Today’s post is from Caitlin Brooking, who recently attended a “Service in Mississippi” summit hosted by the ISJL, and then graciously offered to share her thoughts on community engagement.
When we view ourselves as a global community, it is impossible for us to stand by while our neighbors are hurting. Here in Mississippi, we seem to often be the ones in the spotlight as “hurting” – afflicted by persistent poverty, health disparities, and occasional natural disasters.
When Hurricane Katrina struck the coast of Mississippi almost 10 years ago, the images of decimated neighborhoods and people in pain lingered in the minds of many, and over the next few years, thousands headed South to assist with relief efforts, for days, months, even years.
For communities already dizzy with the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding individual lives as well as public institutions, the influx came with conflicting emotions. As the recovery dragged on, many long-term volunteer groups began struggling with the question, “How can we authentically include and respect the community in efforts that alter the appearance and composition of their community?”
The overwhelming majority of those who came from elsewhere to rebuild the Gulf Coast came out of compassion, with good intentions to use their own skills and resources to help residents get back on their feet. Many were socially conscious recent college graduates; many had been involved with community service efforts for years, were familiar with social justice tactics and were sensitive to and protective of residents’ privacy and self-agency. They made efforts to include community members in choices about housing design and community projects. Most were passionate and dedicated to their work, and wanted to leave the Gulf Coast “better than they found it.”
But for residents, long-held ideas about their community – what it looked like, who lived there, where their daily lives took place— gradually began to slip away. Some despaired they would never be able to truly return home, but felt unable to express these feelings without seeming ungrateful. Of course the efforts of volunteers were desperately needed, and many would be without homes at all without it. But while they were housed, they still remained “home”-less.
How can volunteers bring their best resources to address disparities in underserved communities, while respecting the community’s own vision? The answer seems simple: ask residents, listen to their responses, and engage them actively in project planning. However, projects can be complicated. Volunteers bring donor-specified outcomes, resource limitations, and specific skills that can’t always be well harnessed due to timing and context. Within communities, there can be political and ideological divides, competing visions for improvement, and in a disaster, there is often a sense of urgency as well as a heightened sense of vulnerability and loss of control that can fuel reluctance to let outside visions steer the projects. All communities want to feel empowered to create a place they can see themselves thriving in, not only a place to live but a platform for improving their own lives. Aligning volunteer group goals with community-led efforts from the project’s inception is crucial in managing expectations, ensuring sustainability for projects, and funneling volunteer energies and resources toward creating lasting change in the community.
Volunteer groups can work to embed themselves within the communities they serve, recognizing their role as outsiders and seeking out community-defined leaders to inform projects and guide planning processes. Planning processes should also include crafting a sustainability plan for projects, identifying specific local groups or residents who will steward projects after volunteer groups leave. Whether it is a one-day mural project or community garden, or a summer-long summer camp, projects should reflect the community’s priorities and values, and engage local residents in planning and implementation as leaders, volunteers and donors.
When volunteers travel to a community, the possibilities for idea exchange, innovation, and life-changing travel experiences are abundant. Intentional incorporation of community members in every stage of the project, from planning, investment, implementation and future preservation and usage of project results, can transform a project from a one-time experience for volunteers to a meaningful turning point in the ongoing development of a strong, vibrant community.
Playing an active role in our local communities is a long-standing Southern Jewish tradition. Our community, Temple Israel in Columbus, Georgia, wanted to do even more with community engagement—so we reached out to Malkie Schwartz at the ISJL. With that help and guidance, our Community Engagement committee has been able to build an amazing relationship with the students and staff of Rothschild Leadership Academy (RLA), a local public middle school that serves students in 6th-8th grade.
During the summer, the committee approached Dr. Mike Forte, the Principal of Rothschild Leadership Academy and asked this critical community engagement question: What do you need?
Dr. Forte responded: “Help the kids read.”
And so began our community’s implementation of the ISJL’s literacy program Read, Lead, Succeed.
Read, Lead, Succeed is a program first piloted in Jackson, Mississippi. We’re excited to now be piloting it here in Columbus, Georgia. Read, Lead, Succeed uses I See Sam phonetics based reading materials. The I See Sam curriculum was designed to help young elementary school students so we’ve modified the program to better fit the needs of 6th graders. For example, our students read individually for privacy as well as personalized instruction. Additionally, we have added an “attitude assessment” that students take when they first begin the program and after completing other predesignated milestones. The program deftly integrates learning with a positive environment that fosters relationships and a love of reading.
Many of our volunteer team members were concerned the I See Sam system was too simple for the students. We quickly learned that there are many students who read below grade level and this program helped address gaps in their reading abilities. It comes down to that same question: What do you need? This program, and the system behind it, is filling a need.
Our Community Engagement Committee members have been personally impacted by this program. I asked some of them to share their thoughts and reflections:
“The success of Read, Lead, Succeed at Rothschild Leadership Academy is a marvelous manifestation of the trust we forged by listening. We listened to Dr. Forte describe the needs at his school. We listened to his priorities. After the commitment and excellence we showed through the gardening project, he and his staff were receptive to our suggestion to help in a deeper way.” – Mark Rice
“Initially, I was concerned that the books would be too easy for them … I was surprised to see that in fact, they were the level they were reading at. My heart went out to them. Their improvement and eagerness to learn each week motivated me even more. I am so proud of them and I know they will continue to improve. The need for someone to spend time with them reading is vital. The programs straightforward approach was very helpful.” – Suzanne Reed Fine
In the future, the Community Engagement Committee of Columbus, Georgia hopes to expand Read, Lead, Succeed by adding volunteers and students to the program at RLA. We also envision launching the program in the elementary schools that feed into RLA. We believe that preventing students from falling behind in elementary school will lead to greater success in middle school and beyond. We are proud for our Southern Jewish congregation to continue playing our part, working in our community and helping meet the needs that are right here at home.
About this time last year, I remember walking around the streets of Jerusalem, counting the menorahs I could see in windowsills and doorways. I was excited and inspired—I had never seen such a prevalent, and beautiful, public display of Jewish ritual before.
On Hanukkah, we are told to light the menorah and place it at the entrance to our homes, a place easily visible to those passing by in the street. Over the years, the tradition has changed and many place the menorah in the window, facing the street. The rabbis say that one should choose the window most visible from the street, whether that window is in a bedroom or a family room. If many people pass by the entrance to an apartment (say, in the stairwell), the proper place for the menorah is just outside the entrance to the apartment. All this is to say that the menorah should be positioned in the place where it will be seen by most people, in order to publicize the holiday.
This year, I’m going to place the menorah in my front windowsill of my apartment in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m going to do so without a second thought. I have the privilege of placing a menorah in my windowsill without the fear of persecution in response to this public display of observance. What’s more, I do so with great pride and ownership of the ritual.
This year, next to my menorah, I’m going to place a banner that signifies the meaning of Hanukkah to me, a holiday that’s meant to bring light into our world. As a Jew devoted to social justice, to me that light represents equal rights for all. That light represents my belief that all people, regardless of religion or race or gender, should be able to walk down the street without fear of persecution or violence. Everyone should feel privileged enough to place the equivalent of their menorah in the windowsill.
Over the past weeks, as crowds have gathered across the country to demand an end to police brutality and racial violence, I’ve often wondered what I can do as a Jew and an ally to support this work. So this year, I’m adding a simple object to my windowsill—a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter.” There are similar Hanukkah campaigns and initiatives being encouraged by many national Jewish organizations, such as Bend The Arc and Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
Hanukkah means “dedication.” This year, I am re-dedicating my Hanukkah. I hope you will join me.