Project Debby Helps Rebuild Lives

Naomi Berman-Potash, A.B. '75

One day in 1989, when Naomi Berman-Potash was director of sales and marketing for a Houston hotel chain, she had an "a-ha" moment. She had just heard the hotel's general manager stress the need to fill empty rooms, and that same day she had read that a local battered women's shelter was turning clients away for lack of space. "Why couldn't these women and their children stay in the empty hotel rooms?" she thought.

The idea, at first, horrified hotel executives. Would there be enough security to protect these clients? What interaction would there be between them and the hotel's other guests? Could the hotel provide anonymity for these clients? Would they feel too isolated in a hotel room? It took Berman-Potash considerable time to convince the executives that the proposition was doable.

In 1991 the project began, and today it includes more than 400 hotels in 30 cities. (Berman-Potash named the initiative Project Debby after her older sister, who died in 1989 of multiple sclerosis. "She was not abused, but, as a feminist, it was the kind of project she would have loved.")

Project Debby finds local agencies that need additional lodging for women in crisis, and it finds hotels to provide rooms at no charge. The project makes about 800 to 1,000 placements yearly, and most stays are for two or three nights. The majority of clients are women who have been physically and/or verbally abused, and 90 percent have their children with them. In some cases, clients are crime victims in the care of district attorneys' offices and need a retreat where they can receive psychological counseling. Local agencies oversee the placements. (In St. Louis, Berman-Potash has found a willing hotel, but she is still looking for a local agency.)

The project "became a passion," she says. "It fills lots of niches shelters don't fill." For instance, shelters usually do not allow males aged 13 or over to stay. Also, shelters usually cannot accommodate women who have certain cultural or religious practices, for example, women who keep kosher. And many middle-class women avoid staying at shelters because of the possible embarrassment associated with running into friends who may volunteer there.

About Project Debby, Berman-Potash adds, "We keep the project simple and lean. All work is done on a volunteer basis." She combines her project efforts with work for her hotel marketing company, Countrywide Reader Board Services, based near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (The firm provides its client hotels with information on what meetings their competitors are hosting.) Also helping out with Project Debby are Berman-Potash's family—husband, Mark Potash, whom she married in 1995, and his children: Robin, 22; Renne, 19; and Jay, 16. Also, Rita Clark manages the project in Florida.

Berman-Potash says abuse is an issue that has come out of the closet, thereby creating more requests for services such as Project Debby. "Years ago, when I was at Washington University, I majored in sociology, but this issue was not in the news much," she says. "Then, I was mainly interested in archaeology, anthropology, and metalsmithing. Most important, though, my experiences helped open my eyes to events in the wider world and to many cultures and how they interact." She adds, "I learned how to approach people of diverse backgrounds and skills, and how to organize and use resources efficiently.

"I'm also glad my parents and the University emphasized the importance of volunteering," she says. "Helping women rebuild their lives is important and rewarding work."

—Nancy Belt





Building a Future on Past Traditions

Gary DuBois, J.D. '95, M.S.W. '98


When Gary DuBois completed his Washington University law degree, he returned to the Temecula Valley, midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, to serve his people, the Pechanga tribe of the Luiseno Indians.

But it was 1995 and the tribe wasn't ready for him—yet. The Pechangas had just opened a temporary casino, and a new future was in sight, if not yet in hand.

So DuBois returned to the University to the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, on a Buder scholarship. He completed his master's degree in 1998 with a fellowship in the office of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. And the next time he returned to the Temecula Valley, he found work waiting for him as the cultural resources director for the Pechangas.

His law degree and his M.S.W. have proved invaluable as the tribe strives to convert casino riches—"hundreds of millions" annually—into immediate benefits for its members and to build a future on past traditions.

Initiatives DuBois and the tribe are working on include a partnership with the University of California at Riverside aimed at saving the Pechanga language. More than that, the program is designed to create a system for reviving other nearly extinct languages. The tribe also is planning a heritage museum to attract national and international visitors.

The language program came about when tribal leaders were concerned that the death of their native tongue might be imminent. Only 25 of the 1,400 Pechanga are fluent in Luiseno—one of at least 100 tribal languages in California, half of which are in danger of becoming extinct.

"With the death of an ancestral language, the process of understanding history is changed. It becomes impossible to transmit fundamental culture across the generations," says DuBois. "Our native speakers are almost gone. This is our opportunity to save what we have from extinction.''

Tribal leaders approved the program in January 2002; linguist Eric Elliott—a white man fluent in five tribal languages—came on board in July; and a preschool where the language is taught opened in September. Already, Elliott speaks nothing but Luiseno to his youngest students, and he works, as well, with adults and teenagers: "The goal is to train our own people to teach," says DuBois.

As for the Pechanga museum, DuBois negotiated long, hard—and, ultimately, unsuccessfully—for a custodial arrangement with the Southwest Museum of Los Angeles, which has a near-Smithsonian-quality collection of Indian artifacts. The museum idea continues to live, however, but on a smaller scale.

"We don't want people to forget where we came from," says DuBois.

Settling the valley 10,000 years ago, the Pechangas were subjugated first by the Spanish in the late 18th century and then by the Mexicans. The Americans arrived in 1848 and began removing Indian villages, eventually establishing the reservation now occupied by 25 percent of the tribe. Then, with a lack of viable businesses, the Pechanga faced cultural extinction.

That changed when California Indians won the right to develop casinos. The Pechanga opened one in a jumble of eight trailers in 1995. Their current one-million-square-foot complex was completed in June 2002 and now employs about 3,000 (fewer than 200 are Indians).

But the tribe is determined to develop its community, not just its casino, says DuBois. Besides the language program and the museum, the tribe pays for private elementary school and members' health-care costs. College tuition is also covered. (DuBois recruits for Washington University.)

"We don't want the casino to define who we are," says DuBois. "We were here for thousands of years before there was a casino, and we want people to recognize the richness of our culture as well."

—Susan Caba



Filmmaker Marlo Poras (right) meets with Mai Nguyen during the filmming of Mai's America.

First-Time Filmmaker Shows America Outside In

Marlo Poras, A.B. '93

An epiphany struck Marlo Poras during her junior year at Washington University—that she wanted to pursue a career in documentary films. Poras, who had always loved the visual medium for its storytelling ability, recalls, "A little light bulb just came on." Although the Boston native was majoring in history, she would be influenced further by film instructor Jill Petzall, who taught Poras during her senior year.

After graduation, Poras landed a prestigious position working in New York at Martin Scorsese's Cappa Productions on Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart. The job provided Poras an introduction to the industry, but it wasn't the right fit. Her goal was to work on documentary films, not features. A good friend, who was living in Hanoi at the time, invited her overseas to explore the region. So Poras, sensing an opportunity, caught a flight for Vietnam in search of her career, and her first story. She would find both in a spunky, cropped-hair girl named Mai Nguyen.

Mai, a product of Ho Chi Minh's revolution, was traveling to the United States as a high-school exchange student. In her youthful opinion, America was the rich country defeated by her poor nation of rice farmers. But it was also the land of educational opportunity and Hollywood-borne bliss. The implosion of those perceptions would become the basis for Mai's America, Poras' first film.

Poras documents Mai's departure from cosmopolitan Hanoi only to be subsequently placed in rural Mississippi with an unemployed host family of self-proclaimed rednecks. The father (disabled), the mother (depressed), and daughter (introverted) become unbearable, so Mai is transferred to a friendly African-American couple. The family is accepting of Mai—they take her to church and bowling—but their own world is collapsing in divorce. Mai then meets Chris, a gay transvestite ("Christy"), and the two misfits become heartfelt soul mates. Later, Mai is accepted to Tulane University, but she completes only a year due to financial burdens and her own growing self-doubts. Rather than return to Vietnam and shame her parents for failing to graduate from college, Mai, through a family connection, heads to Detroit to work in a nail salon. The film ends with a shot of her—crestfallen, but hopeful—at the feet of an outlandish, fake blond, working on calluses and toes.

Poras, now 31, worked alone with her small digital video camera for two-plus years, shooting, producing, directing, writing, and editing more than 150 hours of Mai's life, from Vietnam to Mississippi, New Orleans, and Detroit.

The response to Poras' debut effort has been exceptional. The film aired nationally last August on P.O.V., PBS' award-winning nonfiction showcase. Poras claimed Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary and the International Documentary Association's award for feature documentary, among others. Still, it's been bittersweet: "It's hard for me to enjoy the success when I know Mai's in a difficult place," Poras says. (Mai has since left the United States and is back in Vietman studying; her father is working to have the film released there.)

In retrospect, Poras says the film was a huge leap for her. "I was tested all the time, and I worried all the time. But at every stage of the process, I would meet my expectations."

For her next film project, she is again looking at Southeast Asia, or perhaps Brazil, to create an intimate portrait of a person or people that explores everything from immigration to cultural identity and the like. New location perhaps, but same epiphany.

—Kenan Pollack, A.B. '92