Responding with urgency – and staying the course

Dear Friends,

Over the past couple months, I’ve heard from many of Avodah Corps Members, Justice Fellows, alumni and partners across the country who work directly with immigrants and refugees. Between the President’s racist and fear-mongering statements, to the Executive Order attempting to bar refugees and Muslim immigrants, to recent sweeps by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and just-announced aggressive deportation rules, clients with whom Avodah leaders work are deeply concerned about their safety and their future.

We take these recent events very seriously and have stepped up our efforts to protect and stand in solidarity with these vulnerable communities. We will not stand by while the most vulnerable people in our country are threatened. We will not tolerate the trampling of the Jewish and civic values we cherish.

That’s why, in the last two weeks alone: Avodah co-sponsored and mobilized our community to take part in HIAS’s National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees; Avodah co-sponsored and marched as part of T’ruah’s Rabbinic & Jewish Community Action for Immigrants & Refugees; we joined an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief to challenge the legality of the President’s Executive Order barring refugees and immigrants from majority Muslim countries; and Avodah’s Rabbi-in-Residence Danya Ruttenberg wrote about the powerful intersection of Judaism and justice in the Washington Post.

But short-term organizing and advocacy are simply not enough.

With almost two decades working to advance social justice, we know that real change does not happen overnight. It requires long-term partnership and a tireless commitment to cultivating a new generation of leaders. It demands sustained service.

Service and leadership development are the bedrock of Avodah’s work. Our Jewish Service Corps Members, Justice Fellows and alumni are on the frontlines year-round at leading organizations including HIAS, the National Immigrant Justice Center, Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, Sanctuary for Families, New York Legal Assistance Group, and others. With Avodah’s support, they provide their clients with critical services including legal advice, help accessing public benefits and more.

Avodah is a vibrant and growing community of Jews committed to joining together to advocate for a more just country for all its residents. Each year, we provide thousands of Jews with the experience and knowledge they need to affect change over the long term.

It seems likely that this administration will continue to enact unjust policies that all of us must oppose. We will not hesitate to do so. But regardless of those immediate challenges, Avodah will remain committed to the long-term investment in our participants, our partners and their clients.

We count on you to make this work possible. Please join the Avodah community by making a gift today.

 

Thank you,

Cheryl Cook
Executive Director

Avodah joins friend of the court brief to challenge the legality of the President’s Executive Order

Jewish tradition requires that Jews speak out against injustice. Jewish history teaches the critical importance of standing up for those targeted by hatred and intolerance. That is why Avodah was proud to sign on to an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief challenging the legality of the President’s Executive Order barring refugees and immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries. Avodah was joined by several longtime partners including American Jewish World Service, HIAS, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, National Council of Jewish Women, T’ruah, and the Union for Reform Judaism.

You can read the Brief by clicking this link:

Interfaith Amicus Brief As Filed 2-16-17

Dangerous Unselfishness: The Blessings We Need Urgently Today

This is an edited version of remarks that Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg gave on the Shabbat of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.

This parsha–the Torah portion that we read today, the last portion of the book of Genesis–marks the closing of an era.  In it, Jacob dies, and we close the book that showed us how the creation of the world is like the creation of a family.  And we transition to the next great movement in this symphony: The creation of a nation.

Much of the parsha is occupied with a central concern of Jacob’s: the giving of blessings, which have defined his life–from the one that he stole to the one he demanded of an angel.  It seems only fitting that he would close out his life with blessings, finally able to become the kind of person who gives them, rather than taking them no matter what the cost.

He blesses each of his sons, and two of his grandchildren.  He not only names their gifts and their challenges, but alludes to the ways in which they will inform and shape each of their descendants—no longer mere family members, but as entire tribes.  He blesses some with success in battle, some with good work, some with charm, or tenacity, or bravery, or the ability to judge.  He pours unto each exactly what he hopes they will receive from him.

Of course, it’s hard to talk about this without asking the obvious question—what does it mean to give someone a blessing, anyway?

To take a quick step back—I think of prayer as a communication between me and God; it’s an offering up, and sometimes a sort of a receiving.  Blessing, on the other hand, is something that we can give over to other people—something we bestow on one another, rather than to the divine.  It has that same sense of lifting up from our deepest selves, that feeling of bringing something out from our hearts, but instead of releasing it to the transcendent beyond, we give it to someone else.

It’s about allowing love and holiness to come from or through us, and letting it spill out onto other people.  It’s about allowing our own divine image to reach out and touch the divinity in others.

When I was thinking about what I wanted to say today, first I read the parsha, and I had all of these thoughts sort of bubbling through me.  And then, as Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Monday, I re-read another beloved text, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop,” given the day before he was assassinated in 1968.  It is powerful.  It is prophetic.  It is a speech by a man who knew that his own death was near.  God, he says, “allowed me to go up to the mountain.” Like Moses.  “And I’ve looked over,” he says, “and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.”  Like the Book of Deuteronomy itself, he reviews what’s happened in the work of civil rights, and what’s needed for the road ahead.  Like Jacob, he knows his time is almost up and he’s trying to bless them with deeper understanding of the gifts and challenges in play for the next chapter.

I’ve read and listened to this speech many times, but it touched me differently this week.

There was one line in particular that stuck out to me, one I’d never really noticed before.

The line was this:

“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

It’s in the context of King trying to fortify to those listening for the work yet to come, to remind them that seeing the movement through may demand something real and substantial of them.

“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

What does that mean?  “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

It’s a kind of giving over of the self, isn’t it?  An offering up.  Unselfish because it is about giving over to others, for the benefit of others.  Dangerous because, really, it’s not safe.

It’s easy to be unselfish when it’s safe.  When it only takes a moment to sign an online petition or to grab a couple of cans of food that’re already in our pantry to drop them somewhere we’re going anyway.  Those are both good things to do, but they’re certainly safe.  It’s easy to be unselfish when it doesn’t ask much of us.  When it’s not demanding.

Danger implies some risk.  It’s not actually certain if you’ll be OK in the end. But you give over of yourself anyway.

And the more I think of it, this is not unlike blessing.  A giving over of the self, for the benefit of others. Offering something crucial of ourselves, because someone else needs us to at that moment.  Reaching out from the part of us created in God’s image to touch the divine image in someone else.

Acts of service and justice are blessings.  We draw from our light and love.  We bestow. When we put our bodies on the line for a cause we believe in.  When we share our resources.  When we put ourselves at risk interpersonally or professionally to stand up for what’s right.  When we offer what we have for the world’s desperate needs.

These are the ideas that undergird the work that Avodah does. We train Jews, mostly those who are early or very early in their careers, to become lifelong leaders for social and economic justice.  We help them to understand the complexities of the systems that contribute to poverty—that people aren’t just poor because they don’t work hard enough, but because predatory loan structures can entrap people for life; because schools in low socioeconomic areas are more likely to be underfunded; because a person working full-time at the federal minimum wage will make only $15,000 a year.  We support them in their professional growth and give them the tools to prevent burnout. And perhaps most importantly, we give them a Jewish community and the ability to understand this work through the lens of our tradition.

Needless to say, the work at Avodah feels more urgent now than ever.  We may very well find ourselves tested with regards to our religious mandates to protect the vulnerable in our communities, to care for the stranger, to pursue justice and to uphold human dignity.  We may find ourselves wondering if we should pick our battles.  We may feel pressure to keep silent.  We may be concerned about what might happen if we stick our neck out.   But this is the time to stop focusing only on our family or even our own tribes, if you will, to seeing ourselves as part of a larger nation, a larger story.

Dr. King, in his Mountaintop speech, told the story of a man beset by thieves on a dangerous road.  One man saw what was happening, but they passed by, they didn’t stop.  The other one stopped, intervened, got the man safe, administered first aid. He chose not to be, as King put it, “compassionate by proxy“.   The question is not—to paraphrase King here—“If I stop to help this man, if I speak up, if I protest, if I take this risk, what will happen to me?”

But, rather, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Jacob reminds us that we can all learn to stop thinking about what we need, how to take, what ways other people ought to be blessing us, and move into a space of giving over what we have.  Rather than even just giving blessings, we have the ability to make of our lives blessings.  To let the holiness flow from our every word, our every action, our every doing.

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

Shabbat Shalom.

Restructure the Edifice: Ways to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy

This year, we had the disjointed task of celebrating Dr. King’s birthday on the precipice of a government set to go backward on many of the very issues important to him. Some folks think of Dr. King’s call as an opportunity to volunteer, participate in days of service (known in the Jewish world as “mitzvah days”) and engage in other social action-related events, tying direct service to Dr. King’s call “to serve.”

This work is exceedingly worthwhile; service is an important way to address the immediate ills of society while working for the systemic change needed to eliminate these ills.  And yet, I struggle with this misinterpretation of Dr. King’s legacy each and every year. These kinds of direct service are not the main kind of service at the center of Dr. King’s life work. Dr King stood for love and serving others, yes, but his understanding of the Bible’s call to love your neighbor was through radical racial and economic justice. As he wrote, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” His service involved giving his voice, his strategy, and his life to attacking systemic injustices–helping to restructure the edifice itself. His methods included direct nonviolent collective action–including strikes and boycotts–political advocacy, lobbying, building coalitions, convincing and challenging adversaries, and speaking truth to power. He was a key player in a community organized bus boycott that lasted more than a year, went to jail countless times for nonviolent protest, sacrificed his working relationship with President Johnson in order to repeatedly challenge him on the Vietnam War, and was in Memphis supporting striking public workers when he was assassinated.

There are crucially important ways that you can honor Dr. King’s work and legacy by helping to restructure the edifice, especially at this time when leaders of the next government are talking about cutting the social safety net and rolling back civil rights protections.

Here are some ways that you can honor Dr. King’s legacy:

  • Are there racial justice groups (for example, Black Lives Matter or Showing Up For Racial Justice) or immigration justice groups (United We Dream) in your area doing anything to mark the day? Perhaps they’re holding a rally, teach in, demonstration, press conference, training, advocacy day? Begin the work of building relationships with other people working on these issues in your community.
  • Are there other organizations working on issues at the intersection of racial and economic justice work, such as housing justice and criminal justice reform, that are doing anything to mark the day? Are they holding a rally, teach in, demonstration, press conference, training, advocacy day?
  • Is there a picket line or a direct action that could use donations of time and / or resources?
  • The Voting Rights Act, one of the hallmark national legislative victories Dr. King was a part of winning in his lifetime, was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, which in 2013 struck down one key provision and rendered another key provision unenforceable. This, coupled with horrific gerrymandering and restrictive voter laws, are among many of the things that make it extremely difficult for people of color to have their voices heard fairly in the electoral process. What local groups are working on this issue near you?
  • Enter the district office and legislative office phone numbers for all your elected officials (federal, state, and local) into your phone. Are the nominations to the Cabinet you can call your US Senators about? Are there bills around racial justice you can advocate for? Are there measures cutting the social safety net to which you can register your opposition? Check to see if racial and economic justice groups have highlighted nominees and legislative policies about which you can visit or call your city, state, or federal elected official.

Dr. King once said, “I believe that we can work within the framework of our democracy to make for a better distribution of wealth, and I believe that God has left enough and to spare in this world for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life. I will never be satisfied, and I will never be content, until all men and all women can have the basic necessities of life.”¹

Hopefully, this list gives us a few ideas of how to carry this mission forward to make America more just. Here’s hoping we all can be more worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.

Russ Agdern is Director of Recruitment and Outreach for Avodah and has spent the last 15 years of his life as one of many organizers trying to push America to “be true to what you said on paper.”²

crossposted to Jewschool

¹Speech given to RWDSU Local 65, September 8, 1962 in Monticello, NY

²from the I’ve Been to the Mountaintop Speech, April 3rd, 1968

A Time for Moral Grandeur

I just got home from one of the largest conferences in the institutional Jewish world.  I ran into a lot of prominent friends and colleagues there—executive directors, presidents and vice-presidents, fellow rabbis, heads of boards of Jewish communal organizations and institutions. I arrived on Monday, the day after Trump appointed Stephen Bannon, known for his ties to the white supremacist alt-right movement, to be his chief strategist and senior counselor.

The President-elect’s campaign promises have violated, according to the ACLU, no fewer than five Constitutional amendments.  He appears to be moving forward with his plans to register Muslims and deport up to three million immigrants.  Hate crimes have spiked since the election.

“How is your organization planning to address the consequences of this election?” I would ask my acquaintances as we made small talk in the lobby.

Some leaders of small, nimble nonprofits or left-leaning denominations had quick answers and were already springing into action.  The bigger the organization, though, the more likely it was that my interlocutor would begin to mumble. “Dig a hole and hide in it,” one of them responded.  Another wondered whether they might be able to say anything at all, given the risk of angering right-leaning funders.  Still another noted with concern that Trump’s support of Israel might put their organization in an awkward position.

The Zionist Organization of America has invited Bannon to its awards dinner; the Republican Jewish Coalition has defended Bannon’s character and statements. Other major organizations sent emails stating how delighted they would be to work with Trump.  Many more have been, simply, silent.

One of the most oft-quoted phrases in the Jewish educational lexicon is, “Never again.”  It refers to the Jewish determination that the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the abuses leading up to it, should never take place again, anywhere in history.  Our kids learn about the Holocaust as early as kindergarten, and are taught about the “righteous among the nations,” the non-Jews who risked their lives on behalf of Jews. We also highlight the Jews who were Freedom Riders and note with pride that the great theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. We quote Elie Wiesel, who swore “never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.”

Now, the silence is somewhat deafening.

Even if Trump’s campaign tweets and ads hadn’t had anti-Semitic overtones, even if Bannon himself wasn’t a notorious anti-Semite, we would have a moral obligation to raise our voices.  As it happens, it’s not even in our own self-interest to be short-sighted and fearful.

Of course, some Jews and Jewish organizations have already spoken out against the Bannon appointment, have been co-sponsoring protests, developing interfaith alliances, organizing on behalf of those likely to be vulnerable in the new administration. I’m glad that Avodah is one of them.

But it’s not enough. And what’s more, Trump isn’t just taking advice from Bannon; his other advisors include Islamophobic conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney and Kris Kobach, author of draconian immigration laws. Given our history, the entire Jewish community should be speaking out on these issues. And they’re not.

In 1963, Rabbi Heschel sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy in anticipation of an upcoming meeting. He wrote, in part, “LIKELIHOOD EXISTS THAT NEGRO PROBLEM WILL BE LIKE THE WEATHER. EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT IT BUT NOBODY DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT. PLEASE DEMAND OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT NOT JUST SOLEMN DECLARATION… PROPOSE THAT YOU MR. PRESIDENT DECLARE STATE OF MORAL EMERGENCY….THE HOUR CALLS FOR HIGH MORAL GRANDEUR AND SPIRITUAL AUDACITY.”

Moral grandeur involves real personal risk.  We may know this intellectually, but it’s different when one’s own work is on the line. Taking a stand may cause friction with key stakeholders; it may make some people angry.

It does not seem that Jews would be the first or even the second group formally targeted by a Trump administration—but all the more that we should be using our relative privilege on behalf of those who are.

“Never again” is now. It’s time for the Jewish community—and the rest of the country—to speak clearly against Trump’s plans and appointments, and to actively resist racism and intolerance every step of the way. If we witness a verbal or physical attack, we should put our own bodies on the line to protect those targeted.  If Trump does try to deport immigrants, we should make our homes and synagogues and communities places of refuge.  If he tries to call for Muslims to be registered, we should be first in line to register along with them.  And now, while things are merely scary, we should thicken the bonds of solidarity and sow the seeds for what may be a long fight ahead.

For, as Heschel—himself a refugee whose entire family was killed in the Holocaust, himself a man who knew all too well what was at stake—once noted, “the prophets remind us of the moral state of the people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Danya Ruttenberg is Rabbi-in-Residence at Avodah and author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting.

Statement on the Appointment of Steve Bannon as White House Chief Strategist

Avodah was dismayed to hear that Steve Bannon, CEO of Breitbart News, has been appointed to White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor. Bannon himself has described Breitbart as “the platform of the Alt-Right,” a movement rife with white nationalism, racism, and anti-Semitism.

Cheryl Cook, Executive Director of Avodah, released the following statement:

“As an organization that works with many of the most vulnerable people in our country, we are deeply concerned about Bannon’s appointment as Chief Strategist. There is no room for fear-mongering and bigotry in our leadership. We ask that Republican Congressional leaders to stand up and demand that Bannon’s appointment be rescinded.”

Teshuva: Our Collective Responsibility

Rosh Hashana is, of course, a time of new beginnings for all of us–with all of the introspection and opportunities to change our lives that it brings.And yet, for a lot of us, one of our tradition’s toughest pieces of liturgy shows up during the morning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. The Une Tane Tokef prayer asks, “Who shall live, and who shall die? Who in the fullness of years and who before?” and answers, “but teshuva (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tzedekah (acts of righteousness) can avert the severity of the decree.”Can individual acts of piety save us from poverty, tragedy, or persecution? We know that a lot of very good people suffer every day, and that many people who do horrible things prosper. For many of us, the surface meaning of this prayer feels…counterintuitive.

And yet – maybe that’s not what’s going on.

I wonder if, instead, we might regard the Une Tane Tokef as a collective imperative. The prayer is written more or less in the third person, like much of Jewish liturgy. Not I. We. What if our repentance as a society – which demands that each of us do our part – is the thing that affects our collective fate?

All of our actions are tied inextricably with the actions of our community, with all Jews, with all people. It’s upon each of us, individually, to take responsibility for our role in everyone’s political, economic, environmental, and social well-being; our work together can impact the severity with which evil besets us all.

We need teshuvah – which literally means “returning” – to see where we need to be in relationship to others, to ourselves, and to the transcendent. Tefillah (prayer) and other reflective practices can help us remember that we are on this Earth to serve, not to please ourselves. Tzedekah (acts of righteousness) enable us to enact, in part, this service in the world.

The deeper we get into prayer, returning, and righteousness, the more we begin to understand that our every action is – rather than being isolated and individual – intertwined with the wellbeing of our society as a whole. The more we try to bring our actions in alignment with our greatest ideals, the more we find that every aspect of our lives is inextricably impacted. We can each harness our passions and our resources powerfully; there are a lot of ways to invest in the wellbeing of our local community, our country and the world.

Our work for justice can help inscribe us all into the Book of Life. The work begins with teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedekah. Where it ends, how far it extends, is up to us.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is Avodah’s Rabbi-in-Residence.

#CampAvodah: Our First National Corps Member Orientation

For the first time since our founding in 1998, seventy Corps Members from across our four sites started their year with a five day retreat at Eden Village Camp in Putnam, New York.

WHOLE GROUP

During the gathering, Corps Members participated in extensive learning and community building; studied Avodah’s mission and values; engaged in intensive anti-oppression training; and heard from major leaders in the Jewish social justice space.

Some highlights from the event include:

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Avodah’s Executive Director Cheryl Cook with Ruth Messinger and a crowd of Corps Members.

-Corps Members spent time with veteran leaders Yavilah McCoy and Ruth Messinger and heard about their personal stories, professional successes and challenges, and the current landscape of the Jewish community and the Jewish social justice movement.

-Former staff members Suzanne Feinspan and Raven Stubbs led the Corps Members in a full-day training that covered foundational learning on systems of oppression and the role of allyship, while exploring the dynamics of anti-Jewish oppression.

-An innovative “Shabbat Journey” allowed Corps Members to choose from a wide range of spiritual, religious, and reflective practices with the goal of taking an opportunity to choose options that reflected both points of connection and areas of discomfort.

In keeping with the beautiful camp setting, the retreat wound down with a beautiful Havdalah service led by Corps Members, followed by a campfire filled with song, story, and laughter.

The gathering was the perfect way to launch this year of deep work, service, and learning, and our Corps Members shared that they felt more connected to Avodah and our mission from day one.

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Yavilah McCoy sharing her story with Corps Members.

A few reflections from participants:

 “I always felt on the outside looking in at the Jewish community, but for the first time I felt more on the inside. I am excited for the opportunity to make my own experiences with Judaism. Although I can’t go back, I can go forward and come to these opportunities truly ready to learn and immerse myself in the culture of my ancestors.”

“I feel so blessed to have crossed paths with so many incredible, brilliant, passionate, caring and accepting young people at once. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

“It was amazing to realize the breadth and intense depth and intellectual curiosity of so many of these people, to see what excites us and inspires us to bring a quintessentially Jewish drive to the work of social justice and the fight against poverty in the U.S.”

“In many ways this feels like a home I didn’t even know I was searching for.”

Meet the New Avodah

By Cheryl Cook, Executive Director

I’m delighted to announce the launch of our new website and logo.

The site is the result of a multi-year rebranding process, the result of which enables us to tell the story of this work in a dynamic, clear, and energetic fashion.

Working with Cornershop Creative for the website, and with Betsy Wise of Wise Branding Group and designer Nicole Williams for the logo, the final product is a comprehensive and unified vision of our work to strengthen the Jewish community’s response to the causes and effects of domestic poverty.

At our new site, you’ll find beautiful representations of our story and our programs, and of course, you’ll have the chance to meet our 2016-2017 class of Corps Members.

Our new logo, a unique take on the traditional Star of David imagery, is meant to convey a number of meanings:

  • The image is filled with multiple points of intersection and connection, representing what we seek to create in our programming: understanding the connections between the many overlapping struggles faced by Americans who are working to make ends meet, the linkage between Jewish wisdom and our work for change.
  • While we are inspired by Jewish tradition, and our work is grounded in Jewish learning and community, we seek to build on it our through our work, to help our participants in our programs and the broader Jewish community find new pathways into a Judaism rooted in pursuing justice.
  • We’ve chosen bright colors to represent the vibrancy and inspiration of the Avodah community.

For those who haven’t viewed our website in a while, this new incarnation is far more easy to navigate, and woven throughout with powerful stories of the leaders in our community. We’re so excited to be able to so clearly share who we are on this site, as well as the potential it offers us moving forward.

A great many hands and minds contributed to the creation of this website, including our Communications Task Force chair Alison Hirsh and task force members Benetta Mansfield, Ben Hammer, Ilana Carp, and Rebecca Shaloff who played an important role as a creative sounding board; our staff team and many alumni, who lent their voices and edits, in addition to their faces and stories; and to David Wolkin, our Director of Communications, who managed the project. Additional thanks to Harvey L. & Jan Miller and an Anonymous Family Foundation for supporting this project from the start.

We hope you’ll take some time to peruse and enjoy the new site, and allow me with extend warm wishes for a sweet New Year in advance.

 

Working From Within

By Lisa Tencer

“ALL LIVES MATTER! ALL LIVES MATTER! GET ‘EM OUTTA HERE! GET OUT! GET OUT!”

I glanced around nervously as people screamed at the top of their lungs. I was hand-in-hand with a number of other white people. We formed a ring, a buffer, around a group of young protesters of color. Before I knew it, a large, white, bald man had grabbed my arm, seemingly trying to pull it from its socket. I instinctively yelled, “OW, YOU’RE HURTING ME.” He reluctantly let go, and I watched as he moved on to grab the arm of the white woman next to me. The damage was done. He had broken our protective chain with ease. Next, another man grabbed and attacked the black woman in front of me with much more aggression. My insides turned. I wanted to do something, to do more, but as a five foot woman I felt powerless surrounded by these huge, angry men. I wanted to shield the protesters inside our ring, but I was scared.

rsz_me_at_desk

A whirlwind of screams and shoves created an overwhelming and hostile environment.  Once safely outside, it took all of my energy not to burst out in tears. Shaking, I looked at the people of color, members of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100) and the Vietnamese American Young Leaders of New Orleans (VAYLA-NO), who had come to protest. I was in awe of their bravery and courage to put themselves in such a terrifying situation. During the chaos, I had fallen to the back and blended in with the crowd. In contrast, the small group of people of color stood out, without the option to “blend” in (not that they wanted to). Outside, I thought about my instinct to run away when conflict started, and how the people of color I had walked in with stood firm, not willing to budge. Their voices were going to be heard, no matter the risk.

The protest was easier for me. It was easy to make noise and then slip into the crowd. It was easy for me to avoid conflict and remain quiet. As a white middle class person, it’s easy for me to turn a blind eye to the hardships that many people face across the country. It’s easier to avoid uncomfortable conversations with relatives when they make racist comments. It’s easier to avoid “bad areas” of your city, and to look away when someone asks you for change. It’s easier to roll your eyes at racist comments made by very powerful people at political debates. For people of color, it’s not so easy. These comments, this system, can challenge their lives in real and devastating ways.

As I think about the privilege that I have, and about my experience in Avodah, a particular lesson sticks with me. There is a tremendous need to work on, and to demand change, within our own communities. As Avodahniks working at amazing nonprofit organizations, doing “good” work alongside people of color, our communities have so much more to do.

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Malcolm X wrote that white people would often ask him, “What can a sincere white person do?” His response, which I think is still extremely relevant today, was that, “Where the really sincere white people have got to do their ‘proving’ of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battles lines of where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s where the sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.”

While in Avodah we can feel good about our work s, we must do more. While I can easily surround myself with likeminded people in New Orleans, I must work to bring more people in. We have to resist viewing ourselves as the good, social justice-minded ones as opposed to the ones who will never “get it”. The people who may not “get it” are the ones we need to focus on.

As I stood in the crowd and witnessed the mild aggression directed toward me, in contrast to the unrelenting aggression targeted at protesters of color, it was extremely clear. These angry white people are much more inclined to listen, and take seriously, my thoughts and opinions, and I have an obligation to try to get them to hear me. I have to support people of color by having uncomfortable conversations with people who don’t think like me. The anger and hatred is real, and misguided. And our apathy and disinterest is just as, if not more, dangerous. We must listen, learn, and think about the oppression that others face. We must recognize and acknowledge the privilege that we have, and we must give a damn. In order to repair our world, we have to turn people’s focus toward humanity, love, and understanding.

Lisa Tencer is from Huntington Woods, MI, attended the University of Michigan, and is a Homeownership Intake Coordinator at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.