By Hannah Are, Mitzvah Corps Chicago 2017 Program Director
It’s been a whirlwind and we can’t believe it’s only been a few days. It’s mind boggling that a week ago we barely knew each other, didn’t know Chicago, didn’t know social justice at all the way we do now. We have gone through all the emotions and will be eternally moved by this experience.
On the first night here, we unpacked how we thought about social justice and blew a lot of our preconceived notions out of the water. Maybe community service isn’t the only way to do justice. Maybe there are bigger conversations to be had around the systems and structures that form our society. Maybe we need to dig deeper and look at the way we relate to communities that are different from us.
This first night paved the way for many amazing discussions over the last five days. Each day we have broken down different aspects of ourselves and of the city of Chicago to better understand privilege, power, and the systems of oppression that dictate how different people move through the world. On the first day, the teens jumped right in and participated in a community mapping scavenger hunt of one particular Chicago neighborhood that represents many of the people and issues experienced by the city. We tried our hand at assessing neighborhood resources, talking to business owners and service providers about life in that community. It was scary at first to interact with people we did not know, but we pushed ourselves to find out as much information as possible. Afterward the teens marveled at how much they had learned from so many folks willing to talk about their experiences.
Mitzvah Corps Chicago also had the incredible opportunity to learn from community organizers at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs who are working on important issues such as police accountability and immigrant rights. They taught us about the history of these issues in Chicago and shared with us the fascinating and challenging work of mobilizing the Jewish community to fight for racial and economic justice. We learned a lot about what it takes to be an organizer and why it is so important to understand the power of accountable community members coming together to create change on a systemic level.
We have also gotten to try our hand at mobilizing our larger community to take action. On the fourth day of our program, after a good bit of practicing on our own, we joined many other JCUA members and organizers as we took to canvassing subway stops during rush hour to promote accountability for the Chicago police department. After learning about how oppressive the Fraternal Order of Police contract has become, we urged Chicagoans to call their local officials to oppose the contract and ask that it not be renewed until new revisions were in place. Mitzvah Corps Chicago teens had the unique opportunity to be learning about the contract issue at the exact moment it expires. Hundreds of organizers across the city are advocating for change to their elected officials this very week, and it was amazing to be a part of that work. After only 2 hours, teens had collected over 80 petition signatures and spoke with over 100 citizens about doing their part. We all left energized, agitated, and moved.
We still have so many memories left to make in the program, but I am floored by how much we have done. We have pushed ourselves, asked tough questions, and grappled with social justice in a way that cannot quite be put into words. I am in awe of our teens. They have continued to grow, learn, ask, push, agitate, and motivate each other. It is truly inspiring and I can’t wait to see where the last few days take us.