By Ellen Killoran

Dawn Weleski was on a flight to Houston to attend a conference when she got word that Conflict Kitchen, the critically acclaimed restaurant-qua-public art project she runs with Carnegie Mellon art professor Jon Rubin, had gotten a letter containing death threats against the restaurant’s staff. Weleski, a CMU alumnus currently based in the Bay Area, cut short her time at the conference to fly back to Pittsburgh.

“We were certainly surprised at the level of negativity that was reached,” Weleski says now.

[blocktext align=”right”]“We were certainly surprised at the level of negativity that was reached.”[/blocktext]Rubin and Weleski launched the Palestinian iteration of Conflict Kitchen, highlighting Palestinian food and culture, in early October, and the threatening letters arrived a month later. “Many Pittsburghers don’t know a lot about Palestine or Palestinians,” Rubin says. “Many think the Palestinians are terrorists.” The threats are still being investigated by Pittsburgh police. But, interestingly, while the news of the letters led to a perceived shift in what some people interviewed for this story felt was unfairly critical media coverage of Conflict Kitchen’s Palestine program, the controversy has opened up a larger dialogue about political influence and artistic freedom.

“Prior to the threat … there was a very obvious and distorted bias that labeled the Conflict Kitchen’s [Palestinian] iteration as ‘anti-Israel’ rather than seeing the Conflict Kitchen for its mission which humanizes perceived enemies of the U.S.,” says University of Pittsburgh student Hadeel Salameh.

Conflict Kitchen, currently operating as a takeout kiosk in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza, in the Oakland neighborhood, inaugurated its Palestinian program on October 6 – and was immediately, and vocally, criticized by representatives of the city’s Jewish community for allegedly promoting anti-Israeli views. On October 31, under perceived pressure from the organization B’nai B’rith, Heinz Endowments made a statement that was widely interpreted as disavowing a $50,000 grant it had awarded Conflict Kitchen in 2013 – an interpretation the foundation rejected in later statements. In an ironic coincidence, Heinz Endowments co-funded the $15,000 Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Award awarded to co-founder Jon Rubin earlier this month.

Rubin addressed the controversy in his speech accepting the award on December 8. “Since we opened this version [of Conflict Kitchen] we and our supporters have come under fire from several powerful lobbying groups that want to diminish or even silence our presentation of the lived experiences and viewpoints of Palestinians,” he said. “In the five-year history of Conflict Kitchen there has never before been a call to condemn its mission.”

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Various iterations of Conflict Kitchen

Since its launch in 2010, Conflict Kitchen has offered a changing menu of cuisines from countries that are by some definition in conflict with the United States. In addition to serving takeout food items representative of the cuisine of Cuba, for example, or Iran, Conflict Kitchen regularly hosts informal luncheons that typically take place in the public park where the kiosk is located. Invited speakers knowledgeable about the featured culture will address a group of customers, usually students and politically engaged locals. (Conflict Kitchen is located near both the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Mellon campuses, but the project is not directly affiliated with either university.) In addition to Cuba and Iran, previous iterations, lasting about four or five months each, have focused on the cuisine and culture of Afghanistan, Venezuela, and North Korea.

Rubin, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art, created Conflict Kitchen in collaboration with Weleski, a former student. The idea was “to recognize and facilitate a more diverse discussion here in Pittsburgh that I personally didn’t feel was happening,” Rubin said, noting that Pittsburgh’s identity is still largely informed by the Eastern European ethnic makeup of its industrial heyday. Though smaller and more diverse ethnic communities have established themselves in the city in recent decades, “those communities are not [as much] a part of the public face of Pittsburgh.”

Weleski and Rubin came up with the idea while another, similar project was still in process. The Waffle Shop was another hybrid of food service and art; a restaurant – serving waffles – where patrons were invited to participate in off-the-cuff recorded talk show segments.

IMG_0459The success of the Waffle Shop, which continued for four years, convinced Weleski and Rubin that, in Weleski’s words, “food was a way to create a situation where there was a seduction to bring people in the door. It was an equalizing factor and it made people feel comfortable.”

As Weleski describes it, the “conflict” element of Conflict Kitchen was secondary. In thinking about ways they could interact with the community, Rubin and Weleski observed that Pittsburgh had a paucity of diverse ethnic cuisines. As they took inventory of the types of cuisines the city was missing, “we realized we were creating a list of countries with which the U.S. was in conflict, and that’s how the idea [for Conflict Kitchen] was born,” Weleski said. “It kind of happened within maybe a minute, that light bulb going off.” Initially, Conflict Kitchen operated from a space in the same, formerly abandoned building in the East Liberty neighborhood where the Waffle Shop lived as a storefront. But in 2013, with the help of the Heinz Endowment grant, Conflict Kitchen moved to its current Schenley Plaza location. There is far more foot traffic there, Weleski says, and the kiosk is surrounded by a variety of other food vendors, lending to a more organic experience for Conflict Kitchen’s customers, who might not realize at first that the restaurant is also a public art installation.

The Conflict Kitchen team certain puts a great deal of consideration – and resources – into its programming. Rubin and sometimes Weleski, along with members of the kitchen staff, travel to the featured countries (except for North Korea) in order to explore the cuisine and interview citizens on the ground. In the Palestinian iteration, quotes from these interviews were printed on “wrappers,” which are sometimes used as enclosures for handheld food like sandwiches, but are also distributed, unfolded, as flyers. Some, but not all of the quotations are of a political nature and directly address the conflict with Israel. One reads, for example: “Water, land, and government services are taken away from Palestinians and given to Jewish settlers … They are creating a refugee problem.” The quotes on the wrappers were cited by critics of the program as evidence of an anti-Israel view.

Patrons of Conflict Kitchen are invited to communicate more directly with citizens of the featured country through an installation called “The Foreigner”: A table is set up next to the kiosk for customers to communicate with an individual overseas via what Weleski describes as “a human avatar.” A Pittsburgh actor is seated at the table and wearing a set of headphones that is connected to a Palestinian (or a Cuban, Iranian, etc.). The customer poses questions to the foreign citizen through a microphone, and the person overseas answers through the microphone to the actor, who then repeats the answer verbatim. It’s “as if you were sitting down with the Palestinian to lunch, but one person removed,” Weleski says.


“The Foreigner”

Both the Pittsburgh-based actors and the interview subjects overseas are paid. So are the guides who work with Conflict Kitchen during the international visits. The wrappers also pose an additional cost. The directors say that the project is now self-sustaining, with 95% of the funding coming directly from food sales.

[blocktext align=”left”]You wake up every day and say ‘is this the sort of change you want to see in the world, is this what I want to be making in the world?'[/blocktext]“Jon and I are artists first and foremost, so [Conflict Kitchen] is an art project,” Weleski says. “However, it is also a business because we now have 20 employees who we have to make sure we are paying a living wage and insurance. We have to at least break even, and we do, thankfully. Those are the two evaluative factors in ‘should we keep going’? You wake up every day and say ‘is this the sort of change you want to see in the world, is this what I want to be making in the world?’

“That’s the art side of things,” she says. “On the other end you have to ask, ‘Do I have enough money to buy the chicken legs and mops for the floor and to make sure we pay our culinary director the salary he deserves?”

That culinary director, Robert Sayre, immediately came to mind when Weleski learned that threatening letters addressed to Conflict Kitchen had been sent to both the restaurant and the Pittsburgh Police Department in early November, just days after Sayre’s wife had given birth to their third child.

“I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and coming back to this was really scary,” says Weleski, who currently lives in the Bay Area. “I wasn’t as concerned for myself because I have a staff of 20 people to be concerned for, who have their own families.” Both Rubin and Weleski say they cannot speak in any detail about the nature of the threat, as the investigation is ongoing. A spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Police Department confirmed that a letter intended for Conflict Kitchen was delivered to a precinct on November 5, but declined to reveal any contents of the letter. Belt Magazine was unable to independently verify reports that an additional letter was sent to Carnegie Mellon University.

Rubin says he felt the threats were “a byproduct of a larger condition: How talking about Palestine is so polarized nationally and internationally.”

I wasn’t the first to ask Conflict Kitchen’s co-founders about what could be perceived as a semantic liberty in presenting some of these countries, including and especially Palestine, as being in active conflict with the United States.

“I think you can absolutely say that the U.S. is in conflict with Palestine,” Rubin says. “Number one, we [Conflict Kitchen] are not a nation state. We don’t have to define conflict according to a charter or a constitution. We are an art project that defines conflict, and has defined conflict, in many ways. Certainly people could say we’re not in conflict with Afghanistan. But we sent troops to Afghanistan, we are certainly in conflict with elements of Afghanistan, with a variety of populations, in different ways.”

In fact, an op-ed published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , after the death threats had made national headlines, challenged the inclusion of Afghanistan in Conflict Kitchen’s programming.

The author, Jennifer Murtazashvili, is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of a forthcoming book about Afghanistan. Murtazashvili said the Conflict Kitchen team invited her to speak on Afghan issues as part of the restaurant’s Afghanistan iteration. She declined. “I did not think Afghanistan matched their mission: The U.S. Government and its people have not been in conflict with the people of the government of Afghanistan,” she wrote. “On the contrary, thousands of Americans and Afghans have died together over the past 13 years trying to fight a Taliban insurgency that has terrorized and killed tens of thousands of people during its ruthless years in power.”

When she expressed her reservations to the owners of Conflict Kitchen, the op-ed continued, she felt their response was “cavalier at best and, at worst, ill-informed. They suggested that it didn’t matter what was true, it only mattered that they believed the American people think we are at war with Afghans and their government.”

IMG_2835Rubin and Weleski both acknowledge the role of perception in their justification for choosing Palestine as the featured Conflict Kitchen cuisine. But in this case, it’s the perception of the Palestinian people the project aims to represent.

“We have a Palestinian community here. And I can tell you that they feel the U.S. is in conflict with Palestine, as do people who live in the country now,” says Rubin. Both he and Weleski point to a 2013 Pew Research Study in which 76% of the Palestinian respondents said they considered the United States to be an enemy. A 2014 Pew study found that 79% of Palestinians had an unfavorable view of the U.S. and 57% characterized the relations between the U.S and Palestine as poor.

Rubin also notes that the U.S. government gives a great deal more economic aid to Israel than Palestine, and has yet to recognize the Palestinian state. “That’s a strong, strong statement right there,” he says.

Asked if Conflict Kitchen’s programming could be interpreted as an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, Rubin says, “I think there are some viewpoints from Afghans or Cubans … that would be critical of U.S. policy, but that’s to be expected. I think it’s a simplification if you present the project as purely an indictment of the United States. I think it’s a call for more thoughtfulness.”

Sensational media coverage of Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian iteration suggested a nefarious link to the United States government. Secretary of State John Kerry is married to Teresa Heinz, the chair of the Heinz Foundation. Some conservative media outlets focused on the Heinz Endowments 2013 grant to Conflict Kitchen, publishing headlines like “Foundation Run by Kerry’s Wife Funds Anti-Israel Eatery” (Newsmax) and “Report: John Kerry’s Wife Funds Radical Anti-US, Anti-Israel Eatery” (Breitbart).

14395755771_ef4428e40f_oSome of the people interviewed for this story indicated a belief that conservative-leaning Jewish organizations like B’nai B’rith and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh may have had an outsized role in steering the media coverage to portray a more heightened controversy than actually existed. Multiple sources expressed concern that the positions of these organizations were misinterpreted to represent the views of the larger, and more diverse, Israeli and Jewish communities in Pittsburgh. The most recent available census information for Pittsburgh does not account for what is by all estimates a very small Palestinian population, which according to available information represents a fraction of one percent of the city’s recorded population. An estimated 45,000 Jews live in Pittsburgh, with roughly half of those residing in Squirrel Hill and adjacent areas.

“The criticism we’ve gotten has come from a segment of the population, but not the larger cross section,” Rubin says.

[blocktext align=”left”]“The restaurant is stirring up conflict for the sake of trying to be relevant.”[/blocktext]Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, was vocal in his opposition to the Palestinian program. “Conflict Kitchen’s focus on countries in conflict is honorable, but Palestine is not in conflict with the U.S.,” Roman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The restaurant is stirring up conflict for the sake of trying to be relevant.”

Rubin countered that Roman “has gotten a tremendous amount of ink in his complaints about Conflict Kitchen. The fact that [his position has been] represented as reflective of the larger Jewish community is irresponsible.” (A scheduled interview with Roman was cancelled; requests for comment from Federation president Jeffrey Finkelstein were not returned.)

Naftali Kaminski, a former Pittsburgh resident who is now the Chief of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, published an op-ed in the Post-Gazette on November 18, critical of what he said was a misrepresentation of the diversity of views within Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. The activities of the Jewish Federation and B’nai B’rith in going “after Conflict Kitchen’s grant funding” left an impression, he wrote, that “the Jewish community was under attack by Conflict Kitchen and that the Jews in Pittsburgh were deeply enraged.” He himself remembered a pleasant experience at Conflict Kitchen, and said his friends in the Jewish community “’dismissed the whole business as ‘Federation shenanigans.’”

In a subsequent phone interview, Kaminski, who is Israeli, speculated that the Jewish Federation may have played up the perception of persecution, in part, in order to appeal to a conservative donor base. “I think this whole thing was a little bit fabricated,” he said. Referring to Roman’s request that Conflict Kitchen host an event that would present an Israeli point of view, Kaminski compared it, jokingly, to a requirement that he must always include a counter-view in presenting medical research, regardless of the qualifications of the dissenting voice. “There is nothing in regard to Palestinian culture and food that the Jewish Federation has a [stake] in,” he said. “They don’t need to be represented there,” adding his observation that the Jewish Federation “will not allow presentations of opinions they do not support.”

Kaminski launched a petition on calling upon the Jewish Federation to “state clearly their opposition to violence and support the free speech of all including Palestinians.” The petition earned over 2,000 signatures, but it is unclear if it has had a substantive impact. Kaminski confirmed that the petition had been delivered to the Federation and the mayor of Pittsburgh, but the Federation has not yet made a public statement anything like the one the petition called for.

reading3Omar Abuhejleh was born to Palestinian immigrants and raised primarily in the United States. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1996 to go to law school and stayed there; for the last decade he has owned a bake shop, Allegro Hearth Bakery, in the predominantly Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood. “I feel welcome there,” he said.

Abuhejleh said he has not kept a particularly high public profile in regards to his heritage or his political beliefs until recently, with his outspoken support for Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian program. Conflict Kitchen reached out to him with an invitation to speak at an October 16 lunch hour discussion in Schenley Plaza, headlined by Laila El-Haddad, author of The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey.

At the event, Abuhejleh said he spoke of his Palestinian identity and the role food plays in preserving it. “I have a really strong attachment to food, and [eating Palestinian food] is something that reminds me of who I am on a regular basis,” he said. “It’s a lingering connection that I have with my parents’ culture and Palestine.”

Conflict Kitchen has hosted multiple lunchtime discussions, and media reports have quoted sources who criticized these events as being one-sided or biased. Asked his impression of the October 16 event, Abuhejleh said the discussion was open and civil.

“To the extent that people participating in the panels discussing Palestinian culture and Palestinian food were Palestinian and not Israeli, yes, it was one sided,” Abuhejleh said. “But were [others] not given an opportunity to speak? I don’t think that’s the case at all. We sat there for an hour and half and people passed the microphone around and anyone could ask whatever they wanted.”

Abuhejleh has supported Conflict Kitchen since it started, but has been particularly enthusiastic about the Palestinian program because of how rare he feels it is for Palestinian voices to be given a dedicated space. “There are not a lot of opportunities for expression of Palestinian culture,” he said. “Pittsburgh is progressive in many ways, but … on this issue it is relatively conservative.”

Abuhejleh said the general community response to his involvement with Conflict Kitchen has been supportive, though he did hear from his staff that two customers said they would no longer be giving the bakery their business.

He shared Kaminski’s general view that there’s a double standard applied to discussions about Palestine and Israel. “Ultimately there is a larger movement on the part of Zionist groups that want to silence the expression of Palestinian identity. They’ll say, ‘if you talk about Palestine then you have to tell our side of the story.’” Even if the same organizations might not allow for an opportunity for the Palestinian point of view to be brought into discussions about Israel, he said, “They want to counter any sort of expression of Palestinian identity because that helps … dilute the message of whatever the Palestinian person is saying.”

Abudhejleh also feels it is important to make a distinction between Judaism and Zionism. “A lot of people see Judaism and Zionism as the same thing,” he said. “I certainly don’t, and I know there are a lot of Jewish people who don’t identify with Zionism. Unfortunately a lot of the mainstream organizations don’t see that distinction. And some condemn people who seek to make that distinction.”


Rubin says he felt that Heinz Endowments and the Honors College of the University of Pittsburgh, which withdrew sponsorship of an event hosted by Conflict Kitchen earlier this year, had caved to outside pressure from organizations critical of the Palestinian program. Rubin believes the Honors College’s sponsorship withdrawal was in direct response to pressure from the Jewish Federation.

“[The Jewish Federation has] gone to great lengths behind the scenes as well as in front of the scenes,” Rubin says. “They approached the team, they approached the University to try to silence the project, they approached the dean of the Honors College and the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.”

Edward M. Stricker, dean of the Honors College, provided a written statement about what he said was a broad misunderstanding about the Honors College’s role in the Conflict Kitchen event:

“To put it simply, there was no real relationship between the University Honors College and the Conflict Kitchen. They had complete control of events; that is, they selected the country to be highlighted, they selected the speakers, etc. We simply subsidized the lunches of up to 15 Pitt undergraduate students to attend the event… The reason we withdrew our co-sponsorship after the event that focused on Palestine and Israel was that we were asked repeatedly about our role in the event as co-sponsor, and we really had no role. Thus, we shouldn’t have been listed as a co-sponsor in the first place because co-sponsors do participate in and endorse the organization of events, which is not what we ever did or ever wanted to do. Frankly, I would say that the role of the Honors College in the Conflict Kitchen event was misunderstood by many as being more substantial than it actually was, and it would be unfortunate if the withdrawal of co-sponsorship was also misunderstood as having some significance.”

CK-skypemeal-1While Stricker’s statement does not indicate whether or not the Jewish Federation was among those who asked repeatedly about the event co-sponsorship, ostensibly promoting the college to publicly distance itself from Conflict Kitchen, there is far less ambiguity about B’Nai B’rith International’s role in calling for the Heinz Endowments to disavow the 2013 grant provided to Conflict Kitchen, on its stated grounds that Conflict Kitchen was “bundling anti-Israel propaganda with food from ‘Palestine’.”

B’nai B’rith’s October 31 press release includes a statement from Heinz Endowments president Grant Oliphant that reads: “I want to be especially clear that [Conflict Kitchen’s] current program on Palestine was not funded by the endowments and we would not fund such a program, precisely because it appears to be terribly at odds with the mission of promoting understanding… [the Endowments] emphatically does not agree with or support either the anti-Israel sentiments quoted on Conflict Kitchen’s food wrappers or the program’s refusal to incorporate Israeli or Jewish voices in its material.”

This statement was tremendously disappointing to the Conflict Kitchen team.

“The most troubling thing to happen in the last month was Heinz disavowing the grant that they gave us, because of pressure by B’nai B’rith,” Rubin said. In “B’nai B’rith saying [the Conflict Kitchen program] was ‘anti-Israel propaganda,’ they have taken what we do and simplified it and basically dehumanized the Palestinian culture and viewpoints that we do present.”

However, a Heinz spokesperson insisted that the foundation did not intend to publicly disavow its support for Conflict Kitchen, and said the statement published by B’nai B’rith was taken from what Heinz believed to be a private email correspondence not meant for publication. Further, the spokesperson said that the statement attributed to Heinz Endowments was “taken out of context.” He declined to share any part of the correspondence, and B’nai B’rith repeatedly turned down requests for comment. The summary of the grant on the Heinz Endowment website does in fact state the it was intended for Conflict Kitchen’s 2013 relocation and “continued programming,” which ostensibly would, or could, include the Palestinian menu program.

The Heinz spokesperson said the foundation did have concerns that the Palestinian iteration of Conflict Kitchen appeared to be one-sided, but added that “we support absolutely the right for freedom of speech,” despite any concerns about the program. “We don’t have to agree with the activities of the arts organizations” that receive funding, the spokesperson said, adding that the life term of the grant provided to Conflict Kitchen in 2013 was only one year.

Weleski does not agree. “That money was not specified to be used [by] any particular date,” she says. Neither she nor Rubin were able to provide documentation concerning the life term of the grant, and the listing of the grant on the Heinz Endowment website does not provide any clarification. In any event, there would be no way to determine if the Heinz Endowment grant money was applied to the Palestinian iteration of Conflict Kitchen.

IMG_4090“Everything goes into one pot, so while we are very closely in check with the numbers … it’s not clear what money is spent where,” Weleski says. In response to questions about Carnegie Mellon’s relationship with Conflict Kitchen, Weleksi explained that Conflict Kitchen is “technically a project of the Studio for Creative Inquiry” at CMU, but that the university does not provide any funding to the project. “They are our fiscal sponsor… it’s a conduit for us to handle all the cash and pay the taxes,” she says. “We don’t get grants from them. They don’t give grants to anyone.”

Rubin has known he was the chosen recipient of the $15,000 award Heinz Endowments co-funded – since before Conflict Kitchen launched its Palestinian iteration. He said he agreed to a request from the award sponsors not to make a public statement ahead of the official news announcement. According to Rubin, Oliphant also knew about the award.

“I think it was probably a little uncomfortable for them,” Rubin says, while noting that the award recipients are chosen by a separate committee. “The irony was not lost on myself, or on Grant,” he says, explaining that the circumstances of recent weeks inspired him to use his acceptance speech as a call for artistic freedom. But, after what Rubin continues to characterize as Heinz Endowments’ “disavowal” of Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian program, he considered rejecting the award altogether.

IMG_9033After some consideration, Rubin says that he felt “it was more productive” to put the money into continuing the Palestinian program – despite the fact that the award was unrestricted, and could have been used for personal expenses. “It was obviously a challenge,” he said. “I could have used it to fix the plumbing, or take my family on vacation. But frankly I didn’t feel that after what had happened I could do that. [This decision] feels right to me.”

Oliphant attended the award ceremony and also spoke at the event, and some of his remarks were published in an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I’m really grateful for this evening, that tonight we get to step back and celebrate what we should be celebrating, which is the role of artists who challenge us into that messiness and take on concepts that perhaps we previously hadn’t [faced], to think about things in new ways, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, even if the comfortable you’re afflicting happen to be your funders,” Oliphant reportedly said.

Rubin has indicated that he and Oliphant have maintained a respectful dialogue throughout all of this, and said he felt Oliphant’s comments were “a move in the direction of reconciliation.” Still, Rubin says, “I made a very specific request,” that a freedom of expression clause be added to Heinz Endowments’ bylaws, “or whatever it is that you use to indicate your core principles,” he said in his acceptance speech. And thus far, Rubin said Heinz Endowments had only gone as far as taking his proposal into consideration. “I hope they do the right thing,” he says.

[blocktext align=”right”]“It’s not until we focus on Palestinians that things really start to hit the fan.”[/blocktext]Rubin, who is Jewish, notes another irony, in the perceived attempts to muffle the dialogue. “The way I was raised was that we should always think critically about society and about the stories that are being told and that we should always have empathy for people who are seen as other,” he says. “I equate the Jewish voice as one being at the forefront of debates and open discourse. I actually think that the project as a whole and the Palestinian version specifically is a very Jewish thing to do.”

“It’s not until we focus on Palestinians that things really start to hit the fan,” Rubin says. “I think that says a lot. And it’s all the more reason why we should be continuing what we are doing.”

Ellen Killoran is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. She was previously the Senior Editor of Media & Culture at IBTimes and is currently a regular contributor to Forbes. Her work has also appeared in The L Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, Greentech Media, and The Daily. In addition to her print work, she co-produced the HBO documentary “Youth Knows No Pain.”

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