How We Think of Social Action and Social Learning Trips

by Billy Planer

In an ironic twist of fate this past week, Hurricane Isaac hit the Gulf Coast seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina struck land.

For the past nine years, I have been taking synagogues and day schools on trips to New Orleans and other cities as part of a nonprofit educational venture I created called Etgar 36. The company was born out of an idea I had when I was a youth director at an Atlanta synagogue to take Jewish students on a five-week summer journey across America. My goal is to teach the teens about history, politics and activism while developing their American and Jewish identities. During the academic year, I run shorter social activism trips for synagogue groups and day schools with the same goal in mind – to empower and inspire Jewish people to get involved and to create change.

Dating back to when Abraham welcomed the wayfaring angels into his tent, the Jewish community has had a historic connection to social action and responding to people in need. After leading trips for many groups that wanted to continue in this tradition, it occurred to me that I could be doing more to encourage a deeper understanding of the issues we were confronting. I realized that what we need is a new paradigm governing the way we think of social action and social learning trips.

The first thought is to approach our journeys with the Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) approach. People have long opposed the building of prisons, wind turbines and big box stores in their neighborhood by claiming “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY). I fear that, perhaps unconsciously, we are creating the same feeling in what we are doing with our service learning trips. We are experiencing a disconnect between where we perform social action work and where we live our day-to-day lives. The reality, however, is that social action work is very much needed in our own back yards, but in order to recognize this fact we must first look closely at our own lives and actions.

To be sure, natural disasters like hurricanes are endemic to certain areas, but it would be naive to think that the poverty and indigence in parts of New Orleans that came to light in the wake of Hurricane Katrina did not exist prior to the storm as well. On the contrary, I submit that the floodwaters merely washed away the pretenses that had long veiled the social issues lying dormant in New Orleans, that Katrina merely allowed for the rest of the country to finally take a look through the “comfort prism” of a natural disaster at difficult issues such as racism, poverty, income inequality and education. These issues, however, are not limited to the confines of a disaster area; they exist in our own backyards and, with work, may be fought there just as well as anywhere else.

I do not mean to suggest that we should cease our trips to aid in the rebuilding of New Orleans or other well publicized areas of great need, but rather that when we carry out our social learning trips, we ought to make a point of relating our projects to issues that exist at home. By putting our programs into this sort of perspective, we allow our students to bring the constructive energy they develop on our trips back home with them. The end of the trip may thus become a launching point rather than a terminus.

Some years ago, I stopped having the groups I bring on New Orleans journeys paint buildings and instead had them begin working on neighborhood gardens in the Lower 9th Ward. The idea was one I borrowed from the locals there, who have begun to take back their community by replacing blighted street corners left abandoned after Katrina with community gardens. The gardens allow neighbors to socialize together, to get some exercise and to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. Moreover, these gardens become all the more important when you consider that there is not a single grocery store within the Lower 9th Ward. For my purposes, this project allows me to lead discussions with my groups on food as a social justice issue (via access to fruits and vegetables) and on the localization of food. I am able to discuss making connections to food within the context of our Jewish values which, beginning with our traditions of saying hamotzi and birkat hamazon, all promote the notion that eating and being sustained are holy conditions. I will freely acknowledge that this sort of project is not nearly as sexy as being able to look at a building and say, “I painted that!” but I believe that the gifts of the community gardening activity are nevertheless richer and more fruitful for allowing students to bring their lessons home and continue to be involved in a movement that is currently sweeping the country.

The same sort of thinking that compelled me to avoid flashier social action projects also demanded that I reconsider where we choose to travel for our learning trips in the first place. For example, it has occurred to me that Detroit is suffering and rebuilding in the same exact way as New Orleans. Realizing this, I began to pitch a Detroit trip to many of my groups, and time and again my clients informed me that “it’s just not a sexy sell.” Well, to be sure, they are right; Detroit is decidedly not a sexy sell, but the experience of visiting there, I believe, is all the richer for exactly that reason. The fact that it looks like where we are from, in ways New Orleans does not, is the point – to make ourselves uncomfortable. Unlike New Orleans, Detroit’s woes cannot be attributed in any way to a natural disaster. There, the condition results solely from a human-made disaster born out of social and financial negligence. In most ways, Detroit evokes our own hometowns. Both the social and geographic landscapes compel us to look in the mirror, and, in this case, that level of self-identification can be very uncomfortable. This discomfort, however, can be constructive, and we should not avoid it simply because it hits too close to home. As we enter into the High Holiday season, we are reminded that our tradition teaches that uncomfortable introspection is what leads to change. If true transformation is going to happen in this world, we need to think not only of Costa Rica, the former Soviet Union, Honduras and Guatemala as places that deserve our efforts and attention, but also of our own backyards. We need to adopt a YIMBY, Yes In My Back Yard, attitude. We need to act globally and locally!

Lastly, I would also like to challenge us to think of the context in which we perform social action. As a Jewish community, we have done a tremendous job of developing young people who know to work in soup kitchens, wear supportive wristbands of every color, “like” Facebook pages that discuss important issues and fundraise, but do any of us who work in a soup kitchen on a Sunday remember the names of the people we feed? Do we know what those people are doing on Monday for a meal? How impactful it would be if we harnessed the masses that we have taught to work on social action projects for a few hours and turned them into activists committed to eliminating the root causes of hunger in our country and abroad. And this idea comes directly for our own tradition! Our sages teach us that one of a parent’s main responsibilities is to teach his or her child to swim so that the child may be self sufficient and not dependent on external factors for survival. We may need to sacrifice the immediate good feeling we get by doing for others (i.e. painting a house, serving a meal) and engage in the less exciting activities of discussing and learning about core issues and how to be involved in curing them. We should encourage a feeling of accomplishment and worth through education just as we do through physical action.

One of the trips that I run for schools and synagogues is a Civil Rights journey through the South. The students meet with reverends and locals who were involved in the planning, protests, marches and civil disobedience that changed both our nation and the world. All of the speakers are committed to empowering young people by telling their stories and then challenging them to not just follow in the footsteps of history, but also to think of what footprints they will leave on this planet. I am often told by organizations who are interested in going on one of my journeys that they like the idea of a Civil Rights journey but need an actual hands on work component. The point I try to get across is that social activism is the next step in social action. Also, social action activities should fit in the narrative being told on a trip. One does not need solely to get his or her hands dirty in order to create change; education and political action are just as valid as a physical work project. Tying in a deeper understanding of the need for change and how to create change truly fulfills the charge of our Rabbis to remove stumbling blocks from in front of the blind.

I am reminded of a particularly engaging stop on the Etgar 36 summer journey at which we visit with some representatives from the Rocky Mountain Food Bank in Colorado. I am often asked by the teens why we don’t spend our time there volunteering instead of hearing from the Director, local experts and politicians on the core roots of hunger as well as food insecurity and what can be done to eliminate them. My response is first to ask the teens how many of them volunteer at a food bank at home. To the credit of their parents, teachers, youth workers, Rabbis, etc. most of them raise their hands. I praise the kids for the good work they do, and then I explain that the amount of hands in the air compels me to have no concern about their level of social action work, but rather that it compels to try to take them to the next level – social activism. Nearly every group that I take on a journey creates t-shirts for the participants proclaiming what they are doing and the good work that will come of their trip. I hope to challenge us to not just wear the shirts proclaiming our social action projects, but to own the shirts as well!

Billy Planer is the Founder and Director of Etgar 36 a Jewish educational non profit venture that takes Jewish teens on a 36 day summer domestic journey and, during the academic year, school and synagogue groups on trips to various cities with the goal of teaching about history, politics, and activism, while developing their American and Jewish identities.