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.
Faces blasted with shrill air, ankles clad in snow and ice, many around the nation this winter witnessed a seeming reversal of climate scientists’ insistent, most dire warnings. Many a blogger and political cartoonist lampooned the predictions of climate science, pointing to the hoarfrost as evidence that global warming is, if not a hoax, then far less pressing a concern than we’ve imagined. In some ways, the climate debate has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that such quips can read as harmless jokes, the bone-shivering cold an irresistible target when we have come to expect record highs. Yet, at heart, these peanut-gallery protestations point to a deeper dynamic operating at the center of our society’s “climate debate.” The punchline of many a cartoon-strip from this January plays on the notion that direct, layman observation counters the absurd and abstract arguments of distant scientists. Beyond the polar vortexes, this notion has appeared time and again: in the debate over fossil fuel consumption, the operation of coal-fired plants, trash runoff into oceans, and beyond. Somehow, climate change remains of little to concern for almost half of Americans and invisible for 23% of the country’s population.
This is, of course, an issue of scale, both spatial and temporal. While human lives and environmental degradation both proceed each day, the human scale is tied inevitably to what we can perceive directly. We sense changes either over short intervals or through distinct comparisons to past events (when we say, for example, that this winter is colder than last). Similarly, our senses only entitle us to a small window into the complex web of Earth’s natural systems. The instruments and methods that uncover these processes must abstract and quantify data in order to present them. As a result, there is a seeming fissure between how we live and how our planet operates on its largest scale.
At present, catastrophes seem the only way to bridge this gap on a large, public scale. Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City a sense of green urgency, and in its wake the Mayor’s Office has introduced a number of sweeping initiatives intended to reduce the city’s environmental impact. NYC Recycles appeared in April, 2013, and in December the city introduced a ban on the use of Styrofoam food packaging. These initiatives are laudable, but their arrival only after the hurricane points to a dangerous mindset that goes hand-in-hand with our general attitude towards climate change. Rather than act to prevent disaster before it arrives, we only react viscerally to crises. Given a catastrophe on a larger scale, such a strategy is far from tenable.
Our crisis-minded approach and the immense scale of climate change are linked. How futile does recycling a cup seem when 1,000 new coal-fired plants spring up in China each year? The lack of large-scale impact of green efforts thus far can seem daunting and, yes, disheartening. Yet, seeing individual action as minute, incremental, and only effective in the aggregate is a fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of environmentalism.
Certainly, the big picture remains important, and efforts in that arena shouldn’t cease. The end-goal of green activism and action, though, is to ensure the continued, self-sustaining health of our natural systems and environments. This goal has clear large-scale implications, but it also facilitates a reorientation of environmentalism as we imagine it. Ultimately, we are the beneficiaries of a cleaner, healthier planet. Conversely, environmentalism need not be only an abstract, global concern. Instead, we might imagine several scales, descending from global to personal, each characterized by their own sets of actors and actions.
What would personal, individual environmentalism look like? First, it would still be a lifestyle connected to larger-scale work. Recycling and turning off unneeded lights aren’t bad ideas. But, in order to be personally rewarding, more needs to happen on an immediate, observable level. One approach may lay in a combination of self-sustainability and the beautification of one’s own environment. In suburbs, gardens and ground cover can replace lawns. In cities, rooftop or window gardens are personal and communal endeavors. Both serve as examples of work that bring one into contact with the natural world. These allow one to view climate not as a variable on charts but as an element in life.
A lingering question is the value of this personal investment versus the returns of such activity. Global Green, where I intern, models a profitable, market-driven approach to environmentalism on a regional and national level. They show businesses that waste recovery and sustainable products are, indeed, valuable. Yet, what of the individuals at the end of each supply chain? Do such initiatives simply leave them disconnected to the greater issue at hand? Looking to a personal model, need monetary reward be the primary motivator? Though I applaud Global Green’s model, I’m left wondering how best to engender broad, personal investment in the environment.
Eric is a participant in our Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship spending the year creating short films for Global Green USA and the Coalition for Resource Recovery. Read his previous post here.
What about adoption is Jewish? And how does Judaism view adoption?
I pondered these questions last semester as I began work on a B’nai Mitzvah project for HelpUsAdopt.org, where I intern. The Development Director at HelpUsAdopt.org had previously worked on other B’nai Mitzvah projects and planned to create a Mitzvah project for HelpUsAdopt.org, and I asked to help.
HelpUsAdopt.org is a non-profit that provides grants of up to $15,000 to families and individuals looking to adopt, either domestically or internationally. HelpUsAdopt.org does not discriminate, define family, or charge an application fee, unlike other organizations. By providing grants, HelpUsAdopt.org not only helps parents create their families but also helps children in need find loving homes. All year long, as part of the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, we have been asking ourselves “what’s Jewish about social justice?” While I already viewed my work at HelpUsAdopt.org as social justice work, and feel that social justice work is a central value of Judaism, I wanted to figure out how Judaism and adoption are directly connected. Thus, my research began.
At first, I had difficulty finding Jewish sources about adoption. My initial research provided general information about adoption in Judaism and showed me that adoption is definitely considered permissible but that Jewish leaders and scholars have not written much about it. However, I finally found sources providing concrete examples of adoption and its permissibility:
The Bible includes examples of cases in which legal guardians cared for orphans: Pharaoh’s daughter found and raised Moses, and Morchedai raised his cousin Esther. Pharaoh’s daughter and Mordechai took on the responsibilities of parents even though Moses and Esther were not born to them.
Tractate Sanhedrin 19b of the Babylonian Talmud states: “Now as to R. Joshua b. Korha, surely it is written, And the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul whom she bore to Adriel. — R. Joshua [b. Korha] answers thee: Was it then Michal who bore them? Surely it was rather Merab who bore them! But Merab bore and Michal brought them up; therefore they were called by her name. This teaches thee that whoever brings up an orphan in his home, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had begotten him.
”Exodus Rabbah 46:5 states: “he who brings up a child is to be called its father, not he who gave birth.”
These sources show that one can be a parent through adoption, and an adopted child is seen the same as a biological child; they explain how Judaism views adoption.
I looked to Biblical sources to figure out what is Jewish about adoption. The quote, “Be fertile and increase,” (more commonly cited as “Be fruitful and multiply”) can be seen in various places in the Bible, including Genesis 1:28, 9:1, and 9:7. Those who cannot have children through natural means can fulfill this mitzvah by having children through adoption. The Bible also warns us not to mistreat widows or orphans (Exodus 22:21-22). This implies that we should take care of widows and orphans, and adoption is one method of caring for orphans.
By doing this research for the B’nai Mitzvah project, I gained a better understanding of the Jewish values associated with adoption, and I confirmed that adoption is allowed and supported in Judaism. The knowledge I gained through my research validates my work at HelpUsAdopt.org as a form of Jewish Social Justice (and helps me see the Jewish elements of my personal experience – please see my previous blogpost at: http://blog.jtsa.edu/changemakers/2013/09/18/adoption-for-all/).
For more information, here is a link to HelpUsAdopt.org’s website: http://helpusadopt.org/. This is the basic kind of information I found about Judaism and adoption during my initial research (before I found the sources quoted above): http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/adoption.html
Over the last 12 weeks, I have been exploring the relationship between politics and social justice at the Advance Group, a political consulting firm in the city. I came into this internship hoping to gain some insight into how individuals and organizations committed to social good use the political process to create systematic change. However, now that I have survived the craziness of election season, I’m left with more questions than answers.
Throughout this entire experience, there were three components of the electoral process that were brought up over and over: donations, endorsements, and votes. These three make up the holy trinity of a successful political election. As a political consulting firm, it’s our job to make sure all of our clients get as many donations, endorsements, and votes as possible. Seems pretty simple, right? Actually, working on these campaigns was pretty simple. Campaigning consists of a lot of phone calls, emails, letters, flyers, posters, and canvassing.
Okay, I admit this is a grossly oversimplified explanation of what my firm does. Trust me, a lot of thought, planning, and effort is put into each campaign that we work on. And as intern with no particular expertise in New York City politics, I’m 100% positive that even more was done that I’m not aware of. So why am I saying that political campaigns are simple?
I think it’s because looking back on these twelve weeks, I’ve been dissatisfied with the disconnect that exists between elections and social change in mainstream culture. I came to this realization when passing out political literature and making phone calls on the two election days (primary election and general election). Many of the canvassers that I worked with didn’t even know anything about the candidate they were advocating for. Additionally, most of them said they didn’t vote because it didn’t matter; politics wasn’t going to make a difference in their lives. Although I felt like many voters had a strong opinion about the mayoral candidates they were voting for, most didn’t know anything about the city council candidates. When it came to these smaller, more local candidates, they were just voting for the name they recognized the most and/or the candidate affiliated with their political party.
This gets to the heart of the issue I’m struggling with. Donations, endorsements, and votes are key to winning a political race. But there’s so much more to politics. The political process is meant to be a means to ensuring liberty and justice for all. Although getting the votes in order to make change is obviously extremely important, it becomes somewhat meaningless when the votes become based on name recognition instead of values and pursuing social justice.
This is not to say that I think politics is void of social justice. That is not the case at all. Many of these candidates’ campaigns were deeply rooted in social justice values and once elected, politicians help create progress and social change. In fact, many of these candidates started working towards change even during the election! I learned that many of my firm’s campaigns hired canvassers from the community in order to provide income to those struggling financially.
However, this does not change the fact that there seems to be a loss of political passion among “the people” when it comes to elections. With events like the government shutdown and the Zimmerman trial, many people are becoming disillusioned with politics. And with tragedies like the typhoon in the Philippines and the shootings across the U.S., many people are also becoming overwhelmed by the amount of social justice work that needs to be done. So how do we bring the passion back to these two important systems? How do we empower individuals to feel like they have access to these systems? In other words, how do we return to feeling like a government of the people by the people for the people? Like I said, I have more questions than answers. But what I do know is that political candidates and advocates for social change should work together to make political elections and social justice feel more accessible and engaging.
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.
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!
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/.