Leveraging Power for Social Change

By Michal David

Michal spoke about her experience with AVODAH at the Chicago Partners in Justice event honoring Steven H. Cohen, Rabbi Shoshanah Conover, and Julie Chizewer Weill. Her remarks follow below.

michalMy name is Michal David and I am from Sunnyvale, California. My AVODAH placement is at Heartland Human Care Services, where I work as a housing case manager in a permanent supportive housing program for individuals who have previously experienced homelessness and have a disability.

I remember a meeting soon after I arrived in Chicago with my supervisor, my program manager, and one of my participants in one of the large meeting rooms in our office. This participant was fairly new to our program. In the two years prior to entering our program, he had experienced the foreclosure of his home, ended his relationship with his partner of over a decade, and been diagnosed with a highly advanced stage of HIV.  This particular meeting stands out for me because my participant was quite upset throughout the course of the meeting—he was visibly agitated, his voice was elevated and he was adamantly expressing his frustration about how his rent for his unit had been calculated. As I observed the exchange between my participant and my program supervisor and manager, two things were particularly striking to me. The first was the level of compassion and understanding with which my supervisors listened and responded to the concerns of my participant. This unwavering commitment to respectfully engaging with participants, no matter their demeanor or concerns, has continuously impressed me about my colleagues at Heartland.

The second thing that was particularly striking to me about this meeting was that while it had been called specifically to discuss issues related to this participant’s rent calculation, many of the concerns that he expressed were not directly related to this issue. Instead, my participant spoke about his anxiety surrounding his health condition, about the difficulties he faced living on his monthly social security payments, about his frustration of having to rely on a host of social and government services, and about the serious marginalization he faced as a result of his disability.

As I continued to engage with this participant over the coming months, it became clear to me that my participant’s demeanor in that particular meeting was an expression of a feeling of constriction. What also became clear to me was that while I work to provide my participants with referrals to resources such as housing, healthcare, and employment training, perhaps my most important role is to provide my participants with a forum to express themselves and voice their frustrations, anxieties, and hopes within a structure that often feels paralyzing and silencing.  For many, this chance for expression and validation of their life experiences serves as a starting point in their journey to accomplish their most intimate goals.

While I may not experience overt marginalization in my daily life, I can in many ways resonate with my participant’s feelings of being paralyzed in the face of a system that presents many challenges. As I am further exposed to the serious injustices that exist in this country, I sometimes find myself feeling overwhelmed by the idea of seriously effecting change. In speaking with my fellow house members I have heard them express similar sentiments about finding an outlet for activism and expression within a world that is often dominated by much louder and more powerful voices. For me, AVODAH has been my forum through which to find my own voice within the social justice world.

One of the most impactful moments in AVODAH for me thus far was a training on community organizing led by Hannah Gelder, an AVODAH alumna and an organizer for One Northside. Hannah spoke to us at this training about the concept of power. Through this program I realized that much of my discomfort with holding power stemmed from an understanding that power was an inherently detrimental force and from my own conflation of the ideas of privilege and power. This program was a turning point in my understanding of the importance of organizing people and financial power in an effort to advocate for change. I remember sharing with one of my housemates after this program that I felt a sudden urgency to lend my own voice to organizations that work to mobilize such power.

One forum through which I have had the opportunity to lend and shape my own voice this year is through my involvement with Jewish Solidarity and Action for Schools (JSAS). JSAS is a local advocacy group that was founded by young Jewish adults in Chicago—many of whom are AVODAH alumni—in an effort to stand up against school closings in this city. Today this group works on a number of critical issues, such as supporting the creation of an elected representative school board in Chicago and pushing for a progressive tax in Illinois. Through JSAS I am able to witness the amazing work that my counterparts are involved in and I am in turn inspired to engage in such work as well.

Just this past Friday I attended a march at the University of Chicago, with a few other JSAS members, to demand funding for the opening of a level 1 trauma center that would serve the South Side of the city.

As I joined my own voice with the voices of a few hundred other individuals all marching and chanting with the same goal in mind, I felt the power we held to together instigate real change. I simultaneously felt anger though that we had been brought to the point of protest because of persistent inequity in this city’s healthcare system. As I reflect today on these feelings, I realize that they in many ways parallel the frustrations that my participant expressed at our meeting months ago. While my participant continues to express similar frustrations, he also continues to share with me his own vision for his future. I am continuously impressed by his commitment to change and self-improvement in the face of serious obstacles. While I work to provide my participant with a forum through which to find his voice, he too has inspired me to commit my life to finding my voice and using it to fight for justice and equality, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Michal David is from Sunnyvale, CA, attended Emory University and is a Housing Case Manager at the Heartland Human Care Services.

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