Monthly Archives: October 2013

children

Courageous Classrooms

“A few Januarys ago, I took out a book about Martin Luther King Jr. to read to the students. One girl – the only Black student in the class – puts her head down on her desk and complains, ‘Why do we always have to read this book?’ I was a little taken aback and explained to her that the topic is very important. She starts to cry and says, ‘I just don’t want to do it.’”

This story is an example of a teachable race moment. Similar situations happen in classrooms every day, but they often do not get addressed. Talking about race can be uncomfortable, awkward, and scary, even for adults. As difficult as these situations may be, they are also incredible opportunities for dialogue and learning.

This year I am interning with Border Crossers, an organization that trains educators to be leaders of racial justice in their schools.  Border Crosser’s “Talking About Race with K-5” workshop provides teachers with skills and resources they can use to talk to their students about race. Part of the workshop focuses on ways to respond to scenarios that happen in the classroom, like affirming a student’s comment or asking clarifying questions. Additionally, the workshop empowers teachers to initiate conversations about race and diversity throughout the school year.

This workshop has a significant impact on its participants. Through reading post-workshop evaluations and creating reports on the effectiveness of the workshops, I have seen the concrete strategies teachers gained through Border Crossers. And through attending the workshop myself, I have been even more amazed by the passion and determination teachers wanted to bring back to their classrooms.

Racial inequality can seem like too large of an issue to tackle. We see examples of it in everything from healthcare to housing. I believe that ensuring children feel comfortable speaking up against injustice is the first step to tackling these issues.

Investing in children is a personal value for me, but it is also a Jewish value. Isaiah 54:13 says, “And all your children will be taught of the Lord, and great will be the peace of your children.” A popular midrash on this verse explains that the word meaning children (banayikh) should be changed to builders (bonayikh). This midrash teaches that our children quickly become our builders; they are the ones who can shape and make changes to society. As a participant in List College’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, I feel lucky to connect these Jewish values with practical efforts on the ground to effect racial justice.

As Border Crossers trains more and more teachers each year, their message of racial justice spreads to more and more students. These children, who learn to have tough conversations about race at a young age, will hopefully continue these conversations as adults. The children Border Crossers reaches will be the builders of an equal and just society in which conversations about people of other races are not limited to talking about Martin Luther King Jr. in January.

In 2012, The New York Times ran a sobering series on the scope of racial disparities in the NYC school system – this article featured some of Border Crossers’ work.

To learn tools on how to talk to children about race, read this great blog post by Border Crossers Executive Director, Jaime-Jin Lewis. Additionally, here is a powerful video on the creator of the Courageous Conversations About Race curriculum, which is used all over the world to engage students in these kinds of discussions.

Environmental Justice Field Trip

Last Friday the Fellowship went on an environmental justice field trip to visit Greyston Bakery and Rocking the Boat. We spent the gorgeous day outdoors and learning from these innovative organizations about how they affect change and address environmental injustices in their local communities.

Environmental justice is the movement that focuses on building healthy communities in the areas most affected by environmental health threats – consistently poor communities of color. Environmental justice activists are committed to increasing accessibility to clean air, green spaces, good food, and green jobs. In doing so, they attempt to redress generations of environmental racism and poverty. To learn more about environmental justice work in the South Bronx, read Fellows’ blog post from last year. 

Founded in 1982, Greyston Bakery was one of the first social enterprises in the country. As the supplier of all the Ben & Jerry’s brownie chunks, their commitment to social good is reflected in their tagline: “We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people.” They serve their local Yonkers community through a number of innovative programming, such as an open hiring policy, workforce development training, and affordable housing. Greyston has a strong commitment to the environment as well – solar panels power the plant, they source fair-trade ingredients, and have implemented green operations such as single-stream recycling and a rooftop garden. Their foundation also maintains 19 community gardens to provide fresh produce to their employees and the surrounding area.

Rocking the Boat is a youth development organization based in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx – historically, one of the poorest and most polluted areas of the country. They use traditional wooden boatbuilding and on-water education to empower teens and restore the Bronx River. We got to tour their facility and learn about the history of the organization before hitting the water ourselves! Once on our boats, we learned about the efforts that Rocking the Boat together with other local green organizations, such as the Bronx River Alliance, are making to clean up the Bronx River, revive the indigenous ecosystem, and increase community access to the river. (We also developed some mean upper body strength by rowing against the river’s current).

It was inspiring to meet with each organization and learn about the social good they create in their local communities. We look forward to our next field trip – in the meantime, please enjoy our slideshow!

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Dare to Use the F-Word

I’ve never exactly considered myself a feminist, per sé – I mean, I’m all for equal pay for equal work, and I cherish the opportunity I’ve been given to receive a quality education regardless of my preferred gender pronoun, but a bra-burning man hater? Not quite my thing. And yet, a recent visit to our Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship by Pippi Kessler, Program Director for Ma’yan, engaged me with a feminist perspective that I had yet to consider.  Ma’yan “provides feminist, social justice, and leadership training to teen girls and teaches vital skills to parents and educators,” and their statement of vision and values includes the monumental task of “striv[ing] to make our community and the wider world a better place for girls and women [and] envision[ing] a society where young people of all gender identities are supported and taken seriously by adults.”

Along those lines, we began our session with an activity designed to enhance our awareness of “male” privilege.  I say male with a bit of hesitation, because as we quickly realized, the array of privileges being described could often only be attributed to heterosexual, cisgender males.  Nevertheless, as we read the various statements aloud, I noticed, quite uncomfortably, how gendered the language was, how much I identified with many of the statements, how frustrated I felt as a woman.  Of course I was discouraged by the continued disparities between men and women that span both personal and professional life, but what angered me more was not the inequalities themselves, but rather, the underlying attitudes in our society that continue to perpetuate these pervasive inconsistencies.  As the conversation continued, we discussed various methods of change, from enacting large-scale procedures and policies, to modifying our lived behaviors, values, and beliefs.  I began to realize that though expansive gender equality legislation is essential, for maximum effect it is crucial to engage in honest, thoughtful dialogue at a personal level.

Which led us to the next part of the program.  After a passionate discussion about our initial understandings of gender inequality, Pippi screened for us raw footage of one of Ma’yan’s latest projects – in their programming specifically geared towards teenage girls, the current topic of conversation revolves around sexism in the media.  The unrealistic, and often unhealthy, expectations of young women in American society largely stem from the vast media culture in which the majority of Americans revel.  Young girls, now more than ever, face an increasingly-sexualized prepubescent existence; crop tops and miniskirts fill the racks of “tween” clothing stores, Miley Cyrus’ and Katy Perry’s “sexcapades” provide the soundtrack for their lives, and beauty regimens and fad diets are increasingly marketed exclusively for, and directly to, teenage girls.  And yet, when asked about how this affects their own beliefs and values, the teens honestly and thoughtfully linked their self-esteem and mental health with the barrage of media aimed at promoting an impossible standard by which young women strive tirelessly to achieve.  Furthermore, the participants in this film were not solely Jewish, and though Ma’yan is a Jewish organization, creating a space in which both Jewish and non-Jewish girls are able to engage with these difficult issues provides a key link between feminism as both a Jewish value, based on our sacred texts and fundamental practices, as well as an American value of equality of opportunity for all.

Issues of gender are often discussed on our campus (the bold, beautiful Barnard women and their equally bold and beautiful Columbia counterparts make sure of it), but never had I experienced the conversation in quite this way.  Our cohort’s conversation with Pippi was indicative of the intention of the Fellowship program – contemplating larger issues in American society through a distinctly Jewish lens, and understanding how this enlightened perspective allows us to go forth with a renewed sense of purpose in our social justice work.  My own work with AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps is another example of this interplay in action.  AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps “strengthens the Jewish community’s fight against the causes and effects of poverty in the United States by engaging participants in service and community-building that inspire them to become lifelong leaders for social change, whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish values.“  In addition to the Service Corps program, AVODAH has created a new Fellowship for Jewish early career professionals working to alleviate poverty in the United States, where participants are given mentorship, training, community, and networking opportunities to enhance their work and encourage leadership in Jewish social justice.  (Plug for both programs – check them out here! http://www.avodah.net/apply/ and http://www.avodah.net/fellowship/)  Both of these programs provide unique experiences for young Jews committed to social justice to learn both from each other and the populations with which they work, and facilitate a deeper understanding of how Judaism can, and should, play a role in their social justice efforts.

I walked away from our meeting with Pippi unbelievably inspired. Our Fellowship cohort has had discussions about “What’s Jewish about Social Justice” and how our work is influenced and informed by Jewish values, but seeing how those conversations are put into action by Ma’yan, AVODAH, and other similar organizations has given me a renewed sense of purpose in my own social justice journey.  I know these incredibly meaningful conversations will continue to enrich our Fellowship experience.

To learn more about sexism in the media – and the ways women and girls are constructing counter-narratives – check out PBS’s Makers project, where you can watch groundbreaking media educator Jean Kilbourgh, whose work inspired Ma’yan’s teen filmmakers. For work happening close to home, The Barnard Center for Research on Women puts on symposia and events to link feminist research and practice and the Women’s Media Center makes women visible and powerful in the media. 

To take action yourself, join feminist artist Suzanne Lacy on the streets of Brooklyn this weekend as part of a large-scale performance art and community organizing event: http://creativetime.org/suzannelacy/

Fatherhood in Progress

“My kid calls his mother’s boyfriend ‘dad,’” an impassioned father, let’s call him D., recounts. “He calls him ‘dad’ and he tells him he loves him.”

We were in the midst of a fatherhood workshop at the Midtown Community Court.  D’s thoughts were in response to an open prompt that the facilitator had posed to the group of fathers about their experiences with what we refer to as “co-parenting.”  For single fathers looking to be involved in their child’s life in real ways, co-parenting presents a host of challenges.

D. continued, “But when I met with the judge, she says to me, ‘Sir, isn’t the more people that loves your son, the better?’ I was like, whoa.  She got me.  That’s what it’s about.”

From here, another of the dads, R., weighed in:“But that’s your kid. You don’t want him calling someone else ‘daddy’!”

D had the final word as myself, the social workers on staff, and the other five dads participating in the group, looked on: “But it doesn’t matter.  During any of the stuff I’ve got going on with his mom, and there’s a lot of stuff, he’s what matters.  Having people love him has to be what matters.”

This fatherhood workshop, called 24/7 Dad, is part of a six weeklong Fatherhood & Workforce Training Program run out of the Midtown Community Court and the Center for Court Innovation.  Elements of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), concrete skills such as interviewing and resume building, and practice with social skills and emotional management, are incorporated into the program’s daily schedule.  As an intern for the program through List College’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, I’ve been able to watch many moments unfold like the one recounted above.  In observing the back-and-forth between the dads during sessions, and in sitting down with many of them individually, I’ve been struck by the common threads that bind one story to the next, and one father to the next.  Upbringings with absent or abusive fathers, youths interrupted by daily stop-and-frisk police profiling, entire neighborhoods struggling to make ends meet – these elements come up over and over, which is part of why these sessions can be so normalizing and therapeutic for the dads: it is comforting, on some level, to be understood intuitively by others.

But attitudes toward parenting differ considerably among the dads, and not only when it comes to the role of male figures in their children’s lives.  The fatherhood workshops unearth a wide array of philosophies on masculinity, what it means to be a good father, role modeling, discipline, and so on.  I’ve heard articulations of fatherhood that could have been taken right off the page of any mid-20th century conservative family values guidebook, for all their heteronormative, patriarchal, corporal punishment-supporting ideals.  But I’ve also heard robust defenses of egalitarian marriages, rants about parents who spank their children, and hopes for a time when they could express their emotions openly with their partners and children without being made to feel like less of a man.  For me, it’s been an important reminder that it is not only those in the ivory tower who worry about a generation of children growing up fatherless, but also the fathers themselves.

The alternative sanctions, rehabilitation, mental health services, and workforce training programs that operate out of the Midtown Community Court, do so out of a recognition that the criminal justice system is flawed.  Longstanding systemic barriers contribute to the justice system’s revolving door; many of the same men and women enter and leave the courts, only to re-enter again later on – all without acknowledgment of the many root causes of their behavior and the many hurdles in their way.

In Midtown’s conception of what positive outcomes look like, and in their methodology for reaching them, I hear reverberations of Judaism’s sense of pragmatism and empathy.  In the canon of Jewish text, we find more than an enumeration of laws, case verdicts, and principles.  We find guidelines for how to mitigate between the world as it is encoded and the world as it is lived, and as Jews, we have communally internalized the fact that reality does not always match the ideal.  Systems do not always work.  Halakha (Jewish law) self-consciously and continuously accounts for the fact that it is a lived system, lived out by flawed humans, and that provisions must be made for an imperfect reality. Even what is ‘beyond’ the system is made room for within the system.   Any philosophy that contains a special Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) for Yom Kippur, a day when in theory no one is eating at all, must necessarily extend the same dose of practicality to all human beings’ complex realities.  I feel it is my obligation to recognize these shortcomings, work within my capacity to make society more just, and above all, seek to understand the particular circumstances of each individual from a place of dignity and humanity.

For more information about these programs and other innovative programs being run out of the Midtown Community Court, visit: http://www.courtinnovation.org/project/midtown-community-court.This year the Midtown Community Court celebrates it’s 20th anniversary. To learn more about its inception, watch this video with John Feinblatt, senior advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and founding director of the Midtown Community Court.

To get involved in the intricately related and unjustly pervasive issue of “Stop and Frisk,” through a Jewish avenue, see Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s initiative: http://www.jfrej.org/campaign-police-accountability