By Emma Saltzberg, Education Justice Fellow, Repair the World NYC
The first time I visited Atlanta was on a civil rights driving tour of the American South when I was in high school. We visited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace and final resting place, as well as the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. How fitting it was, then, to return to Atlanta again almost 10 years later, in a continuing fight for human rights and social and racial justice with Repair the World.
Last month, I traveled to Points of Light’s Service Unites conference in Atlanta as a member of Repair the World’s delegation. This three-day marathon of learning around volunteering and service brought together the nation’s leaders in service to share best practices and learn from one another. Repair the World’s delegation brought the unique approach of volunteering rooted in Jewish values to the group of more than 2,000 conference attendees.
As an education justice fellow at Repair the World NYC, I have spent the last year living, volunteering, and learning in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Service Unites offered a powerful space to see what the merits of volunteer work and service programs in action look like on a larger scale. The location also felt particularly appropriate, as Repair the World is about to launch a new Community in Atlanta; the conference was a fabulous opportunity to share our work with stakeholders such as local nonprofit leaders, motivated volunteers, and board members.
Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta
After the conference, I visited the new Center for Civil and Human Rights. During this version of my civil rights tour of Atlanta, I entered with a much deeper understanding of the issues of racial justice that remain in our society today, thanks especially to my educational year as a Repair the World fellow. The most moving part of the museum was a simulated lunch counter sit-in, just like students in Greensboro, North Carolina would have experienced in 1960. I felt shivers down my spine as the harassers “whispered” in my ear (via a headphone recording) and the experience was nearly unbearable. The patience and self-discipline the nonviolent activists of the civil rights movement displayed is remarkable.
In 2018, we cannot afford to sit still and let the bullies of this country dominate society and the political sphere. While all of Repair the World’s Communities focus hyper-locally, one can imagine that the issues faced by people I’ve met in underserved neighborhoods in Brooklyn could be similar to communities in Atlanta and other cities around the country. This fellowship year has been spent in deep learning around racial justice, the needs of our local community, and why giving back through service is an inherently Jewish value. Visiting Atlanta for Service Unites and the Center for Civil and Human Rights only affirmed this understanding further.
Here I Am: Interfaith Conversations on Service
At Service Unites, Repair the World co-hosted the annual Service Supper, a dialogue around the influences of faith traditions on volunteering. Guests heard from local clergy who led interfaith blessings over the food and our presence there together. As a table facilitator, my role was to guide the discussion at my table of eight guests; the theme of the evening was “Hineni: Here I Am.” The goal of the evening was for participants to come away with an understanding that meaningful service should not divide us; in fact, it is one of the only actions that may bring people together to effect change.
One of the guests at my table felt comfortable sharing her personal story with the group. She spoke about a rough period she had gone through about two years prior, when this person found herself functionally homeless. She had a job, and she woke up and went to work every single day. She just didn’t have her own apartment to go home to.
This is the kind of homelessness we never speak about. The most common visualization of someone experiencing homelessness is of a person who abuses drugs, suffers from mental illness, or can’t keep a job. This paradigm ignores the thousands of hard-working American citizens who put in so much effort yet are consistently ignored and abused by the very system that proclaims to provide them with the American Dream.
What does Hineni mean to me? Saying “Here I Am,” or being truly present means showing up humbly with an open ear, ready to listen. It means never relying on preconceived notions or stereotypes, but rather approaching each individual where they are and truly listening to their story. It means breaking bread across vast differences, and showing up together.
Bringing my Service Unites Experience into the Future
As I transition out of my role as a Repair the World fellow in a couple of weeks, having the opportunity to attend Service Unites was a meaningful way to tie all the pieces together. From engaging in rich storytelling and listening at Service Supper, to sessions I attended around millennial engagement in service, to the wisdom gained from our constituents and colleagues at the Repair the World Delegation Summit, I was able both to share with others what I have learned this year applying Jewish values to service, as well as learn from others doing this work around the country, whether faith-based or secular. Seeing so many talented nonprofit leaders in action at Service Unites reinvigorated my belief that it is through honest conversation and humble service of others — in addition to through political action and systemic change — that we could actually have a shot at achieving racial justice as Dr. King imagined. Hinenu: we are here.
Emma Saltzberg recently completed a service year as an education justice fellow at Repair the World NYC. Emma took a gap year before college and lived in Israel volunteering at a kindergarten in Bat Yam. In this suburb of Tel Aviv, Emma realized how rewarding it was for her to help improve quality of life through hands-on education reform. Upon returning from Israel, she attended Tulane University and majored in ecology and evolutionary biology. Her favorite part of living in New Orleans was the multitude of food and music festivals to explore!