Building More Expansive Alumni Networks
By Cheryl Cook and Rachel Glicksman
Networks should be helpful and supportive to the people in them. But what happens when they keep others out?
Avodah recently conducted a comprehensive survey of our 1,000-strong alumni network. We learned a lot about our community, including the fact that 20% of our alumni are also alumni of another fellowship program. Other organizations have shared similar data about their alumni as well. While we are proud that our alumni are chosen for other prestigious programs, we are aware that this can lead to a field of Jewish leadership that invests in a chosen few. Alumni work was started by elite universities and often took the form of an “old boys club.” How do we make sure we don’t replicate systems of inequality in our programs?
Who is inside our leadership programs and who is left out? Approximately 20% of the Jewish population are racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latinx (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage; 7% of Jews identify as LGBTQ; 20% of U.S. Jews report household incomes of less than $30,000 per year; and 13% of all people (regardless of faith, race, etc) 35-64 years old in the U.S. have a disability.
We wonder how many of our organizations have alumni that reflect these realities.
In an effort to work toward a vision of a more diverse Jewish leadership, for the past several years at Avodah, thanks in large part to the urging of our alumni, we have devoted a significant amount of time to making our programs more equitable, accessible and inclusive. It’s a journey, and we’re not finished, but we are committed to this path. Based on our work and what we see happening in the larger Jewish and justice worlds, we propose these initial steps that could help change the field for the better:
1. Invest more time, energy and intention in recruitment. Recruiting people outside the traditional networks of many Jewish institutions takes more investment but can yield a more diverse end result. At Avodah, we’ve put more resources into recruitment, and we’re piloting some new ideas. We’re also learning from organizations like Bend the Arc’s Selah program, URJ’s Jew V’Nation and JFREJ’s Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship, which have invested in cohorts of Jews of color and LGBTQ Jews, and JOIN, which is investing in a cohort focusing on Jews with disabilities. We’re proud that this year 42% of our current Service Corps cohort identify as LGBTQ, with 7% identifying as nonbinary or gender nonconforming, and 12% identifying as Jews of color, Sephardi or Mizrachi. Yavilah McCoy, a well-known educator, activist and spiritual teacher, talks about creating doors that are “wide enough for those that are marginalized to walk through with a sense of grace and power.” We can create those doors by investing in recruitment.
2. Create support systems, particularly for people coming from traditionally marginalized groups. We know that people who come from marginalized groups may need more support to counter the discrimination, exclusion or isolation they have probably experienced in their lives, and creating these structures can be crucial for participants’ success. At Avodah, we’re experimenting with this and offer affinity groups specifically for people who share a particular identity or experience and who want to connect with each other in a supportive space, such as queer, raised poor or working class, and impacted by a mental health condition. Likewise, we also offer groups for people who want to come together around a specific goal that may relate to their identities or experiences, such as men who want to work on their impact on their communities, working on class privilege in the context of anti-poverty work, and working on Whiteness and solidarity with people of color.
Similarly, many Jewish communal programs and fellowships are structured, however unintentionally, to be more accessible to those who have economic privilege and can afford to take the time or cover basic travel fees. Avodah’s board recently approved an Economic Access Fund for our program participants to help pay for nondiscretionary expenses for our Corps Members who don’t have a safety net. We’re continuing to look for other ways to make our programming more accessible.
3. Consider who isn’t in the room. As we explore how to invest resources in our alumni, it’s important to also find opportunities to open some of our alumni programs or resources to a larger group – those who are not part of our alumni circles. At Avodah, we’re making our alumni our partners to reach their larger communities and investing ourselves in the larger community. Our alumni have enabled us, through their own networks and by giving their time and energy to locate new networks, to make our work accessible to new and more diverse communities. We have also expanded our community engagement offerings, creating programming such as our Speak Torah to Power series and a recent Women’s Leadership Retreat in NYC, educational programs open to both our alumni and the wider community as a way to make our content accessible to a broader swath of the Jewish community.
4. Engage philanthropic partners. Philanthropists can be great partners to help us achieve more equitable Jewish organizations. In the past few years, the Schusterman Foundation has taken a leadership role around safety and equity for women; the Jim Joseph Foundation has begun a push to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion work in its grantmaking; and a few other foundations, including The Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Ruderman Family Foundation, and the Dobkin Family Foundation, have been committed to justice work for many years. We hope our philanthropic partners will invest more in this work, especially some of the “less sexy but hugely impactful” investing, holding all our organizations accountable to make progress and encouraging other funders to take on this same commitment.
5. Avoid reinventing the wheel. At Avodah, we’ve been learning from and alongside other organizations that are involved in this work. There are many organizations already invested in this work, and we all need to learn from each other. The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable has created spaces for Jewish justice organizations to learn, and many of us are committed to sharing our learning in ways that help the larger Jewish communal field.
Imagine a future where our Jewish leaders – both professional and volunteer – reflect the diversity of our community. Imagine a table where all the voices in our community are magnified. As we build our communities and invest in our alumni, let us also invest in expanding our communal leadership to truly reflect our Jewish community.
Cheryl Cook is Executive Director of Avodah, and Rachel Glicksman is Alumni Director and an alumna of Avodah. They are both alumnae of many wonderful Jewish leadership programs.
**Watch tomorrow for the final installment of the series Exploring the Future of Alumni Summit: Key Learnings, and imagine with Michelle Lackie of M², “What if…?”**
M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education provides educators and organizations with knowledge, tools and skills to advance the theory and practice of experiential Jewish education.