By Samantha Sawyer
Or Tzedek Alum and 2012 Staff Intern
As an alumna of JCUA’s teen program, Or Tzedek, I know firsthand the power and passion that the program can and has instilled in its participants. Coming out of my first year of college at the University of Vermont, this summer I have the honor of being an intern at JCUA focusing on the Or Tzedek summer program. So far it has been a great pleasure to be on the other side of the Or Tzedek experience and to help a new set of Or Tzedek participants benefit from the program. I feel lucky to be a part of this empowering Jewish community once again.
When I came to Or Tzedek in the summer of 2009 with two close friends, we were completely unaware of how eye-opening and empowering our summer adventure was going to be. I gained a confidence in myself (that I had never had before) that allowed me to believe in my own ability as a teen, to create change now and not at some unspecified moment in the future. This intensive eight-day experience greatly contributed to my growth and understanding of my role as a caring human being and what I feel like my calling is as I become an adult in a world riddled with problems.
A few key things really struck a chord with me as I reflect on the first session of 2012, “Or Tzedek: Advanced Activism” (in “Advanced” former Or Tzedek participants return for a program focused on an immersive internship with a social justice organization representing low-income and minority communities).
The first was how much I wish I had participated in the “Advanced Activism” when I was in high school. I saw how it expands on what you learn in the regular session, giving you the tools to drive social change.
In a society that is too quick to judge, we discussed how “adultism” (the disempowerment of young people based on age) can be detrimental to youth engagement in social justice work and we identified strategies for combatting adultism in our lives. Indeed, it was refreshing to be surrounded by such engaged, passionate and courageous young people. I had the opportunity to spend a great amount of time with two Advanced Activism participants while they interned at the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC). These girls are inspiring examples of motivated young Jewish agents for change.
Although there were tons of moments and themes that resonated with me throughout the week, something that will really stick with me is the power of storytelling in life and especially in activism and advocacy work.
It is so incredibly important to recognize that every single person has a story to share. You never know what someone’s story will be and how great of an impact it will have on your life.
I was reminded of this at “Youth Power: A Story Slam,” an event we co-organized during the Advanced Activism session. Young people from different faiths and backgrounds shared a story or an experience from their life in which they felt empowered or even disempowered. The stories were funny, sad, quirky, empowering, enlightening, encouraging and inspiring. I was so impressed by everyone’s ability to share such personal details of their lives with others whom they had never even met. I don’t know if some of these storytellers even realize the extent of their stories’ impact.
I am continually impressed with Or Tzedek, its participants, its staff, its partnerships and the impact it has on the Chicago community and the teens that participate in it. I look forward to everything that the upcoming Or Tzedek sessions will bring.