What’s your name?
Sophia L Giovannitti
Where did you grow up and a bit about your childhood…
I grew up in Yonkers, right outside of the Bronx. I had a super nice childhood living with my parents and my sister who is two and a half years older than me – we would play pretend all the time, and play with dolls and dress up and make music videos and do other silly things. I also was really anxious as a child though, and was afraid of the dark and hated when it was time to go to bed.
Where did you go to college and what was your major and interests?
I go to Hunter College, in the Macaulay Honors program – I just started my senior year. I’m a Religion major and Human Rights minor, but my main interest is prison reform/abolition and alternative justice.
How did you end up in the Far East and for how long?
I did two different programs – one was a month-long study abroad program in Bali through John Jay, the CUNY School of Criminal Justice. That program was so amazing – the professor was a super inspiring woman whose main academic interest (and personal/activist interest) is women’s issues and domestic violence. We took two psychology courses, and they helped me to think about feminism in the context of cultures outside of Western culture, and the dangers of imposing one’s own ethnocentric perspective on another culture. Then I went to China, through an independent organization called the Woodenfish Project. That program also lasted a month – I lived with fifty-four other students of all ages/nationalities in a Chan (zen) Buddhist monastery for a month!
I heard you climbed a mountain in Bali! How was it?
It was so wild! We had to wake up at two in the morning so we could drive to the volcano and start hiking at four. We left so early so that we would be able to see the sun rise at the top – but our professor kept warning us that it might take us longer than the guides told us to climb up, so I was nervous about getting to the top in time to see the sun. I am the least athletic person going – I pretty much never formally exercise, except for the occasional yoga class, but I just got this kind of determination where I knew I could do it – I knew I was physically able to reach the top, which a lot of other people seemed unsure about (though most did!!). Anyway, I got it into my head that I needed to be in the first, fast group (we split up into three groups by speed that we wanted to go), and I started out and it was just insane – we were hiking this rocky, pebbly, uneven, very steep terrain in the complete dark, using our flashlights to illuminate the few feet right in front of us. But we made it! When we reached the top it was so beautiful, but then I got so freezing. It was really special though, so beautiful, and we made it!!! We saw the sun come up!
Tell me about the Buddhist experience. What was it like and what did you do for a month?
That was also wild, in a totally different way. The monastery had a very strict schedule we followed – we woke up at five every morning, lined up (as we did before every activity/meal/event), did Tai Chi for an hour, had breakfast, had classes for the rest of the morning on different ideas in Buddhism, had lunch, meditated, helped out around the monastery, dinner, meditated, another type of lecture/dharma talk, and bed. It was exhausting, but so so interesting.
What were your responsibilities there? Why was this trip so important to you?
We were pretty much responsible for adhering strictly to the schedule, or risk holding up the entire group. I wanted to do it because it is an opportunity I will probably never have again, and I really wanted to see how monastics live – monastic/ascetic life is very interesting to me, and I was so lucky to be able to live amongst monks and nuns, even for such a short time.
Tell me about some special moments and events… I heard you did a week of silent meditation – what was that like?
It was really interesting the things that were and weren’t hard – for example, getting up at five in the morning wasn’t hard at all, and was actually one of my favorite things – probably because doing Tai Chi every morning with our wise, kind, patient, incredible professor was my favorite thing. But the meals were so hard!! We couldn’t talk at all during the meals, and once you started eating something that was served to you (by other students, we took turns), you had to eat all of it, even if it turned out you really didn’t like it or got very full – which happened often. Sometimes the meals felt like running a marathon – it was kind of hilarious, actually. Then the silent week was really intense. We did a silent meditation retreat for six days. That is hard to even describe – everyone kind of went into their own universe – we would meditate six/seven times a day for forty minutes at a time, interspersed with walking meditation. I thought about so many things, and had this really strong desire to do creative things – I guess because I couldn’t express myself fully – so I wrote a lot in my journal, and thought a lot, and it was really difficult. But really unique and weird and interesting.
What are your near future plans?
I’m in my senior year, so taking classes, babysitting – I want to join/start more feminist discussion groups in New York, write, create…
What are your goals if any?
I think my goal is to keep thinking outside the binaries, as much as I can, to be open and to keep learning and breaking down all the bullshit categories we put ourselves in. To fight prison as an institution, to participate in an alternative justice project/system, to talk to women about the issues we face as women… Just to live and be engaged and creative and keep a fire in my belly.
Will you keep in touch and tell us about your new adventures?