Tag Archives: kids

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End Trafficking Now

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.

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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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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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FTK – For The Kids

Every day is typically the same routine – wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, attend classes and meetings, eat lunch, go to work, do homework, eat dinner, shower and sleep. I find that we are so caught up in our own lives that we don’t necessarily stop to think of others or appreciate the small things in life until a traumatic event or school fundraiser occurs. This is exactly what I have been struggling with all year as I participate in the Fellowship in Social Justice Entrepreneurship, through which I’ve been interning at Kids in Distressed Situations, Inc. (K.I.D.S.) since September.

K.I.D.S. is a non-profit organization that distributes new brand-name products to children and families suffering from abuse, illness, natural disasters, and poverty. We offer partner agencies a 10:1 ratio of product for every dollar donated. This semester my main responsibility at K.I.D.S. involves grants—learning how to write letters of intent and apply for specific grants. I research foundations and the grants they offer, begin establishing a partnership with the foundation, and start working on the grant application process. The grants we receive support our cause and our programs. Since our founding in 1985, K.I.D.S. has donated almost $1 billion worth of new merchandise to 70 million children and families in need across the United States and abroad. This is an extraordinary accomplishment of which I am proud to be a part; however, our efforts and work just doesn’t seem like it’s enough.

According to a report by NPR, fifteen percent of the U.S. population, meaning 46.2 million individuals, live below the federal poverty line. How can I buy a new dress or a cupcake or see a Broadway show when there are millions of people who could use that money for basic necessities such as clothes, food, shelter, education, and baby products? How can I indulge in certain luxuries after I read thank you notes from children and families who received diapers or a new pair of shoes from K.I.D.S.?

To be honest, there’s no real answer. Living a life full of guilt is no life at all, but living a life full of appreciating what you have and helping those in need is a different story. Through my internship with K.I.D.S., I hear and read about stories of young kids who see families and children suffer in the news or in their local community. These kids have then turned to their parents and ask what they can do to help. Many have organized product drives and fundraisers. Others have asked their family and friends to make a donation to K.I.D.S. in honor of their birthday rather than giving them a present. I have been so inspired by these children and my work at K.I.D.S. that I have learned the question to ask is not, “How can I not feel guilty?” but rather “How can I get people involved in our cause?” Organize a fundraiser, hold a product drive, spread the word, or volunteer. Help us expand our partnerships with foundations and local agencies, and help us expand the communities we reach. Support our cause and make a difference in the lives of millions of individuals. After all, it’s for the kids.

In its 28 years, K.I.D.S. has provided nearly $1 billion  to 70 million children. For more information, visit our website at http://www.kidsdonations.org/. Follow @kidsdonations