and children streamed out of the buses as men hauled trash bags off the back seats and out the back door. A line formed of evacuees waiting to enter the shelter, some carrying nothing but two black plastic bags.

We lined up behind other volunteers waiting to sign in, and watched as police officers x­rayed every bag that the evacuees brought into the shelter. After logging in, writing nametags and sticking them to orange volunteer vests, we received a quick orientation by a red­eyed middle­aged Gil, the shelter manager. “Welcome to chaos,” he said. “Don’t come close,” he warned. “I haven’t showered in a few days.”…

 “Thank God you guys came here when you did,” Gil said with a smile, “Otherwise, I don’t know what the heck we would do.”

I nervously asked a man where he came from, not wanting to remind him of any destruction. I received a look of indignation and exhaustion. “I’m coming from another shelter,” he told me.  I would later learn that almost three quarters of the evacuation center’s evacuees came from homeless shelters that were flooded, dark and dangerous. Others were evacuated from low lying areas while a few were actually rescued from rising floodwaters.

The scene in the men’s gym that I was supervising was dreamlike and dreadful: an overwhelming mass of humanity, a horde of the homeless and despondent…

Click here for more of Gavriel’s essay, “Losing Self, Finding Self.”I’ll return next week with second place winner Lawson Kuehner’s essay “Grace and Gasoline: Self-Immolations in Modern Tibet and the Ethical Limits of Non-Violent Protest.” 

Topics: Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics

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Thoughts about inspiring principled performance.

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