In May, Emmy Cohen will receive a graduate degree from Howard University in social work. Cohen, 25, is an intern at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which works to make housing accessible for people with low incomes. She also teaches Hebrew at Adas Israel Congregation, where she tries to emphasize social justice and Jewish values to her sixth-grade students.
What got you into social work?
Before I went to grad school, I worked at Operation Understanding DC, and they do work with anti-bias education and also education around the civil rights movement. I always wanted to go back to graduate school, but I was unclear of what exactly I wanted to do.
When I was in college, I worked in several D.C. public schools and a lot of the kids I worked with couldn’t focus in school because they lived in a one-bedroom apartment or couldn’t go outside because their neighborhood was unsafe or they had really bad asthma because there was mold in their apartment. Housing is such a foundation for so many other services and opportunities that people have access to, so I think that housing is where you can make the most difference. I really just want to do work wherever I can make the most impact.
How does Judaism influence you?
I am one of the only Jews at Howard, the only Jew in my program there. I’m the first Jew that a lot of people there have met. It’s been a cool opportunity to be that person. Growing up, there was an emphasis on social justice as a really important aspect of Judaism.
It’s such a cliche text but you can give a man a fish or you can teach a man to fish and I feel like housing is related to that. If you don’t have an address you can’t put an address on your job application so how are you going to get a job? If you don’t have a house, everyone’s in online learning, where does your kid go to school? So many of the Jewish texts are really based in social justice. Personally it’s like how can you read a text and not be like this is telling me that I need to help people?
What are some interesting parts of your work?
It’s a really interesting time to be in housing. People right now are realizing that housing saves lives. It touches so many people’s lives, there’s so many aspects of it. You have rural housing, and native housing and urban housing and it really just affects every single person in the country.
What’s something you’ve learned during the pandemic?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was doing direct service with clients. They would reach out to me and say, “I don’t have toilet paper. I don’t have soap. I lost my job.” Seeing that at the beginning of the pandemic was really jarring, and now to hear stories by people across the country who are afraid they’re going to lose their home. It’s just stuff that we take for granted so often.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I just want to add that housing really is a racial justice issue. Race and identity dictate so much of where people are able to get housing and if people are able to get housing. It dictates so many other things that we either do or don’t have access to. It’s just important that housing really has a foundation of racial justice work.
Correction, March 21. This story was changed to correct her status at Howard University: She is one of the only Jews at the historically Black university.