Don’t just protest: Engage and listen to black people

Protesters in Washington on June 6, 2020. (David Stuck)

“Change only happens from sustained engagement.”

This isn’t a new idea. But when Ron Halber expressed it in a phone interview on Monday, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington captured the zeitgeist among groups and individuals looking for means to address systemic racism.

But neither marching in the streets nor all the racial justice book clubs in the world are a substitute for personal engagement with people of color, both outside the Jewish community and within it.

“The protests create the urgency, and then it is up to the community to channel energy into effective policy change,” said Halber. Some people may want to write a check and others will want to get involved in lobbying, he said, but “one of the things we have to do in the Jewish community is encourage cross-cultural and intergroup dialogue. People can only become allies against systemic discrimination if they get to know the victims.”

For the past four years, for instance, the social action committee at Agudas Achim Congregation in Arlington has done joint programming with the nearby Alfred Street Baptist Church. “We decided what we need to do right now is work on our relationships and listening, and what we ended up doing was reaching out,” said committee chair Katherine Allen. The congregations had a joint Zoom discussion with Police Chief Mike Brown about policing policies in Alexandria and best practices to reduce the likelihood of fatalities in encounters between the police and people of color.

Brown was “very forthright,” Allen said, and “everybody on call had desire that Alexandria be a different model.”

“I think the Jewish community is in this for the long haul with the black community and people of color,” said Yolanda Savage-Narva, executive director of Operation Understanding DC and a Jew of Color, or JoC, herself.

At a basic level, Jewish organizations need to help people understand the root causes of racism in America and the 400-year history of inequity in this country, she said. “People may not live on plantations or plow the fields, but we are still treated in a way where we are not being treated as equals in this country.”

She also thinks its important to teach people about unconscious bias, which she defined as allowing oneself to think, act and feel a certain way based on an unconscious stereotype. “Really identifying that in yourself and making sure it doesn’t cloud your judgement and your interactions with people is important. Identifying it early helps it from being a barrier to building the community we want to build,” she said.

Looking inside

Seven percent of Jewish adults in the Washington area identify as a person of color or Hispanic/Latino, according to the 2017 Jewish Community Demographic Study funded by The Morningstar Foundation.

Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, did not mince words: The voices of JoCs “have been significantly underrepresented throughout the Jewish community, including at Federation,” he said. He said the organization is actively looking to expand the leadership by Jews of Color in programming as well as internal governance.

Members of the local community pointed out that just because someone is a JoC does not mean their insights are on tap for every well-meaning consultation.

“It’s tiring, it’s time-consuming, and quite frankly, people should get paid,” said Talia, a local Jew of color. She asked that her real name not be used, echoing others who felt uncomfortable with being presented as a poster person for any black experience, Jewish or non-Jewish.

Rather than depend solely on the input of private individuals, Talia and others said that leaders at synagogues, schools and communal organizations should also be looking to local and national organizations that are experts in this field.

One such national organization active in the Washington area is the Jewish Multiracial Network. It offers workshops to help synagogues and communal organizational assess the inclusivity of their marketing, programming, and educational materials. It also offers input on how to hold lifecycle events reflective and respectful of multiple identities and cultural heritages.

Another national organization is Jews in All Hues, an education and advocacy group that combines Jewish ideas with modern anti-bias training in consulting, coaching and strategic diversity planning.

From Talia’s perspective, however, communal facilitation will only get people so far when it comes to building relationships.

“I think it has to be organic, to be honest” she said. “Each individual in the community has subconsciously chosen an environment that nurtures a very specific ideal … I think people need to look at the spaces in their lives — friend circle, work, college, et cetera — and think about how they perpetuate excluding black people from those spaces.”

“If people really want to make a difference, try saying hi to your neighbors, ask them what their kids’ names are,” she advised. “You don’t need to go out and find black people to be friends with. ‘They’ are already all around us.”

And she doesn’t think that people crossing those pre-conceived social boundaries will be perceived as trying too hard. “Especially if it is genuine,” she said.

WJW intern Elisa Posner contributed to this article.

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