Allyship and the Value of Privilege


Graie teaching Or Tzedek participants about the ladder of oppression

By Graie Barasch-Hagans

Or Tzedek Advanced Activism ’14 Counselor

During two weeks in June, I had the honor of serving on staff for the Advanced Activism session of Or Tzedek working in a community of dedicated youth seeking an active role in achieving Olam Ha’Ba (the world as it should be).

This community, an intentional residential Jewish community, gave us the time and space to intensively practice being individuals united for good. It gave us the space to explore our identity as allies.

As August rolls around, I’ve continued contemplating the role of allyship in creating communities dedicated to change and how allyship relates to my practice of Judaism. Allyship is a complicated task, being an ally asks more than just good intentions of a person.

Being an ally means more than words and doing the right thing. To be an ally one must have privilege – often defined as benefits some gain from a system that oppresses others and can include access to resources – and seek to use that privilege to dismantle systems of oppression. In a sense, allies can be the tides that lift all boats. And yet, allyship is messy and imperfect.

I’ve been thinking of this even more since reading the National Journal article by Michelle Martin, host of NPR’s Tell Me More, where she addressed the value of privilege and the concept of “checking your privilege.” Tell Me More, the only NPR show hosted by an African-American and focused on African-American issues, has recently been canceled. Martin, in her discussion of what she has learned and experienced in this unique role, calls on those who have privilege – access to resources and a platform to elevate one’s voice – to use it for the good of all.

This same call permeated the two weeks of Or Tzedek. The concept of privilege is something the young people hear about regularly. Whether it is in conversation or staff led workshops, understanding privilege and how it permeates working in directly-impacted communities is a key part of the work.

It is also a key part of Judaism. Central to Judaism for me, and for many others, is the task of repairing the world towards the goal of Olam Haba. The world as it should be, Olam Haba,  requires an incredible dedication to honesty and intention.

For me, being honest about privilege means reflecting and committing to the act of t’shuvah, of turning and returning to the truth. As expected, the truth is never easy – the truth of privilege is complicated and calls us to action in the name of tzedek and tikkun olam.

A few years ago I gave my first d’var at my home congregation in St. Louis. My parsha was Va’etchanan, which contains among other things the Shema. While this most central prayer was my focus at that time, when I reread it recently something else jumped out at me. In my process of t’shuvah, or turning the text to see it in a new light, I found:

torah quote

As a religious Jew and a social justice activist, I know that I must first understand how I have benefited from those who have preceded me before I can turn towards increasing the bounty of others – before seeking a more just world for us all I must recognize my privilege of living in a world I did not build.

To Martin’s point, I know that focusing too much on my privilege does little good for those I seek to be in community with unless I also think about how to use it. As Jews, we are called not only to remember that we were once slaves and strangers, but also to acknowledge that we are also existing in a system, in a land that we may not have created, but we surely benefit from in a myriad of ways.

Graie is a St. Louis native who is currently living in Philadelphia while pursuing a Masters in Public Policy from the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers.Last year he spent a year in service through Americorps Vista in New Orleans. Graie is an active member of Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in West Philly. He is passionate about Judaism, social justice, public education, and working with youth.

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