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E = mc2. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Wellington, New Zealand, or in Nuuk, Greenland — energy will continue to equal mass times the speed of light squared. Similarly, the chemical composition of sodium is unchanged whether you’re in Paris, France, or in Poughkeepsie, USA.
That’s because science is international. It’s the ultimate equalizer because it has no borders, religion, culture, or language. So in our viciously polarized world, imagine what can happen if we use something that everyone can agree on to serve as a chain reaction for peace.
It’s an honor to welcome chemist, educator, and humanitarian Dr. Zafra Lerman, whose achievements will leave you starstruck. Highlights of her accolades include the Presidential Award from US President Clinton and multiple Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
Dr. Lerman has successfully prevented executions, released prisoners from jail, and brought dissidents to freedom. But perhaps most impressively, she heads the Malta Conference Foundation, which promotes peace by bringing scientists from otherwise hostile countries to collaborate together.
Widowed just before the pandemic, Dr. Lerman joins us today to tell her story of triumph, heartbreak, loneliness, and hope. She also explains her ultimate mission, which is to fight for human rights, make science more accessible, and create peace in the Middle East.
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- You can’t hate who you love
- Explaining science through booze & salad
- Fighting for the betterment of humankind
- Using connections to eliminate red tape
- Not being okay with being alone
Listen to the Full Episode
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Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Featured on the Show:
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- Sundae’s Website
- Sundae’s Facebook Business Page – Sundae Schneider-Bean LLC
- American Chemical Society (ACS)
- Malta Conferences Foundation – YouTube
- Malta Conferences Foundation – Website
- Lerman Institute for the Advancement of Science Student Projects – YouTube
- American Association for the Advancement of Studies
- Nobel Peace Prize
- José Vasconcelos World Award of Education
Catch These Podcasts / Articles:
- Malta X Anniversary and COVID-19
- A Bridge to Peace
- Congressional Record: Recognizing the Importance of the Malta Conferences
We’re delighted to be in the Top 5 of the global Best 30 Expat Podcasts!
Full Episode Transcript:
Hello, It is 10:00 am in New York, 4:00 pm in Johannesburg, and 9:00 pm in Bangkok. Welcome to IN TRANSIT with Sundae Bean. I am an intercultural strategist, transformation facilitator, and solution-oriented coach, and I am on a mission to help you adapt & succeed through ANY life transition.
When thinking of today’s guest, this quote came to mind from Margaret Mead, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” Her story is inspiring. The legacy she is creating is jaw-dropping. And the hope she offers is what I think we need right now, especially when you put it into context Jamais Cascio’s work on the BANI world we’re currently living in; Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, and Incomprehensible. We need unique approaches to enduring problems and our guest today is deeply committed to helping achieve that and has been for decades. I would like to welcome Dr. Zafra Lerman to IN TRANSIT. Welcome Dr. Lerman.
Zafra: Thank you very much for having me.
Sundae: It’s really a huge pleasure. And there are many people who probably already know your work. But for those who are unfamiliar, I’m going to quickly introduce you. Dr. Zafra Lerman is an American Israeli chemist, educator, and humanitarian. She’s the president of the Malta Conference Foundation, which aims to promote peace via scientific diplomacy. She’s been successful in preventing executions, releasing prisoners from jail, and bringing dissidents to freedom. In addition to that, she is the recipient of more awards than I have time to name for education and science diplomacy, including the 1999 Presidential Award from US President Clinton. 2015 Science Diplomacy award from the American Association for the Advancement of Studies and multiple Nobel Peace Prize nominations. But what we have in common is something that happened in South Africa. Do you want to share about the award you got in South Africa, Dr. Lerman?
Zafra: Oh sure. I got the José Vasconcelos World Award of Education from the World Cultural Council. The World Cultural Council have three awards. They have their Albert Einstein for science. They have the Leonardo da Vinci for art, and they have the José Vasconcelos for education. I got it for combining science and art and because every year it’s in another country. When I got the mail note that I am receiving the award, I just prayed that it would be anywhere, but not in the US. I was so lucky that the award was given in South Africa and it was the first International award in the new democratic South Africa. So, it was an experience out of this world.
Sundae: I can only imagine. I know, not only do we have South Africa in common, but that you went to ETH in Zurich so there is a Swiss connection as well, which I find wonderful. So when I was looking to learn more about you, some of the things that struck me was in an acceptance speech from one of the awards that you received, you mentioned that your dream was to fight for human rights, and to make science more accessible, and to create peace in the Middle East. And the thing that struck me was you’ve actually spent decades of your life doing all of those things. So my question to you is can you help me understand, your life has truly been exceptional and your work is truly exceptional. Can you help us understand how you got to where you are today?
Zafra: Thank you very much for all the compliments. But yes, I came from a family that always fought for change and for the betterment of humankind, and it was instilled in me at a very very young age. I started my career like every scientist, you get Bachelor, Master, PhD in science. Then I had to go to the US. I got my PhD from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel in chemistry, and then I came for a postdoc to the US to Cornell University. And there, the professor I worked with was very involved in arms control, disarmament, human rights. And I got immediately involved with him on these issues.
I really was bothered by going to scientific meetings and seeing how homogeneous it is. No diversity at all. And I decided to go and teach the underprivileged, after being at Cornell, North Western, Weizmann, Switzerland, in Israel. I joined a interesting college that the president was very, very visionary. It was in Chicago at Columbia College. It’s very different now than it was when the president was Mike Alexandroff. They had one day at the college with an open admission that anybody that wanted to go to college can go even if they did not do very well in high school. Especially in the arts, if they did not have a portfolio to show. And it was a very high percentage minority and he surrounded himself by people like him. So when he looked around and Columbia was accredited as a Liberal Arts College, and did not have any science. He looked around for a person that will be involved and I was controlling disarmament in human rights and he offered me just to come and build science from scratch. And when I saw the students there, first in registration, nobody ever registered, because they never had science. And probably most of the faculty never had science, or they did not encourage the students.
My first class was “Chemistry in Daily Life.” So the way I attracted them is by taking them to a bar across the street, letting them order what they want and then asking, “What are these weird names?” Bloody Mary, Screwdriver, all that. And everybody said, “It’s this juice with alcohol.” Anyhow, the word alcohol repeated itself. Then I asked them, “What is alcohol?” Excited, “Something that makes you high.” “Oh,” I said, “Yes.” But then I showed them on the envelope, the structure and all that on a napkin, and they all got very involved in that. And even the whole bar became part of this.
And then in the bar there was a salad. So we ordered a salad with oil and vinegar. I asked them, “What is vinegar?” And explain to them that it’s acetic acid. Then, I showed them how alcohol can combine with acetic acid and the product that is called ester can be used sometimes for nail polish remover. Oh they were shocked that they just formed the nail polish remover in their stomach. And I said something called catalytic gave me opportunity and at the end of that, I said, “The semester is 15 weeks. You already had the first week of chemistry. You have only 14 more to go for my class.”
But I learned from that, that if you teach in a way that is relevant to the students’ life, to the students’ interest instead of multiple questions test, my students showed their knowledge using the major so they could show the knowledge through art, music, drama. For example, theater students did a project that followed Romeo and Juliet and the love story between sodium and chlorine.
Sundae: *laughter* You’re kidding me!
Zafra: Table salt, table salt. Exactly like Romeo and Juliet, only they changed it to scientific terms. And then because when you put salt in water and it dissolves, the sodium and chlorine are separated, it’s a Shakespearean tragedy. So then in the theater the water came and after marriage between sodium and chlorine, they separated. And then they ended it by everybody standing with a plaque saying, “Learn to take every tragedy with a grain of…” and the cup of salt.
Sundae: Okay. Now I understand why you’ve won so many awards because I saw what you were doing, but I didn’t really understand until you just shared this story with me.
Zafra: I don’t have it in front of me now because my former students just put these projects on YouTube so everyone can see it. I’ll send it to you by email and you will be able to share it. There is another one on the Bondfather that follows The Godfather, chemical bonds. There is a Star Wars one that is exactly like Star Wars but this is on the depletion of the ozone layer. A music student wrote a song. I have plenty of ozone for Fiddler on the Roof. I have plenty of laughing.
Sundae: So now I see why this is so inclusive, right? Because people can draw from something that’s culturally familiar or get engaged with the other side of their brain and make it happen. So we could spend the entire time talking about that but what actually caught my attention as an interculturalist, is what you do with your conference in Malta. You call it “scientific diplomacy.” And from an intercultural perspective, we say that contact isn’t enough. You need to have a common goal and a power equalizer. And this is exactly what you’ve done in Malta. Can you share a little bit about the conference, scientific diplomacy, and what it’s really about?
Zafra: Okay, it’s titled really Frontier of Science, Innovation, Research, and Education, in the Middle East, a Bridge to Peace. And the idea behind it, by the way, this November will have a big anniversary celebrating the 10th Malta conference. When I came up with this idea, everybody thought that I’m completely crazy because the idea was first to involve all the Middle East countries, scientists from all the Middle East countries. Not just Israel and Palestine where the biggest conflict is. Later on other people realize that it’s a good idea. We were the first one and still the only one in the world that bring together under the same roof, for five days, scientists from all the 15 Middle Eastern countries plus now Morocco and Pakistan, they are not in the Middle East but they decide to join and we are including them. You have Syria, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, all the countries are there, and always several Nobel Laureates. The number is by invitation only and five days that everybody stays in the same hotel, the quality always was the lead in my life. Everybody is equal, from the graduate student to the Nobel Prize, they all stay in the same hotel. They all eat all the meals together.
And then we have interactive workshops on issues that are important to the region and to the whole world. And it’s climate change, it’s water, it’s biological chemical and nuclear safety and security. And they work on these issues, everybody together and form collaborations in friendship that overcome the chasms of distrust and intolerance. At the end of the conference, you think it was a family reunion.
Sundae: Right. Right.
Zafra: It’s hard saying goodbye to people. It’s just unbelievable. The relationships. Now, science, I always say science diplomacy can succeed where other forms of diplomacy fail, because science is international. It has no borders, religion, culture, or language. I always like to say that a scientist in Bethlehem, a chemist in Bethlehem Pennsylvania and a chemist in Bethlehem Palestine, can communicate with each other without knowing each other’s language.
Zafra: We have a lot of collaboration on the issues of water, on science education for all making sure because I always said that we will have two societies in the future, that will not be divided by royalty, but will be divided but knowledge of science and technology. Therefore, we have to bring science education to all diverse groups. By the way, I adapted the Soweto school system when I was in South Africa and help them to adopt this method of teaching science. So I spent a lot of time with the kids in Soweto and for your audience that don’t know, it’s a place where two Nobel Peace Prize winners were born Mandela and Bishop Tutu. So this is a very special place.
Sundae: That’s amazing. When you’re speaking, I have tears in my eyes because I think what we have in common, is this true knowing that we can strip away all of that and find something – the humanity in each other, right? And if we do the work and while I’m very emotional right now because I do believe it’s possible. And I think right now it’s so hard because the polarized world right now that we’re living in is painful to see. And I know this isn’t the first time we’ve seen polarization on the planet. I’m not naïve to that but when I was watching your videos, and I was watching people come together, and those smiles and crossing gender boundaries, national boundaries, language boundaries, religious boundaries, all of that and seeing each other as humans. I wrote down, “You can’t hate who you love.” It’s impossible to hate someone as soon as you see the humanity in them or you see yourselves in them, in the other. How did you come to this idea? This is a brilliant – like a Trojan horse approach to work on peace.
Zafra: And I tell you, I’m a chemist so I’m a member in fellow of the American Chemical Society and I chaired the subcommittee on scientific freedom and human rights. I always say from its inception until it was dissolved in 2011, for 26 years. This committee worked very hard on human rights in the Soviet Union first. And then in China, Cuba, all the work and this is where other miracles happen, bringing people to freedom. But after September 11 in the US, where the Twin Towers were attacked, September 11 2001, I told my subcommittee that we have to pay attention to the Middle East. And I brought the idea as a matter of fact to the American Chemical Society and I said, “First we have to involve all of the Middle East.” Nobody ever took this approach, everybody just took Israel and Palestine, the Israelis and Palestinians, but this It’s not enough. We need stability in the whole area. So it’s still the only platform in the world being under one roof for five days.
So I suggested to have this conference in the Middle East, it was the height of the intifada being the uprising of the Palestinians, suicide bombs were going all over, and I just saw that as solution to the terrible situation. And scientists in most of the countries have a very, very special status in the society. And they have influence on the government too. Now science is not so innocent. Scientists have also done very, very bad things in the world including weapons of mass destruction. So governments really need scientists for good and for bad and this was my idea that therefore, they have a special status, that they will be able to influence a government. And this is when I came up with the idea I had in this conference, it was an American Chemical Society National Conference, I remember it till now in Orlando, Florida, I had it there because I took delegation to Cuba. This was the scientific freedom of our scientific freedom because we needed a license from the Treasury Department. But in this National Conference, I had Cuban scientists that I managed to get visas for and brought them there. And they were telling me that when I came up with my idea, they thought the bomb fell in the room because the sight is unbelievable.
You could hear people breathing and nobody said a word because it never even happened before, it never happened before and really, we were quite too worried before the first conference with, “Will everybody from all these countries come?” We need them to come. Will the Palestinian be able to arrive on time and go through all the checkpoints and all obstacles that they have? But there were a lot of lucky things that happen along the way. I don’t know how much time we have to talk. But let me just say, it’s not such an easy conference to pull.
The visa problem in this fractured world is really becoming hell. Becoming much more complicated than when we started. This is writing a book how every conference, at the end, how we get the visa. And they said, a matter of fact, even the stages of finishing this book and then it’s explained in detail what I personally had to go through, but it’s usually coincidence, connections.
Before the Malta conference, I happened to go to a lecture by Ehud Olmert that was the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel by that time. And he was giving a lecture to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. It was early in the morning, as I told you, I’m a night person, so I almost didn’t go but then I said, “Oh my God, what if everybody will be like me. I have to go.” But this was part of the success of Malta one because as he finished the talk I gave him the list of 10 Palestinians. And I said, “I want all of them to arrive, no problems with a smiling face.” When they arrived, all of them, they were smiling. And told the story, how somebody from Ehud Olmert’s office called them on a cellphone, one was in a grocery store, one was in the bank and said, “We have to help you to go smoothly to the conference Malta, but one condition, you have to come with a smile on your face.”
Sundae: *laughter* You have an amazing way with people. I see that you can move mountains. There was a phrase that you had in one of your talks that you’re looking to create a chain reaction for peace in the –
Zafra: A chain reaction to peace. A critical mass of scientists to create the chain reaction to peace. So for your audience that don’t understand the terms in order to have an atom bomb, you need critical mass for Uranium, for example, in order to have a chain reaction, that will cause the explosion. So I took these terms from mass destruction, I said, I want the critical mass of scientists to create the chain reaction for peace. So it’s built on the atom bomb.
Sundae: So I’m wondering, what are you thinking right now? When we look at the state of the world right now. 2022, at the tail end of the global pandemic, the new fresh war in Europe, and we know what’s been going on on the continent of Africa and elsewhere for years. How are you seeing the world now?
Zafra: I see the world in one of the worst stages that I can imagine because we talk a lot about Ukraine and Russia. We don’t talk about Yemen that the situation there is terrible, terrible. Children are just dying of starvation. The country is destroyed. Ethiopia is in a terrible situation, what’s going on there. And I was in a part of Ethiopia that was has been destroyed and it was a beautiful part. And now the Ukraine, you cannot even figure out what suddenly attacking and leveling off cities, killing people, killing children, killing innocent people. Just for time to have power? By the way. I was approached and thinking about doing a Malta style conference for scientists from Russia and the Ukraine, maybe from the scientific point of view, they will be able to solve it.
And I was in the Soviet Union working on human rights in the 80s when the situation there was terrible, terrible. And I know what it is. I had to take a crash course in Russian so I could go in middle of the night to make these events without having the KGB. And so I was there many times. I’ve continued to go into Russia. I was in Kiev and it’s beautiful city. I was there after Chernobyl by the way, incident of the power plant in Chernobyl. And maybe get a little bit of explanation for people that did not hear about Chernobyl, and they were washing the buildings with water, everything was radioactive, a beautiful city where my mother was born.
Sundae: So how do you keep hope? When you’ve seen everything you’ve seen, how do you keep hopeful?
Zafra: Let me tell you, it’s getting harder and harder to keep hope because I never ever thought that we will see a country just invading another country. We have not seen it for so long a time.
I understand that everybody’s afraid of a Third World War, but I don’t see how we will avoid it because we have to remember that in the Second World War, it was one person who wanted to conquer the world. So, I am very, very worried what is going on now in the world.
Sundae: Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard.
Zafra: Yeah, very hard.
Sundae: And it is. And that’s the thing about, How do we move forward in times of polarization? And that’s when I look at what I’ve seen from your life’s work, that’s what you’ve tried to combat is polarization through science. And when I feel powerless or when I look at the situation and then I hear your story, it actually gives me hope because I think you’re obviously exceptional, not everybody makes an impact in communities like you do.
Zafra: Thank you.
Sundae: But you are also also human just like everybody else, right? And so if you can tap into what your heart is calling you to do and make a difference and take action, it does give me hope. But there’s something. I keep asking in the back of my mind is, you are a woman in science, back then? It’s hard enough to be a woman in science, now. How did that go? Was you being one of the few women in your field perhaps how you were able to create some of these unique ideas? Or was it just triple hard?
Zafra: First, I was already in high school, the only girl in my class. So from a very young age, I had to struggle with this phenomenon, when every girl as a teenager has her best girlfriends. My best girlfriends were all boys. I didn’t have girlfriends in my class. So I have to learn early enough to live in this world, but I remember when I was in ACS meeting, the American Chemical Society and I was sitting in the corridor and I had a badge, some men walked by and they said, “Are you a Chemist?” And I said, “Yes,” and they said, “You don’t look like one.” I said, “Thank you. I take it as a compliment.“
Sundae: *laughter* That’s what I mean. I think you have a way where you people just want to support you, right? Because your ideas are amazing and your humor does help in hard situations. So if you don’t mind, we’ve talked a lot about the impact that you’ve made in the world. I’d love to return to a little bit more personal view right now. One of the things I am committed to is; Ambitious Transformation in Transition, and asking people who are successful about their transitions, transformation, and ambitions because often we only see the results of all the hard work, but we don’t get a glimpse of the human side of the person. So if you’ll humor me, I would love to hear from you; What transitions, whether they are global, health, family, or professional are you feeling right now?
Zafra: Yeah, transition is not new to me because I think you can hear that I don’t have an American accent. So in Texas, once they asked me, “Where are you from with that accent?” And I said, “I’m from Chicago.”
Zafra: So for sure coming to the states really young, as a single mom with a child and in the world of science, they were a lot of obstacles. And no money because postdocs didn’t make enough money. So this was a very, very tough decision transition. And I had to struggle with that and managed to become successful in my career. I am now in the hardest transition I had in my life because I lost my husband just before the pandemic started. So not only that I lost him, suddenly, you are isolated. No friends. No family. And I am a person that cannot do anything alone. I’m never even could do my homework alone. I needed another child to sit there. I will not eat alone. Because eating for me is a social event.
And it’s so it’s a big struggle because I’m just cannot be alone and I am in a transition but it’s not doing very well. Because when all my life, as my mother said from the day I opened my eyes, I made their life so hard because I couldn’t be alone for one second. And good things never change from what she tells me that I never needed sleep, but needed always company. It’s exactly the same and it’s very, very tough. We traveled all over the world together. I was invited to lectures in a lot of places. His job was a very high position in the United States Agency of International Development. Now, I’m thinking I have to learn to travel alone and now invitations to Egypt to Morocco to Abu Dhabi. What do I get on a plane alone? How do you do it? And this is a very, very tough transition for me.
Sundae: I can imagine, and that’s what I call an external transformation. It was forced on you, suddenly your partner’s gone. And now you have to learn how to cope. So, when I think about this, I think about how can we shape our transformation? We can’t always control it.
What are you doing to shape this so it doesn’t take the best of you?
Zafra: Let me tell you, it’s a very interesting question because in addition to traveling the world, we had season tickets to the symphony, to the opera, the theater. What do I do? Go alone? So I have friends but first I knew it when my father passed away, my mother told me that all the couples that were such good friends, suddenly take a distance. And then the women that were divorced or widowed, you need to have people in the same interest in you and it’s not easy. So, how do I solve not going alone to the Opera, to the Symphony? I’m surrounded by former students of mine. Now, a lot of them are all there, and I work with graduate students from North Western and that helped me with the Malta conference. My husband was a lot of help with that. So I go with my students to the opera, to the symphony, they benefit from all that. I am not going alone. So many people told me they go alone. I cannot go alone. If I’m in a restaurant and I see a person sitting alone, I’m so impressed. I couldn’t. So I am surrounded by young people. It’s easier to tell them you want to go to the symphony
Sundae: They’re so lucky. I wish I was in town. I would invite myself to the symphony.
Zafra: Yes. Yes, you know it’s the Chicago Opera and Symphony. They are outstanding but they are not cheap.
Sundae: So you have to pay for two tickets. *laughter*
Zafra: Sometimes it’s more, if they have a partner, I take both of them. The only time I have dinner during the week is with former students or graduate students now, this is dealing with that. And it’s wonderful and it’s very nice to be surrounded by young ambitious students. It’s wonderful, but there are periods that are tough. It’s at night when you don’t have anyone to say, “Good night,” and in the morning when you don’t have anybody to say, “Good morning.” It’s tough in the morning, worse than the evening.
Sundae: Thank you for sharing that.
Zafra: The worst. The worst.
Sundae: I appreciate hearing that. And this is the thing, I’m all about straight talk and the full experience of people’s lives. And there are people who are surrounded by their loved ones and are struggling and to have lost someone at the same time, it’s almost too much to bear and it’s beautiful to hear how you are nurturing your intergenerational relationships, even when it’s hard. So I don’t even know, for someone like you and the life that you’ve lived, I have this idea about ambition and my concept of ambition is it’s always in relationship to who we are and what our challenges are, and what our desires are. And it is disconnected from scope or scale, like what other people think. So for me being a very active person, its ambitious for me to do less. Or when I was so low parenting, after a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso and running my business, it was ambitious that my kids had clean underwear. So that’s an example of ambitious in context for an individual. What is ambitious for you right now?
Zafra: It’s being successful with the Malta conference and achieving peace. My biggest ambition is to be able, and I have to admit that everybody heard about the Abraham Accord. But we took a conference in 2015, we had to Malta conference in Morocco, at that stage, we already negotiated relationship between Israel and Morocco, but you know what we do, you don’t find it in the newspaper. The less we make a noise up with it because we don’t do it for publicity. So we have successes as I said before, we had all the countries so the first collaboration between Israel and the UAE was unveiled by the Malta conference on Zoom.
So we have our share on all the changes you see. But we don’t work for publicity. Sometimes it’s better to work quietly. There is another rule from the Malta conference that the Americans were ready to kill me for, is no accompanying members. You cannot bring everybody with you because we need the interaction and I will say, as chemists, we know that when we dilute the solution, the reaction is much slower. So we cannot dilute it. Oh my God was very hard to try to solve this concept. But then I solved it by saying, “Everything is equal. Hey, you want to bring your spouses? Pay for them. You will pay for the Palestinian spouses because we need these ones.”
Sundae: That’s beautiful. Any last words of wisdom for the listeners, not to put you on the spot. No pressure.
Zafra: Last words of advice, get involved, get involved without getting involved the world will just deteriorate, there are people there are human rights abuses now all over. If we don’t fight they will be forgotten. All the human rights people from the Soviet Union said that knowing that we are fighting for them, gave them the strength to survive. And if everybody can get involved, we can still make this world a better place for humankind.
Sundae: Thank you so much for being here. Thank you for your wisdom. And for your time today, you’ve had me in tears, twice, already on the call. It means the world to me that you’ve taken the time to share this message with me, and with the audience. I’m listening. I hope you listeners are listening because you’ve seen so much and you’ve seen up close and personal what it means when human rights are violated. And you’ve seen what’s possible when people come together.
So thank you so much and thank you to everybody who has been listening today. This is IN TRANSIT with Sundae Schneider-Bean. I will leave you with the words of Mother Teresa: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
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