By Hannah Arwe
JCUA Manager of Youth Programs
It is hard to imagine that less than one month ago I had not yet met the 11 incredible teens who joined the first session of JCUA’s teen social justice institute this summer. This session, a new partnership with URJ’s Mitzvah Corps program, brought teens from all across the country to Chicago to experience the kind of social justice work going on in our city. Each summer, I get to not only show off the most inspiring aspects of Chicago and its devoted citizens, but to help teens learn about the complexities of social justice issues in the city and how they can make a difference.
We truly grappled with a lot during this session. Maybe community service isn’t the only way to do justice work. Maybe there are bigger conversations to be had around the systems and structures that form our society. Maybe we need to dig deeper into the way we relate to communities we are not a part of. We tackled major issues that seasoned activists and organizers struggle with all the time: What does it mean to think of allyship as an action we are constantly trying to live up to rather than a title? How can we truly stand in solidarity with marginalized communities if we are not actively putting them first each and every day? How do we navigate social justice while immersed in a culture that is constantly appropriative, divisive, and destructive? These were not always easy things to think about and we all experienced a lot of discomfort, agitation, and frustration.
But one of the truly remarkable things about a youth social justice program like this one is the unique community it creates, and what that community allows it to achieve. We had so many different identities, experiences, and skills in the room, perhaps even more so because no one came from the same home town or city. They had very different relationships to Judaism, different interests in social justice, and different experiences getting involved. They all had different beliefs about the world, and were at different points in their journey as activists. And because of these differences, one might think it would be too hard for them to communicate and build relationships. But as we really embodied the social justice values and practices we were learning about, developing our community became easy and felt necessary. It gave us the courage to speak up when we didn’t understand something, the confidence to ask difficult questions and push for more, and the willingness to agitate one another when we disagreed or felt unsure.
I watched so much growth happen for these eleven teens in the span of only ten days, and if you wanted I could describe in detail where each one was at when they entered the program and what had changed for each by the time they went home. On our last night together the teens came up with a specific social justice issue they wanted to explore more and what action they could take on it when they went home. They got into pairs and shared these with each other, and as I listened to them I overheard things like “Who can you call on to help you with that? That sounds interesting, can you tell me more? What is your self-interest in this issue, how are you invested? Do you have a friend or family member who can hold you accountable to the action you want to take?” These teens may not yet be community organizers, but they are organizing and agitating without even realizing it.