Operation Understanding – Effective Social Justice Education
By Amanda Herring
I have the pleasure and honor of working as an intern for Operation Understanding DC (OUDC), a 23-year old organization working to build a generation of African American and Jewish young leaders working to eradicate racism, anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination. I am in awe of the way OUDC has transformed Jewish social justice education from the typical one-off Tikkun Olam project to the work of creating meaningful and lasting identities rooted in social justice.
Through bi-weekly workshops, speakers, and activities the 12 African American and 12 Jewish students learn about each other in order to promote cross-cultural understanding and trust. In the summer, the students travel to the south to trace the journey of the Freedom Riders and the history of the Civil Rights movement. They meet with contemporary social justice advocates to understand the work still to be done. These leaders “pass the torch” to OUDC’s students. Class 23 has gone through a process of personal introspection, re-evaluating and questioning their own inherent biases and misconceptions in order to help form or reform their identities.
OUDC’s experiential education model uses what Barry Chazan calls “the group as educator” model. Members of each class learn to see themselves reflected in one another and use that “creative hall of mirrors” to help create and shape their own identities. These students have built lasting relationships with peers who have a different life experience from their own. Together they have understood their shared history and struggled with their own identities. Jewish social justice organizations can model OUDC’s method of wrestling with America’s past through a lens of shared minority experiences.
I recently traveled with the current OUDC class of high school seniors to explore the intertwined Jewish and African American experiences in New York City. Here are a few Highlights:
- A meeting with Richard Green of the Crown Heights Youth Center, where he has been working to bridge the divide between Blacks and Haredi Jews since the 1990 Crown Heights Riots.
- Shabbat at B’nai Jeshurun, a synagogue which modified their building to house a women’s shelter and that blends social activism and spirited worship.
- A conversation with Walter Nagle, partner of the late Bayard Rustin who was Martin Luther King’s right-hand man, and the true organizer of the March on Washington where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin translated MLK’s philosophy into boots on the ground, and was never afraid to be unapologetically himself. Rustin has been blotted out by historians of the Civil Rights movement because he was gay.
- Hearing from Lewis Zuchman, a Jewish Freedom Rider who continues to work for the young people of East Harlem. He questioned the efficacy of the Civil Rights movement and challenged OUDC’s students to see what has improved and what has become worse for African Americans in our society today.
- Workshops with Project REACH, an organizational leader in addressing sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.
- A visit to the Tenement Museum to experience the hardships of Jewish immigrants to New York City at the turn of the 20th century.
The students continued to grapple with race, class, gender, religion, and advocacy work in late night reflections with one another, guided by their talented program coordinator. Once they returned to DC, they were tasked with bringing these discussions to their communities through workshops and speeches. They feel the weight of history on their shoulders, but they also have the tools and knowledge they need to fight for justice in today’s society.
The lessons of OUDC have only just begun. Now these 24 thoughtful and inspiring 18 year-olds will enter synagogues, churches, schools, and businesses to facilitate workshops which ask our communities to grapple with diversity and discrimination. Unless we all confront these issues, society will not progress, and politics will continue to drive Americans apart. The Jewish community can learn so much from the OUDC model. The divides in the progressive community between Jews and African Americans are deepening every day, but these groups have a long history of working together to pursue justice and equality for all. We need to remember our history, and confront our past in order to mend this divide. Experiences like OUDC are what will effectively teach the next generation of Jews to move beyond “tikkun olam” projects which check a box and have no lasting community impact. These students will go on to change the world.
Amanda Herring is a M.A. Student of the Experiential Education & Jewish Cultural Arts program at The George Washington University, and was placed at OUDC for her fall fieldwork.