But, the ten-year plan I'd developed in 2002 (finish college, work in domestic social justice/organizing, go abroad again at 25, work in internationally focused organizations, and go to graduate school by the age of 30) indicated that the time had come for me to leave the utopia of San Francisco for a new chapter, back in Boston. Since fall 2011, I have been a student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, studying transitional justice and human security. After graduating in May 2013, I'm hoping to work for an NGO or foundation that supports grassroots post-conflict peacebuilding projects in the developing world. To gain more experience and on-the-ground knowledge of this work, I am spending this summer interning with a youth-led development organization in Northern Uganda -- ten years after my first taste of the developing world, in Sri Lanka.
The name (Sub)Alternate Reality still fits, as I'm writing from another post-colonial country dealing with the legacy of subjugation, ethnic tension, and poverty leftover by the British. Political violence, internal divisions, and rebel insurgencies have been common occurrences in Uganda since gaining independence in 1962. Though the country is currently enjoying relative peace and stability, it still faces major challenges in economic development, dealing with past human rights abuses and mass atrocities, and continued social conflicts.
I hope to post regularly about my experiences here, explore questions and answers, and discuss various topics of relevance. Stay tuned.
First up, an original piece I wrote for the American Jewish World Service Global Voices blog:
A Relationship Continuum
“They’re poor but they’re happy.” - service program participant
“Service involves working alongside people in ways that assist them in defining and helping to fulfill their own needs.” - Rahima Wade, Community service-learning
Each group received a stack of colorful paper cards bearing (variations of) these quotes, and several in between. In our small groups, we began the task of ordering the cards according to the how much the subject and the speaker were “in relationship,” from least to most.
What does it mean to be in relationship? In the community organizing world, I’ve learned that it means discovering shared values, interests, and purpose as the basis for working together. Relationships build power to make social change – more power than an individual acting alone can possess. In the highest form of relationship, we are acting in solidarity with our partners towards a single, unified cause.
This exercise, “the relationship continuum,” was one of my favorite activities during the Volunteer Corps orientation I recently attended in Kampala, Uganda. We gathered as seven professionals and students, ranging in age from 24 to 77 (Ann Haendal, the rockstar), to prepare for our volunteer assignments with AJWS partner NGOs in Kenya and Uganda for the next 2-6 months. Facilitated by talented AJWS staff members Masha Katz, Lilach Shafir, and Irene Kan…, we delved into an intense five day crash course on AJWS’s mission and work, cross-cultural sensitivity, health and safety tips, international development, Jewish perspectives on justice, and culture shock. We met our NGO counterparts, began drafting work plans, learned about each of the host NGOs, and – most importantly – started developing relationships with each other.
After we ordered the cards, we assigned titles to each category of relationship: indifference, pity, sympathy, empathy, and solidarity. We discussed how the quality of the relationship impacts its outcomes. One of the quotes, “so far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence,” (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others) revealed that on the lower half of the relationship continuum, we maintain a distance from the other which ultimately limits our ability to effectively help them. As one moves higher on the continuum, that distance diminishes. A more meaningful dynamic develops; we work closely with our partners, following their lead, and acknowledging and utilizing our own privilege to assist in advancing their needs. AJWS takes this approach – solidarity – to fight poverty and realize human rights in the developing world.
Reflecting on my own relationship to the relationship continuum (as it were) is a fundamental component of my volunteer experience here in Lira, Uganda, with Concerned Children and Youth Association. Examining where I am on the continuum pushes me to question assumptions, open up to new ideas and experiences, engage patience, and activate humility – and it helps me process the many questions on my mind: how do I collaborate as a peer? How can I best support my colleagues’ work sensitively and sustainably when sometimes I’m simply in shock about the difficult conditions and horrific realities they’ve experienced? Where is the line between respecting cultural differences, and respectfully challenging them? To maximize my contribution to CCYA, I must push myself beyond the easy comfort zone of pity or sympathy, and into these challenges of solidarity.
There is an uncanny parallel between the relationship continuum and Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah (charity) – each step offers more dignity, self-sufficiency, and self-determination than the last. Solidarity places those most directly affected by the issue at the forefront of its solution. Likewise, Maimonides understood that enabling others to help themselves is the greatest virtue of charity. In fact, an illuminating clue is embedded in the very word tzedakah: it is derived from the same Hebrew root as tzedek, meaning justice and/or righteousness.
Only one of the cards in the relationship continuum exercise bore a picture: the famous 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel arm in arm with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Both groups agreed that this picture represented solidarity. Marching together, these great men demonstrated their joint commitment to justice. This was the scene about which Heschel famously said, “I was praying with my feet.”
I am studying and pursuing a career in post-conflict development and peacebuilding because of my commitment to justice, inspired by Jewish values and history. I came to graduate school to learn theories and case studies about poverty and conflict, to gain necessary intellectual tools. But through this volunteer experience with AJWS, I am learning what it really takes to do this work – I am gaining crucial tools of the heart. This summer, by joining arm in arm in solidarity with my colleagues on the ground, now I too am praying with my feet.