Fighting for Environmental Justice in Massachusetts

Kate Rafey (Jewish Organizing Fellow ‘12-’13) interviewed Joel Wool (Jewish Organizing Fellow ‘12-’13) and wrote this story.

Joel Wool (Jewish Organizing Fellow‘12-’13) may work in the environmental movement to change policies and impact state governance, but he stays for the stories of resiliency and strength. What keeps Joel going are the people; what ignited his passion for organizing was anger. Using an environmental lens, he tackles interconnected social justice issues.

“The environmental movement is people taking care of their community, ensuring people are safe where they live, work and play,” Joel said. “It’s the story of a grandma cancer survivor fighting in her community, it’s the Latina committed to protecting the earth. It’s the immigrants caring about community, whether we’re talking about the earth or their town.”

Joel has been working at Clean Water Action since 2011. His hope is to see more clean energy distributed. One of his many current projects is with Massachusetts Power Forward, where Joel serves as Campaign Co-Coordinator. He organizes people to ensure that our state invests in clean energy resources.

Joel’s sense of community comes from his own experience. “I came into this [work] from being rooted in a neighborhood in Dorchester. Looking at [these issues] from a community-oriented perspective keeps me rooted,” he said.

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JOIN Fellowship alumni Joel Wool (left) and Kate Rafey (right)

While Joel has participated in different community organizing trainings in the past, JOIN for Justice taught him about relationship building and storytelling. He was involved and active in community organizing before the fellowship began but it took some time for him to process each session to connect with his coalition building.

JOIN’s intentional cultivation of leaders enabled deeper ties for Joel with individuals. Now, he uses storytelling all the time with people he’s meeting for the first time. In doing so, he has been lucky enough to engage with and support the amazing people fighting back against the fossil fuel industry.

One of Joel’s current organizing projects focuses in central Massachusetts with a population often neglected. Dismas House in Worcester, a home for healthy reentry for former prisoners through community work and support, is currently facing its own setback from the legislature as they fight for solar power and green weatherization. Other organizations in Worcester are interested as well, but the State favors utility companies. “We have to consider the bigger picture and choose the right path or there are going to be problems,” Joel said.

As a Jewish organizer, structural injustice and inequality resound with him. Many of the environmental injustices he approaches involve low income and minorities in these communities being, as Joel describes it, “boxed out” or kept from the decision- For him, Tikkun Olam is reality. “We are literally trying to repair the world, physically trying to build and rebuild communities into something better,” he said.

Joel plans on continuing his work in Massachusetts as an organizer for the foreseeable future, working on economic and racial issues with an environmental lens. “I am where I want to be at this point,” he said, “My goal right now is movement building.” Many people use him as a resource for empowering their own state actions. His work at the individual level will elevate movement building and take it to a different level. Currently, Joel is working on a Masters in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University.

For people who are concerned about the future of environmental justice in Massachusetts, Joel urges you to take action now. “The energy decisions we make in Massachusetts will affect the rest of the country. We need to start acting now,” he said.

If you would like to get involved with Joel’s work, please contact him:

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Finding flint in Flint

This post is by JOIN for Justice Executive Director Karla Van Praag.

By now we’ve all heard the horrific story about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the massive government mismanagement, the lead-poisoned children and the systemic environmental injustice of the highest order.

So much of the coverage of this travesty focuses, on one hand, on the powerful individuals who decided that $100/day was too much to spend to be certain that an entire city would be kept safe and, on the other hand, about the nameless, faceless, oppressed Flint community. But I can’t stop thinking about Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who demonstrated lead levels in toddlers had doubled. Or Miguel Del Torel, the EPA official who leaked his report about the problems to the press after community activist Lee Ann Waltersreached out to him for help.

Many Americans until now only associated flint with a small piece of metal used to produce a spark to ignite a fuel. Now Flint has been personified. These people, and the many other community organizers whose names haven’t been as visible in the media, were the flint here, the spark that finally set the injustice alight.

These individuals, along with the community organizations who fought hard against dismissal, derision, and character attacks to gain attention for the issue, are one important part of the story we as organizers need to remember. Despite powerful efforts to squash people’s resistance and keep them quiet, there are always those who will take risks–with their jobs, with their safety, with their reputations–to uncover the truth and fight for what’s right. Given all of these risks, these people are up against a lot, and I’ve been finding myself thinking a lot recently about what role I can play to support them towards victory. What is my role in this struggle? What is yours? What will we do when we are called to be those heroes ourselves?

The folks on the front lines in Flint Michigan, the people putting their bodies on the line in direct action for Black Lives Matter, young Dreamers risking everything to fight for justice for undocumented immigrants and their communities–they challenge all of us to be better allies and better leaders.

I am proud of our work at JOIN for Justice to train organizers and leaders to join critical fights for justice throughout the country. We can all get better at embracing rather than pushing away the voices that challenge us, and we can all benefit from learning the skills to be better allies with the folks who are taking the biggest risks. And to be ready for when we must be flint ourselves.

If you’re in a place in your life where you want to invest in yourself as a leader and see how to build a spark, I encourage you to check out our organizing programs that are open right now.

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Winning Change at Ramsay Park

We are excited to share a major organizing victory that Jewish Organizing Fellowship Alum Sarah OConnor (’14-15) won with her teen organizers at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs in Boston’s South End.


Last spring, St. Stephen’s teen organizers decided that their priority for the coming months was to clean up Ramsay Park, the only park in the neighborhood surrounding St. Stephen’s.  The park was filled with needles and trash, the city had removed the benches from the park, and most parents in the neighborhood forbid their children from playing there.  A lot of teens and families in the neighborhood saw this as a visible manifestation of a lot of challenges in the neighborhood and they were determined to do something to change it.

Fast forward a few months, and the teens had transformed the park.  They’d cleaned up the trash, painted murals, and were leading tennis lessons and art activities for neighborhood kids.  But the teen organizers also wanted to the city to step in and provide the resources necessary for their park to be as inviting as those with well-endowed “Friends of” groups a few blocks away.  While Mayor Marty Walsh visited Ramsay Park during a routine visit doing “Coffee Hours” in the park, the teens shared their frustration with the lack of investment in their park.  They asked for a meeting with the Mayor, their State Rep, the Parks Commissioner, and their City Councillor to share their visions for the park and ask for their investment and support.


After a series of meetings with elected officials, the teens were successful in securing one million dollars in funding from the City to improve Ramsay Park.

In Mayor Marty Walsh’s State of City Speech on January 19, he said: “I grew up in our parks. I know how much kids and families depend on them. So I was moved when a group of young people came to see me at Ramsay Park in the South End last summer. They told me what it was like to grow up right next door to a park that was too unsafe to use, and how they’ve been working to fix that. They are here tonight. I’m happy to tell them: because of your advocacy, and with your input, we are going to completely renovate Ramsay Park.”

When asked how the teens she is working with responded to the victory, JOIN Fellowship alum Sarah OConnor said: “They are really excited and so proud of this victory which, they totally should be. This is such a great example of working on a hyper local issue that materially impacts their lives and they can see this concrete victory happening in a couple of months.  We are very grateful that the city is investing resources in this neighborhood, we are going to continue working with the city to make sure that people who live here now will still be able to continue living here to enjoy the renovated park.  We want this to be a victory for the community that worked to make their neighborhood better. They should be the ones to influence how the park is developed, and they should be able to stay here as the project is carried out.”

Sarah also said: “Everyone we have talked to is happy about this news.  People who never brought their kids to the park before are excited to see this investment in their community, as a place that people want to live and are reclaiming as an asset to their community.  I would also say that we struggle because we don’t always control the way the story is told, and we see this as a project for everyone who is part of the neighborhood, and some people are telling it as if improving Ramsay Park pits children against ‘dangerous druggies and homeless people’ which is absolutely not the message we want to send–because decrepit parks and addition problems are both products of the systemic disinvestment in the health of this community. We have been asking for solutions for them, too, and we hope that as the city is committing to physical improvements in this park, that there is also a commitment to providing the kinds of support that people need so that they have a more dignified place to go to the bathroom than a Boston public park.”

Congratulations to Sarah and her team at St. Stephen’s on a well-earned victory that’s going to make a real impact in the neighborhood!


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Transforming Synagogue Culture in Baltimore: An Interview with Leaders at Oheb Shalom

In the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, 46% of the Baltimore Jewish community reported that they felt Jewish organizations were “remote” or “not relevant.”  In response to this survey, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore chartered a diverse group of 10 volunteers to recommend ways for Jewish organizations to be welcoming and relevant. From these recommendations, the Darrel Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center (DFI) founded the Engagement Partnership, whose goal is to work with synagogues and other Jewish organizations to become more welcoming and relevant to their community.

In February of 2015, DFI partnered with JOIN for Justice to run a program that includes six synagogues that are changing the way they utilize their boards, engaging their members to create warm, welcoming environments, and exploring what the word “relevant” means to their community.  Senior Organizer and Trainer Jeannie Appleman worked closely with five synagogues to lead an in-depth training series teaching leadership development through an organizing frame. Below, two leaders from Temple Oheb Shalom, Vicki Spira and Maxine Lowy, describe the transformative process currently underway in their synagogue.

Can you start by introducing yourselves?

Vicki: I’m Vicki Spira, one of Executive Vice-Presidents at Oheb Shalom. I am the Chair Person of our Engagement Partnership. I’ve been in various leadership roles since I joined Oheb Shalom almost 20 years ago.

Maxine: I’m Maxine Lowy, the Director of Development and Special Programs at Oheb Shalom.  As part of my “special programs” I was asked to be the staff person to take the lead on this project.

Tell me about what your synagogue was like before you started this project and why you decided to take on this project.

Maxine: What this project has really done is taken us back to a time when people were involved and engaged and the synagogue was the central hub of their lives.  Over the last decade or so, we’ve gotten away from that at Oheb Shalom. Things and activities have been more staff driven than lay driven.

Vicki:  When I heard about this project, it seemed like an opportunity to do something transformational.  I didn’t know exactly what it was or where it was going to go, but I thought the journey would be interesting.  I loved the whole idea of connecting to people in a more meaningful way, and the notion that we could engage members as vested owners rather than bystanders.

Can you share what project you’re working on?

Vicki: We had a grant from The Associated called “The Engagement Partnership” to see how we could make Oheb Shalom more meaningful and relevant.  We decided to focus on baby boomers, because that is a population that we had not paid a lot of attention to in recent years. Boomers represent one-third of our membership and the largest population of financial contributors.

We were doing something we had not done before and had little experience in this construct. With Jeannie’s [JOIN for Justice Senior Organizer and Trainer] help and counsel, we determined to reach out to this population in small group relational meetings. We would pose a couple of questions about a meaningful experience they had in the synagogue, and what people would create at Oheb Shalom if they had a magic wand to learn more about our members and what their passions and interests really are.

In these small group sessions we reached about 175 people out of 400 members.  We met at people’s homes  8-10 people at a time, which the Design Team facilitated. We also had a couple of big Shabbat dinners targeted at Baby Boomers, which included small group relational conversations after dinner.  People really liked it and responded favorably, and expressed an interest in continuing these get-togethers.

The next step addressed what we could do with all of this information? We had a second series of gatherings, where members were asked “What do YOU want to create at Oheb Shalom?   The participants decided what interests they wanted to create and pursue in Action Teams.  Our action teams are based around contemporary issues, food, and Tikkun Olam.

Vicki : An example of how we are incorporating this culture – We had our opening Board meeting the other night, and because of the work we did in the Engagement Partnership, we decided to make our meeting “more relational.” We broke into two groups and asked people to share a time when they were leaders, and what traits or characteristics they played.  We learned what people were good at and they got to learn about each other.

Instead of our usual tradition of telling Board members what their responsibilities are, we did a group exercise where the Board members said what they believe their responsibilities and expectations should be. They owned it!  Prior to the Engagement Partnership, we would not have approached it like this.

This project is making us think differently about a lot of things that we do.

Have you noticed a change in the sanctuary during Shabbat services?

Maxine: I think our Shabbat services have taken on a different feel. We’re watching people that have met through these small group meetings, building relationships, making plans to go out together, talking about their plans. I’m a native Baltimorean. People have always said that Baltimore is a hard city to break into. As I’ve observed what’s going on at Shabbat services, we’re seeing this sense of inclusion and this sense of people building new relationships.

Vicki: It’s not like you go in and you see some wholesale change. It’s more nuanced than that.  All of us feel a little bit different.  I think we’ll begin to see more of this.  It’s something that you start and little by little grow.  We’d like to have JOIN for Justice work with us on some development with our Board for them to understand this better.

What has been the hardest thing about this?

Vicki: As Jeannie would say, it’s a culture shift.  You can’t do this overnight.  It takes years.  The work will be done amongst many of us in the years to come.

What other changes have you noticed?

Vicki: One of the changes is that we’ve developed a group of members that really do have an appetite to work. These people really became personally invested.  They are all leaders—it’s not just about a title, it’s about real responsibility.

Unless we can find a cadre of lay people who want to do something, we’re not going to do it. I’m not saying we’re not going to change the AC, but if it’s a project that needs lay energy to act, then instead of letting something limp along, there’s just no point in doing it.

Have you learned something about yourselves as leaders?

Vicki:  One of the most profound things I learned was how challenging it was for me to chair and begin this project without knowing exactly where we were going.  Many wanted to have the answers from the start but this wasn’t that kind of project.    So in the beginning I really felt anxious about what we were doing and about my leadership.  But in time it became clear that this was the process we had to go through and this is in fact what enabled us to build such a strong team.  My passion for Oheb Shalom always kept me going. And Jeannie’s counsel through all of this was essential!

Maxine: For me this was a whole different skill set.  My leadership style has always been: give me a task and I will get to a successful conclusion. I can do all of the concrete steps—that’s what I’m good at.  This was different because it was so amorphous, and we really didn’t have a clear direction. It was speaking a language that wasn’t part of my language.  I wanted a beginning and end and this is all about the gray stuff in the middle. I’ve grown tremendously as a professional and a leader, able to look at things more critically, to ask different kinds of questions, to think more about the people than about the outcome.  Jeannie has been hugely instrumental in this.

This feels quite inspiring and satisfying right now. And I can’t say enough about our work with Jeannie.  At every twist and turn she got us through every difficult part.  We learned so much from her, things we can carry forward that she gave to us that we now have for the future.

Lynne Kirsner talks about her experience with the Engagement Partnership at Temple Oheb Shalom.

The Engagement Partnership is funded by the Kolker-Saxon- Hallock Family Foundation, Inc., a supporting foundation of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.  The lead volunteer on the project and liaison to a few of the congregations is Alan Bernstein, who is working in partnership on the training with Cindy Goldstein, Executive Director of the Darrell Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center.

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From Recovery to Redemption: an interview with Chaplain Adam Siegel

Last week, we talked to Chaplain Adam Siegel about his involvement in the JOIN for Justice Clergy Fellowship, and his work at Beit T’Shuvah organizing for criminal justice system reform with the broad-based interfaith organization LA Voice.  Beit T’Shuvah is both a Jewish residential treatment center in Los Angeles and a full-service congregation offering religious services, holiday celebrations and study.

Tell me a little about yourself and your work with Beit T’Shuvah.  What calls you to this work?

I’ve been involved for about 5 years, wearing two different hats.  We have a long term recovery program, where people stay between 6 months and a year, and I work individually with folks in this program.  I work with people to help them see what spiritual resources are available to help them deal with whatever issues they are dealing with.

Over the last year or so, I have also been working to develop our service and justice initiative.  Our model is a dual model: we are a residential facility but we are also a spiritual community. We run weekly services, holiday events and life cycle celebrations for both the residents and for community members. We have a congregation that includes alumni, family members, folks interested in the intersection between Judaism and recovery, and those that are looking for a different, relevant Jewish experience.  That’s the communal aspect that I’ve been trying to figure out how to organize and mobilize to work on justice issues.

What Jewish framework do you bring to your chaplaincy?

Through my work at Beit T’shuvah I’ve been able to understand that a recovery perspective gives a spiritual framework for the condition of being human.
Our Jewish tradition gives us a sense of being able to recognize the holiness within us, and instructions for how how to share this with the world.

How did the service and justice initiative develop?  Why is it central to your work?
We’ve been around for 30 years.  Our primary work is doing healing and repair work for individual souls. But the longer I’ve been around, the more I’ve been able to recognize the opportunity that recovering souls have towards repairing the world.

Over time I saw that there was a lot of opportunity here, and that historically we have done individually projects, but there hadn’t really been a concerted or coordinated effort to develop the power within this community.

Can you tell me about the work you are doing with LA Voice?

LA Voice, a PICO affiliate that does broad-based interfaith organizing, has been working on criminal justice reform–passing and implementing Prop 47, and a campaign called “Banning the Box.”

Prop 47 is a California statewide proposition that passed in Nov 014 that was geared towards the reclassification of a dozen minor felony offenses to misdemeanors, which provided for the early release of people that were incarcerated for these crimes.  The savings that the State incurred by letting people out early are directed towards restorative justice activities, recovery services, transitional re-entry programs, and mental health programs for formerly incarcerated individuals.

LA Voice was key in organizing faith communities around LA on this proposition, which passed with a significant majority across the state, and is now working hard to ensure that it is implemented correctly and that the funds are spent well on a local level.

At Beit T’shuvah, we have individuals who benefited from the passage of Prop 47, because they got out of prison early, and people who are very passionate about criminal justice reform.  At any given time, 10-15% of the 120 folks staying at Beit T’shuvah are coming out of prison, and they utilize this program as a re-entry and transition experience helping them to move into the next stage of their life.

LA Voice was eager to get us involved both as representatives of the Jewish community, and as individuals who can speak from personal experience about the significance of these reform efforts.

We are also planning to work on a lcoal campaign in the next year that would “Ban the Box” and prohibit employers from asking potential employees about felony convictions early on in the interview process.

Tell me about your experience in the Clergy Fellowship.  

As I’ve gotten more involved in organizing work in the last year, it has really energized me to be able to  see the role that my Judaism has in guiding me towards how I can contribute to the betterment of the world.  It’s so powerful to do it in an organized way where I don’t have to figure it all out by myself, and our organization doesn’t have to figure it all out by ourselves.

The Clergy Fellowship been incredibly helpful in giving me a framework for understanding how to approach justice work. This is both from the perspective of understanding larger societal issues, and also even more importantly being able to see the role that the individual as part of a collective can have in addressing some of the potential for improvement in our world.

Jeannie Appleman [JOIN for Justice Senior Organizer and Trainer] been incredible.  I think there’s great value in being able to participate wth the other Clergy and rabbis in the cohort.  We’ve grown closer and we’ve also been able to see opportunities available to us to do collaborative work together.

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