A junior at Yale University, Allison Lazarus is the co-President of the Manson Prison Education Initiative, a weekly program that brings Yale students to teach juvenile offenders in a local jail. She is also a BYFI-Repair Campus Ambassador, a partnership between Repair the World and Bronfman Youth Fellowships. Below, Allison writes about a powerful visit to the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.
On a hot August afternoon, our group gathered just outside a huge abandoned building in the Bronx. Amanda, a community organizer, and two others – Benny and Joseph – met us outside a huge complex known to the community as the Armory.
We had chosen to visit the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCC), to see a real life mixing of social justice and religious faith–a project mission similar to our own as a Bronfman Youth Fellowship – Repair the World Campus Ambassador. BYFI-Repair the World runs this program to help a small group of college students enhance their abilities to build on existing social justice projects and provides the opportunity for learning and reflection.
Some background on NWBCC: for the past several decades, this Coalition of organizers and leaders has worked to make sure this abandoned site is developed into a center with specific benefits for the local community. A proposed plan has yet to be fully developed, and the space currently remains abandoned. That’s not for lack of trying. For example, NWBCC recently halted a city plan to convert the Armory into a shopping center as this plan lacked a means to provide the community living wages or local full-time jobs.
When we walked back with Amanda, Benny and Joseph to their office, they showed us a video of their campaign to redevelop the Armory into a mixed-use development to better meet the community’s needs. This included a march they organized, the community’s demands, and even a local pastor using scripture to condemn the project. It was an impressive, thought-provoking effort. And, we were all excited to see another organization build a social justice project on a foundation of faith.
Quickly, I realized that their mixing of the two took place on several fronts: not only did specific religious figures vocally support their initiative, but some of the volunteers with whom we spoke seemed to identify heavily with their church.
Among them was Benny, who led all of us in a text study. His style of dramatic, powerful presentation differed significantly from our own chevrutas: wherein we’d sat in pairs and examined and questioned Jewish texts. But in both cases, the inclusion of religious text helped provide new thinking and understanding around social justice. Benny’s religious interpretation shed light not only on his project, but on ours as well.
By the time we had left the site, I was thankful that the volunteers and organizers, who were unbelievably friendly, were also willing to share their hard-earned experiences and interesting opinions.
Before this day, I had never understood the role of a community organizer. But, after discussion with us about the difference between an organizer and a leader, I now have a better idea of their definition: an organizer leads sustainably. An organizer, they told me, teaches the members of the community to work on their own behalf and connect them with resources and support to do so.
I thought, and continue to think, that this definition is powerful.
In my efforts this year, and in social justice ventures in the future, I will try to remember the importance of sustainable, inclusive leadership and translate it into concrete results for my project.
The BYFI-Repair Campus Ambassadors program, a partnership between Repair the World and Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, brings together college-age alumni of the BYFI to learn about creating sustainable and high impact service initiatives and how they connect to Jewish identity. The BYFI-Repair Campus Ambassadorship builds a community of practice around Jewish service, enhancing personal reflection on service, and modeling service as a defining element of Jewish life. This is the second year of the BYFI-Repair Campus Ambassadorship.