Rosa Gaia Saunders is from Edmonton, Alberta and attended McGill University. As a Chicago Corps member, she works as a Program Assistant at Free Spirit Media which provides education, access, and opportunity in media production to over 500 underserved urban youth every year.
AVODAH thus far has been a series of paradoxes. The journey so far has been a solitary, internal one, yet I am constantly connected to different communities, constantly in contact with people, and constantly defining myself by my relations with others. It has strengthened my resolve is social justice, while calling into question for me whether there is, in practice or theory, such a thing. It has encouraged me to live with active compassion while bringing into focus the impossibility of knowing another persons affective state or historical circumstance. It has enriched my sense of Jewish identity while destabilizing notions of both Judaism and identity. It has ripped the rug from under me and grounded me as well, offered me a place to stand on issues even as I wobble clumsily between the contradictory values I try to embody. It has given me footing in this new life yet placed me in a state of perpetual groundlessness. I feel enriched yet hollow, energized and exhausted, driven and hopeless, deeply saddened and ecstatically joyful.
I would like to speak about the three main elements of AVODAH: Judaism, the home community and social justice work. These were the ideas that drew me to this program, and now they are terms that mean something totally different after just over a month in this program. Before I went to University, I understood being Jewish as something that you simply were or you were not. Since my mom’s mom was Jewish, so was I, even though our winter holidays consisted of with sitting in church with my dad on Christmas morning in Catholic Church and meditating on Children’s day with my mom and all of her Buddhist friends in the local Shambhala centre. But still, I knew I was Jewish by default because of my lineage, and once I was out of Edmonton I could reinvent myself by waking up this dormant creature of my hidden identity. Going to McGill, where people were pretty much assumed to be Jewish unless they mentioned otherwise, I realized that there were many levels of Judaism. People could be super-Jewish (the ones I would turn lights on for on Saturday) pretty Jewish (the ones that bring matzah to the school cafeteria during Passover to eat in place of bread with their non-pork entree), sort of Jewish (the ones that get drunk on Purim before a late night poutine) and experimentally Jewish (me). I was constantly worried that I wasn’t Jewish enough, or worse, that someone would find out that I wasn’t Jewish enough and I would be cast out of the community. Eventually I stopped eating my cheeseburgers in shameful secrecy, but I still saw Jewishness as a matter of degrees of strength. So when AVODAH came along, it was an opportunity to become way more Jewish to see if I was actually that into this whole Jewish thing. It would be like learning a language; it would be like Jewish immersion.
Now, I realize that Judaism is not about levels, but complex interpersonal and spiritual constellations. As I have learned in this first small period, people here have such unique and intimate relationships with their Judaic identities and spiritual beliefs. It’s not that the Jews I knew before didn’t as well, but I didn’t always know I was in community that fostered talking about it, exploring it, developing it. I probably was, but was too scared of not being Jewish enough to join the dialogue. I have had some exhilarating moments talking about what god means to me and hearing what god means to other people and, perhaps in the exercise of sharing, maybe getting a little closer to whatever/whomever it/she/he/they is/are. I don’t think these are conversations I can only have with Jews or people in this program by any means. This is just one community that makes space for it.
The community within these walls and the walls of the Clarke house makes space for a lot of things: spiritual conversations, differing lifestyle philosophies, discourse, discord, drawing, dancing. That being said, space is limited. Sleeping on a twin bed beside another adult in a twin bed can seem a little bit ridiculous. Having so many people sharing common spaces in a challenge as well. Having to balance people’s desires to study for the LSAT and watch stuff on YouTube and talk about philosophy and have spontaneous dance parties can lead to a communal space that looks and feels a bit like our huge communal drawings we make around the coffee table- experimental, colorful, discordant, beautiful, insane. And as we share the space, I find myself having to make space in my mind for new ways of thinking. People have questioned ways I live that I have believed to be part of the way I am. In a house meeting someone brought up the idea of ‘adapting to social energies’ of common spaces you enter. I took it personally, seeing as I enter a room with volume and vigor and assume that my overbearing enthusiasm for whatever little joy I choose to celebrate will spread to all other beings in my immediate vicinity. But I realized that seeing where people are coming from is a part of compassionate living. I always believed that respect was the answer to everything, but when one of my housemates questioned whether the term actually meant anything at all, I got to think more about what respect was beyond a social panacea or a convenient buzzword. I’m not sure yet, but I think it has something to do with active compassion.
Active compassion is something that I challenge myself to live by in the work I do at Free Spirit Media. The people that I work with are pretty amazing inspirations for this, particularly my supervisor Samantha, who seems to put compassion into practice with every word she speaks to our students and every decision she makes as an educator. When a student is being defiant, mean, unfocused, or disrespectful, she tries to understand what is at the root of it, makes a connection with them, and works with them. Disciplinary action is a last and sometimes necessary resort to conducting a classroom after connecting with the students on a human level. Samantha teaches not only about XLR cables and room tone and media literacy but power and privilege and beauty and truth. The beautiful thing about teaching media skills to youth in underserved communities is that all of these things can connect in a really active way. We can look at the way that North Lawndale is portrayed in the news as a violent scourge and, without ignoring the deep-rooted social challenges and human tragedies, help our students share the simultaneous beauty and pain of where they live. We can look at representations of African American youth in the media and then help our students represent themselves. We can give students opportunities tell their own stories and maybe resist some of the oppressive narratives they are placed into.
This was the idea of our last audio project: write a poem about your neighborhood, your home, your block, your city, record it, set it to music, and mess with it a little on the editing software. In class the other day we played the audio pieces that our classes had put together. When a girl shared some dark personal histories, Samantha responded: ‘thank you for sharing that. I’ve been through some similar stuff to what you have and it’s likely some other people here have as well. Art is a place where we don’t have to be alone.’ I have always appreciated this potential of artistic production: the prerogative to share experiences, stories, and create something in a community. But the way that Samantha put it really brought things into focus for me. Art is not just activity; it is a different world, or at least a different way of understanding the world as an interconnected web of meaning and experience. This is where I see the connection between art and social justice. Sometimes it feels like we are fighting, living, starving, indulging, thirsting, walking, talking, struggling amongst each other, against each other, apart from each other, isolated and indifferent and inconsequential. But in art and social justice, lies the inkling that we don’t have to be alone.
Art and social justice are two terms that have seemed empty to me, and, because of their flexibility of meanings, I know in some way are. Art, as I am often reminded, can be anything, so long as it is imbued with beauty or meaning, two equally subjective and potentially empty terms. And even my own fundamental ideas of social justice are constantly brought into question by different worldviews. I cannot begin to imagine what a just world would even look like, never mind how it could be enacted or brought to fruition. Growing up with a sister with a physical disability has made me see the world as a series of oppressions: my ability to stroll casually down the block is my immense privilege and one that she, by no fault of her own, does not have. To casually tuck the hair behind my ear is inequality, a neutral, harmless act with a base of injustice. A staircase discriminates in its silent lifelessness; a door with no one to hold it is a prison gate from whatever social or political space is beyond it. So it is difficult to strive for social justice when every action of my body seems to scream towards its very impossibility. Thinking about disability from both an academic and personal perspective, however, has given me both perspective on social issues and motivation towards social change. I know that most problems require more than charity, we need to make sustainable change that attacks the base of the problem. When I think about structural problems in our society—oppressive gender ideals, institutional racism— it is not my instinct to dismantle each societal structure that contributes or is fed by these problems. In an interconnected world of often-invisible power forces, this includes, well, almost everything. But I wonder if there is some way to build literal or figurative ramps, open entranceways, elevators, support bars. And in the meantime, maybe create a society where we can hold doors open for each other, allowing more people to gain access into otherwise closed off realms.
Nonetheless, I can still tie my shoe and my sister cannot; I can still eat a full meal and that person that asked me for change on the way home cannot; I can still I can still walk into a expensive store without being examined like a criminal (as I realized after reading some of my student’s reflections) a person in my class cannot. So I don’t know where to start and I don’t know where to end. To begin: dismantle my own privilege? It is not only where I stand, but, in the case of disability, my very ability to do so. Live altruistically? But how can I even speak for anyone’s sense of justice than my own? And I have no idea what a just world would look like, when all I see is the awful beauty of our messed up, tangled world, a world that I love, love, love but simply don’t know how to share.
For now, I think that social justice is not so much an ideal endpoint but rather a way of conceptualizing living as a non-solitary act. Like, respect, another empty word that is overflowing with meaning, it is a processual enactment of active compassion. And here, in my bayit, I am blessed to be amongst friends and god and knowledge and art and the vague idea that social justice, whatever it means, matters. Because here, even as I venture on an inward journey of coming to understand what is the value of all these so-called values, I know I am in a place where I don’t have to be alone.