We live in a world dominated by social media, and for an increasing number of us it’s how we get our news (more on that in a minute). What I’m wondering right now is whether or not we’re getting the same news, and what we should do about that.
Recently, when talking with a good friend, I brought up the Department of Justice (DOJ) report investigating civil rights violations by the Ferguson Police Department. Puzzled, my friend responded that she hadn’t heard of the report, but would be interested in reading about it. I was a little taken aback. From my perspective, the release of the DOJ report was the largest news story of the week. I could understand if my friend hadn’t read the entire 102 page report, but I was shocked she hadn’t even heard about it.
But then I remembered a conversation I had with my dad earlier this year. He called me, sounding frantic: “There’s a huge fire in Jackson by the Agricultural Museum! Are you okay?”
I was totally fine (although I do live pretty close to the Ag Museum). In fact, despite him being in Arizona and me being on the ground in Mississippi, a mile from the flames—I had no idea that the museum was burning. My father was watching the television news in Tucson, which was reporting on the fire. The Jackson news outlets were certainly featuring this story, too, but I don’t own a television.
I am not alone: Most of my friends don’t own televisions or subscribe to newspapers. According to the Pew Research Center, less than a quarter of Millennials (22%) read newspapers at least every other day, compared to 40% of adults overall. Overwhelmingly, Millennials get their news from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
What does this really mean? This is what it looks like for me.
Most of my friends who comprise my social network tend to hold views similar to mine. This means that the things that are posted on my Facebook and Twitter news feeds are generally things I’m already interested in learning about. Meaning, I rarely read pieces that challenge my viewpoint. Generally, I am presented with news and content in which I have already expressed an interest—and frequently presented it from a perspective with which I am likely to agree.
So, for someone in my generation who doesn’t have a real investment in what’s happening in Ferguson, news of the Department of Justice report is unlikely to reach them. While I recognize that it’s unreasonable to think many people would read the full 102 pages, I do think it’s necessary we seek out the sort of information released in the report, and talk about its implications.
This got me thinking not only about how this impacts me personally as a Millennial and a citizen, but also about how it impacts the work I do as a Community Engagement Fellow. My job is focused on social justice. The way that we approach social justice is from an informed perspective. In seeking to repair the world and fight for justice, it’s imperative that we first learn about the statistics and realities of injustices in our communities and throughout the nation. That’s why we like to begin our partnerships with Jewish communities with a needs assessment process—some sort of activity that asks them to research statistics in their area and learn about the realities in their communities.
Ferguson and the DOJ report represents an important example. The extensive report gives us a window into the realities of police brutality and civil rights violations happening in our nation right here, right now. It’s news to which we should be exposed, whether or not it’s in our self-selected newsfeeds. At least reading a well-assembled synopsis of the report is an important start, and helps everyone join the conversation.
Although my generation has exchanged TV screens for phone and computer screens, we are still engaged. This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. While there, I had the opportunity to hear President Obama speak. At one point, he said something I felt deeply as I read the Department of Justice report. The President said: “All we have to do is open our eyes and hearts to see that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”
Let’s open our eyes and our hearts, and continue the work of the brave men and women that fought against racism and oppression 50 years ago. I think it starts with all of us, not just reading whatever comes across our screen but seeking out information, multiple perspectives and most of all facts and full stories. We need to be aware that we might not all be getting the same news, and when we come across facts and full stories worth sharing, we should talk about them—online, and offline, too.
A few months ago, we saw a posting for a local environmental event. So we put on some sustainably manufactured clothes, grabbed our Nalgene water bottles, and headed to our neighborhood community garden. Unsure of what to expect, we wound up participating in a two hour drum circle while different people took turns reading off a list of “10,000 ways to save the earth” into a microphone.
Although our hands were sore and our ear drums were tired, we walked away energized and excited. We were going to compost! We were going to re-use old containers! We were going to walk to work!
Unfortunately, like a lot of resolutions, our commitment to compost, to re-use containers, and to walk slowly waned, and soon we were back to old habits. Part of our inability to follow through with our resolutions was due to our neighborhood’s current practices. There’s a lot of Styrofoam used here, a lot of double bagging those pesky plastic bags at supermarkets (our own fault, too, for forgetting to bring re-usable bags to the store). Our small recycling bin is only collected by the city every other week. There’s no outlet for recycling glass, either.
So, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of waste in our surroundings. And, like other cycles, waste begets waste. But when we noticed the adverse effects of this cycle, and how easy it is to get stuck in a rut, we knew we had to begin implementing some innovative changes our wasteful ways.
After accumulating an abundance of glass bottles over a 6-month period, we decided it was high time for a glass bottle painting party. We invited friends to bring their glass non-recyclables, got some acrylic paint, and created some really nice looking bottles. Now, these bottles decorate our homes as well as our desks at the office; they can be used as storage containers, as pitchers for drinks, as vases for flowers, and much more. We’ve re-used in the absence of a recycling outlet.
As a follow up to the painting party, we wanted to host an event that focused more broadly on sustainable practices. Lonnie recently became a Moishe House Without Walls host, which means we have the opportunity to plan and create events for the young Jewish community in Jackson, with a lot of support and guidance from the folks at Moishe House.
Lucky for us, the holiday of Tu Bishvat was a week away. Tu Bishvat, often called the birthday of the trees, is one of four new years mentioned in the Mishnah. We thought it would be cool to connect to the idea of the new year for trees with our drive for sustainability in Jackson. With the help of Moishe House Without Walls, we invited a bunch of folks to our house and asked everyone to share what their resolution for sustainability is. Answers ranged from “use less toilet paper” to “create a hydroponic fish tank.” We filled our house with fruits and nuts, and invited friends to try a new fruit.
We had about 25 people in our tiny home in Jackson, trying new fruits, drinking festive Tu Bishvat wine, and working on their resolutions for sustainability. Becoming sustainable, both on a personal level and on a wider scale, is a process — and a learning opportunity for everyone involved. And on that note, we really are going to make a concrete change, after months of only talking about it.
Our resolution for sustainability: we are going to start composting!
Hopefully this will bring our Jackson community closer to sustainable practices, which will create a culture of sustainability, because progress begets progress. Thanks to MHWOW, we will be able to host many events in which we can chat with folks about a range of issues relevant to young Jews.
Up next for Moishe House without Walls in Jackson, Mississippi: A Purim masquerade ball– featuring masks made exclusively from recycled materials. (And, of course, ongoing composting adventures.)
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.