Last fall, I was sitting in Ben’s Chili Bowl with a group of friends and colleagues when a prominent DC historian posed the question: “Gentrification, good or bad?” As I sat there thoughtfully composing a list of pros & cons in my head, several of my friends soundly rejected the premise of the question itself. It’s not that simple. You can’t ask us to make that sort of decision. Who are we to say?
This scene took place during the Jeremiah Fellowship, a leadership program run by local community organization Jews United for Justice. The Jeremiah Fellowship challenged me this way for nine months, and continues to do so. It has also given me the skills and knowledge to build my organizer and activist toolbox.
During our semi-monthly evening meetings, we had the chance to learn with seasoned activists and advocates from the immigration, labor and affordable housing movements. We brought each other up to speed on the most pressing social and economic justice issues facing our DC community, from the drastic drop in affordable housing over the last decade to attempted enforcement of the so-called “Secure Communities” immigration program.
But we didn’t just study current issues. We delved into Jewish texts that relate to these issues and we explored how to take action to make a difference. We learned, for example, about “cutting an issue,” a community organizing term for defining the goal of a campaign strategically to maximize your group’s power in the long term. We also analyzed campaigns from concept to execution by mapping the powerful people and players working on an issue. We practiced the vital skill of fundraising and strategized to build a network of active supporters.
However, perhaps more important than the hands-on skills training, Jeremiah introduced me to a network of activists and advocates who connect me to local issues and politics in DC. My fellow Fellows and our guest speakers are an invaluable resource – and source of inspiration – for my work moving forward, as I participate in grassroots campaigns and events to make our city and region a better place. I am already working with one of these groups, a local volunteer-run grantmaking fund called the Diverse City Fund, which nurtures and supports community leaders and grassroots projects that are transforming DC into a more just, vibrant place to live.
For me, it was important that the Fellowship addressed the challenges of a life-long commitment to activism and organizing, which is a potentially exhausting line of work, whether you get paid for it or not. Many of our speakers and facilitators spoke about how to sustain a life of activism, avoiding burn-out by balancing professional and volunteer work with family and social life, and building a strong network of support. These lessons will stick with me as I consider graduate school, delve more deeply into activist work outside of my “day job,” and think seriously about how I prioritize the activities and the relationships in my own life.
That moment at Ben’s Chili Bowl set the tone for our year – we saw time and again that the big questions about our city and society have no easy answers. My Fellowship experience was, and still is, full of challenges. That constant questioning is, of course, part of what makes Jeremiah a Jewish experience. In the asking, we begin to build community, and that community leads eventually to positive change.
“Seek the well-being of the city in which you dwell,” says the prophet Jeremiah, the Fellowship’s namesake, “for in its peace, you shall find peace.” That well-being will not be easy to achieve, but now I know better how to seek it. Now that our year with the program has ended, I am carrying forward the need to continue challenging myself, my peers and my city, striving not for absolute answers but for the right questions, the difficult conversations, and for the moments when we do find ways – big and small – to make our city and our world just a little bit better.
The Jeremiah Fellowship is a nine-month program for young Jews in the greater DC area. Fellows come together twice monthly to learn different models of community organizing, to meet with Jewish and activist leaders, and to study Jewish texts and traditions. Participants leave the Fellowship with leadership experience, concrete skills, a deepened connection to our city and region, and a valuable network of peers and mentors. For more information email Monica Kamen at firstname.lastname@example.org or see the application and qualifications at jufj.org/jeremiah. Applications are due August 5th.