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?

Steubenville.

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 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.

Follow the CSJE Blog – new posts every Tuesday morning at 8 am CST: http://acpacsje.wordpress.com/

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.

 

A journey toward justice.

This week marks the Jewish holiday of Passover. The theme of Passover is liberation from exile. It’s a tale of perseverance and I think it serves as a great opportunity to begin a dialogue around some of these issues.

Passover has four famous questions, typically recited by the youngest child. Each question gets at a component of the introductory question ‘why is this night different from all other nights?’ Yet, while reflecting on the holiday this week I kept coming back to the same question: Is this night any different than the exodus?

During the Passover Seder we symbolically reenact the exodus journey from Egypt. We engage with the community, welcoming the stranger and encouraging all who have no place to go to join us at our table. But, what if the stranger is the person you passed on your way home, holding a sign and asking for spare change? Would we invite them in or would we give our food and send them on their way? I think the ultimate message in Passover is not that we were slaves and now we are free, the ultimate message is a question; what are we doing with our freedom?

Activism is more than sharing a video on facebook, eating a piece of matzah and retelling our story. As we remember and eat our bread of affliction we need to realize that in our schools and on our streets all over the world many are still forced to eat their bread of affliction (if they have anything to eat at all). In reality, this night is not any different than the exodus for so many. And as long as we remain bystanders, that truth will keep us all in exile.

“I hate my neighbor!:” A little bit about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship

Another roommate conflict?! …No, not this time, this is much much larger, nations hating other nations. Yet it all seems so childish.  Just like some of the stuff I hear about in the residence halls – ‘she took the soap out of the bathroom,’ ‘My pet fish is missing!’ etc… this conflict is clearly a problem but also so foolish…and it seems to have the ability to bring out the worst in everyone.

Like everything in life, this is contextual; it is NOT black and white but painted in shades if grey. Jess reminded me today that there are a lot of different sides, not just a Palestinian or Israeli one, not a Jewish or Muslim one (put two Jews in the same room and you get three opinions), not a UN ruling, not a government – it’s murky.  While in most facets of my own life I have trouble seeing in shades of grey, I think in this, I get it.  And it’s something I’ve worked really hard to be able to see.  Here’s why – a lot of the things I was taught about Israel were only from one perspective. I’d argue that the majority of American Jews (even most American non-Jews) were only taught from one perspective. And that is the one that makes Israel look like the victors all the time.  Because of this and because of the way the media has portrayed Israel folks either don’t care or don’t know to look at this issues through a different lens.

I know I often hold unpopular views on Israel within my religion, I am reminded time and time again when I’m called a traitor or naive by my own people. I don’t do it because I don’t like my religion. On the contrary, I think being Jewish has shaped me into who I am – it has given me and formed my values and those values inform my current viewpoints. Judaism taught me to question everything and not to take things at face value – think about Responsa, the questions we ask and how one may halachically rule on those questions. Judaism has taught me about tikkun olam – that I must work to heal, repair and transform the world and about tzedek, pursuing justice – and all of this can be applied to how I feel about the recent relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So, please – do not call me a traitor or naive, I do not need your hate e-mails or messages on facebook or twitter, please do not tell me I am going against my people or disowning my roots…because I have a poster of the shema hanging over my bed and a mezuzah on my door. Try, as I have, to see beyond what you have been taught in Hebrew school. Try, as I try to see beyond the side you are supposed to see. Try, as I try to see the shades of grey. It is not comfortable, it is not fun, it is does not paint a pretty picture and it is certainly not popular but it allows you the opportunity to be more informed about something you are clearly passionate about…

In the words of Kohelet-Ecclesiastes: eit livnot, there is a time to build, but Kohelet also teaches, eit lifrotz, there is a time to tear down (Eccles. 3.3).  At a time of political divisiveness and economic stress, eit livnot, walls tend to go up.  Perhaps at this time of uncertainty and fear in our peoples and nations history when we seek the comfort of family, friends and, community, eit lifrotz it is, in fact, time to pull walls down.  It’s time to tear walls down…please work to make that happen. Try to see that non-violence is the answer and that this issue can be solved through understanding and collaboratively working toward a just community.

I had intended to write about the flotillas but at this point I can’t even begin to do so… I am simply too enraged with the situation and the responses I have received from my peers, teachers and mentors. I do hope this calls attention to Israel and the human rights violations perpetrated at the hands of my people. I hope this is a wake up call for America and the rest of the world. And let’s all watch as Obama plays RA and mediates for the Israelis and Palestinians. Accountability is paramount.