Empowering Students for Social Action

Rachel Meytin

The PANIM model is built around the idea that to become leaders, students must look at the world that is presented to them and figure it out for themselves: how to make it meaningful, how to relate to it, how to find meaning for themselves in it. Once they do that, then they can begin to become leaders committed to social justice.

I’d like to identify the underlying concepts that serve as the foundation for any successful, transformative program designed to create Jewish leaders in political and social activism.

First, assume that every participant has the ability to make a difference. Second, demonstrate this assumption by having the students walk through what it would look like if they took on leadership roles. Third, make it personal—explicitly enabling (and even requiring!) each student to find their own definitions and passions relating to social problems. And finally, but perhaps foremost, root the participants’ experiences in their Jewish values, giving them a foundation upon which to base their work.

Rabbi Tarfon taught that although not one of us is responsible for completing the work of justice, neither can any one of us step back and allow others to do it for us (Pirke Avot 2:22). As a result, we are required as educators to ensure that our lessons reach every student, empowering and inspiring them. Our Panim el Panim seminars engage students from all denominations and backgrounds. We have day school and supplemental school students; those with significant Judaic knowledge and those with none. We have recent immigrants to the US from impoverished countries and highly privileged, empowered students who have every opportunity handed directly to them. From each and every student, we assume the ability to engage with their world and make a significant difference. Of course, not every student will do so immediately, but by beginning with that assumption, those who might otherwise be left out of the conversation are included. This approach signifies to the students their inherent personal value to the larger social-justice movement.

Once you, the educator, have established that each one of your students has this inherent potential, now the task is to enable each student to see himself this way. Political and social activism are, by nature, hands-on endeavors. But, like so many other things in the world, they appear aloof, illusive, and unattainable. Even to our largely privileged, empowered teens, enacting large-scale systemic change feels so out of reach it’s not even worth getting started. Much of the work that we need to do is to help our students come to see social change work as within their reach. We need to provide samples of how they can engage with the issues and what they can choose to do. At PANIM, we run advocacy simulations where the students practice various forms of advocacy, we teach them how to form new “agencies” that address social problems using their personal skills and talents, and they model congressional offices grappling with tough legislative decisions. All of these programs have a shared objective: making it possible for the student to see herself doing these types of activities in the “real world.” If you want your programs to create new leaders, you have to provide opportunities for the students to be leaders and experience leadership. Otherwise you will only reach those who can already see themselves as leaders.

The third component to forming social activist leaders is to have them identify for themselves what it is that they care about and why. We use a definition of political and social activism as being processes through which we can change the world for the better. We ask the students: what’s unclear in this definition? The students focus in on three words: processes, world, and better. Which process will they choose? Will they be involved in political advocacy or direct service? What is their world? Will they work for local causes or against genocide in Darfur? And what does “better” mean to them? Will legalizing gay marriage make the world better? Should our social safety nets be expanded or contracted? Is it better to enter a war in Iran? The ambiguity in our definition is intentional; by requiring students to define these words for themselves, we provide an opportunity for each student to identify what will form the center of his or her social activism.

It is vital that the students have a true voice in their activism: they need to be exposed to a wide range of issues and given an even wider range of possible approaches to dealing with the issues. It should never be assumed that students are liberal or Democrats, for example. Let them learn all sides of an issue; allow them to draw their own conclusions. When Moses began the process of building the mishkan (Tabernacle), he sent out a request to the people: bring offerings from your heart (Exodus 25:2). He didn’t ask those Israelites with last names that begin with A-G to bring wood and those with names beginning with H-L to bring nails, but rather he called on each individual to identify for herself what spoke to her, what ignited her passion, and bring that to beautify the holiest place. He repeats that request again a few chapters later, again asking for offerings of the heart, and the outpouring is so much that it is even more than could be used (Exodus 36:7).

Just like the Israelites, we must ask our students to engage from their heart. Having passionate presentations on issues helps, but so does a simple brainstorming session on response to the question: “What is wrong with your world?” When we send students up to Capitol Hill to lobby, each group begins with a blank slate; we set up a meeting for them, but we do not dictate the issues to be discussed. The group must brainstorm issues, present arguments, come to consensus, and make a script for their meeting. And they all do, stepping up and demonstrating newly developed leadership skills.

Winding through these first three concepts is the fourth: doing all of this from a Jewish stance, interweaving Jewish values throughout the total experience. Connecting a student’s commitment to political and social activism to their Jewish values only serves to strengthen both. By framing what they do with Jewish language, by using Jewish texts alongside policy statements when explaining why a social ill deserves our attention, by giving examples of leaders (both Jewish and not) who embodied our core values as they stood for the rights of the oppressed, we have the opportunity to forge an indelible link between their commitment to justice and their faith. These students will understand that their political and social activism can be as much an expression of their commitment to Judaism as lighting the Shabbat candles or saying the Birkat Hamazon. And they will have an incredible wealth of Jewish values and tradition to bolster their own personal beliefs as to what a just world would look like.

When this all comes together, what we see is nothing short of reassuring. It’s not just what we see from the outspoken kids, the “natural leaders.” From those kids, we expect participation and (at least an appearance of) interest. But what reassures me that we are on the right path is what just happened to me while I was writing this article. I got a phone call from a student from a pluralistic day school that was on my seminar about a few weeks ago. Honestly, I don’t remember him: he didn’t particularly stand out, didn’t speak up at every session, wasn’t pegged as a leader. He called to tell me about a project idea he has for teaching guitar lessons to disadvantaged youth in his area and then holding a fundraising concert with the students as the opening act. Now don’t get me wrong—this is a student who probably would go on to do well in life. He goes to a top school, clearly has artistic talent, and is probably academically proficient. He can find a good career and make a living, but he has now taken the first steps to go beyond just doing well. This is a student who has begun to identify what needs bettering in his own world and has stepped up to lead the response. That is what makes a leader.

Working with a day school population, most of the students are above average and certainly have above-average opportunities and privileges. It is up to us, as their educators, to channel that opportunity in a distinctly Jewish way. When we educate with the belief that we are speaking to every student, when we offer experiences that demonstrate and engage participants leadership and activism, and when we provide the opportunity and the challenge to each student to serve her community from her heart and her Jewish values, we will transform our students into leaders who will truly make the world a better place. ♦

Rachel Meytin is PANIM’s Vice President for Programs. She can be reached at [email protected].
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HaYidion Nurturing Leadership
Nurturing Leadership
Summer 2009