In the weeks before Rosh Hashanah, I participated in several gatherings of people whose lives are devoted to service and social change, and, especially, to engaging more individuals and communities to care about these things. These gatherings included 125 organizations participating in Service Matters: A Summit on Jewish Service (I’m CEO of Repair the World, which convened the gathering); a retreat of the CEOs of organizational members of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable; a retreat of the Board of Advisors and Board of Directors of Points of Light, the world’s largest organization devoted to volunteering and service; and, a conference marking the 15th Anniversary of the Building Bridges Coalition, convened by that coalition, Service Year Alliance and the Brookings think tank.
At each of these gatherings, I felt more and more ambivalent about the prospects for these organizations making a difference in driving social change in our current climate. Literally, as these groups came together, black men were shot by police officers in multiple cities across America and the Black Lives Matter movement and the race-based dynamics of the Election of the United States’ 45th President rose, along with international terrorism, to the pinnacle of American public awareness. Did our organizations and stakeholders represent the proverbial teaspoon working to move sand along miles of beach, or did we represent infrastructure capable of supporting our communities in meeting these emerging issues?
During my reflection over the recent Rosh Hashanah holiday, four tentative conclusions emerged from everything I’ve learned during this time:
- First, the window to attack systemic racial injustice is open in a way that is unique for our generation and offers us an opportunity to bring the experience of Americans of color closer to our founding promise (which has been more of a journey) of equality.
- Second, many Americans, especially young adults, are actively looking for ways to take action in solidarity with oppressed communities, but don’t always know how (this is often true for Jewish young adults).
- Third, all of us who lead organizations devoted to citizen engagement and social change, including (to my surprise) organizations long devoted to racial justice, are experiencing challenges meeting the opportunity of that open window because of difficulty in building unity of purpose among stakeholders with varying political sensitivities.
- Fourth, there is a great opportunity to put positive, broadly accepted and non-divisive principles of community service and volunteering to work in the cause of racial justice, both having meaningful impact and expanding alliances.
With these hypotheses in mind, I’ve now begun the Jewish New Year firmly committed to five resolutions that are not necessarily new, but that will require unrelenting attention to keep in the foreground. I offer them here for consideration by others to adopt as well:
Act in Solidarity, Regardless of Challenges and Uncertainty
People are scared of putting the wrong foot forward, of appearing ignorant or even of being called “racist” for engaging with authenticity on the one hand, and, on the other hand, of alienating stakeholders and being accused, alternatively, of mission dilution or mission creep. These are not trivial concerns and require care and attention; however, they will not excuse my inaction at a moment when Justice – and each of our roles in systemic injustice – hangs in the balance.
Service offers a powerful way for individuals and organizations to take action in solidarity; addressing the impact of systemic racism in education Justice, food Justice and homelessness can improve lives, build empathy and connections across communities through proximity, and call attention to the devastation systemic racism wreaks in our communities – so long as standing in solidarity against systemic racism is the internal and external framing for the service. For opportunities or ideas, check out Repair the World’s newly-launched campaign, Act Now for Racial Justice.
Seek Out and Lift Up People of Color from My Own Community
The fastest-growing demographic in the Jewish community are Jews of color. They tell us that they do not feel either sufficiently included or welcomed in the Jewish community, a challenge we must actively address if we also want to tell others to change the racially-biased systems that are outside of our control. Moreover, in addressing broader challenges connected to race, our Jewish community should hold up and affirm the voices and leadership of our own people of color.
This is not only a phenomenon within the Jewish community. Many religious denominations, groups of nonprofits, the service and volunteering sector, professional organizations, and social sectors must look with the same clarity at their own systemic racial bias that they bring to our national and policy-based issues of systemic racism.
Follow the Lead of People of Color (and Lift their Voices) in Cross-Community Work
The paradigm of supporting local leadership has been practiced for decades within the field of Community Organizing. For people not steeped in that methodology, but habituated in leading organizations and claiming public credit, it is difficult — sometimes to the point of sitting on hands and biting cheeks — to take a quiet back-seat, and to be responsive to the leadership of others who have lived and are living the experience of oppression. Yet, the effort is well worth it, in my experience. In fact, my New Year’s reflections — and this essay — have been very influenced by my recent exposure to the leadership and vision of Mark Winston Griffith, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Movement Center. Mark sternly (but with caring) outlined exactly why my organization and our volunteers could never accomplish the work that the community had to do for itself — establish control over its own destiny. So long as Repair the World was willing to embrace with authenticity our role as supporters of a community that leads itself, Mark and his community have supported our teams of outsiders with education and mentoring.
Meanwhile, we and our volunteers engage in work that, for all its limitations, meaningfully addresses local needs, like food and education justice, that are driven, at least partially, by systemic racism. This kind of service, focusing on the self-expressed needs of communities with whom our relationship is deep and meaningful, offers the opportunity for our Jewish young adults to take purposeful action in solidarity with that community — and also to learn valuable lessons not only about the issues affecting the community, but about humility, power, privilege and the essence of leadership.
Those of us expressing solidarity through engaging people in service and volunteering find important elements of truth-telling and self-awareness in acknowledging our outsider status; that dynamic underscores an important part of the integral limitations of our work. I’ve also found intentional discussion about this dynamic to be one of the fastest and surest ways to shift the posture of service participants from serving “for” or “to” communities to serving “with” them.
Assert My Voice and, as Appropriate, My Leadership within My Privileged Communities
At the same time that marginalized communities have a right to ask me to take a back seat in working with them, they are also right to expect that I, and other people and organizations who care about their plight, will be forceful and aggressive in working within our own communities to broaden our support for racial justice.
One generation removed from the Jewish German community, I’ve learned at the dinner table only too well what can happen when people wait for others to act before joining in solidarity with those who are oppressed; but, this knowledge is not exclusive to anyone. It is up to each of us to set leadership examples within our own communities of acting as though our own fate rests on our solidarity with others — because it does. This is the force behind calls for solidarity rolling through the ages, from the Jewish sage asking, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” to Clarence Darrow’s admonition, “You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom.”
Defensiveness is an almost inevitable experience in each of our exploration of our relationship with race — it is also the enemy of most kinds of personal growth, from self-awareness, to recognizing dynamics of power and privilege, to building empathy with others. The strongest antidote to defensiveness is curiosity; it is fairly impossible to feel both curious and defensive at the same time. While defensiveness is a powerful feeling that usually comes unbidden (and unwelcome), I’ve found that curiosity, unlike acceptance or affection, is one of those feelings that I can lean into and create in myself when I need to restore my balance.
I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve learned a lot through forced curiosity in the last several months.
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