Tag Archives: internships

Father

Fatherhood: Presents, Presence, and Poverty

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. 

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What’s Jewish about Adoption?

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

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Creating Shared Value

When most people think of “social justice,” they think of grassroots non-profit organizations with big dreams and small budgets. These people want to change the world from the ground up and are fighting against “the man” to do it. Social justice is reserved for the altruistic who believe that their lives should be devoted to helping those less fortunate than themselves, expecting little or nothing in return.

My social sustice experience is extraordinarily different from anything described above, and is rarely associated with social justice or social entrepreneurship at all. And, although it is recently making headlines most people don’t even know that it exists, and even fewer know that it serves as the engine behind many organizations in today’s social sector.

I’m talking about “corporate social responsibility,” or “CSR,” for short. CSR involves large for-profit companies “giving back” by giving money in the form of grants, in-kind donation, or giving time through employee volunteer programs. Many of this country’s largest companies give away millions of dollars a year and thousands of hours of volunteer time to help non-profit organizations all over the globe solve pressing social issues. And notably, many of these large companies approach the social sector with a keen business eye, which helps organizations run more efficiently and successfully.

Through the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, I work as an intern at Alcoa Foundation. You might not have heard of Alcoa, but it’s actually one of 125 largest companies the United States, and you’ve certainly come in contact with it. Alcoa mines most of the aluminum that we use every day. If you’ve ever been in a building made with aluminum, driven a car that has aluminum, flown in an airplane, or even had a drink from a can of soda, you’ve certainly come in contact Alcoa’s product. Alcoa Foundation is also one of the biggest corporate foundations in the world, with an endowment of over $530 million. In 2012, Alcoa Foundation donated over $25 million to NGOs around the globe. Alcoa’s 61,000 worldwide employees donated 800,000 hours of their own time volunteering in their communities.

The numbers are certainly impressive, and every day during my internship I come in contact with people and organizations that have been affected by the work of Alcoa Foundation. I have come to take great pride in the work that Alcoa does to promote volunteerism and community service, and see the company as a truly responsible citizen in the for profit space.

Of course, we have to ask why. Why do companies that exist for the purpose of making money and delivering to shareholders, just give it away? Over the course of my internship, this has been the question that plagues me every day. On the one hand – and this is where things get tricky – corporations participate in philanthropic and social efforts in order to maintain what we call a “social license to operate.” Customers will associate positively with brands that are publicly giving back to their communities. And these companies aren’t shy about their own giving back. At Alcoa, for example, the Foundation features prominently on the front page of the website, even though their CSR work is such a tiny portion of what the company does. Still, Alcoa wants anyone who comes to the website to instantly see that they “give back.” Consumer-facing companies (that is, companies who sell to the general public, unlike Alcoa which only sells to other companies), create television commercials and print ads that display their philanthropic efforts.

Every year, corporate foundations get their name into the social sphere by attending benefit dinners (and paying handsomely for them), complete with their logo in the ad book. Corporations understand that they have a poor reputation – especially after the recent recession – and they use philanthropy to bolster this reputation. This depiction of CSR is cynical, and grim. Sometimes, it makes me question what I do.

But there’s an upside, and this has been my greatest takeaway from my work at Alcoa Foundation. Even if there is a PR side to CSR (and there certainly is), at the end of the day, corporations give billions and billions of dollars to charity every single year. There are a number organizations I can think of (but cannot disclose) that would simply be unable to do the work they do without the help of Alcoa Foundation. Non-profit work on any level simply cannot exist without the support of donors, corporate or personal.

This is why I am extremely proud of the work that I do at Alcoa Foundation. My social justice work involves wearing a suit and tie and working on Park Avenue. My social justice works for “the man,” not against him. And although people question the altruism of the work I do, I undoubtably engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world, one organization, one project, one employee, one dollar at a time.

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Bring Passion Back

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.

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Who’s Got Rights?

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. 

Morgan at the NYBG

Radical Amazement and Environmental Stewardship

“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.

Danielle being surprised by her fiancee while at the Israeli Consulate for ReThink Israel

Who is Jewish Social Justice For?

As part of the JTS Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, we have been engaged in a number of social justice-related discussions this year.   Two particular areas of ongoing discussion that relate directly to the work we’re doing in our internships revolve around: what’s Jewish about social justice and who Jewish social justice is for. Since our 2013-2014 cohort convened in August, we have spent a lot of time teasing out what, specifically, is Jewish about social justice.  We ask questions ranging from what elements of Jewish tradition call for social action to why we consider social justice a Jewish value.  Secondly, we look at the question of who should be the beneficiary of Jewish social justice.  If our goal is to ease global suffering, but we feel the need to do so in a uniquely Jewish context, should Jews primarily benefit from social change efforts or should we cater to a more universal market?  I find this second question exceptionally fascinating, and would like to explore this inquiry further.

It is interesting to note that out of ten fellows in this year’s Fellowship, only two are working for specifically Jewish social justice organizations.  I am one of these two students, working for a new social media-based Israel education campaign called “ReThink Israel” – shameless plug alert!: check us out at www.rethinkisrael.org.  I chose to work at ReThink Israel as part of this Fellowship because Israel allows the Jewish people the freedom to self-determination.  As a Jew, I find this issue to be of central importance for two reasons.  Firstly, self-determination provides Jews with a stronger defense system against persecution, and allows Jews a level of sovereignty they have not experienced for thousands of years.  Secondly, self-determination also allows for many Jews to connect with their Judaism on a deeper level.  This latter idea particularly resonates with me, as this contributes to a person’s development of a deep-rooted Jewish identity.  Whether physically, politically, religiously or culturally, self-determination is a crucial element of social justice that cannot be overlooked -  and why working for Israel is so important. Through Rethink Israel, I hope to educate and energize young American Jews around Israel and Israeli social justice through targeted, social media-based pitches. By using new technology to widen Israel’s support, ReThink Israel is committed to assuring Israel’s self-determination in the future.

The personal Jewish motivations behind my internship choice are obvious, as well as my belief that the safety of Israel should be a top priority for the Jewish people.  Therefore, sometimes I struggle with the focus of some Jewish organizations on efforts that – while noble and necessary – are not uniquely Jewish.  Each week I hear of the amazing work that everyone in our Fellowship cohort is doing at their various internships, as well as the overall importance of their respective organizations.  Yet, I wonder if these are efforts we as Jews should pursue, especially over Jewish causes – many of which are also devoted to social justice.  After all, while many Americans donate to the Red Cross or the World Wildlife Fund, Jews are the primary supporters of Jewish social justice efforts.  Without Jewish support, Jewish social justice initiatives that many Jews around the world benefit from will cease to exist.

Over the course of the Fellowship, we have discussed this big question at length and in great detail.  First we looked at the Talmud’s opinion regarding the matter, and concluded that while the Talmud clearly states a need to prioritize helping Jews over non-Jews, other Talmudic passages assert the exact opposite notion.  Additionally, different contemporary rabbis have used these sources to support his or her particular opinion, thereby leaving us in the same state of doubt.  We are left, then, with the same questions.  How should a Jew decide which organizations to support?  Where to proceed from here?

The need to ask these questions is one of the greatest take-aways from my participation in JTS’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship.  While we each intern for organizations that serve different populations and tackle different social problems, we are all striving to define our work from a uniquely Jewish perspective.  No matter what our experience, we infuse it with Jewish meaning that will enhance our lives – and the lives of those we serve – in multiple ways.  Perhaps then, maintaining this balance may be enough, no matter what type of social justice we try to pursue.

What are your views on how Jews should enact tikkun olam? For some differing opinions on the particularism versus universalism debate, check out these articles:

Danielle was recently proposed to while on the job at ReThink Israel! Her fiancee surprised her at the Israeli Consulate, which wrote a story about the event here

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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.

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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