Reading <i>Charlotte's Web</i> as a Activist

Thirty five years after originally reading the book, I have realized that E.B. White was not only a great writer, but a visionary and activist as well.
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One of my earliest memories is sitting on the couch with my mom as she read Charlotte's Web to me and my sister. Thinking back on the book, I don't remember all of the details, but I do remember that Charlotte (the spider) was helping save her friend Wilbur (the pig) from being killed. I remembered there was a mischievous rat named Templeton that I thought was cool. I also remember me and my sister crying as my mom read us the end of the book.

I now have a four-year-old girl named Eva and was nostalgic and excited to introduce her to Charlotte's Web.

While sitting on the couch with Eva, watching the movie Charlotte's Web 35 years after reading the book, I realized that in addition to being a great storyteller, the author E.B. White was also a visionary and an activist. Watching the movie as an activist who does media work for the Drug Policy Alliance, I now have a whole new lens to look at Charlotte and her strategy to save her dear friend Wilbur.

Wilbur is the cute little pig who finds out from his fellow farm animals that he is going to be killed and eaten, because that is what happens to pigs. Wilbur can't believe that they are going to kill him. Wilbur turns to the wise spider Charlotte and asks if it is true. Charlotte promises Wilbur that she will protect him and that he won't be killed.

Wow! Hearing this story as a parent, I now see that this is a pretty intense, scary story! I have to admit that realizing that Wilbur is going to be killed because we eat bacon is kinda of a wake-up call that gets me thinking...

Anyways, how is Charlotte going to protect and save her friend? Charlotte ends up spinning a web that says "Some Pig". The family who owns the farm is blown away by the "message" in the web and calls the neighbors. Soon the town is buzzing. After a couple of months the news wears off and Charlotte again spins a web that says "Terrific". The family calls the local newspaper. The next thing there is a photo of Wilbur under the "Terrific" web on the front page of the paper. The crowds come, the family decides Wilbur is special and Wilbur is saved.

Charlotte (and E.B. White) realized that the only way to save Wilbur's life was to make people care about Wilbur. If someone is nameless, we can kill them, stuff them in a jail cell or do other terrible things to them. If we hear someone's story, hear about their dreams, their histories, their families, it moves us and we care.

While watching Charlotte's Web, I couldn't help but think of my friend and colleague Anthony Papa. Anthony Papa is a New Yorker who was sentenced to 15 years for a first time, non-violent drug offense. Papa's life was ruined when a "friend" convinced him to pass an envelope of 4 ounces of cocaine for which he was to make $500.

While in prison Papa found his passion for art and became a painter. Papa's greatest piece is a haunting self-portrait of himself looking into a mirror. You look into his eyes and feel the agony and despair from a man who realizes he is going to spend the best years of his life in a cage. Papa's self-portrait ends up showing in the Whitney Museum. Papa (like Charlotte) realizes that the way he is going to free himself is by telling his story and having people see more than just a number.

Papa sits at his typewriter, writes his story and sends it into the local Westchester Journal. Papa then uses this humanizing piece to get other stories and before long there is a major feature in The New York Times. The story builds and builds until Governor Pataki grants him clemency. After spending 12 years in jail, Papa was literally able to paint his way to freedom.

That is only the first half of the inspiring story. When most people get out of jail, they want to put the nightmare behind them and never want think about jail again. Instead, Papa ends up starting a group with activist, comedian Randy Credico called Mothers of the New York Disappeared. They understood (like Charlotte) that to change the way New Yorkers looked at people behind bars, people had to see a whole picture of these people, not only their jail numbers. They organized families of people behind bars. They would organize vigils and actions with family members holding up photos of their loved ones. While the "nameless" were considered drug dealers, they became real people when their families told their stories. These weren't "kingpins" or queenpins"; these were moms and dads, brothers and sisters, who loved their kids and families and were rotting away in jail because they had a substance abuse problem or were desperate to make money and because New York had draconian mandatory minimum sentences under the Rockefeller drug laws.

After years of sharing people's stories, generating moving TV segments and feature stories, New Yorkers changed the way they looked at people behind bars for drug-related offenses. Watching a personal piece about a mom being locked up for 15 years, away from her family, because of a mistake she made or because she has a drug problem moved hearts more than any statistics or policy papers. In 2008, after 35 years, the inhumane, ineffective and racist drug laws were finally reformed.

There is a picture in my office of Anthony Papa giving Governor Paterson a hug at the Rockefeller Reform bill signing. It makes me emotional to think about Anthony Papa's story. Papa spent 12 years in a cage because of one mistake and because of the way our society treats people who use drugs. He lost his family and freedom. He was able to regain his freedom through his art, activism and brains. He then used his freedom to help free some of the people he left behind.

I am moved by Anthony Papa. I think E.B. White would be moved by Anthony Papa's story too.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (

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