Alex Eshelman is a senior at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In the fall of 2020, he interned for Open Doors, a New York City-based nonprofit, where he had the chance to work with Dexter Ciprián in a community-engaged learning experience. Since then, he’s become a permanent member of the Open Doors team, an example of how community-engaged learning yields both lessons and relationships.
What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
"My connection to others was something I had to get better at as I got older,” Alex reflects, remembering a childhood of feeling like something of a misfit. “Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, my siblings and I spent a lot of time living together but mostly being alone. One of my best friends was Jordan Bell -- we share the same birthday, October 27. We went to pre-school together and we used to hang out. He was also kind of a nerd. We had a birthday party together and would sometimes share toys. I didn’t spend time with that many people, because people thought I was pretty weird. As a child, I struggled with social adjustment and a lot of kids in school made fun of me or bullied me. But Jordan didn’t. He saw me for who I was.”
Dexter grew up in Dominican Republic. “We used to have regular power outages, often at irregular and inconvenient times,” he recalls. “At the time, I found it annoying – getting interrupted watching my favorite show, or something. But now I think back on that time fondly. The family would light a candle, gather around, and tell stories, sharing their ancestral wisdom and experiences in these precious little moments that we could take with us. Because we live in a time where everything is so fast-paced and immediate, taking the time to slow down and connect with my elders is a memory I treasure to this day.”
What values guide your work?
“Empathy, honesty, and effort,” Alex answers immediately. “You have to lead with empathy. You can’t assume you know the answer.” For Dexter, it’s compassion and understanding. "I try to honor the sacrifices and the work of my ancestors, continuing their legacy of working for justice in one sense and at the same time, honoring them by finding joy.” Social change work is difficult and it can sometimes be a struggle to see the bright spots amidst so many challenges. “My commitment to joy,” Dexter says, “is a way to honor their legacy and ensure my own. As an artist, you’re trying to imagine a world that doesn’t exist. But imagination isn’t enough. We also have to practice what we want to see in the world. If we can make believe, we can make it real. As an artist, it’s our work to make real something that’s not real yet. I’m also concerned in both my art and social justice work with freedom: what does it look like? How can we inhabit it before it’s fully realized?”
What are you working on right now?
Dexter is one of the Co-Directors of Open Doors, an NYC-based organization that invests in the creativity and leadership of Black and brown people who use wheelchairs and inspires action for safer, more just communities. “We just launched The Collection,” Dexter shares, “a virtual arts platform where we showcase and center artwork by gun violence survivors, those with spinal cord injuries or related disabilities," which this year centered artistic themes of disconnection and isolation.
“We’re also working on another project called Pandemic Island,” which aims to create an archive of the pandemic experience. “We’re especially focused on the residents of Coler Nursing Care Center,” one of the city’s largest short- and long-term care facilities. “Our history is so often written by those with power,” Dexter reflects. “Pandemic Island is an attempt to offer an alternative perspective. None of us are archivists, but we’re recording stories, collecting artwork, and capturing memories.”
Alex, first in his capacity as an intern and now as a team member, is working on Zing!, a gun-violence survivor-led music program trying to spread opportunities to people denied opportunities in traditional art spaces. “We have a tendency to limit our expectations of people with disabilities by overemphasizing how inspiring their accomplishments are. Zing! creates virtual spaces that focus on their art without caveat.” Zing hosts “Guns Down, Mic Up”, a virtual open mic, every Friday. "These are beautiful forums of intergenerational wisdom and joy,” Dexter says. "I really credit Alex with making that happen. When you create a program like that, you inadvertently are also creating a culture, and he’s been really intentional about ensuring our culture is welcoming to all.”
Both Dexter and Alex are artists in their own right. “I’m an Artist in Residence with the Bronx Museum where I’ll have a show in the spring of next year,” Dexter shares. “A lot of my art centers immigration stories and family lore and stories which speaks to the story of the immigrant experience.”
An industrial and labor relations major, in his senior year, Alex is finally focusing on his minor: music. “Seven months ago, I started playing guitar. I’m working on fundamentals and playing. I got more into songwriting with it. I’ve been rapping since I was a child and I started making beats when I was 14. They were bad for a minute, and then they started to get better. I’m trying to learn how to play keys, because everyone needs to learn how to play piano.”
How has the experience of the pandemic affected you and your lived experience?
Both Dexter and Alex agreed the pandemic has been incredibly difficult. “Some people might complain that we got robbed of an experience,” Alex says, “and spending a lot of time on screen kind of sucked. I lost a ton of weight. But there are blessings in it. We all suffered together. We understand each other better as a result. And now I get to work virtually, which is awesome.”
“It’s made more visible how precious life is,” Dexter reflects. “I appreciate on a deeper level things I might have previously taken for granted.” He calls this “a morally clarifying time.”
“There was a veneer of politeness we were used to operating under and the pandemic broke that open in a big way. I’ve also found it a clarifying time around the work we have to do, and who are our allies, and who aren’t.”
“Pandemic made a lot of things easier, but mostly by cutting corners,” Alex says. “At the same it, it felt like the first time you could be a real person with feelings, and people had to just deal with it.”
“The pandemic leaves you with a feeling of immense powerlessness,” Dexter says, “but the implication of that is the importance of community. We can’t change this alone. I’m going to do my part, and I have to find the other people who will be in this with me, recognizing that it’s messy, and it takes time, and that’s okay. We’ve been isolated physically in many ways, but our community really showed up for each other. Social media has the capacity to be toxic, but at the height of the pandemic in New York, I was so moved by watching the way people showed up for each other with a community fridge and GoFundMe campaigns to support their friends and neighbors who were out of work and needed help.”
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
“Playing guitar,” Alex says. “It’s what I’m really grateful for. I’m hopeful to get as good as I can on the instrument and I’m excited about the chance to play with other people. I have a friend who sings and I play. But it’s hard to say what I'm looking forward to. I haven’t taken a break in a year and a half. We just finished NYC’s Atlas Innovation Fund grant which took a lot of work. Maybe I should take a break. But who has time for that?”
“I got a new kitten, named Lola. She’s bringing me a lot of joy,” Dexter says. “I had picked up bird watching before the pandemic but during, it became a real passion for me. It’s really amazing to remember there are other species which helps me see myself as part of a broader ecosystem beyond humans. It’s tempting to be sort of cynical about humans, but, with us or without us, nature will go on and adapt. I’m so hopeful about the younger generation. There’s a sense that they take for granted some of the freedoms they have, but the upside is there’s less tolerance for actions or behaviors previous generations might have taken for granted."