At what was my JOIN placement and continues to be my current job, I organize mostly Spanish-speaking parents of color at an after school program run by St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, a non-denominational program run out of Episcopal churches. Throughout my fellowship last year, other fellows, trainers, and staff stood alongside me as I learned how to be a better organizer. But after Siyyum Graduation in May, I wondered: now what?
Then, something special starting happening. Our broader community showed up.
First, it was Shira, who coached me on an upcoming meeting plan. The meeting went so well that the parents unanimously committed to work on the state-wide No On 2 campaign to keep funding in their kids’ schools.
With the campaign in full gear, Liz joined the parents at a weekly Spanish phone bank. Lily, Batya, and Sarah cheered alongside the parents at a rally in Dorchester. Hannah took two days from her jam-packed job to help get out the vote. All of these people were members of the broader JOIN community, current Fellows, alumni of my class, and alumni of other classes too!
The parents of St. Stephen’s Youth Programs were the strongest, largest, and most effective group of Spanish-speaking parent leaders in the whole state!
In the end, we won No On 2, and we won with heart. Before I even got home on election night, parents were calling: “We won! Can you believe we did it? If we can do this, just think about what else we can do!” I felt so proud of this community of parent organizers.
After it was over and we had celebrated our win, one of the parent leaders and I wiped sticky sparkling cider from the tables in the church basement. She looked at me and said, “Ariel, I noticed your community showed up here, too. You have a really special Jewish community, don’t you?”
I do. We do.
JOIN helps us forge the relationships that keep us learning and growing. And then, we keep showing up for each other. In the weeks since the election, when the fight ahead feels daunting, I keep thinking: This is how we’re going to win. We, as a Jewish community, will show up together in the struggle for racial justice. We will stand together in the fight for immigrant justice. And when we have to push for educational justice or economic reforms? JOIN will be there organizing alongside leaders on the front lines of these struggles-and winning.
On October 20th, JOIN hosted “Celebrating Change-Makers,” an event in NYC featuring incredible JOIN leaders who have utilized what they learned from JOIN training to make change in their communities. We had 55 people join us to celebrate Sukkot and listen to powerful stories from Rabbi Adam Baldachin, Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, and David Schwartz about what it takes to make change.
Karla Van Praag, JOIN’s Executive Director, began the evening sharing that “JOIN teaches the skills of organizing and builds supportive communities that shelter us as the sukkah does. From the sukkah, we can still feel the danger of outside, but, we can find skills and the courage to keep going on our journey to change the world.”
She continued, “JOIN for Justice does two things to gird people for that journey to change the world – first, we teach organizing skills to leaders. Most simply, organizing brings people together who identify as a community, together name a common goal, and then act collectively to achieve it. That is how change happens. The second thing JOIN does is help these leaders muster the courage to take the risks inherent in changing the status quo. The world as it is is too vast for anyone to successfully take on alone – you need mentors and a community to support you.”
Below are the three inspiring stories from leaders about their experiences utilizing the skills of community organizing to create change in their communities.
Rabbi Adam Baldachin: Rabbi Adam Baldachin is the rabbi at Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, NY. He was previously the rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center in Rockland County, NY. He has been a leader in the fight for education justice in East Ramapo.
David Schwartz: David Schwartz is the Co-Founder and Campaign Director of Real Food Challenge, a national student movement to create a more healthy, just and sustainable food system. David was named one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 under 30” for Social Entrepreneurship in 2013.
Rabbi Stephanie Kolin: Rabbi Stephanie Kolin is the Associate Rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City. Previously, she served as the Co-Director of the Union for Reform Judaism‘s Just Congregations and was founding lead organizer for Reform California.
Stephanie Blumenkranz is the Assistant Director at the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY), and Julie Sissman isa member of JWFNY’s New York Metropolitan Grants and Advocacy Committees. JWFNY imagines a world in which all women and girls have equal opportunity for economic, religious, social, and political achievement. As part of their efforts, JWFNY recently adopted a policy stating they will only accept grant applications from organizations with paid parental leave policies that offer their employees at least four weeks of paid parental leave at full salary. They are the first foundation in the Jewish and secular communities to establish a criterion of this type.
Stephanie and Julie are alumni of JOIN’s Don’t Kvetch, Organize! online course in community organizing, which they both took in the Fall of 2015. We had the opportunity to hear from them about this policy and their experience in the course.
(Pictured above: Julie Sissman (left) and Stephanie Blumenkanz (right).)
Why is paid parental leave such an important issue to you personally?
Julie: I have two kids, and my time at home with them was incredibly important to me. I happen to work for a company that paid me for my maternity leave for longer than four weeks. Those first four weeks are an incredibly important time for parents, and it can be a real burden to manage if you’re not being paid for it.
Why did you want to take the course?
Stephanie: I oversee the foundation’s advocacy initiatives. We sit on many different coalitions, and are an active voice in the field promoting better family policies in the workplace. But in terms of actions, we were looking for a way to step it up, and I thought this course would be a great way to learn more about how to do that.
Why did you decide as an organization to work on adopting this policy to only accept applications from organizations that have paid parental leave?
Stephanie: We had been advocates for paid parental leaves for many years. Parents in positions that pay more can usually afford to take time off; it’s parents who are poorer who can’t, and who have to come back to work just two weeks after becoming parents. We wanted organizations to have these policies in place for all employees so everyone, and not just more senior people in their organizations, could be afforded the benefit of parental leave.
In 2010, we started asking organizations that applied for grants about their paid parental leave and flexible schedule policies, but we did not eliminate based on these criteria. This past year it frustrated some of our donors that we could fund groups that are national leaders in creating better family policies in the workplace, yet did not have strong policies for their own employees. We realized that funding an organization that didn’t have these polices in place went against so much of what we were doing.
Julie: So I emailed Stephanie, saying: “I think we should be bold. Let’s not just talk around it, let’s be bold. Let’s put a stake in the ground and say we think this is really important, so important that we won’t give you a grant unless you have a policy.” If we’re serious about our mission, we should be bold around parental leave.
Stephanie: That’s what really got this conversation off the ground. Then it was the Chair of the Advocacy Committee, Avra Gordis, whose leadership skills helped bring the policy to fruition.
(Pictured: Members of JWFNY with Bev Neufeld from PowHer NY, an organization working to create economic equality for women in NY.)
Can you give an example of how the course supported this work?
Julie: The course helped me understand key organizing precepts – such as how to think strategically about who are the key people and influencers needed to make change happen. Having that framework supported how we thought about getting this project off the ground.
Stephanie: When we brought this issue to the Advocacy Committee, this is where tactics I learned in Don’t Kvetch, Organize! really took hold. Out of everything I learned in that course, there were a few things that stuck out the most. One is that the power and passion of a campaign or effort have to come from the people who are doing the organizing, not the person leading. Going into this meeting with the committee, I purposely had donors be active in leading the conversation. This is because I learned that what someone says is only half of it; the other half is who is the one saying it, and who has the relationships. For the committee to hear from someone in a similar seat as them – one of our donors – that really made a difference.
Why should someone take JOIN’s online course, Don’t Kvetch, Organize?
Stephanie: The course makes you rethink what you’re doing. By hearing what people have done and learning from their experience, the course really forces you think about your own work. Anyone – both newer and seasoned organizers – could gain knowledge and understanding form that course.
I realized through the course how much more change I could create by enabling and providing space for others to lead and become change-makers. These ideas about enabling others to act really hit home during the week of the course that we learned about campaigns. That week I was pushed to think deeply about how to create social change, and how important it is to build power and develop leadership with the people I am working with.
What was it like to take the course with someone else who worked with you in your organization?
Stephanie: It was great! We would check in on each other, ask each other what the other’s thoughts were on such and such. It was really helpful to have people to bounce ideas off of. The course is intense and it made such a positive difference to have someone take it with me to talk to them about what we were learning, and to be able to continue that conversation even after the course has ended.
JOIN for Justice would like to thank the JWFNY for being a supporter of our online course.
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Stephanie Kogan, mother of Elana Kogan, took JOIN’s online course, Don’t Kvetch, Organize! in Spring 2016. Elana Kogan is a long-time organizer and creator of the online course. We interviewed Stephanie to learn more about her experience in the course, how it has impacted the work she is doing, and to explore the special experience of taking this course as the parent of an organizer. She is involved with a variety of volunteer organizations and the Cincinnati Jewish community.
(Pictured above: On the left, Stephanie Kogan, with daughter Elana Kogan on the right)
Why did you want to take Don’t Kvetch, Organize!?
I belong to a group called Delta Psi, which is part of an international education society for women. I was treasurer for nearly a decade.When the president passed away while in office, there was no one else to fill the position; so I stepped up. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that everything was being done by the president. I couldn’t get anyone to take even the smallest of jobs, not even a simple job like buying snacks. I recognized that I had to work on building leadership in the organization. I knew that a strong skill and foundation for community organizers is building and developing leadership in those that they work with. I realized it was time for me to learn those skills and how to build up the leadership in our group.
Can you share a story or two about how you have applied what you learned in the course to your work?
After learning about the concept of relational conversations in Don’t Kvetch, I decided to try it with a few people in my chapter as a way to meet immediate leadership needs. It was ABSOLUTELY amazing. My whole approach and outlook changed – instead of talking about our organization’s needs, I talked with members about their interests and what they wanted to get out of volunteering for the organization. Lo and behold, I was immediately able to fill four leadership positions I had struggled with for so long. I’m not talking about easy jobs like getting the snacks – I’m talking about multiple-hour jobs. I was successful simply because I applied the skills I learned in the course: talking with the volunteers about their interests, sharing our stories and experiences, and then suggesting how the proposed positions would help them meet their own goals. I was flabbergasted by how effective this approach was.
I saw how, by changing my own attitude and outlook, I was also much more excited about my role as president—and way more effective! Now I’m actually enjoying being president!
*BONUS: Check out this very excited voicemail Stephanie left her daughter Elana about the day she filled one of those leadership roles mentioned above.*
The course also helped me reflect on failed organizing efforts in the past. When I was a teacher, I was very active in the teachers’ association at our Jewish day school. The administration and board worked closely with our association, and it was a true collaborative effort. Then, after more than twenty years, a new principal and new board changed the way the school was run. Not recognizing the value of our teachers’ association that had enabled the school to run so effectively, they made many changes without our knowledge or input. We, the teachers, fought these changes, but were completely unsuccessful.
Because of this course, I have a better understanding of why we were unsuccessful, which is important so that moving forward I won’t make the same mistakes. At the time, we arranged to have teachers speak up at every board meeting and wrote out responses to the changes. However, we didn’t organize for success; we didn’t focus on targeting people who could have made a difference. For example, we didn’t contact our former school principal and ask her to write a letter on our behalf. We didn’t compile and publicize stories that showed how the cooperative approach had benefited the school. We didn’t enlist the help of former board members or major financial contributors to the school. I learned from the course that you have to look for others who may be in a better position than you are to influence the people in power. Unfortunately, by not being successful in our efforts, within five years, the school’s student population fell by 75% and many of the best teachers had left.
This course was a real eye-opener to the power that the community organizing can offer. It’s easy to think that these things are intuitive, but they are not. It’s a learned process and a different way of thinking.
(Pictured above: Delta Psi make tea for residents of an Alzheimer’s unit for their Mothers’ Day Teddy Bear Tea event.)
What is one takeaway for you from the course?
It was a very inspirational course. It motivates you to do something, not just to make a statement. Now I know the difference. When I look at some of the things I’m doing, I see that I’m making a statement, not a difference. While I know that what I am doing is important, I also want to make a difference.
I now look at things differently when others ask me to do something. Recently, I was contacted by an interfaith group that is going to meet in a major public square in Cincinnati and read poems about peace during the noon hour. I asked “What’s the plan for after this event?” I was told, “Well, it’s just to show our support for peace…” Basically, there was no plan for after the event.
I thought to myself that this event is just a statement. I learned from this course that to make it more than a statement, we need to plan for how to use the strength of the rally and how to capture the people’s energy and enthusiasm for action afterwards. If we just stand around and read about peace, that will be nice, but it will not make a difference. The course taught me to think this way, through the lens of an organizer.
What was special about taking this course as a parent?
As a parent, I really understand so much better what my daughter is doing and why she is so committed to organizing. I also think I understand my daughter much better. I have always been very proud of her, but it’s at a different level because of my new appreciation for what it takes to be an organizer. I have great respect for what she does and hopes to accomplish in society. It’s really more than pride; it’s a deep, deep respect. I have a better understanding of what it is that she’s doing, the difference that she’s making, and why she is so passionate about it. Seeing her do this work really makes me, as a parent, feel like what I have taught my kids really sank in. It’s such a positive feeling as a parent – to see that those values really came through. Now I get to take what she has built to help me further the things that I am trying to accomplish in my own life.
What would you say to someone considering taking the course?
You will learn skills that will enable you to organize and accomplish whatever it is you want to do—social justice work or volunteer work, etc. The skills are adaptable to so many different situations. We can apply these skills today, reflect on how we should have used them in past, and plan for how use to them in the future.
I want to share how exciting it was when I applied what I had learned, and it turned out to be so successful. I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly, but it did. And it was like, “Wow this really works!” It was exciting, that’s the only way to put it. I got it and I can use it.
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My daughter Laurie and I arrived at the designated meeting point and found a crowd of at least several hundred strong. About 30 members of my synagogue—Beth David in Gladwyne, PA—were there too. The mood was calm and friendly.
The march began and we fell into the sea of humanity walking as one: young and old, skin color of all hues, men in kippot walking alongside men in clerical collars, children on scooters, several people in wheelchairs. White people and black people holding signs with the same message.
“This is awesome,” I breathed to my daughter as we stepped along.
“It sure is,” said a voice next to me. The voice belonged to an African American woman walking with a friend.
I reached out my hand and she clasped it.
“My name is Helene, and this is my daughter Laurie,” I said.
She smiled. “My name is Whitney and this is my friend Tiffany.”
We walked on. Together.
Along the route were local police officers stationed to make sure everything was under control. It was.
“Wait a minute,” I said to my daughter. I broke out of the line and ran over to one of the officers. “Thank you for protecting us,” I told him.
He smiled. “I appreciate that. Thank you.”
I am a white woman of privilege, a Jewish woman who needs to understand more in order to make a difference.
What I see on the news and read in the newspaper and hear on the street are my only frames of reference.
I have not walked in the shoes of my black neighbors. But last week our shoes were pointed in the same direction.
Blessing Osazuwa, a recent high school graduate and pursuer of peace, organized the march to bring about understanding and solidarity in our community. In an emotional speech, she said, “We want our sons to know that they will not be a target when walking down the street. We want to be heard. Please do not silence us.”
She acknowledged several children standing in front. “Our young people need to see this [show of solidarity]. The next generation should know that we can take action. We don’t have to be silent.”
“Our old people need to see this!” yelled a silver-haired woman in the crowd.
Ms. Osazuwa smiled. And then, pointing to each child, she said, “If he’s not free …. If she’s not free …. If he’s not free … no one is free.” Thunderous applause erupted.
A woman in front of me turned around and whispered, “Do you have a kleenex?” I handed one to her.
As we walked back to the car, my daughter said she was glad we went. This is just the start, I thought.
My rabbi posted this on her Facebook wall last night:
“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.” — Elie Wiesel z”tl
The march with my rabbi was one step, one tiny step but a step nonetheless, toward tikkun olam, repairing the world. May we all continue to march that path together.
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