The Garfinkel Essay Scholarship:  A Teaching Circle

This article was written by Christine Mooney, our inaugural Historical Society of the New York Courts Teaching Fellow. Prof. Mooney is an attorney and associate professor in the CUNY Community College System, where she has been involved in mentoring students for the Garfinkel Essay Scholarship since 2009. She’s been conducting teacher and student workshops and provide resources to help bring the contest to all CUNY Community College campuses.

For more about the 2018 Garfinkel Essay Scholarship, click here.

Photo: Detail from the mural “Victory of Light over Darkness,” by Ernest Fiene, 1944, depicting a scene from the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, March 25, 1911. This image was used for the 2011 Garfinkel Essay Scholarship flyer – the topic was “The Legal Legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire”.

Last spring my colleague, Dr. Edward Volchok and I were awarded the National Education Association (NEA) Excellence in the Academy Art of Teaching Prize, for our article, “A Reflection on Teaching Students About the Value of Public Sector Unions.” The article, a commentary about the current state of unions and their historical context, provides a look at the most recent Supreme Court case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

Our research involved a historical look at the early labor movement in New York. While developing my research plan, my outline immediately brought me to the words, “Garfinkel Essay Contest”.  It was what we call an “AHA” moment. I quickly went to the Garfinkel Resource page and found all of the links to the topic of the 2011 essay contest, “The Legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire”. To my surprise, I was conducting the same research my students completed six years earlier. In my mind, the topics were for my students, and their essays, NOT ME! I never stopped to think that the legacy and reach of the contest had larger outcomes. After all, I am the teacher, and they are the students, WRONG! We are all students and learning should be a life-long process!

The task of embarking on the article was suddenly much brighter. Why? The amazingly detailed resource library about the fire constructed by Ms. Frances Murray, former Chief Legal Reference Attorney at the Court of Appeals and current Society Trustee, and her formidable ability to find a plethora of data. If you have the opportunity to work with Frances, it is a gift! She is brilliant and insightful. The research path she designed for the essay contest guided me to Rose Cohen, a survivor of the fire, and the inspiration for the rest of my article. It also saved me hours of legal research. Thankfully for me, Frances never sent me a bill! Her claim has been dismissed with prejudice!

Rose was a young Jewish immigrant who worked at the factory. She worked long hours to support her family. She was one of the few survivors of the fire which took more than 145 lives. Her account of the conditions gives meaningful insight to the extreme sacrifice made by the workers.

This past year we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Garfinkel essay contest. The topics have inspired and challenged each of us to examine the role of the courts and the legal history of New York State. The program has taught me not to assume that a label or a topic is only for my students, it actually is for all of us. The David A. Garfinkel Essay Scholarship has provided research and financial support for community college students from the public university systems over the past ten years. An invaluable and immeasurable resource!

This is readily apparent in the blog post written by Elijah Fagan-Solis, the winner of the inaugural contest. The program’s impact and outcomes extend far beyond the pages of their papers. Their experiences, research and interactions with the members of the Historical Society and the staff and members of the Judiciary of the Court of Appeals create lasting memories. A special thanks to the Garfinkel family for their continued support and to our namesake, David A. Garfinkel, you have created another amazing outcome through your love of history! Your memory lives on and your family’s gift continues to help others. One complete and everlasting circle!

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