Trayvon Martin and Tisha B’Av

This week it seems the world is talking about Trayvon Martin. All while my people are observing Tisha B’Av – one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar.

Tisha B’Av is a holiday in which we mourn the destruction of the Temples, twice. First due to idolatry and again for sinat chinam or baseless hatred. Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent verdict of “not guilty” for George Zimmerman, the man who shot him, is related to both.

In our world we idolize individuality. The individual right to do whatever makes you feel good – like “stand your ground” – even if others are hurt or killed. Couple this idolatry of individual rights and the oppression of people with marginalized identities and our laws create unjust situations where we value some individuality over others. Case in point is Marissa Alexander, a domestic violence survivor who fired a warning shot toward a wall, which injured no one, invoked “stand your ground” and received a 20-year sentence.

Trayvon Martin experienced baseless hatred the night he was murdered. Baseless hatred is often felt on an individual level but too often it begins from a systemic, institutional place. This kind of baseless hatred is raced and gendered. It’s systemic and perpetrated by police and civilians alike.

It’s a Jewish value to seek justice (tzedek tzedek tirdof). If I don’t work to change the systemic racism endemic in my nation, then I am no better than those who actively contribute to the systems. If I only work for justice when it directly impacts me, I’m doing it wrong. And making a mockery of every value Jewish value I claim to hold dear.

I was born into a system which gives me privilege by virtue of the color of my skin. It’s my job to recognize that and to educate others about it. It’s my job to recognize my own prejudices — not so I can beat myself up about them, but so I can unlearn them. And it’s my job to work toward a future in which racism and prejudice are eradicated; not only on an individual level, but on a societal and systemic level.

We’re reminded in Pirkei Avot, “it is not incumbent upon us to finish the task…but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.” It’s our obligation to begin to build a better world, a more just and righteous world for ourselves and our future generations.


More than marriage.

With the DOMA and Prop 8 rulings, I’ve been hearing a lot about how “we’ve made it!” and what a monumental step this is. While I hear that and understand the sentiment – yes, this is a step (quite incremental, but yes, a step); it reminds me of the press when President Obama was first elected and many declared racism dead (the New York Times ran an article titled: Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls)

Yes, marriage is important for a lot of people. It’s an institution in our society and it provides over 1,000 rights, benefits and protections. I’m not 100% sure that marriage is the “right” or “best” fight as ultimately it buys into a structure which was not ever intended for queer people. I suppose that is another post.  For now I’d like to focus on what’s missing when we only focus on marriage – I came up with four main areas, violence, media portrayal, racism and economic justice.

  • Violence

Violence against queer and specifically trans* people receives very little media coverage. Trans* folks face a disproportion amount of violence and hate on a daily basis this violence is amplified if the person has additional marginalized identities (class, race, etc).  Believe it or not, the numbers have only increased in recent years. And these crimes are not only happening in southern, less traditionally LGBT friendly places but in places like New York City as well.

  • Media portrayal

The media tropes around who queer people are, what they do and act like continue to be upper-class white gay men (a la Modern Family). These portrayals are not only not realistic but further push queer people of color, folks who don’t fit in gender binaries and non-picturesque queers to the margins.   Imagine growing up in a world where you never see anyone like you in your community or on TV. Broadening what queers “look like” in public can only be beneficial.

  •  Racism

The LGBT movement (the machine) has a racism problem. This is nothing new however recently there’s been exclusion of undocumented queer folks from the national conversation, and new reports published about just how much differently queer folks of color experience violence and poverty. All while ignored by the “mainstream” queer advocacy orgs. We’ll never be truly liberated until we recognize that these injustices are connected and join together in the fight.

  • Economic Justice

Employment discrimination, lack of health insurance and homelessness lead LGBT folks to be significantly more likely than straight folks to live below the poverty line. Again, these rates only increase with additional marginalized identities (race, gender, etc). Couple that with the knowledge that about 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT and close to 70% of those were kicked out of their homes after coming out – and you can see there’s significant economic injustice happening. It isn’t just income inequality, it’s structural.

So, sure, maybe some de jure measures of structural inequality, like marriage, are slowly changing but the de facto measures? Those are still so present in the daily lives of queer people. Marriage is incremental change but what we need is broad sweeping radical change.  If we view all oppression as connected then we will not reach liberation until we are able to come together and create meaningful social change.

I can only view the queer community from my own lens — what have I missed? What are other areas which are missed in only focusing on marriage?

New job, new experiences.

I stated a new job about a month ago at HOPE Works in Burlington, Vermont. My work is very different than my previous job in student affairs but I am finding connections, places where I can learn and so far it feels right.

What has struck me in my new position is the non-competitive nature of the workplace. In my previous workplace it seemed that all of the employees at my level were vying for the attention of the supervisor.  My fellow student affairs practitioners wanted to rise to the top, receive the praise in the middle of the meeting, have it be known that their idea was chosen, etc. Here, we work together to come to the best solution and put our minds together if something is a challenge. I feel a sense of camaraderie that was simply non-existent in my student affairs experience.

There are a lot of reasons why this might be true but the ones I’ve been thinking about so far are:

1) My new workplace is small. There are about the number of employees here total as there were people in my position at my last place of employment. When you’re small, your positions become much more interconnected, you rely on one another in different ways.

2) The historical roots of the work. Student affairs work comes from and exists within a place of privilege: higher education. Non-profit work and specifically, feminist work, tries to subvert that framework. This seems to be an important distinction in the way I’m experience my new environment.

3) My new workplace is passionate. In my student affairs experience, there were so many burnt out practitioners. In my new workplace folks are not only not burnt out, there are policies in place to ensure folks don’t get burnt out like, a self-care budget, flexible scheduling and lots of time off.

I know I’m not fully acclimated; it’s only been about a month, so perhaps my thoughts will change. Only time will tell.

What else? What makes a workplace healthy? Can competition exist with camaraderie?


I’ve never been to Steubenville, Ohio – yet when the verdict came out a few days ago that two high school men who had been charged with assaulting an unconscious 16-year-old woman were found guilty, I breathed a sign of relief.  In my mind guilt was the only reasonable verdict in this case. The woman found out about her own assault on social media.

Our media response has been just as appalling as the assault itself in blaming the victim and conveying concern for the rapists whose ‘promising’ young lives had been ruined by the verdict.

Our rape culture is systemic and overwhelming to think about breaking but if we all do our part we can create change. There’s this activity I first did several years ago when training to be a rape crisis center hotline volunteer which lists a ton of terrible things (rape, incest, saying sexist jokes, laughing at sexist jokes, domestic violence, legal pornography, etc.) and asks participants to rank the acts from least to most harmful. My ranking always comes out about the exact opposite as the rest of the group. Folks tend to rank things like rape and incest as the most harmful while I rank saying or laughing at sexist jokes as most harmful. We have to begin somewhere to confront our systemic rape culture. We can start with the little, everyday examples, which devalue and dehumanize women.


What have we learned from the events in Steubenville? I’ll leave you with what I’ve learned:

1)   They thought they could get away with it. And to some extent, they did. As minors, both young men (rapists) who were convicted will serve until 21 and at that point they will be assessed to see if they will need to be on the sex offender registry.

2)   Bystanders play a critical role. As a bystander you can either take photos or intervene. Could bystanders have prevented the assault? I don’t know but they DO play a very important role. This affirms my work with Green Dot and makes me proud to be part of that movement.

3)   Education, education, education! Advocates need to get into our schools and provide information about consent earlier.

4)   Victim blaming is an inevitable part of this fight and as long as it still exists we will still fight.


This year has been trying in so, so many ways; which is exactly why I feel that I need to try and try again, harder, better and differently in 2013.

In thinking about what my One Word for 2013 would be I talked with my dad. He said “what about success?” after thinking for a minute I said, “I can’t control if I am successful or not but I can try.” And that’s when I knew – I had to try.

Try to embrace. Try to change. Try to catch up on. Try to bite my tongue. Try to push myself. SO many things to try!

Sometimes I get caught up in the negative, if I can’t do it the first time, or it doesn’t make sense I am quick to give up before I have even tried.

So, for 2013, I will try!


I’ve created a Pinterest board to inspire myself to try throughout the year. What is your one word for 2013?


This I Believe: #SAchat Partners with ACPA Commission for Social Justice Educators

This post was originally published on The Student Affairs Collaborative Blog – and as a co-author I wished to repost it here!

The wonderful folks at the Student Affairs Collaborative have agreed to collaborate with some of the folks from the American College Personnel Association’s (ACPA) Commission for Social Justice Educators (CSJE) Directorate this week!

The #sachat on Thursday, December 6 will feature social justice education topics.  The CSJE folks are hoping to develop a twitter chat around social justice education, but want the community to drive that initiative.  We look forward to seeing you for the chat on Thursday and in the future.

To gear up for this week’s social justice chat, three of the CSJE Directorate Body members contributed a short post on what they believe about social justice education.  Inspiration came from This I Believe.


Kayla Nuss (@KaylaJNuss):

“Don’t go past the railroad tracks,” said one of my coworkers. “Oh yeah, I saw a property over there and I was afraid to get out of my car. That’s a really BAD part of town,” responded the other. As I sat listening to my colleagues discuss where they’d looked at homes for sale, I felt it boil up inside me. It was something akin to fury- hot and angry- rising into my throat. I clenched my hands over my keyboard and my nails made marks into my palms. ‘What should I do?” I thought, “I barely know these people. We just started working together What if I ruin the relationship that we’ve just begun building?” As they went on and on about the ‘good parts’ and the ‘bad parts’ of our suburban, mostly white, college town, I just couldn’t stay silent any longer.

“Hey, could you two please come into my office? I need to speak to you both,” I said, my voice trembling and cracking. “I’m worried about the words you’re choosing to use to describe parts of town. Things like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are pretty loaded terms. Could you tell me why you chose those?” My colleagues stared back at me blankly. I wasn’t sure if it was surprise, horror, embarrassment, or something else on their faces. One finally said, “I guess I never thought about why I’d chosen those words. I just looked around at the houses and cars around some of those neighborhoods and they look run down and old.” I explained that it sounded like they were making huge assumptions about groups of people based on where they lived. I explained that they never knew which one of the students we served lived in the very neighborhood they were describing.

What I believe is that the students I work with and the people in my community deserve my voice. They deserve it because I am in a position of power and privilege. I never earned this power but, based on what I look like, who my parents are, and where I grew up, I have it. And I need to, no, I HAVE to use it- as anxiety provoking as that can be, it’s my responsibility to muster the courage, and care, to use it. It’s my job and that’s what I believe.

Sarah Glassman (@slglassman):

I see it everywhere, it’s systemic; on billboards and in magazines, images of violence against women – images of patriarchy, power and oppression. I hear it on the radio, in song lyrics and spoken by the DJ. It’s on TV, not just on Lifetime, but primetime. Am I the only one who sees it?

It is big and I feel small.

And then I heard it in the hallway near my office “dude, I totally just raped that exam!” It took me more than a minute to realize what I’d heard. With my office door cluttered with ‘Safe Space’ stickers and information about campus resources, it’s rare that I hear students acting so much like…themselves. I peeked out into the hallway to find who was speaking, a student I know. As their friends left I asked if we could talk. We sat in my office and I said, “what did you mean when you said you ‘raped your exam?’” The student explained that it’s “just something people say” and that he “didn’t mean it like that.” We had a conversation about understanding one’s intent versus their impact; we talked about violence against women. Our culture normalizes violence through phrases like the one he had said moments before; and if he’d said that comment in the presence of just a few others it’s likely that one of them has been sexually assaulted.

It may have seemed like an ordinary weekday to him, he may not reflect on the conversation for months or at all. But I believe it’s important to promote a culture that reflects knowledge and awareness through vocabulary and actions.

It wasn’t a long conversation but it’s a drop in the bucket that wouldn’t be there without me.

The language of our rape culture is bigger than any one individual but all of us have the power to do something. I believe I can interrupt and change it. I believe my simple action, my voice, move us toward a more just world.

Erica Thompson (@EricaKThompson):

I remember sitting on the bus, on my way to school in the seventh grade.  I had become old enough to sit at the back of the bus, where the “cool” kids sat, and really enjoyed that half hour or so every morning.  At the time, blonde jokes were all the rage; being naturally blonde, these always made me uncomfortable.  I considered myself smart and capable, something those jokes never portrayed.  I couldn’t see myself in the (almost always) women who received the brunt of the so-called humor.  There were whole books devoted to the concept that women born blonde were inherently stupid, incapable, ditzy, and promiscuous.  I hated them.  Every single day.

Then it got worse.  The blond jokes turned to cultural offenses that I feel ashamed to even discuss.  My young peers cracked up over indecent descriptions of our fellow humans of Polish and Jewish descent.  There are probably other populations whom were struck down with similar obscenities, but I have repressed which specific groups they were.  What I can recall with distinct shame, sadness, and discomfort is how I felt inside when those jokes were rattled off without a second thought.  My heart broke for the people who were the subject – even though my small town Iowan roots had never met anyone like them.

Even as a young teenager, I could feel at my core the injustices in our world because of race, gender, religion, and even appearances.   Those years ago, I didn’t have the knowledge and information to understand those injustices at a societal and academic level nor the tools to address my peers.  Now I have some knowledge and a few tools to do what is referred to as social justice work.  More than ever, though, I have that feeling – deep down inside – that it is my responsibility to work for justice.  This I believe – without working for justice, I will not find peace in my heart.  And I know more than ever before how much work I have to do, both internally and externally.

What do you believe?  Why do you do social justice work (if you do)?

We look forward to connecting with you.

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Voting no

With 1,000-some “friends” on facebook, most days when I log in, I see that someone has gotten engaged or married. While I am happy for these couples, truly, something about this is also really sad to me.

It’s not just that I am unsure when that day will come for me, it’s that I’m unsure if it can – legally. Couples I know have discussed where they plan to marry, they grew up in different states and have to decide – they can decide. This is a privilege.

In a few days my home state will vote on marriage equality. Minnesotans will vote on a civil right, my civil right, the freedom to marry. The vote is not about the religious institution of marriage but marriage can certainly be a religious institution. Religion is often how marriage is framed; for me, I’ve dreamed of being married in a synagogue all my life – so, yes, marriage is religious.

There are so many right wing Christians speaking out about the Minnesota marriage amendment that it’s sometimes easy, as a Jew to feel superior, or at least comforted. My people don’t get that crazy. Except, they do. A rabbi from New York stated this week that Hurricane Sandy is punishment for gay marriage being legal in New York.

Well, rabbi – while you may wish for me to think that a few phrases in Leviticus (18:22, 20:13) forbid same-sex marriage, I know that in reality, classic rabbinic texts do not address same-sex marriage at all.  Being one of the few kids who actually paid attention during Hebrew school, I know Judaism says that all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim, in G-d’s image. Deuteronomy teaches tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue. And, time and time again, the Torah commands us not to oppress the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt and we know the heart of the stranger.

Opponents of marriage equality base their opposition on two sentences from the holiest document of the Jewish faith; it seems to me that Jews should have something to say about this! In reality, Jewish values obligate us. We are challenged to work for the betterment and perfection of this world and for me, voting no is one small step to doing just that. Join me on Tuesday.


Planting a seed

There’s this old Jewish story about a carob tree, I can’t recall where it comes from but it goes something like this:

A wise man was walking along the road and saw a poor man planting a carob tree. The wise man asks, “Why are you planting that tree? It will take 70 years to bear fruit. Do you think you will live another 70 years to eat the fruit of the tree?” The poor man answers, “maybe not. But, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

I’ve recently realized that so often in my work I am like the man planting the tree.

A small moment or routine part of my day, to a student in my office, may be huge. Like the man planting the carob tree, I often do not see the fruits of my labor. I often meet with students only once and do not know if they use the advice or information I give them. I can only hope that the students reflect and are able to see their own growth. I simply plant seeds, provide a watering can and sometimes sunlight.

There are people with whom I’ve spent just a few moments who have made the largest impact on me. They planted a seed. Where I am today, my professional path is largely due to the words and actions of other people. Most of those moments were, at the time, small and seemingly inconsequential. Only when I look back can I connect the dots and see the many people who have shaped my path – each adding a drop of water or a ray of sunlight.

My students and my mentors have helped me realize that you never truly know when your words or actions might make an impact on someone else. A little encouragement, acceptance or praise, small actions that seem insignificant may alter the course of someone’s life.

It’s hard to remember on those days when I have eight back-to-back meetings but I’m certain someone is going to benefit from the fruit, enjoy the shade and swing from the branches of my work.

Moving forward after irrational moments

If I had to pick my own spirit animal, this week I’d choose a deer. Imagine driving at dusk, a deer runs into the road and in front of your car, it freezes. I am that deer in headlights. Or at least, I was this week. In the fight or flight response I prefer freeze. My freeze is automatic and non-conscious.

At work this week I was the target of someone’s anger.  I know this certainly isn’t something unique to me yet, it’s important that I respond as, in the moment, I froze.

The only way to describe this individual’s action is an adult temper tantrum. It was irrational, uncontrollable rage.  I have worked with children and know how to handle a child throwing a temper tantrum but when someone in your workplace behaves irrationally – I’m unsure what to do.

Being the subject of someone’s anger in the workplace is belittling and can easily deflate ones self-esteem and sense of self-worth. It creates an unhealthy environment where you cannot express yourself without fear—where you cannot speak up or defend yourself without consequence.

Immediately after being yelled at, I cried (and called my dad). Despite him and others in whom I sought solace reminding me I have worth, I spent the rest of the workday feeling worthless.

Upon a few days reflection I’ve come to realize a few things:

Despite being the kind of person who often thinks that bad things occur to bad people, I’ve realized I did not deserve this treatment. Treating others without respect is not a reflection on the person being disrespected. Treating someone disrespectfully does not enable someone to gain respect but sometimes, it does enable brief control over another person. Power and control are what this person was trying to gain through my fear. Nothing more.

Temper tantrums (in this case, adult temper tantrums) are a performance of anger, power and control.  Think of a child throwing a tantrum – while yes, they may actually be hurt or upset that they did not get their way; much of their tantrum is an act.  This performance is intended to gain control (of the parent, in most cases)—to make them behave a certain way, to make them do what the child wants. In this instance, the person’s performance of anger was intended to gain control (over me or the situation) because they felt that their power had been violated or taken away.

I am moving forward and resisting my own feelings of worthlessness. I’ve decided to 1) let myself feel hurt. I have a right to my feelings and it’s totally okay and normal to experience them however they come. I’m working to get over that by 2) reflecting with others who I trust. Talking about my feelings is important. And 3) responding (through this post) in order to process and understand my experience.

Trusting their process?

Last weekend I spent some time at home with my two and a half year old niece. She is extremely well behaved (even cleans up after herself) but occasionally I was in the position to remind her to be cautious. I found myself using the voice I sometimes use with students. It went something like this – “before you walk on the edge of the stairs again, let’s think about what might happen,” or “let’s stop and think for a minute, what are the consequences of running around with food in your mouth?” While I know full well I said most of these things for the benefit of my sister, not my niece – I’m curious why the same voice I occasionally use with students came out toward a child.

In the last year anticipating potential consequences has become a regular part of my practice. While I understand that part of my role, as an administrator, is to see things in ways my students cannot, I wonder if my regulation of their ideas and creativity inhibits their growth.

It has occurred to me that being asked to constantly check in with those above me on each idea or new initiative my students dream up can serve to narrow, control and assist in pushing the ‘right’ agenda.  We tell ourselves that we don’t want students to fail or get out of hand; to this end we’ve implemented policies to protect students from themselves – but what are we inhibiting in doing so?  While I never enrolled in a legal issues course, I understand a little about liability and the ‘CYA’ thing. I get that we have regulations so that if something happens we can say we took measures to train and educate our students on X, Y or Z.

At the same time I’m expected to be a helicopter parent to my students because I must report up any change before it has the potential to happen to my own helicopter supervisors. The goal of the practice of reporting up is positive, soothing any possible tension before it happens but, I know, to my students – this feels like a restraint.

So – how do you flip the script? How do you allow students to follow through with their dreams when so many regulations are in place? What amazing things may happen if we stopped babying our students and allowed them to use their full potential? Sure, perhaps there may be some flops but unless we try, we have no idea what amazing initiatives, events or actions our students may engage in. Maybe I trust my students more than most but I’m willing to take a chance because I know the innovation of my students will challenge me to be a better professional.