Rising Above

2015-2016 Rising Voices Fellow Maya Frank's aunt, Susan Penn, before she immigrated from South Africa to the United States.

Susan Penn is my Dad’s sister and my aunt, and she is very close to me and valued in my life. Driven by a desire to enhance the lives around her, Susan doesn't believe in any kind of discrimination or intolerance. I’m overjoyed that I get to have someone in my life who is such a strong role model, mentor, and friend. My aunt told me that the one thing she wishes someone had told her when she was my age was, don't let fear hold you back from what you want. While that’s a lesson that is always hard to learn, I actively try to live by it.

Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa during institutionalized apartheid, Susan saw firsthand the detrimental effects that inequality causes. Throughout our conversation, a central theme was the fact that if there isn’t an equal playing field for everyone, not only the subjugated people suffer, but society as a whole suffers. In particular, the lack of access to education for everyone is depriving the world of undiscovered potential.

Growing up, my aunt had a naturally gifted friend. She was witty, kind, and sharp as a whip. But something was wrong, her skin color. Susan’s friend lived in the servant quarters of a house nearby where her mother worked. Susan’s friend, who was, as she said: “definitely smarter than me,” couldn't get an education. She lacked access to the same opportunities that Susan had, and all because of the color of her skin. Susan’s friend went on in life, and was denied opportunities for jobs. When she got rejected time and time again, the answer was always, “Well, you’re lacking an education.” Because of an oppressive system, her friend had no future, no skills, and was not allowed to apply for jobs other than housework, all because of race discrimination.

My aunt’s friend forever influenced her worldview and her actions. Now an active member of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement and a proud feminist, Susan lives her life as an advocate for subjugated communities, specifically children. She believes strongly that every child is entitled to an education. Today’s pervasive adherence to conformity means that people adamantly comply with assigned roles and stereotypes, because apparently, they are simply too caught up in treating other human beings badly to realize that we are all the same deep down and that our differences should be celebrated. I learned from my aunt that all human beings deserve equal access. 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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Kol Hakavod to my colleague, my teacher and mostly my dear friend Sue who lives a life that truly is in the pursuit of justice and learning.

How to cite this page

Franks, Maya. "Rising Above." 23 May 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 3, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/rising-above>.

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