Emily Hoffman is from Charleston, South Carolina, and studied at Wesleyan University. She is currently a New York City Corps member serving as an advocate at the Brooklyn social services organization, Neighbors Together.
One of my favorite writers, Josh Healey, has a poem in which he states, “I am white and Jewish/ straight and American/ Solidarity is not just my offering at the movement dinner table/ it’s the first invitation I got to sit down and eat.” This is a sentiment that often rings true for me, as someone situated comfortably in relative power and privilege. In my work at my placement, I am reminded every day of how much my societal position differs from those of my clients. They are mostly people of color living in extreme poverty, who struggle daily with welfare and the all too often ineffective bureaucracies it encompasses. Many of them have also spent years dealing with the inequalities of the criminal justice system. I have always been protected from these injustices by my race, class, and strong support systems. I have felt like my role in “the movement” could only be that of an ally.
However, several events in the past few weeks have caused me to begin to see things differently. One such occurrence was travelling to Albany to spend a day lobbying New York state lawmakers alongside the rest of my organization’s staff and 17 of our members. The causes we represented included affordable housing, welfare reforms, and putting an end to enormous tax breaks for the state’s wealthiest citizens. Rallying next to the people I usually “serve” at work, shouting the same slogans and slipping on the same patches of ice, was a powerful experience, a reminder that we all live by the rules and consequences of the same legislation and the same elected officials who put it into effect. When we spoke in the offices of our local legislators, we were speaking not just as individuals, but as members of a single society that we are all invested in, and believe we all deserve a say in.
I was brought to reconsider my relationship to society’s oppressed in a different way at our house’s open program night last week. We learned about and discussed how poverty affects the Jewish community in New York City. While on a superficial level the city’s Jews seem quite affluent, they are actually experiencing a more rapidly rising poverty rate than any other ethnic group in the area. This trend mostly stems from the careers and family size of the ultra-Orthodox and waves of poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants. While I am not a member of either of these groups, I share an important bond with them in our common identification as members of the Jewish people, and that makes their struggles feel closer to home for me. It is also a reminder that Jewishness has not always been associated with financial or professional success, and that this generalization is a false one even today.
I don’t tell these stories to victimize myself or to downplay how much material fortune and security I have experienced in my life. I actually think they serve as reminders of why I must continue to employ my socioeconomic agency in the name of truth and justice. And to me, the most important aspect of solidarity work is to maintain a constant awareness that privilege and power do not make me smarter or better. I may be seen as empowered in the eyes of this society, but I have so much to learn from those who are not.