Why Interfaith Organizing Matters: Social Change Starts with Values

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Sometimes, as an activist, you look upon the world and think you will never be able to see the changes you seek in your own lifetime. It’s easy to despair, to succumb to the isolation and self-doubt that come from being a thoughtful person trying to change the status quo.

In those moments, I’ve learned to find renewal and hope not in myself, but in other organizers, in our shared values and experiences. Saul Alinsky wrote, “We must believe that it is the darkest before the dawn of a beautiful new world. We will see it when we believe it.” A shared belief in what is actually possible to achieve, despite what others may tell us: that is the organizer’s gift.

In one respect, this principle sounds self-evident. And yet, while our social movements are often full of talk about policy, tactics or messaging, values are regularly left to linger in the background. They become things that are left to theologians to debate, or we allow values to be a walled-off part of the political conversation.

As a result, conservatives are usually the ones who are able to claim the mantle of values and define what values-based politics in America should entail. Needless to say, their definitions of compassion, equality and freedom are different than those offered by progressives. The dominance of their worldview allows for a social order in which the middle class has grown ever more precarious and opportunities for the disenfranchised to better their lives have dwindled.

I think this, perhaps more than any other reason, is why interfaith organizing matters.

Every major faith — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism — has a set of values grounded in the pursuit of justice and equity. This universalism is important. It creates the potential for far-reaching, welcoming movements that cut across boundaries of race, class, sect and nationality.

Working from a values-based framework means applying these principles of justice and equity not only when we think about society’s most downtrodden. It means integrating values into the most central questions of political life, including budgets and spending. For unless we articulate a clear vision of social justice before approaching policy, we end up only quibbling over the degree of social service cuts, not advancing a proactive, affirmative agenda.

Authentic Self-Interest and the Craft of Community Organizing

Yet celebrating universal values is not enough. A basic principle in organizing is authentic self-interest.

Community organizing is a craft with decades of history, going back through the innovations of pioneers such as Saul Alinsky and including the work that President Obama pursued at the start of his career. Community organizers have thought hard about how to mobilize people to create social change — in Alinsky’s words, how to bring the “power of organized people” to bear against “the power of organized money.” And community organizers have offered some profound insights about the role of values in politics.

When approaching potential allies, organizers ask, “Why do you care about this issue? Why does addressing it benefit you?” They are suspicious of those whose answers are too vague or impersonal — people who can talk about justice only in abstract terms.

To ask these questions is not to demand selfishness, but rather self-awareness. The truth that organizers have discovered through hard years of practice is that if you understand your own identity and your own faith — if you know where you come from and what truly matters to the communities closest to you — you can make a much bigger impact in the world. Moreover, particularity is not incompatible with universalism. Recognizing your own authentic self-interest allows you to appreciate and honor difference in a far more substantive manner.

A Reinvigorated Jewish Social Justice Agenda

My own grounding is in the Jewish community, and I have seen much there that gives hope for the revival of an interfaith social justice agenda.

In late April, I had the opportunity to attend the JOIN for Justice organizers’ summit in New York City. JOIN for Justice is a new group which formed from an important impulse. Starting in the 1990s, a collection of Jewish activists coming out of unions and other social movements noticed that when broad coalitions came together, there was not as strong of an organized Jewish presence as the tradition’s deep social justice values would warrant. Seeking to develop new generations of Jewish organizers as well as to expand the engagement of Jewish congregations in community organizing efforts (like the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), PICO, DART, and Gamaliel), Jewish organizations including JOI (the Jewish Organizing Initiative) and Bend the Arc (formerly Jewish Funds for Justice and Jewish Progressive Alliance) sought to create a training ground for Jewish leaders interested in community organizing.

JOIN for Justice’s inaugural summit was the culmination of two years of work to build a network that could have national reach. At the summit, participants attended workshops that ranged from traditional political panels such as “Voter Mobilization to Build Power,” to those that reflected a distinctly Jewish take on organizing, like, “Creative Ritual in Action” or “Raising Money with Chutzpah in Challenging Times.” Nearly 300 organizers gathered together, representing some 50 organizations from throughout the country. Sixty percent of them were under 35 years old.

JOIN for Justice is part of a new crop of reinvigorated Jewish social justice organizations. Groups like AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps and Just Congregations are thinking about how they can have greater impact in the world and how they can be part of a national movement for racial, economic and social justice. Some older organizations like American Jewish World Service and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) are reinventing themselves as well. NCJW chief Nancy Kaufman explains, “There is a wonderful confluence happening of older Jewish organizations like NCJW feeling re-energized by the number of newer Jewish social justice organizations, and I think the younger women are very excited about it also.” Around the country, she says, so many isolated groups “have been toiling in the lonely vineyards and very much want to be a part of something” more cohesive.

The JOIN for Justice summit was an important step in that direction. What was exciting to me was that the organization is one of the first contemporary manifestations of Jewish social justice activism on a national scale. Within the Jewish community, there is tremendous pride among an older generation about social justice titans like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who served as an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. However, a central challenge of the faith is not merely to honor the past, but to make our traditions relevant in a new time and a new context.

The young people I saw at JOIN for Justice are doing that by grounding themselves in authentic self-interest. They are taking inspiration from secular predecessors doing community organizing. Yet they view their work through a distinctly Jewish lens. They not only connect with a deep tradition of American Jewish organizing in the labor and Civil Rights movements; they see religious ritual and practice as a force essential for sustaining their work.

As much as the new generation of activists is focused outward, committed to making America live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all, they are attentive to the self, passionately articulating the religious values that inform their work. With this approach, they are providing a new definition of what it means to be Jewish in America.

On the broader political stage, I hope that their example will serve as a model of how progressives can organize with values — and that many more interfaith efforts in the same mold will follow. Because it is our authentic self-awareness that ultimately allows us to reach beyond ourselves and bring about lasting change that is rooted in integrity. We have to know who we are to believe in what we are doing.

Amy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of ‘A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.’ Dean has worked for nearly two decades at the cross section of labor and community based organizations linking policy and research with action and advocacy. You can follow Amy on twitter @amybdean, or she can be reached via www.amybdean.com.

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