Teen Leadership Can Create Real Change
Rabbi Joseph Berman is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program. Joseph received ordination in June from the Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Newton, MA. In the Fall, Joseph will become the Rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Revere, MA. He can be reached at email@example.com.
“Youth Force, the teen organizers from Dorchester who led a class about restoring funding for youth jobs, have requested your help,” I tell the 9th graders in my Social Justice/Community Organizing class at Temple Shalom of Newton. “They have support of legislators from Boston proper for more Youth Jobs funding, but without suburban legislators, it will never pass. Do you want to organize?” After a discussion of the pros and cons, the class votes unanimously to move forward with the campaign to save thousands of jobs for young people in the city. They’ve learned that effective organizing can’t just be about others – you have to put yourself in it, too – so they tie in other issues that affect them directly.
One month later, I’m sitting on a couch in the office of Massachusetts State Senator Cynthia Creem with the Jewish Community Relations Council TELEM Teen Organizer. Seated at the table are two teens from my class and another from Temple Israel of Boston running a meeting with Senator Creem’s top aides. For 45 minutes I sit silently, in awe, as these powerful fourteen and fifteen-year-olds run the show. They describe their coalition of synagogues and community organizations, tell stories about why they care about youth jobs and new revenue, and explain what they will be asking Senator Creem at our public assembly in front of two hundred teens and adults in the Temple Shalom sanctuary. In short, they lead – they engage people with power, demonstrate that they have many people behind them, and they act.
Two months later, my leaders and I look back on negotiations with public officials, a successful 200 person public assembly, and burgeoning relationships between urban and suburban teen leaders. We reflect on standing in the gallery during a session of the entire Massachusetts State Senate during which two senators recognize young people’s organizing as being the key reason money is being restored to youth jobs, and particularly note the suburban teens who, in their words, have shown that, “when a young person is shot in Dorchester, young people in Brookline and Newton bleed.” Then, the State Senate offers them a standing ovation and votes to add $1 million to youth jobs. After all that, I reflect back on what I’ve learned about leadership. Not only did I experience the power of organizing first hand, but I also learned that one of the most powerful ways that I can lead is not by going out and leading, but by developing others to be leaders themselves. I learned that leadership should not be reserved for the “grown ups.” If we entrust teens with the skills and tools to act and let them lead, they can mobilize our Jewish communal institutions to take action and create real and lasting change. As is happening in Boston, established adult Jewish leaders will begin to ponder what they can learn from our teens.