In another installment in our ongoing series of profiles about our participants, we’re pleased to introduce you to Rebecca Mather, one of our New Orleans corps members:
How did you get to AVODAH?
I’ve always had a passion for social justice, although I didn’t really start developing a complex understanding of social change movements until college. Growing up, I had a well-meaning but misdirected interest in changing things that felt unfair, and I think a lot of this stemmed from my involvement with the Jewish community. I was involved with my synagogue’s youth group and religious school, and both placed a huge emphasis on critical thinking and social action. Judaism was definitely my first outlet for creating positive change and that has really stuck with me.
My commitment to and understanding of social justice and Judaism were solidified in college. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, surrounded by a large Jewish community. Going to a tiny liberal arts school in Iowa placed me into a very different environment. It was the first time in my life that a Jewish community wasn’t instantly accessible, but it led me to seek out involvement with the campus Hillel right away. Our “small but mighty” Hillel taught me that there’s something beautiful about actively working to create a Jewish community.
While my involvement with Hillel was instant, my involvement with the social justice community was a bit more gradual. I credit most of my understanding of social justice to the Sociology and Gender Studies department at Cornell, which is where I developed the language to effectively talk about social change. Although my initial interest in social activism stemmed from Judaism, I sometimes felt like my involvement in the campus Jewish and activist communities were parallel versus cyclical and I wanted to find an outlet to combine the two core parts of my identity.
I ended up spending a summer in Chicago with the Lewis Internship program through the Jewish United Fund where I was placed at Ezra Multi-Service Center, a local Jewish antipoverty agency. My supervisor was an AVODAH alum and when I mentioned that I found meaning in combining Judaism, social justice, and community work, she suggested I look into AVODAH. I instantly loved the idea of devoting a year to growing as a Jew and social change agent with like-minded peers.
Tell us about the work at your placement
I work at the NO/AIDS Taskforce (d.b.a. CrescentCare) as the Life Skills Program Coordinator. NO/AIDS is a non-profit committed to providing holistic care for the HIV infected/affected community – we’ve recently expanded to become CrescentCare, a federally qualified health center dedicated to providing health and wellness services to the public at large, with a focus on primary care for underserved communities. NO/AIDS remains a division of CrescentCare with its own brand and focus.
My main responsibility at NO/AIDS is coordinating a community group called Life Skills, which focuses on lifelong learning. The group meets weekly and is a consensus-based voluntary community – members are not obligated to attend every week, unlike many other groups of the same nature. Life Skills members come from very diverse backgrounds – many suffer from chronic poverty, most live with chronic illnesses or disabilities, and some but not all are HIV+.
Every month, the group decides to focus on a theme, I take the group’s ideas, reach out to outside speakers or develop programming myself, and help turn those ideas into a weekly class. In addition to our weekly meetings, I follow up with Life Skills members one-on-one to make sure their needs are being met by the group. The consensus-based aspect of the group is essential – it helps foster a community of mutual respect where every voice is valued equally, which is important for members of traditionally marginalized communities. The group has become a second family for many of our members, and it provides a safe space for open dialogue and learning.
In addition to coordinating Life Skills, NO/AIDS has provided me with really incredible opportunities to explore my passions for holistic sexual health education. I’m a Certified Enrollment Counselor, which means I am able to assist community members in signing up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. I have attended numerous trainings around HIV prevention and outreach, gender and sexuality, and anti-racist work – I’m also in the process of becoming a certified HIV tester/counselor. The most exciting parts about these additional opportunities is my ability to bring so much of the information back to the community members of Life Skills.
How have you perspectives shifted since you started in AVODAH?Shifting from an academic to practical focus on social justice has caused me to reframe how I look at a lot of things. One idea that’s always been important to me when looking at social justice is intersectionality, and my experiences with AVODAH have caused me to reevaluate how I think about that concept. On the one hand, I still believe that an intersectional approach is the only way to effectively make change – an HIV-positive white gay man is going to have a different experience than a disabled black bisexual woman, who is going to have a different experience than a Latina Transwoman, and ignoring that reality is going to lead to ineffective community work.
At the same time, living with nine other people all focusing on different manifestations of social inequality has taught me that there’s a real possibility of burnout if you try to spread yourself too thin. Social inequalities interact and intersect, but if I attempted to address every social ill at once I wouldn’t be able to effectively address any social ill. I don’t think that means that activists shouldn’t seek holistic and inclusive understandings of injustice – it just means that it’s important to find a way to focus on one thing at a time while keeping intersectionality in mind. That’s something I struggle with, but it’s also something AVODAH has caused me to be better at doing.
What have you learned about the city of New Orleans?
I’ve learned to stop feeling frustrated when public transportation (regularly) runs late and to instead take the opportunity to strike up a conversation with the person waiting next to me. I’ve learned to stop being a snooty Chicagoan (not my words!) and say hello to the person I pass on the sidewalk instead of obsessively finding a way to avoid eye contact. I’ve learned to take out my earphones when I’m walking because there’s probably some live music I can listen to while I stroll. I’ve learned that I should never, ever say that I’m a Bears fan out loud, that beignets at 3AM are never a bad idea, and that everything tastes better with Crystal hot sauce.
I’ve learned that screaming my head off for a coconut is a completely legitimate lifestyle choice and that navigating construction is truly an art (that I haven’t quite mastered). I’ve also learned about the importance of the spirit of a place. I’ve learned that there’s a beauty in a geographical home. I’ve learned that every person I meet has a story, and that it’s worthwhile to stop and hear it. I’ve learned that the tight-knit activist community that’s bound to develop in such a small city has just as much capacity for effectiveness and love as any you might find in a larger place.