Expanding a Jewish Organizing Fellowship from a Community Organizing Point of View

This article originally appeared on Repair Labs.

Introduction

JOIN for Justice, formally know as the Jewish Organizing Initiative, has run a Jewish organizing fellowship in Boston for 15 years.  Over these years, 150 young Jewish adults have learned the arts and science of community organizing by participating in JOIN for Justice training workshops, receiving peer support, and being placed as organizing fellows in the best community and labor organizing groups in the Boston area.   The program prepares young people for careers and lay leadership in social justice organizations and the Jewish community.  Fellows have made an impact on a wide variety of social change issues, ranging from universal health care to LGBT rights, affordable housing to sustainable local food. Fellowship alumni have gone on to use the skills they learned in the Fellowship to exercise social justice leadership in the Jewish community as well, leading the national Jewish LGBT organization Keshet; providing the energy, vision and ground troops for Moishe Kavod House (a model for Moishe houses nationally engaging Boston young adults in social justice work); and revitalizing the Jewish community in West Philadelphia by building a new, inclusive social justice congregation in the community. Fellowship alumni have had a significant impact on social justice movements, and they have played a key role in the creation of dynamic and flourishing Jewish communities in Boston and beyond.

JOIN for Justice is in a process of exploration of the possibility of expanding the Fellowship into other cities. We believe that the positive impacts of the Fellowship in Boston – real social justice victories, a revitalized Jewish community, a new generation of dynamic Jewish leaders – could make an equally profound contribution in other cities.

This memo describes JOIN for Justice’s approach to investigating expansion of the Jewish organizing fellowship.

Principles of JOIN’s approach to Fellowship expansion

JOIN approaches expansion as community organizers.  Organizers make sure to do a power analysis when stepping into a new situation: What are the key organizations and individuals?  What do we know about their interests – the motivations, needs, and values important enough to them to drive them to act?  Who has the power to get something done?  What are the webs of relationships between organizations and individuals through which people work together to act on their interests?

Through this analysis, organizers begin to learn about the place they may organize and begin to find the key people with whom they need to work to build relationships.  When organizers approach such prospective new members/leaders or allies, they think about two things:  understanding other’s self-interest and building relationships of trust.

Good organizers know that people join groups and organizing campaigns that match with the things they care most deeply about. That is why organizers learn the values, priorities and world views – the self-interest – of the people they want to work with.

Good organizers also know that people get involved and stay involved in organizing campaigns when they have trusting relationships with others in the organizing group.  That is why organizers meet one-to-one with prospective members/ leaders and allies in order to get to know each other and share stories about key moments in their lives.

Though the process of recruiting new members and allies is different than the process of exploring expansion of a fellowship program, the principles of self-interest and trust are central to both.  To  explore expansion of a fellowship program is to understand how these principles play out among four key stakeholder groups:  possible host groups, potential fellows, other local Jewish organizations connected to social justice work, and local funders.

Possible Host Groups

One of a new fellowship’s key stakeholder groups is the set of community or labor organizing groups and Jewish social justice groups that might host a fellow. Host groups pay all or most of the salary of the fellow who joins their organizing staff for the duration of the fellowship.  Fellows receive direction, supervision, and mentoring from the host organizing group, and they work on the host groups’ organizing campaigns for most of the week, except for the half day a week when they receive training and peer support from JOIN for Justice.

JOIN cannot begin a new Fellowship without host groups, so it is essential for JOIN to understand how taking on a JOIN Fellow would or would not be in the self-interest of potential host groups.  JOIN  explores the following questions:

Do potential host groups have a need for new staff members?  Some groups have stable organizing staffs while other groups regularly bring on new organizers

Do they have trouble identifying and recruiting strong candidates for new organizing positions?   Some groups have a successful, established system for identifying and recruiting new organizing talent, while others do not.

Is the group interested in hiring Jewish organizers?  Some groups only hire organizers of color, organizers who are bilingual, and/or organizers who come from the population being served.  While JOIN has had fellows in Boston who are of color and bilingual, many of the fellows are white and/or monolingual English speakers.

Are there other programs in the area that provide organizing groups with organizing interns or fellows, and what benefits do these programs bring that JOIN could not?  For example, organizing groups are much more likely to take on a fellow whose salary is subsidized, which JOIN would not have capacity to do within significant funding support.

Answering these questions will go a long way towards determining whether organizing groups are likely to feel it is in their self-interest to host a JOIN organizing fellow.

Relatedly, JOIN also looks at how it can build trust with community and labor organizing groups who might serve as host groups for a new fellowship.  Organizing groups tend to be suspicious of outsiders’ ability to identify and recruit organizers. They may also be reluctant to let their new organizers attend trainings by outside groups, who might give them messages and directions that are not in keeping with the organizing groups’ approaches, as well as take them for half a day a week away from their work on the ground, and periodic retreats.  For both these reasons, organizing groups might initially approach a new JOIN fellowship with skepticism.

In Boston, initially JOIN’s predecessor organization overcame this skepticism because its founder was an experienced organizer well known and respected in the Boston area.  Later, JOIN developed its own positive reputation, based on a successful track record of identifying, recruiting, and supporting strong organizing fellows who were an asset to the organizations that hosted them.

In order to expand the Fellowship into new cities, JOIN builds relationships of trust with community and labor organizing groups who can host fellows.  JOIN can do this by hiring local staff who have extensive organizing experience and a positive reputation with local organizing groups.  It can bring the Boston story to other cities, with testimonials and good word of mouth from Boston organizers about how their organizations have benefited from the fellowship.  JOIN staff can meet one-to-one with heads of organizing groups and look for opportunities to engage in common work.  It can, in addition, connect with local Jewish social justice groups and search out ways that a new fellowship could serve all the organizations’ interests.  JOIN could connect with other local leaders JOIN already relates to help JOIN learn how to best serve the local environment, connect them to other leaders and vouch for JOIN’s work.  By taking these steps to build strong positive relationships with key organizers in the expansion city, JOIN can create the trust necessary to recruit host groups.

Potential Recruits

JOIN must explore the self-interest of Jewish young adults and build trust with this second group of stakeholders.  In order to start a fellowship in a new city, JOIN must confirm there is a large enough pool of Jewish young adults with a passion for social justice who can make up the applicant pool.  (Though candidates can come from anywhere in the country, approximately half of the class in Boston came from the Northeast region.)   First, JOIN looks for the presence of pre-existing local Jewish young adult social justice programs, like Kavod House in Boston, AVODAH in multiple cities, and Bend the Arc’s Jeremiah program in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington DC.  These types of programs, even regardless of location, are often places where initial interest in social justice among Jewish young adults is piqued; these young adults then become interested in further in-depth learning such as an organizing fellowship.  Some young adult programs face a demand greater than their number of slots, opening up a potential opportunity.  Second, JOIN for Justice looks for the presence of Jewish young adults in non-Jewish social justice work. If there is a significant Jewish young adult presence in electoral campaigns or environmental organizing, for example, this indicates that there is likely to be a pool of candidates for a Jewish organizing fellowship.  Third, JOIN looks for other formal and informal networks of young Jewish adults, from established groups to regular Friday night potlucks, as networks to mine to understand local young Jewish adults’ interests and to mine for recruits.  Lastly, JOIN conducts focus groups of Jewish young adults to understand their values and interests and discern whether an organizing fellowship might help some of them meet their interests. All of these steps help JOIN understand if there are enough young Jews who would be interested in seeing a Jewish organizing fellowship.

Once the young adult community has been sufficiently engaged and heard, JOIN’s greater challenge is to find the right young adults who will become successful organizers and make sure they know about the program. One possibility is for JOIN for Justice to reach out to key individuals who are in contact with Jewish young adults interested in social justice.  These key individuals act as scouts and recruiters for the new fellowship to promote the program to young adults and encourage the most suitable people to apply for the fellowship.  Scout/Recruiters can include experienced Jewish organizers, social justice oriented rabbis, progressive professors, and staff at Jewish social justice organizations.

Local Jewish social justice organizations

While other cities do not have an organizing training fellowship like JOIN’s, many cities already do have successful Jewish organizations doing vital social justice work, whether they are local Jewish social justice organizations, national organizations with a strong local base, or broader organizations for whom justice is one of many priorities.  Fortunately, JOIN already has working relationships with many of these organizations.

Any successful expansion into a city where there already exists strong Jewish social justice work requires significant engagement with people already on the ground.  First, while it may serve one organization’s narrow interests, the field does not benefit from one organization’s success coming at the expense of another’s.  Second, local organizations will have a strong analysis of the local scene, a power analysis of the local players, strengths, and challenges, an assessment of opportunities to build more of a thriving Jewish social justice ecosystem, and ideas about the other three stakeholders – potential host groups, potential recruits, and local funders.  Third, the different organizations can work together to come up with a plan that advances all of their interests and sparks all of their enthusiasm – one that expands the pie of potential leaders, allies, and resources rather than re-dividing the current pie.

The stronger the preexisting relationship between the organizations, the more they will be able to think creatively and honestly together to seek out new opportunities, rather than instinctively focusing on their own turf.  If that relationship is not yet there, it merits slowing down the expansion so that there will be time to build these relationships and build a new fellowship on a strong foundation.

Local Funders

Ultimately, to be sustainable in the long haul, a successful new Jewish organizing fellowship requires local funders, both foundations and individual donors.  It is the greatest challenge to win the support of these stakeholders.  Not only are there limited self-identified funders of “Jewish social justice”, but typically, funders already have grantees that they are attached to, and it is not usually easy to win their support for new groups.  Many funders prefer to fund groups and strategies with immediate and direct impact, but the most significant impact of an organizing fellowship is long-term and indirect – as fellows graduate, advance in their career and volunteer work, and use the skills learned through the fellowship throughout their life.  Lastly, local funders in a new city will not know JOIN for Justice, and so typically will be reluctant to support an unknown group.

JOIN for Justice knows that building support among funders is not a short-term process.  JOIN for Justice must intentionally build relationships of trust with potential funders to include funding a Jewish organizing fellowship.

First, if we are able to raise seed funds, JOIN for Justice can hire local staff members that already have relationships and a positive reputation with local funders. If new local staff members don’t have those relationships at the time of hire, they should at least have the experience and bearing to have credibility with local funders.  Second, JOIN can ask its Boston donors and foundations to reach out to their counterparts in the new city, perhaps speaking at a small event, to tell them the story about how the Jewish organizing fellowship has transformed Boston.  Third, as JOIN builds relationships with local organizing and Jewish social justice groups, it can investigate joint fundraising opportunities.  Last, local JOIN staff members can meet one-to-one with as many funders as possible, both to better understand their self-interest and to build relationships of trust.

Most importantly, JOIN for Justice recognizes that building support from funders in a new city is a slow and intentional process.  Local funding may not be there prior to the beginning of a new organizing fellowship, but, if the intentional work is done, local funding will follow once the fellowship begins. Once the new fellowship is established, the fellows themselves, and the work they do, are the strongest advocates for the fellowship.

Conclusion

When JOIN for Justice explores expansion of its Jewish organizing fellowship to a new city, it acts like a community organizer, exploring the self-interest of and building trust with four key stakeholder groups:  host organizing groups, Jewish young adults with a passion for social justice, local Jewish social justice efforts, and local funders.  This exploration is more than a learning process.  The conversations that JOIN has with members of these stakeholder groups are potentially transformative, beginning to build relationships of trust and to shift self-interest.  A good organizer learns (often the hard way) how self-defeating it is to go out trying to get people to do what you want.  Organizers have their interests, as do every individual and institution with whom they seek to work.  When people come together in relationship, seeking to act together in the public sphere, they learn from and challenge each other, and their interests change.  If the exploration of an expansion comes through relational organizing, local organizations, individuals, and funders may shift their interests to include the value of a new fellowship.  And, by relating to those stakeholders honestly and openly, JOIN’s interests shift as it learns new things, adapts to local realities, assesses honestly whether expansion makes sense in this context, and figures out how to expand in a way that serves not only its own interests, but also the interests of all the stakeholders.  Done well, this becomes about more than just a new program – it forges partnerships that can create many new opportunities in the months and years to come.  The actions of exploring expansion of a fellowship, when done like an organizer, help create the fellowship.

If you are interested in bringing JOIN for Justice’s Jewish Organizing Fellowship to your city, we’d love to talk!  Please contact us at info@joinforjustice.org or at 617-350-9994. 

Lee Winkelman is a consultant who provides strategic assistance and coaching to funders and nonprofits. He was a community organizer for 14 years in the greater Boston area, and a funder of community organizing with Jewish Fund for Justice and the UU Veatch Program. Lee also worked in El Salvador for two years helping popular movement groups prepare for the country’s first post-civil war election. As a lay leader, he spearheaded efforts of two synagogues to join congregation-based community organizing groups: Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn and IKAR in Los Angeles. He has written about synagogue organizing online. Lee currently lives in Los Angeles and is on the Board of JOIN for Justice.

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