Twice this month, a renowned and beloved Palestinian activist and speaker, Ali Abu Awad, is speaking at the universities of two of my dear friends. It has been a pleasure helping facilitate these events from within as an intern with the organization that is arranging Ali’s US speaking tour, Encounter. Encounter is an organization focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with active arms in Israel and the United States. In Israel, Encounter brings groups of North American Jews into Palestine to hear the first-hand narratives of Palestinians and deepen their understanding of the conflict. In America, Encounter supports and bolsters this work by arranging Palestinian speaker series for America Jewish communities, developing an Israel curriculum for young adults emphasizing an inclusion of the Palestinian perspective, and facilitating conversation space for engaged and analytical conversations about Israel throughout the American Jewish community.
The second semester of my junior year, I studied abroad at The Arava Institute for Environmental studies, a program on Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel. There began my interest in pursuing progressive and effective American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the kibbutz, my peers were other internationals, Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. We had a once a week seminar where we would discuss the historical conflict and current conflicting narratives (including many present in the room). This seminar and the program as a whole made me understand the critical importance of attentive listening in conflict mediation. Coming back to America, I knew I wanted to be involved in work with the conflict, and Encounter’s approach of downplaying of the politics and emphasizing the humanity of the conflict appealed to me.
Since beginning my internship, it’s been a whirlwind of learning Encounter’s database, getting up to speed on the rapid-fire emails, planning speaking engagements and travel for Ali, and having many Skype check-ins with my hard working and very caring boss, The Director of Programming, Rebecca Polivy. It’s been a very much “jump in and learn as you go” experience, which has been stimulating and exciting. In the midst of planning a bunch of Ali’s speaking events all over the North East through the organization’s contacts, I realized that I was now part of the organization and had contacts of my own to contribute. It has been empowering to realize and draw upon the connections in my various Jewish communities, and as we wrap up Ali’s speaking tour, I look forward to whatever is coming next.
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.
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.
“My kid calls his mother’s boyfriend ‘dad,’” an impassioned father, let’s call him D., recounts. “He calls him ‘dad’ and he tells him he loves him.”
We were in the midst of a fatherhood workshop at the Midtown Community Court. D’s thoughts were in response to an open prompt that the facilitator had posed to the group of fathers about their experiences with what we refer to as “co-parenting.” For single fathers looking to be involved in their child’s life in real ways, co-parenting presents a host of challenges.
D. continued, “But when I met with the judge, she says to me, ‘Sir, isn’t the more people that loves your son, the better?’ I was like, whoa. She got me. That’s what it’s about.”
From here, another of the dads, R., weighed in:“But that’s your kid. You don’t want him calling someone else ‘daddy’!”
D had the final word as myself, the social workers on staff, and the other five dads participating in the group, looked on: “But it doesn’t matter. During any of the stuff I’ve got going on with his mom, and there’s a lot of stuff, he’s what matters. Having people love him has to be what matters.”
This fatherhood workshop, called 24/7 Dad, is part of a six weeklong Fatherhood & Workforce Training Program run out of the Midtown Community Court and the Center for Court Innovation. Elements of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), concrete skills such as interviewing and resume building, and practice with social skills and emotional management, are incorporated into the program’s daily schedule. As an intern for the program through List College’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, I’ve been able to watch many moments unfold like the one recounted above. In observing the back-and-forth between the dads during sessions, and in sitting down with many of them individually, I’ve been struck by the common threads that bind one story to the next, and one father to the next. Upbringings with absent or abusive fathers, youths interrupted by daily stop-and-frisk police profiling, entire neighborhoods struggling to make ends meet – these elements come up over and over, which is part of why these sessions can be so normalizing and therapeutic for the dads: it is comforting, on some level, to be understood intuitively by others.
But attitudes toward parenting differ considerably among the dads, and not only when it comes to the role of male figures in their children’s lives. The fatherhood workshops unearth a wide array of philosophies on masculinity, what it means to be a good father, role modeling, discipline, and so on. I’ve heard articulations of fatherhood that could have been taken right off the page of any mid-20th century conservative family values guidebook, for all their heteronormative, patriarchal, corporal punishment-supporting ideals. But I’ve also heard robust defenses of egalitarian marriages, rants about parents who spank their children, and hopes for a time when they could express their emotions openly with their partners and children without being made to feel like less of a man. For me, it’s been an important reminder that it is not only those in the ivory tower who worry about a generation of children growing up fatherless, but also the fathers themselves.
The alternative sanctions, rehabilitation, mental health services, and workforce training programs that operate out of the Midtown Community Court, do so out of a recognition that the criminal justice system is flawed. Longstanding systemic barriers contribute to the justice system’s revolving door; many of the same men and women enter and leave the courts, only to re-enter again later on – all without acknowledgment of the many root causes of their behavior and the many hurdles in their way.
In Midtown’s conception of what positive outcomes look like, and in their methodology for reaching them, I hear reverberations of Judaism’s sense of pragmatism and empathy. In the canon of Jewish text, we find more than an enumeration of laws, case verdicts, and principles. We find guidelines for how to mitigate between the world as it is encoded and the world as it is lived, and as Jews, we have communally internalized the fact that reality does not always match the ideal. Systems do not always work. Halakha (Jewish law) self-consciously and continuously accounts for the fact that it is a lived system, lived out by flawed humans, and that provisions must be made for an imperfect reality. Even what is ‘beyond’ the system is made room for within the system. Any philosophy that contains a special Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) for Yom Kippur, a day when in theory no one is eating at all, must necessarily extend the same dose of practicality to all human beings’ complex realities. I feel it is my obligation to recognize these shortcomings, work within my capacity to make society more just, and above all, seek to understand the particular circumstances of each individual from a place of dignity and humanity.
For more information about these programs and other innovative programs being run out of the Midtown Community Court, visit: http://www.courtinnovation.org/project/midtown-community-court.This year the Midtown Community Court celebrates it’s 20th anniversary. To learn more about its inception, watch this video with John Feinblatt, senior advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and founding director of the Midtown Community Court.
I’ve had the conversation thousands of times, with family, with friends, classmates, mentors. But never before had I had the conversation with a group of men whose lives had not been as privileged as mine has, men who have been incarcerated, homeless, and hopeless at one point or another in their lives.
Times Square Ink is a job training and placement assistance program that “helps participants improve decision-making skills and identity how their actions, feelings, and thoughts affect their behavior in everyday life” with the goal of presenting them with comprehensive programming that will provide them the necessary tools to enter the workforce and provide for themselves and their families.
Every six weeks we welcome a new group of men into our program, to help them process their pasts, build social support, and develop the skills needed to re-enter society with strength and healing. During the first session of each cycle, the men are posed with this question: what did you want to be when you were a child? It is such a simple answer for me. My earliest memories have me announcing to anyone who would listen that one day I was going to be the Prime Minister of Israel. Not just any Prime Minister, I was going to be like Golda Meir. Even as a young child, I saw in her the ideal of a strong and admirable woman, a determined woman who was able to create change against all odds. These were traits that at I was unable to articulate at the time, but held a power over me that lasts to this day. Yet as I sat in class with these men, sharing my own childhood dream and listening to theirs, my childhood aspiration seemed naïve and grandiose.
Participant after participant have spoken about their boyhood dreams of becoming the neighborhood pimp or the biggest drug dealer in Bronx. One man said that all his life he wanted to be like his uncle, the neighborhood pimp, while another man spoke of always wanting to be like his father, a car mechanic, until he died from a drug overdose. Each man has his own story, and in relation my goal seemed to be somewhat silly.
Times Square Ink has given me the opportunity to work with a sector of the community that I previously had very few, if any, interactions with. Each session brings out new stories, traumas, jokes, and opportunities to learn between the men and myself, all of which force me to understand the deep-rooted complexities of their current situations. The time I have spent at the Court has given me a larger understanding of the complexities of homelessness, the criminal justice system, and experiences of trauma.
But more importantly, my work at Midtown Community court has given me an opportunity to explore the inequalities that exist within our own communities. My experiences have forced me to question the relationship between power and privilege and how these two factors effect the communities in which we live in. It is only by understanding the roots of these issues that we can question how to break this cycle of injustice. These solutions demand that we are innovative and attempt not the easy path but rather the alternative path, and I am fortunate to have been given an opportunity to learn daily from those working on the ground how this path is forged.