The 2013-2014 Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship has come to a close. We wish this year’s fellows – Abby, Eric, Marisa, Danielle, Jeremiah, Sarah, David, Charlene, Maddie, Morgan, and Rebecca – the best of luck on the next leg of their social change journeys! Please return here in the fall to celebrate the work and learning of next year’s fellows. In the meantime, below is a video that Eric produced for Global Green USA, highlighting their innovative approach to resource recovery.
Sex trafficking is the exploitation of human beings through either forced or coerced sex work. Anyone involved in sex work who is under the age of 18 is considered to be trafficked. Contrary to what the name might imply, a person does not need to be smuggled or transported from one location to another in order to be trafficked; trafficking can and does occur to individuals within their own communities. Though every victim’s story looks different, there are several trends in trafficking narratives. In the United States, victims are often teenage girls of color coming from broken homes, and many are tricked, coerced, or threatened into sex work by older boyfriends. Victims often suffer from physical and emotional abuse, and find it difficult to leave the sex work either because of threats from a pimp or because of a lack of other viable options. There is a significant population of LGBT trafficking victims, which stems from the issue of homeless LGBT youth. While it is less common for boys to become victims of trafficking, it certainly happens and usually goes unreported.
This year my internship placement for the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship is with The Advocacy Lab (AdLab), an organization whose mission is to empower youth to take action around human rights. Twice a week, I co-facilitate a human rights course in a Brooklyn public high school to help 10th graders learn advocacy tools to fight for their own rights as well as for wider humanity. After spending the first 3 months of the year discussing human rights issues ranging from racism to child soldiers to gender discrimination to environmental injustices, a majority of my students voted to spend the rest of the school year advocating on behalf of sex trafficking victims. The campaign is multifaceted: They will be spreading awareness of sex trafficking in their school with informational posters, a video that depicts the typical sex trafficking narratives using their own skits, poetry, and music, and a school assembly to present their project. They will also be selling wrist-bands that say “Put an end to sex trafficking!” in order to both spread awareness and fundraise for an organization that provides support for victims. We hope to also incorporate a political advocacy component by having them write to or call politicians demanding better support systems for trafficking victims.
Last semester, the format of the class helped me to develop my teaching skills, and this semester, coordinating the campaign has pushed me in new ways. It’s always a challenge to find a balance between giving the students enough freedom for them to take ownership of their advocacy campaign, and providing enough structure for them to work efficiently and stay on task. Additionally, I’m constantly thinking about ways to continue to engage and inspire the students, because we are now focusing on just one main topic for several months. These are questions I’m still grappling with, and like many things, I’m finding that they require a good deal of trial-and-error.
The human rights lessons last semester opened our students up to a range of various human rights issues occurring at home and abroad. This semester, one of my goals is to help them develop useful skills through running an advocacy campaign. We taught a lesson on effective internet research and finding reliable sources, and then devoted a few class sessions to active research in the school’s computer lab. Students found informational material to put on their awareness posters and in their video, as well as organizations that address the issue of trafficking. A few students were assigned the task of e-mailing the organizations and asking what they might be able to do to get involved in the issue. The Advocacy Lab provides some funding for the students’ campaign, but in order to obtain access to the money, the students must submit a grant proposal outlining the goals of the campaign and the funds they’ll need for each part. This required students to articulate their goals and make the case for why their campaign is important. For most students, research, outreach, and certainly writing grant proposals, was new. It was exciting for me to see my students improve and gain efficiency each day we went to the computer lab, knowing how important these skills will be – especially for the students that go to college in a couple years.
Teaching/facilitating has been a new adventure every single day. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to learn from my students, and share with them my own passion for human rights.
Trafficking has been in the news lately as the world cries out after nearly 300 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from a boarding school and sold into “marriage.” To learn how you can help, this article is informative: http://abcnews.go.com/US/people-world-kidnapped-nigerian-girls/story?id=23623297. To learn more about Judaism’s response to sex-trafficking, check out this AJWS D’var Tzedek written by Rabbi Lisa Gelber, Associate Dean of the JTS Rabbinical School.
Fatherhood presents a learning curve for most, but in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty – where violence, incarceration, stop & frisk, and rigid gender roles are the norm – figuring out how to parent in an emotionally responsible way can be a major feat. The participants at the Midtown Community Court’s Workforce and Fatherhood Program, under its new name “UPNEXT,” will speak to these challenges freely during group sessions. Through my internship there, I recently facilitated a workshop of my creation called “Navigating Parenting Challenges,” which borrowed its ideas of emotionally-attuned parenting from Daniel Siegel’s book, Parenting From the Inside Out.
As the workshop took its course, it became very clear that the most immediate challenge our fathers face in raising their children is that of material resources. The employment market is presently a picnic for no one, but for men of color who are balancing some combination of poor educational background, a criminal record, mental health issues, substance addiction, military trauma, and so on, finding and sustaining a job can be, frankly, unrealistic.* Attaining and keeping employment is a near miracle for the previously incarcerated male population of color in this country. For a frighteningly fascinating study on that, see Devah Pager’s “The Mark of A Criminal Record” https://www.princeton.edu/~pager/pager_ajs.pdf., which finds that black men without criminal records fare worse in the job market than white men with criminal records – and that black men with criminal records fare the worst of all. This reality is part of why providing materially for one’s children can be a daily struggle for the fathers with whom I work.
I marveled at the ways in which being a parent can act as a motivation to clean up one’s act, to serve as a role model, and to stay out of prison. But just as surely, becoming a parent presents real financial burdens that push many parents back to their old criminal means of making money. During the course of our conversation, many fathers recalled painful conversations with their young children in which the child needed a new winter coat or shoes, and the unemployed father returned to his past habits of selling drugs the very next day in order to pay for what his child needed. These paradoxical implications of parenting often happen simultaneously within the heart of the same person; many fathers expressed increased guilt and shame over their deviant behaviors after becoming fathers, even as they described the increased need and justification for doing so.
The group discussed how emasculated they feel when they’re unable to provide for their children – a sentiment which is in line with the patriarchal norms of much of American society. And when it comes to winter jackets and shoes, the material needs of children are critical and urgent. But as the workshop continued, the reality of being unable to “provide” materially for one’s children devolved into a conversation about Christmas presents, iPads, and a new pair of Jordans. In short, the conversation struck me as materialistic, even frivolous, and I struggled to steer the conversation toward the emotional needs that children have and how those needs might be met despite limited financial means. One participant, N, saw where I was going and shared about a conversation where his daughter simply said “I know you can’t afford any Christmas presents this year, but dad, you’re still gonna come, right?” Other fathers marveled at the story and muttered that they wished their own children had that type of understanding.
Providing emotionally, though, is as much as structural question as it is a cultural one. Being emotionally attuned to one’s child means something different within a stable family of privilege than within a family of custody battles and frequent bouts of absence due to incarceration, and these are what comprise the structural piece, for which we are all responsible to combat. But the tendency for parents (and especially fathers) to be unsure how to emotionally reach their children, and the temptation to subscribe to materialistic ideas about love by buying toys instead of giving words of affirmation – these behaviors pervade our culture regardless of class. This conversation with the dads, although disheartening at times, was an important reminder to me about the ways in which we are all tied up in the struggles of our fellow citizens, and that liberation in a vacuum is no liberation at all.
For a great Op-Ed on the indelible impact of strong fathering, check out Charles Blow’s recent piece on the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative – a new program to empower young men of color. “We can and must,” says Blow, “break the cycles of pain for young men of color, building better boys and repairing broken men.”
*I want to underscore that not all of the fathers meet all or even most of the conditions described here, but as a cohort, these are the issues that present barriers to them.
This year my internship placement for the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship is with The Advocacy Lab (AdLab), an organization whose mission is to empower youth to take action around human rights. Twice a week, I co-facilitate a human rights course in a Brooklyn public high school to help 10th graders learn advocacy tools to fight for their own rights as well as for wider humanity. During the first half of the year, we discuss various human rights issues including racial discrimination, children’s rights, environmental rights, gender and LGBT equality, and sex trafficking. For each unit, we do an “Action Through Arts,” in which we incorporate an arts project so students can explore creative forms of advocacy. In December, the students will choose an issue we’ve been studying, and spend the rest of the year running a campaign to address it.
Working at AdLab uniquely combines many of my different interests. I’m a Human Rights major at Barnard and I believe that everyone should be informed about human rights violations, so it’s really exciting to get to bring the topics I’ve been studying in college to a public high school classroom. Public education is another one of my interests – this summer I participated in the Urban Education Leaders Internship Program with DC Public Schools, and I may want to go into education after college – so I jumped at the opportunity to get to become familiar with a NYC public school. Most of my teaching experience before this was with younger students, so I wanted to try teaching high school students to find out if I like the older age group (turns out I do!). Lastly, the arts have always been an important part of my life, and I love that AdLab incorporates the arts into each unit as a way to spark students’ interest, as well as utilize their diverse talents. Over the last two months, these classes have often, if not always, been the highlight of my week.
The school where we work is located in a low-income area, and my 10th graders are at a 6th-8th grade reading and writing level. About half have learning disabilities, several are immigrants, and many have attendance problems. One thing that’s special about human rights education is that unlike math, science, or literature, anyone can relate to the material, regardless of skill level. It’s so inspiring to see the students that I know struggle in other subjects participate in our discussions and offer their understandings of various human rights issues. In our unit on racial discrimination, many of the male students offered anecdotal comments about their experiences with Stop and Frisk. I was beyond impressed with their Action Through Arts projects that week – they designed T-shirts with images or phrases protesting racial discrimination. I was moved by both their artistic talent and their wit.
At our Fellowship orientation as well as in subsequent meetings, we’ve discussed how we each relate social justice to Judaism. I feel that as Jews, we have a unique ability to relate to other groups that face oppression, discrimination, and other types of hardships. Every Jew knows that his/her people spent most of history facing some sort of persecution, discrimination, or marginalization. Fortunately, I don’t think I have ever experienced anti-Semitism or under-privilege because of my Jewishness, at least not directly. But because memories of such hardship is so vivid in the Jewish collective memory, I feel both an ability and a responsibility to connect with groups currently going through such hardships.
We’ve also spent time in the Fellowship discussing the various “levels” at which we can engage in social justice. I like working with AdLab because I feel I’m doing social justice work at two different levels. One is that I’m working with students who are receiving less than adequate education. The other is that the content of our course addresses serious human rights issues, and my students are taking action for them. Two weeks ago, they wrote letters to the UN asking that all countries ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Next semester, during the campaign part of the course, they will spend three months working for social justice themselves. Thus, through my students, I hopefully will be able to impact a larger social issue.
To learn more about AdLab, check out this great YouTube video! Amnesty International has also created a youth arm to bring young people into human rights advocacy – visit their site here to find out how high schoolers and college students are getting involved in this important work. For information on creating curricula that help teach human rights, the Carter Center has several high-school level lesson plans that are offered to as a free resource to teachers.
“Can you see why this place is my salvation?” I overheard this from a visitor while putting up signs for the New York Botanical Garden’s Kiku poetry walk, and it affected my beliefs about the role of environmental social justice.
Growing up, I knew that the earth – a precious resource that had become a dumping ground by society – needed to be saved in order to ensure our survival and that of the rest of the ecosphere. Like many environmentalists, I focused on global warming and recycling, crucial work that highlights the urgency to take action around our current environmental crisis. But being taught to love the environment is something that’s often lacking in the environmental movement. This is something that strikes me over and over again when I witness awestruck visitors at the NYBG. How we engage with nature is so connected to our dedication to the earth, and to our own personal well-being.
I never really thought of environmentalism as an example of social justice. I’ve always associated the term “social justice” with addressing social issues such as homelessness, poverty, and hunger. But social justice is more than just helping people – it’s also about solving problems caused by society. How those problems are addressed is up to interpretation.
Environmentalism in the Bible is also up to interpretation. From my understanding, in Genesis God commands Adam to be a steward of the land, and not have dominion over it like some critics point out. However, Adam didn’t have to deal with pollution, so when he took care of the land, he just took care of his own land. If Adam lived when people were polluting the land and rivers to their own detriment, how would he have acted? Does stewardship also mean protecting the land from people? I think so. And that, among other reasons, is why environmental action is a Jewish social justice.
I feel that my placement at the NYBG is interesting in the context of the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship. My position as an exhibitions intern is not about addressing environmental injustices - instead I am teaching about the environment and nature through various special exhibits. Some of the events I have worked on are the Giant Pumpkin Weekend and the Holiday Train Show (an exhibit that opens this week and is going to be great – you should check it out!).
Earlier in my life, education did not seem like a real way to execute social justice, but as I have matured, I realize that if people don’t know about something, they aren’t going to care or act on it. But just providing facts isn’t the way to inspire change, which is why the NYBG and botanical gardens everywhere are such an asset to society. People come to the garden for all sorts of reasons: as a field trip, for bird watching, even to run the trails. I never realized how much of a place of salvation the garden can act for some people. The New York Botanical Garden is a place of environmental wonder, teaching its visitors to love nature. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
One of my Columbia professors says that if everyone loved nature, the environment, and the planet, environmental legislation would pass more quickly. Not only would it be a completely obvious focus of voters, but it would be a primary focus of politicians too because of their own love for the environment. Participating in the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship has helped me connect this sense of amazement to my environmental work, as well as to the Jewish commitment to tikkun olam. It has been inspiring learning from socially and environmentally progressive organizations such as Greyston Bakery and Rocking the Boat about their organizational models and how they foster social good in their individual communities. One day I hope to start an organization of my own, and having learned the importance of radical amazement in achieving social change from the NYBG, I will be sure to incorporate this into my work every day.
“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.
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/.