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Forget Service, Try Engagement

By Rebecca Neuwirth with Brother Tyrone Davis, Executive Director, Office of Black Ministry, Archdiocese of NY   As our nation faces the most momentous economic challenges since the Great Depression, how can we, as individuals and communities, best answer President … Read More

By / February 11, 2009

By Rebecca Neuwirth with Brother Tyrone Davis, Executive Director, Office of Black Ministry, Archdiocese of NY

 

As our nation faces the most momentous economic challenges since the Great Depression, how can we, as individuals and communities, best answer President Obama’s clarion call to assume responsibility for remaking America?

Some of these duties "to ourselves, our nation, and our world," no doubt, will be private ones to families and friends stretched more thinly than before.

But side-by-side with these are truly national duties of helping to build stronger communities. In our nation of patchwork heritage, that also means reaching beyond our immediate circles and neighborhoods, and recognizing that schools, parks — and if nothing else, crime — connect us all.

Community service has become the way to talk about hands-on citizen activism. And service is good – there is a lot that needs to get done. The Jewish community has taken up the call with a whole field of Jewish service opportunities, and other faith groups have done the same, building group identity in the process.

But getting it done overlooks the power of the process itself, especially its potential to bring people of different backgrounds meaningfully together. And with a stimulus package that might actually pay people to do some of the most basic repair, we can stop for a moment to focus on what happens when we volunteer together, and step back from the frenetic notion that a thousand points of light can fix all the nation’s ills.

We propose a fresh approach, one we call "community engagement" – building community through dialogue and service.

We think community engagement can strengthen our communities and our country. We think it can help us realize a real interest today among many in developing relations beyond ethnic, religious and class lines. We think it can build a base of trust and connection that will allow us come together in times of trouble as well.

During Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, on the eve of the historic inauguration of President Obama, Americans from across the country and representing a multitude of ethnicities and faiths gathered in New Orleans for a national conference and day of "community engagement" that should be considered a model for breaking down barriers and connecting communities, which you can learn more about on our website.

Cheryl Greenberg, a professor of African American history at Trinity College and author of Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century, praised the gathering for tapping into many layers of participants’ identities, including ethnicity and religion, realizing that each plays a vital role in who we are and how we relate to others. The conference combined academic presentations, group discussions, shared prayer, poetry and film.

But by the end, the participants were itching to act.

"It was under the hot sun, as we cleaned garbage from a yard in a women and children’s shelter, that I really connected with some of the Jewish participants," said Dion Walker, a junior at Spelman College in Atlanta. "I had gotten a lot of the history, but there we spoke about things that we all care about today too."

We encourage the American Jewish and the African American communities to lead the way together in community engagement projects across the country.

The election of the first African American president has created a new climate of energy and opportunity. Yet, new leadership does not abdicate us of our own responsibilities. The time is ripe. Let’s not waste it.

 

Rebecca Neuwirth is Director AJC’s ACCESS: New Generations Program and Brother Tyrone Davis is Executive Director of the Office of Black Ministry of the New York Archdiocese.

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