Why We Came South

As we prepare for the new year ahead, we’ll be sharing several Southern & Jewish posts reflecting on “how we spent our summer.” Today’s post come from two guests who visited us down South, Jay Saper and Margot Seigle.

This May, the two of us—white Jews who grew up in the Midwest—traveled down to Mississippi. Inspired by emerging efforts to develop the South as a hub for cooperative enterprise, we sought to learn more at the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference. Like the Jews involved in the Civil Rights movement in the generations before us, we came South, too.

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Jay and Margot meeting with coordinators from the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson.

As we waited for the shuttle to pick us up from the Medgar Evers Airport to take us to Jackson State University, we strolled into an exhibit about the person after whom the airport was named. In 1954, Medgar Evers was appointed the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi. He traveled the state courageously advocating for Black rights.

Evers’ bravery came with a toll. After driving home on the evening of June 12, 1963, he took shirts reading “Jim Crow Must Go” out of the car to bring inside his home. He started up his driveway, but a bullet took his life before he could make it to the door.

The following year, building on Evers’ dedicated decade of organizing, a coalition of civil rights organizations launched Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was a summer of change – and of more loss. As we read the names of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman on the wall of the exhibit in the Jackson airport, we wondered at their legacy, and our own role in coming South.

At the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference we learned about an exciting way people in the South are working to challenge racism today: by building a democratic economy that meets their presently unmet needs.  This approach to community resilience comes out of a long tradition documented by Jessica Gordon Nembhard in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.

We got to meet with John Zippert, a fellow Jew who has long acted in solidarity with Blacks in the South to advance racial and economic justice through the cooperative model. The son of refugees from Nazi Germany, Zippert was active in social struggles from a young age in New York City. In the summer of 1965, Zippert went South as a volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality. He helped farmers looking for a better price on their sweet potatoes to set up a cooperative. Through this work he met Carol Prejean. The two would go on to be the first married interracial couple in Louisiana.

Since 1970, Zippert has been working for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an organization that grew directly out of the Civil Rights Movement. The Federation works to maintain Black owned land and expand the use of cooperatives for economic development. It has been integral to challenging discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA. In 2012, Tuskegee University inducted Zippert into the George Washington Carver Hall of Fame for his tireless dedication to those who are disadvantaged.

The organizers from Cooperation Jackson and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project communicated with us that the movement for economic democracy is building in exciting and powerful ways. There is still a lot of work to be done, and when we come together, that work can get done. That’s why we came South, and will continue to partner with the amazing individuals and groups fighting for social change today.

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Posted on September 2, 2014

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“It’s The Thought That Counts” Isn’t Good Enough

“‘It’s the thought that counts’ is not a Jewish concept. What you do matters more than what you just think about doing.”

blogelul2014My mother said this at least a thousand times to my brothers and sister and me. And it truly stuck, because as I sit here pondering today’s #BlogElul writing promptDOher words are playing on a loop in my mind.

“‘It’s the thought that counts’ is not a Jewish concept. What you do matters more than what you just think about doing.”

My mother would often follow this admonition with an acknowledgmenta warning, even!that it’s often easier to think about something than do it. To think about visiting someone in the hospital, to think about showing up for the highway cleaning event, to think about attending a funeral. But that’s too easy, and not effective enough.

While people might say, shrugging and smiling and forgiving, “Hey, it’s the thought that counts,” the question is … counts for what?

To use one of the examples my mother might have drawn on in my youth: If your friend mentions she’s thirsty and you think about getting her a glass of water, but you don’t give her any water, why should that count? Pouring her a glass of water and addressing her thirst is what will actually make a difference. Doing counts.

This is what my mother would remind us, as she drove us to the senior citizens’ center to read and sing and spend time with residents there. It is what she would repeat as we went to life cycle events, happy and sad alike. It was her mantra when we volunteered at the soup kitchen as a family, when we visited a cranky relative, when we sent thank you notes for every present ever received.

And as an adult, it’s why I push myself to “do” as much as I can. I saw, time after time, how much it mattered to be there rather than to “keep so-and-so in our thoughts.” When we have the ability to actively do, we also have the responsibility.

We see this reflected throughout Jewish culture and tradition. The Hebrew word mitzvah, which we use to connote good deed, literally means an obligation. We are prescribed to celebrate with bride and groom, to visit the sickto do, to do, to do.

To actively do applies on scales both big and small. When we see an injustice, it’s not enough to notice it. We have to address it. When someone is hurting, it’s not enough to sympathize or empathize with themwe need to find out what they might need, and then whether it’s a hug or a primal scream or to be left alone or whatever, we need to do our best to actively do that.

The balance, of course, comes in the value inherent in thinking. In Jewish tradition, and in life. After all, action without thought, reckless knee-jerk responses without reflection, can be fruitless and even dangerous. I’m a pretty reflective person, and with every fiber of my being, I still want to emphasize thinking. When something challenging is on the news, I still want to ask myself what I really know, and push myself to think and listen and research before settling on what action I will ultimately take. As a first question, I want to ask others “What do you think about this?” and listen to their responses.

But I need to challenge myself, and challenge others, by posing a slightly more difficult second question… not just “What do you think about this?”, but also “What are we doing about this?”

Sometimes, of course, there is nothing we can do. Or we don’t have the ability to take action. But when we can do, we should doand despite what Yoda might have to say about it, sometimes we can at least try, and perhaps the attempt will count for something, too.

It’s not always going to be easy, but hey. Who said it would be easy? Especially when it comes to Jewish stuff? “It’s the thought that counts” is not a Jewish concept. Taking action, and doing the right thing even when it’s hard… that’s a Jewish concept cultivated right down to my core.

Thanks, Mom.

This post was written as part of the #BlogElul project. Today is the first day of Elul, traditionally a time of reflection before the High Holidays. We welcome your reflections, too!

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Posted on August 27, 2014

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Seek Stories, Not Stereotypes

There’s one page I follow obsessively on Facebook: Humans of New York.

Image shared with permission from Humans of New York

Image shared with permission from Humans of New York

Brandon, the photographer and author behind HONY, approaches total strangers, takes their photos, and asks questions that are often incredibly personal. He doesn’t wait for strangers to approach and share their stories, instead he openly investigates and uplifts voices otherwise overlooked.

I’ve been following HONY quite some time now, and recently this page has been sharing stories far away from New York City. In partnership with the United Nations, supported by the Secretary General’s MDG Advocacy Group, Brandon is currently traveling to 10 countries over the course of 50 days, to visit faraway places and listen to as many people as possible.

When I opened the page today, there were several postings from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each photo came with a unique story, informed by personal experience.

A question was on my mind that Malkie Schwartz posed to me when I first came to the ISJL, to begin my work as a Community Engagement Fellow: “What do you think of when you think about Africa?”

Most of the images I associated with Africa throughout my childhood had to do with Aid for Africa campaigns. Young children, malnourished, dusty, reaching out for food and help. This made me think. What if these were the only images you ever saw of Africa? What would you think of someone who came from there?

It’s difficult, and I think wrong, to see an entire continent as one-dimensional: needy, desolate, ravaged by AIDS.

This particular image from the HONY/United Nations project struck me. There’s a young man, standing in the middle of street, next to a poster of some young boys sitting on the ground, asking for food. In the caption that accompanies this photograph, the man says he does not like pictures like the one next to him. The man, credited as a Human of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, says: “It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this… This gives us no dignity.”

He’s right, and why can’t we elevate voices like his?

There’s a great campaign by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund that asks similar questions. They depict Norway as a cold, sad country that can’t afford to keep its citizens warm. They call for Africans to lend a hand and send radiators to Norway, to save the poor people that can’t help themselves. They ask, what if campaigns like this were the only thing you knew about Norway? What would you think of the country?  Malkie wrote about this campaign awhile back, and it’s pretty eye-opening.

So here is my social justice challenge for the day, for all of us: go read a story about a company in Africa, learn about a local initiative. Think of positive adjectives to accompany the many negative ones we see in aid campaigns. Don’t perpetuate the negative stereotypes. We don’t like it when we experience it – we should actively work to avoid doing it to others.

It’s something I’ll be bearing in mind when it comes to Africa, and to my community engagement work here in the South, as well. Stereotypes are limiting. Stories open doors.

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Posted on August 26, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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