Strengthening the Partnership Toolbox for Meaningful Community Change
by Yoni Siden
On the second night of Passover, and the beginning days of the Christian Holy Week, a bus filled with 38 teens and eight chaperones from Beth Emet Synagogue and Second Baptist Church departed Evanston, IL, for six days of dialogue on race. We called the trip Sankofa*, a West African Akan word translated to “go back and get it.” Sankofa – the idea, and the trip – implores us to look to our past to understand our present and build our future.
While Evanston is statistically diverse, the community is predominantly segregated. White and black citizens rarely have meaningful interactions and live very different lives. The differences are manifested in profound ways: police harassment of black men and women, a stubborn achievement gap between white and black students, racial segregation between neighborhoods. These realties are deeply troubling, and so complex that many do not even begin the challenging work of breaking down these barriers because the path forward is so unclear. At Beth Emet, however, we knew we must try – our Judaism demands that much. It was with this spirit that our rabbi, Andrea London, and Reverend Velda Love, a member of the clergy at Second Baptist Church, developed the idea for an immersive, interfaith trip through the Civil Rights south to explore the African and African American experience in the United States together.
Equitable and responsive partnership is hard work. To create it, the adult leaders of the trip knew it would require exploration of power and privilege, honesty and self-reflection, and an admission that no one holds the monopoly on truth. These challenges are necessary at all stages of partnership, even when – especially when – it is hard. True partnership also requires relationship-building. Through this immersive trip, we needed to create space for our respective histories to be heard, understood, and appreciated across race and faith.
This idea about equitable and responsive partnership was instrumental in planning the trip and its facilitation.
From the outset, we knew we wanted to avoid the patterns of previous teen social justice work, the kind in which, after an initial push, the commitment stumbles. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Sankofa was not what we did over the six days, or in the months after our return, but rather the spirit of partnership that has framed our work between faith institutions. I often hear from colleagues that they hope for their teens to create meaningful change but are not sure how to get started. My advice is always the same: Work in partnership and build the tools amongst the teens to create change.
As we loaded the bus, the teens (and adult facilitators) sat next to pre-assigned partners. These partnerships – white and Jewish with black and Christian – became the foundation of the trip itself. They were based in dialogue – in teens sharing perspective, context, and experience that was both transformative to the individual and disruptive to a society plagued with institutionalized racism.
From the sites to the discussion topics to the way we confronted conflict, adult facilitators strove to build the scaffolding for transformative, radical dialogue and partnership. The most vivid illustration of this pedagogy began about halfway between Selma and Montgomery, on the path of the 1965 Voting Rights March. We sat in the Lowndes Interpretive Center and began to discuss white privilege. The conversation became tense, and teens began to push back. As we boarded the bus for the hotel, the adult facilitators recognized that a schism was developing. The gut inclination of many youth workers is to avoid conflict – to find a way to smooth over ill feelings. This, however, is in direct contradiction to partnership building for radical change. To meet our goals, we encouraged teens to “sit in the tension” and process.
We provided time for silent journaling on the bus ride to the hotel. As the teens returned to their rooms and relaxed before dinner, some came to us individually and in small groups to vent. In these conversations, we acknowledged their feelings but encouraged them to dialogue with their partners – we, the adults, were not going to “fix” this tension.
That evening, after dinner, we gathered in a large circle and studied Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (an article that includes an accessible list of 50 examples of white privilege). Then we reinstated the discussion and allowed for teens from both communities to share their truths. We concluded the evening with a Maundy Thursday service, a Christian ritual in which volunteers stooped in a circle to wash the feet of others in the room – an exercise in humility and mindfulness. After hours of patient discussion, introspection, and processing, we had finally begun to build understanding.
That day, an important process happened. We did not fix the problem for the teens but instead gave them the tools to build understanding: the tools of reflection, dialogue, and partnership. Importantly, we allowed teens to confront tension by using external and internal processes, including the Maundy Thursday foot-washing ritual, as the means to build community.
Upon our return, it was clear that the hardest work lay ahead. Since last spring, my colleagues at Beth Emet and Second Baptist Church have heard stories of disruption to the status quo by Sankofa participants – stories of hugs in the hallways that elicit strange looks, and stories of detentions after calling out teachers on the unequal treatment of black teens in the classroom. But we also face the ongoing challenges that the trip sought to address: How do we prioritize our work to build community? How do we answer difficult questions about race and honesty and truth? With Sankofa, we knew from the outset that the goal was not immediate action. Rather, this interfaith group of teens and adults is trying to initiate a change process.
All too often, we skip over the relationship-building, especially when we are forced to confront power and privilege, because it takes time and is uncomfortable. Instead, our group has chosen to take that time to build understanding through dialogue so that we can create meaningful and substantive change in our community over a lifetime. This group of 38 teens is actively “going back and getting it,” and through this partnership model have developed a strong foundation for continued change-making.
Yoni Siden is the Director of Youth Programs at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL (his full bio is here). He will speak about Sankofa and its pedagogical framework at the 2013 URJ Biennial. For additional reading about Sankofa, check out the articles in Reform Judaism Magazine, Evanston Roundtable , JUF News, and a teen-written Collective Memoir compiled by the participants.
* Our trip, and its pedagogy, was inspired by a trip of the same name that is run at North Park University and in the Evangelical Covenant Church. One of adult facilitators of our trip has run Sankofa classes and trips at North Park University and brought the model to us. The concept of exploring the history of the African and African American experience in the United States, however, is not new. Christian churches, in particular, have long explored the experience of living with racism as a way to allow this history to be heard, understood, and appreciated.