The Minerva’s Quest – An Interview with Emma Lapsansky-Werner
by Ilona Kimberly Nagy
My Women on a Quest series is about the inherent creativity and drive of women who carve out their own paths. My quest is to tell stories about individuals, business models and creative avenues that inspire me–and uphold the women brave enough to live their quests with guts, grit and caring radiance — radiance that lights the way for others.
Emma on the Minerva’s Quest: “It is important to me to help all kinds of people meet and be heard since it is often the case that we only meet with people who look like ourselves… I’m committed to a dream of creating at Minerva’s an environment—if only for a few people, for a few moments–where “community” crosses boundaries of class and race, age, region, able-bodiedness, sexual orientation, religion—and any other “ism” that we think separates us.”
Emma on creating her great-grandparents’ vision: I’ve had nurturing and inspiring ancestors, and Minerva’s-by-the-Sea is my version of my great-grandparents’ vision that each person should strive to acquire the skills and mindset to help leave the world a little better than they found it.
Those great-grandparents put 12 kids through college in the late 19th century, sending them off to be college professors, social workers, nurses, piano teachers, librarians, public-school teachers, world-traveling journalists and educators, and feminist organizers for the early twentieth-century women’s suffrage movement. My mother—Minerva—was the daughter of one of those twelve.
What You Should Know about Minerva’s Business Model: After my mother was widowed, Minerva paid tuitions for my siblings and me. She then helped pay tuitions for a couple of other students she’d met in her teaching career. She modeled for my family a policy of giving to favorite causes first, then being frugal with whatever was leftover. No matter how slim Minerva’s by the Sea’s profit-margins are, Minerva’s regularly donates to Doctors without Borders and to “Clean the World.” (https://cleantheworld.org/) which reclaims soap from hotels, sanitizes it, and distributes it to developing countries.
Minerva’s & The Scholarly Arts: A historian, Emma received her PhD. from the University of Pennsylvania and has taught at Princeton University, Temple University, and University of Pennsylvania. Since 1990, Emma has been a professor of history and curator of special collections at Haverford College. Her professional, research and teaching interests–all informed by her concern for the large and rich American story-include family and community life, antebellum cities, Quaker history, and religion and popular culture in nineteenth century America. Motivated in part from her experience with voter registration in Mississippi in the 1960s. Emma was also drawn to the field of history to try to help correct misinformation about black Americans.
The Minerva’s Story: For most of her adult life, people thought of Emma Lapsansky-Werner, not planning transformative workshops at the beach or donning the bright apron she uses to cook lavish (diet-friendly) breakfasts for visitors at her B&B at the Northern tip of Long Beach Island, NJ–but as a renowned historian, an instructor whose classes and lectures fill up to overflowing. With her warm and scholarly air, Emma is described on “Rate My Professor” profile as “pensive” “respected” and applauded for her “amazing lectures.” On top of countless journal articles and history books, Emma is a co-author of Pearson Education’s high school American history text and a co-author on the college level African American text, Struggle for Freedom, used by hundreds of professors across the nation, which recently published its third edition.
In 2007 when Emma’s business partners retired from the White Whale, she noticed a warehouse up for sale across the street and began to hatch new plans. Juggling teaching and writing assignments, Emma teamed up with her family and established a company with her three children called Four Laps, LLC. It was with excitement and trepidation that Emma purchased and renovated a handicapped-accessible building in which to operate Minerva’s by the Sea that same year. Minerva’s by the Sea opened just as the bottom dropped out of the American economy, but Emma didn’t let it sway her decision or her commitment.
“Over many years—as a commitment to my “mission” — I’ve had to draw on my own savings and textbook sales to purchase, renovate and run the handicap-accessible building into what is now Minerva’s by the Sea,” recounts Emma. “You might say that Minerva’s-by-the-Sea is what Jewish tradition identifies as a “mitzvah”—a mission or mandate, or what we Quakers often describe as a “calling” or “leading.”
“My grandfather—a Methodist minister—explained to me that “heaven and hell are not places you go to when you die, they are states of being you create for yourself by your choices, beliefs, and behaviors in this life here. In the 1960s, I was among the many folks attempting to use politics to help create a more peaceful, tolerant, compassionate world. That world I thought we could build in a few decades hasn’t arrived yet. But now I frequently cling to something my wise mother used to say, long before it became fashionable to talk of “thinking globally, acting locally.” She used to quote: “I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And I must not let my inability to do everything stop me from doing the small thing that I can do.”
Emma never stops thinking of ways to contribute to a better future. One of a very few bed and breakfasts that welcomes children, Minerva’s offers toys and books and games, and an invitation to young people to join in the breakfast-group conversation about the world they envision in their future, and how they hope to contribute to it.
By naming Minerva’s-by-the-Sea for her mother, Emma added a mythological twist to the light-streaming bed and breakfast, inviting not only her mother’s namesake but also the goddess of wisdom and healing arts. Minerva’s by the Sea– with a living room full of books and lounge-chairs for guests to daydream in solitude or gather for long hours, ideal for her regular workshop gatherings—is, in many ways, a memorial to her mother’s generosity, expansiveness, optimism, creativity, and sense of appreciation for the human spirit and its infinite possibilities.
Minerva’s by the Sea is named for your mother, Minerva Jenkin Jones who vacationed in Barnegat every summer during the last quarter of her 92 years. I’d love to know more about your mother, and how you view her as a matriarch. What do you remember about her love of the beach–its healing properties–and how she passed that on to you, her youngest daughter?
My mother was an English major, she loved words and theatre and poetry: Shakespeare and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Emily Dickinson —and was convinced that the ocean nurtured the muse! She loved Barnegat Light, and during the last quarter-century of her life, she spent part of each summer here.
While my grandmother was pregnant with my mother, my grandfather was reading the classics, and considered Xanthippe (Socrates’ wife) as a name for my mother. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and my mother ended up with the name of the Roman goddess of wisdom and healing, who was a granddaughter of Oceanus, the god of the sea.
If you had to choose one of the most important lessons your mother passed on to you, is there a saying you remember always on her lips?
For my mother, every person mattered, and every person’s contributions, gifts and dreams—no matter how seemingly trivial–mattered. She refused to be sucked into the fallacy that some people, some professions, some marks of social status were “better” than others. A deeply religious woman, she aimed to have her students grasp the idea that “I know I’m important, and have an important job to do here, because God never makes junk.”
She also used to say “True worth is in doing, not seeming; in doing–each day that goes by–some little good; not in dreaming of great things to do by-and-by.”
You used the word mitzvah to describe your quest as Minerva’s. Talk about that a little more.
There are a lot of little pieces to this calling, including my “feminist” desire to make a safe and nurturing place for women to renew and refresh their energies in a world where womanhood is often under assault. Hence, my annual Women’s Renewal Weekends.
But more than just a “feminist” perspective, I like to think of Minerva’s as what novelist Alice Walker called “womanist,” which I interpret as not just focusing on what we stand “against” in a heavily misogynist world and dangerously near-sighted world, but also standing up for what we are for.
A Men’s Retreat Weekend, which Minerva’s has hosted twice a year for many years, offers safe haven for a men’s collective that gathers regularly for a respite from the competitiveness men often feel they must embrace in order to survive. The men’s group takes the opportunity to challenge themselves to honor the fullness of human beauty in themselves, their spouses and families, and in each other. Minerva’s-by-the Sea intends to stand for and with such men.
Oprah Winfrey is an inspiration for you and you describe her commitment to “conversations for social healing” in your coauthored textbook, Struggle for Freedom.
When my mother was alive, we often watched the Oprah show together and admired what we viewed as “the Oprah Winfrey life and mission”—to work hard, and to try use our talents, gifts, resources and influence to leave the world a better place than we found it. In fact, when I created a widely-used African-American history textbook with two colleagues, we incorporated Oprah’s story as part of our assessment of what it means to be an African American visionary woman. With Minerva’s I have been on a mission to open up spaces to embolden visions, to celebrate human dignity, and to honor humanistic dreams.
You have written several textbooks, and have used the income from these books to help launch and support your “mission” where you can make sure that you create an environment where everyone is heard. Tell me a bit more about how that dream materializes at Minervas?
The mitzvah of Minerva’s-by-the-Sea may be a small thing, but it’s my small thing: to provide weary workers with pristine cleanliness; inspiring art gracing the walls; attention to restful color in room décor and linens; healthy, attractive food—and all within a stone’s throw of Barnegat Light’s clean, unspoiled, uncrowded beaches, with their natural grasses and protected bird-nesting areas—a short walk to the healing qualities of the ocean.
I am deeply committed to my dream of creating at Minerva’s an environment—if only for a few people, for a few moments–where “community” crosses boundaries of class and race, age, region, able-bodiedness, sexual orientation, religion—and any other “ism” that we think separates us. To that end I dream up off-season workshops and hire tutors to lead us in thinking about many topics: food, writing, yoga, creativity, relaxation, to name a few.
So at Minerva’s, we visualize small portions of a compassionate world community–breakfast by breakfast—welcoming guests from across the world to sit around the table in Minerva’s kitchen while I cook and encourage them to make friends with their breakfast mates, and to daydream together about how they envision the world they’d like their heirs to inherit, a world where everyone’s needs and dreams are respected and taken seriously by everyone else, and we work together, as a human community, to accommodate as much as possible of each others’ visions. Around Minerva’s breakfast table there have been conversations about how to advocate for school curricula that include compassion lessons as a central part of children’s learning. We fantasize about how hard it is to hate someone or be disrespectful to them once you have joined them in song. I sometimes seed the conversation about our future hopes by asking someone to describe what they liked best about the way they grew up, or what they’ve recently noticed or learned that has brought optimism to their perspective on life.
How successful do you feel you have been in carrying out that mission of strangers discovering each other–“breakfast by breakfast.” What would you like to see more of in the future?
We hosted a couple of workshops on “transitions” where psychoanalysts led people in exploring an array of transitional endeavors—from planning career changes or retirement; to considering trans-gender surgery; to gearing up for a cross-country relocation; to emerging from the grief of a tragic loss. One private investigator came to one of these workshops to seek inspiration, so she could puzzle through a complicated case. And we have had some pleasing results, as lasting friendships and business partnerships have been forged in serendipitous ways around Minerva’s kitchen table.
Around Minerva’s table we have had the opportunity to celebrate and encourage a teenager who had cut her long braids and donated her hair to cancer patients; and several of our repeat-visit families include children who are struggling with chronic health challenges.
With pillow-fluffing and a listening ear, the staff at Minerva’s gets to say “thank you”(and to hear the perspectives of) the neo-natal nurse arriving after a long and stressful shift; the first-responders and military folks who put themselves at risk; special-education teachers; lawyers, physicians, and contractors, emerging from days filled with bureaucratic regulations and the hurting places in our communities; the environmentalists who protect our water and wildlife, to postal workers, trash collectors, and over-the-road freight haulers.
You love music. If you had to choose one song for Minerva’s theme song, what would it be and why?
I have plans for a singing workshop and have lined up a tutor who loves to assist people with “voice health,” and “has created a widely-used program to encourage parents to sing with their children.” My mother raised us on lots of songs: hymns, popular music, funny kids’ ditties, Broadway musicals, bits of Puccini and Gilbert & Sullivan. Some of her favorites included a liberal social campaign of the 1940s, called “Little songs on big subjects” (http://stevecotler.com/tales/2011/01/15/little-songs-on-big-subjects-download/) which had lyrics like “If we could consider each other, a neighbor a friend or a brother, it would be a wonderful, wonderful world…” and “you go to your church and I’ll go to mine, but let’s walk along together; the lord will be in your church, he’ll also be in mine, so let’s walk along together.” When my children were young, I sometimes took them to visit, and to live in, other cultures across the world, and at my home in Philadelphia, I hosted exchange students from Europe, Africa, and South America, with the hope that my kids would do their part to make the world an international family. Each of my children is at least slightly competent in at least two languages; and each has spent time on at least four continents. At this moment, one of my daughters is taking her two daughters (ages 8 &11) on an “immersion” vacation to live with a family in a Spanish-speaking country.
I envision Minerva’s as having a similar effect of introducing “strangers” to each other…breakfast by breakfast….One of my favorite songs is from that “Little Songs” series was popularized by Pete Seeger’s on his album called “Folk Songs for Young People.”
About Minerva’s by the Sea: Minerva’s by the Sea is one of only two New Jersey bed & breakfasts at the north end of Long Beach Island. We are the only Barnegat Light lodging that is open all year! A sleek, modern venue with uncluttered lines, squeaky-cleanliness, and a sunny living room with an eclectic, tantalizing library, Minerva’s Bed & Breakfast’s informal and whimsical decor offers guest-centered hospitality. Our New Jersey Bed and Breakfast welcomes international visitors, national and regional guests, weekend retreats and workshops, and that “extra company” that won’t fit into local homeowners’ guest quarters. Emma’s quest is to help people discover each others’ common humanity–breakfast by breakfast–in her one-of-a-kind haven by the sea. With the shoulder-relaxing comfort of a dear friend’s living room couch, at Minerva’s by the Sea, visitors find both respite and enlivening conversations for the weary.
About Ilona Kimberly Nagy: I am a professional writer and publisher who reveres the interview and profile format. I truly believe that everyone has a story to tell and that curiosity combined with research leads to magic doorway interviews that invite readers to relax and discover their connectedness to every imaginable subject. I’ve interviewed Academy-Award-winning film director Pamela Tanner Boll and Pulitzer-Prize winning historian James McPherson along with many other film directors, educators, translators, musicians, scientists, artists, and so many more. With twenty years experience in the publishing world, I have helped clients shape and promote their writing, and work with a stable of wonderful clients, all of whom have inspired me with their noble quests.