Meet Our Speakers
KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Michael Rebell
Attorney and Professor, Teachers College and Columbia University Law
Prof. Michael Rebell is the executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the education-adequacy movement in the United States and has pioneered the legal theory and strategy of educational adequacy.
Prof. Rebell is an experienced litigator in the field of education law, and is also professor of law and educational practice at Teachers College and Columbia Law School.
His latest book is Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts and Civic Participation (2018) and he is serving as the lead attorney for Rhode Island public school students and parents who have filed a federal lawsuit against the state for failing to prepare children for citizenship, “arguing that that failing to prepare children for citizenship violates their rights under the United States Constitution.”
Founder & Executive Director, Amish Heritage Foundation
Torah Bontrager, born and raised traditional Amish, grew up with no electricity and cars and speaks English as a second language. She literally escaped in the middle of the night at age 15, with only what she could carry: the clothes on her back and $170 in her pocket.
In 2018 Torah founded The Amish Heritage Foundation (AHF), which is, per available records, the first organization in Amish history that advocates for the Amish inside and outside the Church, promotes compassionate secular values, and assists those who leave the Church.
Among other initiatives, AHF is attempting to overturn Wisconsin v. Yoder, the landmark 1972 Supreme Court case that ruled that a religion’s rights outweigh the rights of Amish children to receive an education beyond the 8th grade.
Torah graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Philosophy and wrote a memoir, An Amish Girl in Manhattan.
Laura Dawn Barbieri
Special Counsel, Advocates for Justice - Chartered Attorneys
Laura is an experienced Litigator and Senior Counsel at Advocates for Justice, a New York based, non-profit, public interest law firm. She litigates principally Education Law cases, and cases arising under Individuals with Disabilities In Education Act. Laura has a demonstrated history of working on behalf of communities and individuals in the pursuit of social and economic justice, and educational equity.
Laura is Lead counsel for East Ramapo Central School District Litigation, a federal law suit brought by parents and students against certain former and current School Board members. The lawsuit alleges multiple claims against Board members including that they denied students their right to a sound basic education.
Laura earned her JD from Pace University School of Law and her BA from Franklin & Marshall College.
Dr. Glen Brooks
Anesthesiologist & Medical Director of NY Ketamine Infusions
Dr. Glen Brooks, Medical Director of NY Ketamine Infusions, is generally recognized as the nation’s leading practitioner of Ketamine Infusion Therapy for depression and chronic pain. In 2012, Dr. Brooks founded NY Ketamine Infusions in New York City as one of the world’s first therapy centers dedicated exclusively to providing ketamine infusions. To date, Dr. Brooks has helped more patients than any other provider, having treated more than 3,000 patients for major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress and neuropathic pain.
Dr. Brooks, a Board Certified anesthesiologist, completed his training at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and taught at Yale University School of Medicine.
PhD Candidate, Social Psychology, The New School
Olivia was raised in an insular and isolated culture and home-schooled. She’s now a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at The New School and a Graduate Research Consultant at Columbia University Business School. Motivated by the desire to understand how the brain is impacted by fiction, her studies focus on the intersection of social identity, perception and digital communication, and shared reality.
Olive has a passion for authentic storytelling, social well-being, and organizational design and her interests include design-led research in memory, post-conflict narratives and storytelling instinct, empathy, organizational approaches to workplace well-being, and global mental health. Her prior research involved how fictional stories, including religious narratives, influence social cognition and empathy in the human brain.
She earned her undergrad degree in English Literature, Neurobiology and Neurosciences at University of Puget Sound.
Co-founder, An-Nas: Humanists Rising from Muslim Communities
Noura Embabi is a secular humanist, feminist, and community organizer. She is co-founder and Director of Membership of An-Nas: Humanists Rising from Muslim Communities, an ethics-based organization with the mission of providing opportunities for personal growth, promoting social justice, and contributing to an inclusive, multicultural humanism.
Noura attended Queens College in New York, where she studied Speech-Language Pathology, Anthropology, and Counseling, and she is currently pursuing graduate education in Women’s and Gender Studies. She has recently worked on documenting the life experiences of secular women who were raised in Muslim communities and departed from religious faith. With an interest in social inequality and stratification, Noura is curious about the ways race, gender, class, caste, and nationality interact to afford people particular privileges, including education.
Noura was raised in a Muslim household and attended two Islamic schools in Queens, New York before beginning her high school education. An active member of the secular community in New York for the past 6 years, Noura now works towards cultivating community, safety, and personal growth for humanists who seek alternatives to a faith-based life.
Women's Equality Advocate
Jethro, born and raised Beachy Amish, is an outspoken advocate for women’s equality inside the Beachy Amish Church. The Beachy Amish (synonymous with “Amish Mennonite”) are an offshoot of the traditional Amish Church and until recently, didn’t allow their children to attend parochial school beyond the 8th grade. Even now, only some Beachy Amish churches allow or offer a high school curriculum in their schools.
Jethro’s passion is to advance the rights of women inside his church. He feels that if women are not allowed an equal say in church matters, then whatever ruling is made on an issue should not be enforceable. E.g., Church members should not be punished for not abiding by rules that women had no equal say in.
Children's Education Advocate
Lena is a fierce advocate for a child’s right to learn. Her passion is to help Amish individuals enter mainstream society with as much ease as possible.
“I don’t understand how restricting a child from obtaining an education that is necessary to benefit them further in their life is not child abuse. If my children miss more than seven days of school, I receive letters from probate court regarding truancy. The technological advances in society since 1972 alone provide a basis to overturn this ruling. Not to mention the history since that time, both US and world.”
Program Assistant, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University
Hana is the Program Assistant at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Following a seven-year career in hospitality management, she returned to school and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual Arts from Columbia University’s School of General Studies in 2019. She is also a working artist and illustrator.
Hana was raised in a strict religious home and home-schooled, but that education ended at age 12. She’ll share her story of the educational challenges she had to overcome in an attempt to gain admission into an elite university. She’ll also talk about what it was like growing up in an isolated family and being trained on what answers to give outsiders if they questioned her lack of knowledge about pop culture and current affairs.
Dr. Mica McGriggs
Director, Diversity Equity & Inclusion at The Ethical Culture Fieldston School
Dr. Mica McGriggs earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology at Brigham Young University. After completing her PhD she went on to complete post doctoral fellowship at Columbia University. She currently works as a director of Diversity Equity & Inclusion at The Ethical Culture Fieldston School.
Mica was born and raised in the mainstream LDS (Mormon) Church and has been active in writing and speaking about her experience as a progressive unorthodox Black Mormon for close to a decade. She has contributed widely to both the academic and public discourse on the intersection of race, gender, and religion her work has been featured in media outlets including NPR, CNN, Teen Vogue, Fusion, The Salt Lake Tribune, Huffington Post, News Week, and Seattle PI among others.
Executive Director, YAFFED (Youth Advocates for Fair Education)
Naftuli grew up in Borough Park and attended Hasidic Yeshivas (elementary and high schools). In 2012 he founded YAFFED after discovering the gaps in his and his friends’ elementary and high school education.
YAFFED is an advocacy group committed to improving educational curricula within ultra-Orthodox schools. We fervently believe that every child is entitled to a fair and equitable education that is in compliance with the law. Our work involves raising awareness about the importance of general studies education, and encouraging elected officials, Department of Education officials and the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox world to act responsibly in preparing their youth for economic sufficiency and for broad access to the resources of the modern world.
Moster graduated Suma Cum Laude with a BA in psychology from the College of Staten Island and went on to receive a Master’s in social work from Hunter (CUNY).
Undergrad Student, Princeton University
Carrie was raised in a fundamentalist religious sect that is sometimes referred to as the “Quiverfull” movement. Because her parents home-schooled her, she was largely sheltered from the outside world until college, at which point she began her deconversion process.
Carrie’s research interests bridge the divide between philosophy and psychology. Currently, she is fascinated by narrative psychology, epistemic norms in religious communities, and the lasting impact of early childhood trauma. Carrie is a passionate advocate for children’s rights, particularly in the context of religious indoctrination.
She is a fourth-year undergraduate in the Philosophy department at Princeton University.
Professional Housekeeper & Organizer
Sarah was raised Jehovah’s Witness (JW) in the Dominican Republic. Her grandmother was one of the first people whom American JW missionairies converted when they went to the island in the 1920s.
Sarah came to the US in 2002 and went through a major life transition in 2008. That year she divorced her abusive husband and quit affiliating with the JW religion. With three little children, one of whom is autistic, and no education beyond high school, she became a housekeeper, one of the few options that paid enough to provide for herself and her children.
JWs in urban areas tend to allow their children to attend public high school but in rural areas in the US, JWs are increasingly home-schooling their children. In either case, JWs are strongly discouraged from attending college. In the eyes of that religion, college will corrupt the mind and their members should only be interested in becoming missionaries or advancing the JW cause.
Sarah’s dream is to go to college, earn her degree in Psychology, and help domestic abuse victims from religious backgrounds.
Undergrad Student, Columbia University
Kai Segall is an ex-Chassidic woman currently studying Political Science at Columbia University’s School of General Studies. As a teenager she left the insular
and stringent community she was raised in. Due to the strict religious standards of the community, her education in subjects deemed secular, such as math, science, and history, concluded on a third grade level.
At the age of 21, Kai enrolled in a GED program and began educating herself in all the subjects that had been denied her. Subsequent to earning her GED, she attended community college and Vassar College’s Exploring Transfer Program, until finally transferring to Columbia University.
At Columbia, Kai has previously served on the executive board of FLIP (First-generation Low-Income Partnership), working with other students on issues that many First-generation Low-Income students face, particularly at elite intuitions. Through FLIP, she has advocated for students facing food and housing insecurity. As a FLI student herself, Kai is passionate about making education more accessible for all students, both in the classroom and out.
Undergrad Student, Columbia University; Military Veteran
Rodrigo is the son of Mexican immigrants who came to the US like many others: with nothing but the hope of a better life. Some of his earliest memories include living in the garage of another family’s home and collecting cans to help pay for basic necessities.
While a college freshman, Rodrigo decided to enlist in the Air Force after 9/11. He wanted to serve because of the opportunity that his parents had given him coming to the US and making a better life for themselves. His decision was not popular; members of his Latinx community told him that he was too skinny and too soft to serve in the military.
After a 10-year career on active duty, he took a good-paying job in the private sector working as a network engineer. But that didn’t fulfill him. So at age 29, he gave up his job and a comfortable life to pursue a Film degree at Columbia.
In the American Latinx community, an education in the arts is generally not valued. One should only go to school for the purposes of getting a middle income level job. Rodrigo wants to change that mentality and help create a community that sees the value in arts and humanities.
Birth Doula & Childbirth Educator
Mary, raised Beachy Amish, is a Birth Doula and Childbirth Educator in Lancaster, PA, the first Amish settlement in the United States. The Beachy Amish Church is an offshoot of the traditional Amish Church and until recently, didn’t allow their children to attend parochial school beyond the 8th grade. Even now, only some Beachy Amish churches allow or offer a high school curriculum in their schools.
Mary was raised on her family’s small dairy farm in central Pennsylvania and her education stopped at grade eight. Although Mary doesn’t feel that her career prospects have suffered––she’s fortunate to love and have access to a field that doesn’t require an undergrad degree––she’s passionate about women’s equality. She’ll share her vision for a future of giving women a voice within the Beachy Amish Church.
Amish Escapee & High School Student
Writer, Commentator & Journalist
Chrissy, raised evangelical, is a prominent voice in the exvangelical community and movement. While still in high school, she experienced an acute crisis of faith, which led to her work today. She’s a freelance writer, public speaker, and commentator on religion and politics, the US Christian Right, Russia, and foreign policy, as well as Senior Researcher with the Postsecular Conflicts project directed by Kristina Stöckl at the University of Innsbruck.
Chrissy has written, or currently writes, for outlets such as Foreign Policy, Political Research Associates, Religion Dispatches, The Moscow Times, Eurasianet, Playboy, and Dame Magazine. She’s also the co-editor of the forthcoming book Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church, a collection of personal essays by former conservative Christians (ex-evangelicals, ex-Catholics, ex-Mormons), co-edited with Lauren O’Neal.
Chrissy graduated from Stanford University with a PhD in Modern Russian History and Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities. Recently, she moved to Portland, OR, where she’s pursuing medical gender transition.
Sammy was born and raised Beachy Amish and left when he was 19 years old.
My story is not unique to me. To me it seems normal, actually better than normal. I have been able to look back and see the devastating effects of my family being denied education. Yet as devastating and wrong as my story is, my sister and I are among the lucky ones. Our parents allowed us to travel and make friends outside our community. We were not sexually abused and I believe our parents raised us in as good and safe of an environment that they knew how to provide.
I’m not angry at my parents for denying me education. I’m angry at our government for taking away the rights of my parents, which in turn led them to raise us kids the only way they knew how. Their options were far more limited than my own.
My story is a best case scenario. Take my story and add to it sexual abuse, parents who refuse to let their children travel or experience other cultures and you will have a picture of the reality of thousands of Amish and Mennonite children.
Mental Health Professional
Mary is a social worker with Amish clients in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A mandated reporter, she serves as a liaison between her Amish clients and local law enforcement when allegations of abuse arise. Mary will share the unique challenges her position puts her in and what can and should be done to help children and women victims inside the Amish Church. She will also address how to hold Amish clergy and law enforcement accountable for not enforcing the law that applies to every US citizen.