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!
“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.
I’ve had the conversation thousands of times, with family, with friends, classmates, mentors. But never before had I had the conversation with a group of men whose lives had not been as privileged as mine has, men who have been incarcerated, homeless, and hopeless at one point or another in their lives.
Times Square Ink is a job training and placement assistance program that “helps participants improve decision-making skills and identity how their actions, feelings, and thoughts affect their behavior in everyday life” with the goal of presenting them with comprehensive programming that will provide them the necessary tools to enter the workforce and provide for themselves and their families.
Every six weeks we welcome a new group of men into our program, to help them process their pasts, build social support, and develop the skills needed to re-enter society with strength and healing. During the first session of each cycle, the men are posed with this question: what did you want to be when you were a child? It is such a simple answer for me. My earliest memories have me announcing to anyone who would listen that one day I was going to be the Prime Minister of Israel. Not just any Prime Minister, I was going to be like Golda Meir. Even as a young child, I saw in her the ideal of a strong and admirable woman, a determined woman who was able to create change against all odds. These were traits that at I was unable to articulate at the time, but held a power over me that lasts to this day. Yet as I sat in class with these men, sharing my own childhood dream and listening to theirs, my childhood aspiration seemed naïve and grandiose.
Participant after participant have spoken about their boyhood dreams of becoming the neighborhood pimp or the biggest drug dealer in Bronx. One man said that all his life he wanted to be like his uncle, the neighborhood pimp, while another man spoke of always wanting to be like his father, a car mechanic, until he died from a drug overdose. Each man has his own story, and in relation my goal seemed to be somewhat silly.
Times Square Ink has given me the opportunity to work with a sector of the community that I previously had very few, if any, interactions with. Each session brings out new stories, traumas, jokes, and opportunities to learn between the men and myself, all of which force me to understand the deep-rooted complexities of their current situations. The time I have spent at the Court has given me a larger understanding of the complexities of homelessness, the criminal justice system, and experiences of trauma.
But more importantly, my work at Midtown Community court has given me an opportunity to explore the inequalities that exist within our own communities. My experiences have forced me to question the relationship between power and privilege and how these two factors effect the communities in which we live in. It is only by understanding the roots of these issues that we can question how to break this cycle of injustice. These solutions demand that we are innovative and attempt not the easy path but rather the alternative path, and I am fortunate to have been given an opportunity to learn daily from those working on the ground how this path is forged.