I remember feeling myself start to shake as the words came out of his mouth, "I just did a quick internet search for the statistics and, well, more Americans are and will be affected by gun violence throughout their lifetimes than will be affected by an act of terrorism. So, I must ask the question: why aren't more Americans -- and especially members of the American government -- focused on gun control reform rather than on 9/11? I doubt anyone here has been affected by an act of terrorism."
During my short time in Holland -- I'd moved to the Netherlands five months earlier to enroll in a Master's program -- I'd come to loath the phrases that often prefaced the questions of my peers and professors, "So, as an American what is your opinion on...?" and "In America what would people think about... ?" Thus, when I began the three-week long Utrecht University School of Critical Theory Intensive Program in January 2011 I'd made a conscious effort to not become the token American. But here we were -- thirty MA and PhD students from across Europe -- discussing the American response to the September 11th terrorist attacks and I suddenly couldn't stop the words from coming out of my mouth.
"My dad was there," I blurted out without waiting to be called on. "He's a construction worker in Manhattan and for three terrifying hours on 9/11 my mom and I had no idea if we would ever see him again. I was thirteen-years-old and I'll never forget the sound of my mom's voice cracking over the phone as she tried to reassure me that he would be all right. So, the next time you want to make a statement like that please make sure you know who is in the audience."
"I'm... I'm sorry," he stammered. "I had no idea. Is your father okay?"
"Well, for as long as I can remember he's never really been 'OK' per se," I said with a slight chuckle as I tried to lighten the mood. "But yes, he was fine. Luckily he wasn't downtown that day."
Despite his apology, my classmate's words haunted me for months after the Intensive Program ended: the idea that more Americans are and will be affected by gun violence than by an act of terrorism just didn't sit right with me. Hadn't all Americans been affected in some way or another on that Tuesday morning and during the days, weeks, and months that followed? Did I feel that way just because my father was in New York that day? Or because my uncle, Charlie Vitchers, had served as the construction superintendent for the cleanup at Ground Zero?
It wasn't until late March that I was able to articulate what it was about my classmate's comment that was unsettling. I received an email from my Uncle Charlie that contained links to the website for the non-profit New York Says Thank You Foundation and to the trailer for the documentary film about and of the same name as the Foundation. "I volunteer with New York Says Thank You," his email read. "And I was wondering if you could take a look at the Foundation's website and the trailer for the film and let me know what you think."
I spent the next few hours re-watching the trailer for New York Says Thank You on YouTube as well as going through the Foundation's website. New York Says Thank You, I learned, was started in 2003 at the suggestion of a five-year-old boy and has evolved into one of the Nation's leading organizations to transform the 9/11 Anniversary into a positive, hands-on platform for volunteerism. Each year on the 9/11 Anniversary, New York Says Thank You Founder Jeff Parness, along with his family, members of the FDNY, family members and friends of 9/11 victims, survivors of 9/11, disaster survivors from throughout the United States, and other individuals rebuild communities around the Nation recovering from disaster.
Most importantly, as I perused the Foundation's website I found that the New York Says Thank You tagline, "What we do is about 9/12," helped me to express what it was about my classmate's statements regarding 9/11 that troubled me: Why don't more individuals focus on the sense of community that emerged and the actions of the thousands of volunteers from across the country who flooded New York with their kindness, love and support on 9/12? And, how will the ways we have come to discuss 9/11 affect how future generations learn about the events of that tragic Tuesday morning and the American public's response to the attacks?
"The Foundation is amazing," I emailed back to Charlie. "But, I'm wondering something. If the Foundation was inspired at the suggestion of Jeff's five-year-old son why isn't there a youth education and volunteer branch? It just seems like it would be natural for New York Says Thank You to use the story of how a five-year-old boy's suggestion has evolved into a nation-wide service movement to activate American youth in volunteer and community service projects. Why isn't New York Says Thank You using the documentary film to teach kids about the positive lessons of community, kindness and volunteerism of 9/12 that the Foundation prides itself on?"
I never could have imagined that with the simple click of the "send" button I would inadvertently launched the creation of The 9/12 Generation Project.
Tracey E. Vitchers is the co-founder and National Project Director for The 9/12 Generation Project, which is the youth education and volunteer outgrowth of the New York Says Thank You Foundation.