The Need to Connect

A few days ago, I was reading an interesting article entitled Separated at Birth in which the author seeks out adults who were born on the same day in the same hospital as he was in 1949. He describes a variety of common themes that he has with his fellow baby boom generation members, but one particular quote from one of his birth mates struck a chord. He suggested that the reason the author, Daniel Asa Rose, was on this quest was that,

You’re interested in what connects Homo sapiens. You grasp the plain, astronomical truth that we’re on a microscopic pebble hurtling through space at sixty-seven thousand miles an hour–and in a very real sense, connecting with one another is the only thing that matters.

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Since November’s election, I have received daily inquiries about how to respond. My usual quick response is to advise people to act locally and give hugs. While this may seem simple, what I am really suggesting is that the more we connect with each other, the harder it will be for those who seek to divide and conquer us to succeed.

Ever since he started his campaign, and throughout his first few months in office, the President has utilized classic demagoguery to disconnect us from each other. He and his allies actively encourage hatred, arrest and deportation of those who do not look like him. That is why so many of us have such an unsettled feeling. Since a healthy society requires that people connect with each other, living under the leadership of an administration that seeks to destroy that state of connection raises our anxiety level to unprecedented societal heights.

While I support those who seek to change the leadership in Washington, this task truly starts by digging deep community building roots at the local level. For me, it includes;

  • making eye contact as I walk down the street, thereby acknowledging the humanity of every stranger I encounter;
  • living in a neighborhood with sidewalks where neighbors and strangers regularly encounter each other on a daily basis;
  • mentoring youth who face daily struggles with poverty and discrimination;
  • supporting those released from incarceration to succeed upon entering our community;
  • leading my religious community in a manner that helps our community connect with disenfranchised communities in order to combat racism and xenophobia;
  • providing support to friends and family both near and far to maintain connections and offer help when needed;
  • leading a local lake district to work together to protect the environment;
  • engaging in genuine dialogue to build consensus to solve problems rather than sow divisiveness; and
  • providing unique legal and consulting services to disenfranchised clients who likely would not find the help they need elsewhere.

These paths of connection are simply the ones that I choose. Everyone can choose their own path to connect with friends, family, neighbors and strangers, but connect we must. Through a web of connection, we can build hope. Failure to do so will allow demagoguery to prevail.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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Building Community: Now more than ever

Like many people around the world, the election of an American President who has actively engaged in and encouraged racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, frightens me. It reminds me of why I never bank on electoral politics to provide the solutions to our nation’s and our world’s problems. Of course, I vote, but in the end of the day, I only have one vote, and in this particular instance, even when the candidate I favored won a majority of the popular vote, our political system nevertheless gave the Presidency to her opponent.

I have spent my entire professional career working for progressive systems change. This election does not alter that. In fact, it will only cause me to work harder on behalf of the disenfranchised people I represent. A former colleague once called me a “good loser.” At first I did not understand that she was giving me a compliment. Then, she explained, that I never give up even after losing a hard fought battle. I simply examine the new situation for the best way forward and get back to working on making our world a better place. That is what we all must do right now.

Starting last night, many people have asked me what they can do in response to America electing perhaps the scariest President in its history. My sister-in-law just called me in tears. The vast majority of our nation was targeted by our President-elect, including women, people of color, Muslims, Jews, Mexicans, and people with disabilities, as somehow less worthy. But we know better. We also know that, now more than ever, we need each other, and together we can still accomplish great things.

So, here are a few suggestions (with underlined links to prior posts for more detail):

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So, today, give hugs to friends and family. Tomorrow, start looking for local projects that you can dive into to make your local community a better place. Together we can build community and create a better world for everyone.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Deepening the Ties the Bind Us

This morning, I was fortunate to be able to attend the annual Faith-Labor breakfast sponsored by the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice (ICWJ). It was a well attended event of a few hundred faith and labor leaders and supporters as well as low wage workers encouraging support for the Fight for $15 campaign to increase the minimum wage.

The guest speaker was the Rev. Michael Livingston, the Executive Minister of the famous progressive Riverside Church in Manhattan.

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In discussing his campaign to support federal contract workers earning less than $10/hour, Rev. Livingston encouraged each one of us to put ourselves in his shoes. He coined the term “policy violence” when he discussed the many ways our legal system institutionalizes poverty, racism and injustice.

While struggling for justice for people who are oppressed by the rich and powerful is often daunting, Rev. Livingston was able to confirm for us that many battles can be, and indeed, are won. After multiple strikes of low wage federal contract workers, President Obama announced in his 2012 State of the Union address, that he was signing an Executive Order which compelled all federal contractors to pay their workers a minimum wage of $10.10/hour. While this is still a poverty wage, it is significantly above the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, which Congress refuses to increase.

When Rev. Livingston took questions from the audience, he provided a good recipe to those questioning how they can hope to achieve their goals for worker justice in the face of so many obstacles. Quite simply, he affirmed what I have believed and wrote about many times. The foundation of systems change is community buildingHe want on to say that in order to build community, we must “deepen the ties that bind us in one human family.”

Rev. Livingston opened and closed his remarks with the encouragement that in our work to improve the world we, “open holy doors.” I was proud to sit next to my Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, at a table of my fellow congregants from the Congregation Shaarei Shamayimwhich co-sponsored this morning’s event. I am equally proud that my Rabbi’s wife, Rabbi Renee Bauer, is the Executive Director of the ICWJ. Together, Rabbis Laurie & Renee open holy doors on a daily basis and welcome all who are prepared to roll up their sleeves to improve the world.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Blessing

Some children just beam. Blessing is one such child and I believe the future will be bright for her. I met Blessing last Sunday, when I joined members of my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), help children at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist church work on their reading while their parents attended church. Here is blessing introducing herself and telling us what she is grateful for.

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Christ the Solid Rock’s pastor is Everett Mitchell, a strong spiritual and community leader who is also an attorney. His sense of justice is so strong that he is currently running for judge. A couple of years ago, Shaarei Shamayim’s rabbi, Laurie Zimmerman and Pastor Mitchell agreed that our two communities could benefit from getting to know each other better and one way to do that was to help his church members’ children read.

First, we helped the church raise funds for a small children’s library and assisted them with setting it up. Once the library was set up, we have provided volunteers to read with the children. I had previously participated in the church dinner/fundraiser, but this past Sunday was the first time I volunteered in the reading program, and I am very glad I did.

Blessing was the first child in the library. Not only did she beam, but although she wanted to play games, she was easily redirected and sat in my lap to read. She is a good reader, and already knows her colors in Spanish as well as English which I thought was pretty impressive for a 5 year old kindergartner.

Of course, not all the children read so willingly. After playing some word games in the large group, we divided into age groups and I worked with the 3rd grade children. One boy was pretty fidgety and did not want to read. Given my special education advocacy background, I suspected that he might have a learning disability, so when it was his turn to read, I read to him. But on his next turn, I decided to challenge him and told him that I didn’t think he could read. He insisted that he could read. So, I asked him to show me. Sure enough, my challenge worked. He could read.

After our session was over, many church members were out in the hallway. One member greeted me with a warm hug and made me feel very welcome.

While I cannot predict the future, I have a strong feeling that Blessing will go far. Not only does she beam, but she is embraced by a community which values its children. I am glad that my community is doing its small part to build connections and support children like Blessing.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Building Community through Queerness

While our nation celebrates the historic Supreme Court ruling embracing marriage equality nationwide for same sex couples, it is worth pausing to remember that love and community are built in many different ways and often not in marriage. This past weekend, along with about 80 others, I learned that community can be built through queerness.

My niece, Gabriella Spitzer, has had a profoundly loving relationship with the man she lives with, Sandy Johnston, for 5 years. My wife and I first met them when they were undergraduates in New York City, and quickly noted how much they loved each other. After their graduation, they moved in together where they now live in Albany. They both come from very observant Jewish families, but the concept of a traditional marriage simply did not fit their very unique personalities. As they wrote in their Siyyumfesto:

We…chose a format that doesn’t ask us to fit our…expansive selves into narrow boxes…For Sandy, that means honoring his introversion, and making a retreat that celebrates our learning with a ritual that reflects our teaching….For Gabriella, that means honoring their queer and genderqueer identities and not asking them to contort into genders or sexualities that simply do not fit well.

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Instead of a wedding, they asked their families and friends to join them at a lovely camp in the Berkshire Mountains in upstate New York for a weekend long Siyyum, this past weekend, and my wife and I are were pleased to be able to join them. A siyyum typically marks the completion of a course of study or the writing of a Torah. In Gabriella and Sandy’s case, they chose to study Jewish texts together and present what they learned to their family and friends in lieu of a marriage ceremony.

But, before the siyyum’s conclusion, they created an environment which built community between and among their families and friends. They did so in many ways, from hosting communal meals together, convening Shabbat services, and organizing 16 workshops during 4 sessions, for their friends and families to learn from each other. I was honored when Gabriella asked me to teach a workshop on disability law. It was with great pleasure that I attended her sister Leora’s workshop on Theater of the Oppressed where she taught us about how she engaged in this process with students at the Ferguson High School. Sandy’s Aunt Karen led a wonderful meditation workshop which I enjoyed. Gabriella’s grandmother (my mother-in-law) Gloria Spitzer led an enlightening workshop on Volunteerism, tzedakah and philanthropy.

There was so much beauty and joy during this entire weekend. By having us share meals and learn  together in a pastoral environment, we all got to know each other better, and truly built a community through queerness. As you can see, happiness enveloped both of their families.

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So, thank you Gabriella and Sandy for providing us an opportunity to learn from you and with you. You opened our hearts and minds, and built community for all of us. May you be blessed with many years of love and learning together, continuing to build communities wherever you go.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

55 Years: 5 Life Lessons

Yesterday, I celebrated my 55th birthday amongst family and friends.  Even the IRS considers this an important life milestone as it no longer penalizes early retirement withdrawals at my age.  While I am not quite ready for retirement, this occasion feels appropriate to share 5 life lessons that have helped me in my personal life & during my nearly 3 decades as a public interest civil rights attorney.

  1. To be human includes making mistakes:  Too many people are unnecessarily hard on themselves or others due to mistakes that they or others have made. Our system of justice is predicated on the premise that people make mistakes and justice is found by balancing the scales to address the ramifications of the mistake which was made.  On a personal level, finding that space in one’s heart to acknowledge one’s mistakes and to forgive other’s mistakes is absolutely critical to avoid staying mired in misery and pain in order to move forward and make progress.
  2. It can always get better:  It is easy to allow inertia to allow one to become apathetic and remain stuck in life as usual, despite its shortcomings.  However, the trajectory of mankind involves constant progress.  At times, what this means is finding inspiration from others to create the personal or systems change one seeks.
  3. It can always get worse:  This lesson is important to maintain perspective in virtually every bad situation short of death.  Once one realizes that any given situation could actually be worse, it then becomes necessary to maintain focus by keeping your eyes on the prize to obtain what one truly needs in order to make progress.
  4. Build community whenever possible:  It is rarely possible to make personal or societal progress by yourself.  Building community can be done with friends, family, neighbors, religious affiliates, co-workers and others. These communities sustain us in difficult times and help us make progress when we work together in concert.
  5. Be a life long learner: At 55, it has become abundantly clear how much I do not know.  Learning from those around me allows me to continue to improve myself. Learning from the world at large allows me to continue to engage with others by improving the world through systems change.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Celebrating Freedom Builds Community

Once again, this year’s Passover celebration of freedom reminded me how important this holiday is to the survival of the Jewish people for over 2000 years, despite many travails. The Torah commands the Jewish people to tell the story of their liberation from slavery to freedom every year.  While Jewish practice has varied over time, the core insistence on teaching children the value of freedom and remembering that we were once slaves is a reminder that freedom is precious and it takes work as a community both to obtain and to retain our freedom.

As usual, we gathered for a large seder in our home, with friends and family from the 3 Abrahamic religions, Jewish, Christian & Muslim, to re-tell the story.  While the seder, (literally meaning “order”) prescribes 14 set elements, from the 1st of 4 blessings over glasses of wine, to the conclusion hours later, the survival of the Jewish people has also allowed families to incorporate their own traditions into their seders.

In our home, when we introduce ourselves to each other as we gather at the table, we share with each other our thoughts about both the freedom we are currently appreciating as well as the freedom we are still seeking, because the truth is that all of us enjoy some freedom, but none of us enjoy complete freedom.  In doing so, we build community by getting to know each other a little better. In addition, this practice causes each of us to step back from our busy lives to focus on freedom obtained, and freedom sought.

This year, our seder gathering included 23 people, ranging from a Turkish Muslim baby not quite one year old, to an 87 year old Moroccan Jew who described his wandering from nation to nation, including France, Israel and Norway, eventually arriving in the United States, and always seeking freedom.  Some shared very personal freedoms sought & obtained.  Others shared global concerns for oppressed people who struggle mightily to obtain freedom in dire circumstances.  All sentiments were valued because in sharing freedoms sought and freedoms obtained, we were continuing a tradition that builds and strengthens a community that cherishes freedom and understands how fragile it is.

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Each year, as Jews the world over celebrate their Exodus from enslavement in Egypt thousands of years ago, I wonder whether others who have suffered from slavery could benefit from such a practice.  This is one reason why we always invite non-Jews to our seder, in order to broaden the celebration of freedom.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated so eloquently,

Liberation is costly.  Even after the Lord had delivered the Israelites from Egypt, they had to travel through the desert.  They had to bear the responsibilities and difficulties of freedom.  There was starvation and thirst and they kept complaining.  Many of them preferred the days of bondage.

We must remember that liberation is costly.  It needs unity.  We must hold hands and refuse to be divided.  We must be ready.  Some of us will not see the day of our liberation physically.  But those people will have contributed to the struggle.  Let us be united, let us be filled with hope.  Let us be those who respect one another.

Some struggle for freedom alone, but Passover reminds us that struggling for freedom together builds community and expands freedom for many.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

 

 

My Mexican Family: a Legacy of Diaspora Immigration

Like many Jewish Americans, much of my family fled Europe between the two World Wars in order to escape the oppression they faced in Central Europe.  One of my grandmother’s brothers emigrated from Belarus to Moscow.  Many fled to the United States.  However, those that were unable to enter the United States due to restrictive immigration laws, ended up in Mexico (on my mother’s side) and Uruguay and Argentina (on my father’s side).  Those that did not flee Central Europe perished in the Holocaust.

My Mexican family, the Tachnas, eventually settled in Los Mochis and became farmers in the rich agricultural land of the El Fuerte valley.  Seeking to stay connected to their American family, they sent their daughter Nitschi, to live with my mother’s family in Detroit for 2 years in the 1940s to learn English and keep the family connection alive.  A few years later, in the 1950s, my mother’s family made the long difficult drive from Detroit to Mexico City to attend Nitschi’s wedding to Simon.

I first met my Mexican cousins in 1971, when my family travelled to Mexico City to attend Nitschi & Simon’s daughter Susy’s wedding.  The Los Mochis branch of my Mexican family also travelled there and my eyes were opened to my beautiful Mexican family and the legacy of diaspora immigration.  I have many fond memories of that trip, which was by far the biggest trip my family ever took.

A few years later, my cousin Miky came to live with my family in Detroit and attend 9th grade with me to keep that family connection alive and to learn English.  Our house was small, but we crammed three teenage boys into one bedroom who became like brothers during that year.  Ironically, as this recent picture shows, we even look like brothers.

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I made my first trip to Los Mochis on my own in 1981 and have returned to this loving part of my family many times. In 2007, Miky and his wife Alma (of partial Japanese descent) sent their son, Miguel to live with us and attend 8th grade to connect the next generation of our family and so Miguel could learn English.  Miguel is now our second son and like a brother to our own son, Josh.

Miky & Alma’s daughter, and Miguel’s older sister, Alina got married to Mike Eng (of partial Chinese descent) this past Saturday, and my wife Sheryl, son Josh and I made the long trip to Los Mochis, to celebrate.  Joining the celebration were other cousins from Mexico City, Monterrey (Mexico), California and Israel, making this a true diaspora reunion of the Tachna family. Image

As our nation, and indeed much of the world, continues to struggle with immigration laws, my own family’s immigration story is framed by the legacy of restrictive American immigration laws.  Though we have succeeded in working hard to keep our family together despite the great distances, many family members have been lost to the winds of history. My first cousin Robert Tachna, has done significant research in trying to piece the Tachna family genealogy together on a web site.

Where our family’s future will go is up to each member of our family.  I know that I will continue to maintain the close ties that I have worked so hard to forge over the past 43 years of my life.  I look forward to the next opportunity to see my Mexican family, perhaps at the next wedding celebration, as this is yet one more way that I build community through family.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

The Giving Tree Builds Community

Over many years of working with a wide variety of individuals and organizations, it has become very clear to me that society only makes progress through building and sustaining communities. Many of us belong to multiple communities: through work, our neighborhood, a religious community, or one or more social communities. Communities create a sense of caring and belonging where people do good for each other out of genuine desire, rather than guilt or obligation.

Government can play an important role in building communities, whether through zoning or police protection.  For example, vast suburban sprawl where subdivisions are built without sidewalks creates barriers to community building as neighborhood children have no common space to play with each other, nor do adults have a common space to meet while walking.  On the other end of the economic spectrum, neighborhoods rife with crime where residents live in fear of illicit drugs, guns and gangs, also prevent community building.

For over 21 years, my family has lived in a very special neighborhood.  Sidney Street is a one block street with older homes.  While many of our neighbors have lived here as long as we have, or even longer, new neighbors are welcomed each year. On Sidney Street, we ask other’s children why they aren’t wearing their bike helmets. We have regular block parties on holidays such as Memorial Day and July 4th. People even move from house to house on the same street (some as many as 3 times) if a larger house becomes available.

Shel Silverstein wrote a wonderful children’s book, The Giving Tree, in 1964, in which a boy develops a beautiful relationship with a tree, which keeps giving and giving to him through manhood, until he becomes an old man who rests on the now dead tree’s stump.

991On Sidney Street, our long-time neighbors, John and Lauren Bell Bern have a living Giving Tree in their front yard.  This Crabapple tree is suitable for small children to climb and we have watched children climb it for over 21 years.  Despite the fact that this tree has lost many branches due to children’s climbing, and despite the fact that John and Lauren’s children are all adults now, they graciously permit children to continue to climb their tree year after year.

Unlike Shel Silverstein’s book, the Sidney Street Giving Tree continues to live and indeed thrive, despite the weight of many children’s bodies over the decades.  The Sidney Street Giving Tree is where friends are made, and caring communities are created.  As I write this, I hear neighborhood children playing outside and they gladly accepted my invitation to allow me to take their picture in the Sidney Street Giving Tree. One girl asked me to wait until she got onto “her branch.”

IMG_1529The smiles of these 5 girls on the Sidney Street Giving Tree assure me that this tree continues to build community.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.