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.
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.