Giving Back, the Democratic Way

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

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At my old job, we ran weekend seminars to Jewish high schoolers, educating them on current social justice issues & teaching them how to advocate for their political beliefs. Every Shabbat morning of these seminars, one of my bosses (a rabbi) told the same story: It was the story of a town where residents were drowning as they fell into the local river, & the townsfolk were concerned. They set up a guard downriver to catch those who'd fallen it - but still, people died. And then they put up a net to catch those who'd fallen in - but still, people died. Finally, someone asked: "Why are these people falling into the river in the first place?" Only by addressing the root of the problem could they come up with an effective solution.

The same is true of social justice work. Sure, food pantries need donations & soup kitchen need volunteers. Kids need tutors to teach them to read, & Planned Parenthood needs escorts to shield its patients from angry protesters. There is always immediate work to be done, & of course, immediate work helps immediately, in the moment. But what it doesn't do is address the root of the problems - it doesn't save people from drowning in the first place.

I'm a firm believer in social justice that focuses on the root of the problem. My first job out of college was with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a Jewish social profit organization that advocated on behalf of more than 60 vital issues - reproductive choice, economic justice, LGBT equality, gun control, a two-state solution, education policy, health care. That job taught me the importance - nay, the necessity - of making my voice heard.

Let me be clear: I am not wide-eyed & innocent. After three years in D.C. & a lifetime of sarcasm, I know well enough to be jaded. I do not believe that the government is necessarily effective - but I do believe in the importance of trying. While at the RAC, we were told by Congressional staffers that one phone call to a member of Congress represents the views of 100 constituents; one email, 10. That's how few people are reaching out to their elected officials - so few that each person who does counts for dozens more. And while speaking up may not have an effect, I still believe it must have more of an effect than never saying anything at all.

I'm not discounting soup kitchens or Goodwill donations; hell, there are three bags of clothing in my own trunk waiting to be dropped off at the Salvation Army. I believe in the power of money, of donating to organizations that work for the values I believe in. But I believe in something bigger, too. I believe in personally demanding that Congress pay attention to the overwhelming need in this country. I believe in involving myself in politics - even when cut-throat, dirty &, as 2011 would have it, ignorant politics are the last thing I want to deal with.

So where do you begin? For starters, think of an issue that matters to you. For example, one of my top concerns is civil rights, in securing justice for minorities. So I found the leading voices on these issues - organizations like the Human Rights Campaign & the NAACP - & I became a dues-paying member. But beyond giving money, I pay attention. I fill out their action alerts & tell my members of Congress when there's an issue on the floor that matters to me. I subscribe to mailing lists of others organizations whose missions resonate with me - organizations like Save the Children, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, J Street and NARAL - & when they send requests, I don't just click "delete." It takes all of 15 seconds, at most, to send a letter to Congress, yet I'm willing to bet that a vast majority of people have never done it. Sometimes I wonder if the staffers in my Congressman's office sit around laughing at me, the constituent they hear from every two weeks, if not more, when no one else is writing. But that's not stopping me from doing it.

I urge you to keep giving back to your communities in whatever way you're most comfortable with - but I hope you'll push your boundaries, too. Even if you don't consider yourself "a political person," I urge you to recognize that politics, like it or not, makes the world go 'round - and as members of a democratic society, we have the opportunity to contribute to the national conversation. Isn't that the ultimate way to "give back"?

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