BY HILLARY VIDERS
SPECIAL TO NORTHERN VALLEY PRESS
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 20, 2017 South edition of Northern Valley Press.
ENGLEWOOD – Charlotte Bennett Schoen, who has resided in Englewood for 47 years, is a world traveler with numerous talents and experiences.
After teaching in Teaneck and Ridgewood in the 1970s, Bennett Schoen embarked on four decades of community service in Englewood and Bergen County as she raised her two daughters who went through Englewood Public School District with great success.
In 1993, Bennett Schoen worked as project
“At the time, the Diocese in Newark was the provider of all mental health services in Bergen County and the need for service and reform was urgent,” Bennett Schoen recalls. “I embarked upon a two year project and formed an outstanding committee that recruited the four towns in our catchment area: Englewood, Englewood Cliffs, Leonia and Tenafly. When I went to the city councils, they were responsive to our initiative.”
Bennett Schoen was also a member of the board of directors of the Englewood Board of Health and the founding president of the board of directors of Community Mental Health Organization (now part of Vantage). These crucial mental health services were the outcome of the reform initiative and the Englewood office is still in service today.
In 2005, Bennett Schoen threw her hat into the political arena and became an Englewood councilwoman until 2010, serving as city council president in 2007. It was a time of great political volatility in Bergen County.
During her first term on the Englewood council, Bennett Schoen worked to rescind a giveaway employees’ lifetime health benefit, and as council president, secured passage of the town’s pay-to-play reform ordinance that set strict limits on contributions by contractors and professionals seeking to do business with the municipality.
During her terms as a councilwoman, Bennett Schoen continued to work as an advocate for victims of domestic violence in Bergen and Passaic counties. At that time, she was the editor in chief of “The ADVisory,” a newsletter that educated the public about domestic violence and encouraged advocacy.
Bennett Schoen also spearheaded Englewood’s sustainability initiative, leading to the creation of The Time Is Now citywide recycling policy and the Englewood “Green Team” - the 2009 NJ award that encourages conservation and sustainability. The city was recently recertified, which she found very gratifying.
Following her service to Englewood, Bennett Schoen embraced the idea of global justice, committing three months of the year and living a community lifestyle. In 2010, she went to Lucknow, India to volunteer with an NGO affiliated with the New York-based American Jewish World Service (AJWS).
Bennett Schoen subsequently undertook a Global Justice assignment for AJWS in Thailand and self-assignments in Burma (Myanmar).
Bennett Schoen is presently co-president of the Englewood Historical Society, a member of the Rotary Club of Englewood and has served as Rotary District 7490 chair of peace and conflict resolution for four years.
Throughout her travels, Bennett Schoen continues to write numerous journals that she illustrates with original drawings.
I spoke with Charlotte Bennett Schoen recently in her home.
Hillary Viders: Violence against women is a central theme in your various professional and civilian endeavors. Do you have a personal connection to this subject?
Charlotte Bennett Schoen: Not personally, but this is a human rights issue that I was recruited for soon after my husband died. When I witnessed the injustices against victims, it resonated with me. I saw cases in which women were badly beaten, sometimes in front of their children, and a police officer would have a chat with the husband outside and then send him back into the house. This was at odds with my core reality of how I see the world, and I knew that I had to make a difference.
HV: What gains have been made in preventing domestic violence in Bergen County and the United States as a whole?
CBS: The laws were changed, and New Jersey was one of the first to do so. Traditionally, it was difficult for a wife to get a restraining order against an abusive husband and there was a stigma of shame attached to a woman who admitted to being abused. Then in 1991, a major turning point took place. Kathleen Quagliani, a teacher who lived in Ridgefield, was denied a proper restraining order, and a week later, her husband beat her to death with a baseball bat in front of their 13- year-old son. That case sparked protests, marches and the formation of activist groups that now protect women’s rights, such as Shelter our Sisters.
HV: You have also championed women’s rights in other countries. In India in 2011, you trained village women near Benares to become community change agents. What did this involve?
CBS: As part of a grant, the NGO trained Dalit women and adolescent girls, an ethnic group that was being persecuted. They lived near historical Benares and were trained to become village leaders and advocates for literacy and to keep adolescent girls in school. We taught them how to promote better services for their villages and encouraged them to run for office.
HV: I would think that there are very few women in office in rural India.
CBS: That is true, but these women had role models, such as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and their governor, Mayawati.
HV: The following year, AJWS sent you on a mission to advance human rights, health care and education for sex workers in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Was prostitution legal there?
CBS: Prostitution was not legal, but it was “accommodated” and recognized as a revenue stream for women who had to support themselves and their families. This was not sex trafficking, for which Thailand is notorious. I realized that these sex workers were like “us,” but in a different culture with limited job choices. They were intelligent, sensitive and funny women that valued education and family.
HV: How did you help these sex workers?
CBS: I planned conferences, taught English, and per request, worked on an illustrated education training textbook for the NGO.
HV: It must have been very challenging helping people in Burma in 2013, which at the time was struggling to free itself from the iron rule of a military junta.
CBS: Having been so welcomed at the previous two NGOs, I and a Rotary friend who was born and raised in Burma (Myanmar) used the Internet to select an NGO in Burma, which happened to be an NGO with mainly Muslim staff. For two years, I worked with staff at SMILE (Smile Education and Development Foundation) organizing and presenting peace building workshops. These presentations linked to my work with the District Rotary, a source of pride for the director. Fortunately, I had smart young assistants who were fluent in English and remain very much in my life.
HV: Where else have you traveled?
CBS: With my family, I’ve been to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nepal, Tibet, Turkey, Australia, Israel, Iceland and Europe.
HV: Having accomplished so much in so many different fields, is there anything possibly still left on your bucket list?
CBS: I never had a bucket list. I always believed that you should do what you can when you can do it. It’s the “Why not?” theory. So, I have met amazing people and continue to take great joy in the fact that my family is growing and well and I can make a difference in the world.