Amanda Klonsky: Tapping into Our Own Stories

January 21, 2015

On a Just Path Logo

Editor’s Note: “On a Just Path” is a series of stories about former JCUA employees, where they are now and the impact JCUA had on them. Interviews were conducted and edited by Nathaniel Seeskin, AVODAH Organizing Fellow at JCUA.

Asaf Bar-Tura

Amanda Klonsky

Q. When did you work here and what was your position title?

A. I was at JCUA during the early 2000s and was the Coordinator of the Jewish and Muslim Community Building Initiative as the program launched.

Q. What was special about working here?

A. I made several of my closest friends while working at JCUA and entered into a large network of progressive Jewish activists whom I stay in touch with to this day. It was the first time I felt my Jewish identity and my activist identity were in sync and visible in my adult life.

Q. What impact did your work at JCUA have on the community?

A. We began organizing in response to hate crimes and attacks against Muslim community centers and mosques in Chicago. Ultimately, we organized a campaign in response to the PATRIOT Act. We collaborated with CAIR Chicago and several other Arab and Muslim community organizations to pass city council resolutions against the PATRIOT Act. It wasn’t always easy to convince Jewish community leaders that we should organize against the attacks on Arab and Muslim people– but we were able to tap into our own stories and experiences of persecution as immigrants– and built a powerful community across lines of difference.

Q. How did your experience at JCUA impact what you do now? 

A. I spent the last decade working in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where I co-led Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy Program– which provides arts and literacy education to youth who are detained there. I then went on to work at Chicago Public Schools, leading an effort to support formerly detained and incarcerated youth in returning to school in Chicago.

I am now at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I am earning my doctorate. I am interested in expanding access to education for people in prison. My interest in these issues was catalyzed at least in part by the important work that was happening at JCUA when I was there, in response to the John Burge torture cases. I was introduced to a whole world of activists who were organizing in defense of those people who had been wrongfully convicted as a result of torture at the hands of John Burge. It changed my life to meet those brave people who stood up and challenged power, after having experienced such trauma.


Amanda Klonsky is currently studying for her Doctorate in Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her work is focused on expanding access to education for youth returning from juvenile detention and prison. 


The Civil Rights Movement, JCUA and the Light of the Menorah

December 22, 2014

Note: This presentation was made at the JCUA Member Hanukkah party last week.

Stacey Flint and her daughter, Lauren, at the JCUA member Hanukkah party.

Stacey Flint and her daughter, Lauren, at the JCUA member Hanukkah party.

By Stacey Aviva Flint
JCUA Member/Guest Blogger

More than 15 years ago, I was a JCUA staff person. Today, I am member of JCUA. I’d like to share my journey with JCUA and explain why you should join with me as a member of JCUA.

JCUA introduced me to the city of Chicago and helped me to understand justice in America. My knowledge of justice was the Civil Rights movement, and I was as a spectator of a historic past. JCUA opened my understanding of the heart of the movement and allowed me to go from spectator to an actor for change.

Jews and social justice issues are linked most often with the Civil Rights movement in partnership with Black Americans. Injustices in the political and social justice sphere culminated in Jewish and Black collaborations. Both communities were victims of a long history of institutionalized discrimination and social shunning by mostly white, Christian populations.

Jim Crow signage often proclaimed, “No Jews, no Dogs, no Negroes.” At the height of the Civil Rights era, Jews and Blacks marched together in Selma (Dr. King, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rabbi Robert J. Marx), and challenged housing discrimination in Chicago. This past August (2014) marked the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Chaney (African American), Goodman and Schwerner (both Jewish) were lynched for daring to register Black voters in Mississippi in 1964.

JCUA member Tina Escobar kindles the lights of Hanukkah at the JCUA member party.

JCUA member Tina Escobar kindles the lights of Hanukkah at the JCUA member party.

Born from a shared history

It is out of this history JCUA was born. For over 50 years JCUA has partnered with diverse communities to carry out the prophetic vision of tzedek, tzedek, tirdof–Justice, Justice, shall you pursue.

As my first employer after graduate school, JCUA holds a special place in my heart and professional career. I was and still am drawn to JCUA because of its core values–Justice and Tikkun Olam. JCUA recognizes that Jews are neither powerful nor powerless, but they can be bridge builders and relate to both the powerful and the powerless.

Today, as a member of JCUA, I can be my whole, authentic self: A Jew, Black, multicultural, a woman and a citizen concerned for my fellow man, without being asked to choose only one. As a Jew of color, I realize that I have a dual consciousness and I can be a living bridge between my communities as well as many others.

As leaders, we must come together once again and harness the common ground of humanity to shed light on the plagues of darkness that foster racism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of oppression. New prophets may never arise such as Moses, Dr. King, or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, but Judaism calls on us to be prophetic voices, lights among darkness.

Lights in the darkness

Rabbi Schneuer Zalman of Liadi once said, “A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.” The Talmud teaches, “We don’t depend on miracles,” we have the opportunities to be lights in the darkness.

JCUA is a treasure trove in both Chicago and social justice history that is rare to find. Sometimes I know I can feel paralyzed by what I hear on the news. But as a member of JCUA, I have the opportunity to be a part of solutions. JCUA acts as the shamash (servant candle on our Hanukkiah that lights the other candles). As a JCUA member, I get information about issues and how to process them according to Jewish values. And I also get to lend my voice and experiences.

What am I saying? JCUA is looking for a few good members to be lights in this generation. As I look out I see many lights shining tonight. Let’s keep the flames of Justice burning bright long after Hanukkah. Join with me as a member of JCUA; there is room at the table.

Let JCUA keep your flame shining brightly.

I will see you at our next member meeting.


Stacey presented these remarks at the JCUA member Hanukkah party. Our next member meeting is Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, location TBD. 

» Become a member of JCUA — get meeting notifications and action alerts


Chicago Trauma Center Victory: Black Lives Do Matter

December 15, 2014

By Michal David
JCUA member and guest blogger

‘I can’t breathe’

Die in protest against police brutality

Activists take part in a die-in in the Bronzeville neighborhood to protest police brutality against people of color.

On Sunday, Dec. 7, I attended a #blacklivesmatter demonstration in downtown Chicago to protest the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and to stand up against a persistent system of police brutality in this country. Like many other protests across the nation over the past few weeks, one of the most powerful phrases chanted by demonstrators was “I can’t breathe.” These were the final words uttered by Eric Garner before he was placed in a choke hold and killed by a New York City police officer in July of this year.

Michal David

Michal David

While chanting these words, I found myself walking next to an older Black man standing in front of dozens of police officers blocking the march. He was urgently yelling, “But I literally can’t breathe.”

When I asked him to explain, he said: “I go through my life with the feeling that I’m suffocating. That no matter what I do, I can’t do anything right.”

The response left me with a deep sense of despair. How could we even begin to make change in a system that it causes individuals to feel like they are suffocating from severe disenfranchisement? These feelings of helplessness lingered with me as I entered my work week the day following the protest.

Trauma center victory

And then, something wonderful happened. We had a win.

On Tuesday, Dec. 9, the University of Chicago announced that it would begin the process of expanding its pediatric trauma program to include 16- and 17-year-olds. Since the closing of the University’s Level 1 Adult Trauma Center in 1988 and the subsequent closing of the Michael Reese Trauma Center a year later, the South Side of Chicago has been devoid of an adult trauma center. As a result, adults on the South Side who suffer from traumatic injuries are often forced to travel up to 12 miles to receive the care they need.

Join JCUA members in observance of Hanukkah, Thursday, Dec. 18 from 6-8 pm at Grace Place, 637 S. Dearborn. RSVP here.

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On Rosh Hashanah, New Beginnings Bring New Resolutions

September 24, 2014

By Nate Seeskin
AVODAH Organizing Fellow, JCUA

Nate SeeskinSeptember marks two new beginnings for me with the coming of the Jewish New Year and my starting as an Organizing Fellow at JCUA. This is not just another year where I look to improve myself, but one where I look to engage with my new community.

Many people look to the High Holidays as an opportunity to reflect on how they can improve themselves. As an organizing fellow I understand that in order to effectively attend to outside factors in our lives, such as family and work, self-care and reflection are essential.

Along with the emphasis on self-improvement, there should be equal weight placed on the betterment of community (Tikkun Olam) and social justice (Tzedek). I moved to Chicago last month largely because I considered it like a second home throughout my life with the personal connections I have here. Yet I can also relate to this city because of its many similarities to my home city, St. Louis. Both are steeped in rich traditions (especially baseball and food) and have a special type of folksy flavor that you cannot find on either coast.

At a recent rally, Chicago-area Jewish clergy sound the shofar to call for a level one trauma center on the South Side.

At a recent rally, Chicago-area Jewish clergy sound the shofar to call for a level one trauma center on the South Side.

At the same time, both cities are plagued with problems like gun violence and police brutality. Disparities in access to resources are rampant, whether it be the recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri or the shortage of emergency health care on the South Side of Chicago. These problems are only symptomatic of a broader problem: segregation. Last year, St. Louis and Chicago were respectively ranked as the sixth and seventh most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the U.S. Within this ranking, 12 of the 25 most racially segregated American cities are in the Midwest. As the third largest metropolitan area in the U.S. and the largest city in the Midwest, Chicago is prime battleground for our fight for social justice.

Social justice plays a foundational role of Jewish faith and communal expression. Our history is one of both persecution and perseverance and in our annual period of reflection, we must not take for granted the world around us.

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#TraumaCenterNow: Why gun violence and trauma centers are a Jewish issue

May 22, 2014

by Daniel Kaplan
JCUA Community Organizer

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Yesterday, JCUA took part in an interfaith vigil with student and community groups comprising the Trauma Center Coalition.  Several dozen strong, we  marched to one of the most prestigious medical centers in the country: the University of Chicago Medical Center.  Our march was part of a greater campaign to address gun violence in the neighborhood and a lack of response from surrounding institutions.  Gun violence remains a crisis of epidemic proportions, particularly on Chicago’s south side near the medical center.  Yet while our city has six trauma centers for gunshot victims, not a single one is located on the south side.

For this reason, we held vigil as part of a broader week of action to demand the University of Chicago open a level 1 adult trauma center for the surrounding community.  While the University of Chicago operates a pediatric trauma center, it has not opened its doors for nearby adult victims of gun violence since 1988.  While reflecting on the crisis, we heard stories of mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons who were gunned down within reach of the university.  Even though the medical center has the facilities to treat gunshot trauma, these people died in ambulance rides on the way to trauma centers elsewhere.

I was appalled to hear these stories from an area that many are calling a “trauma center desert“.  This desert covers an area with one of the city’s highest rates of gun violence.  Chicagoans in the trauma center desert are disproportionately black and lacking health insurance relative to better served parts of the city.  Listening to the testimony of lost loved ones, I could not help but wonder: why are our resources for treating gun violence completely absent in neighborhoods where they are the most needed?  Why has the University of Chicago not responded to this glaring disparity by reopening its center?

If family and community members were dying in trauma center deserts on the north side, would nearby universities respond differently?

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46 Years Later: Connecting #mlk’s Last Speech to #abetterillinois

April 4, 2014

46 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In his last years, King focused his work on addressing the intersections between economic inequality, poverty and race. King was in Memphis to support the Memphis Sanitation Strike, a critical first campaign in his larger Poor People’s Campaign.

In his last speech, King said, “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

46 years after Dr. King spoke those words, economic and racial inequality are more strongly connected than ever.  As we see in this article, income inequality is growing in our city. Chicago’s staggering economically polarization is concentrated in communities of color, and nearly entirely in neighborhoods where CPS closed more that fifty Chicago Public Schools last year.

40 Years of Chicago’s Rising Inequality, in One GIF

We cannot stop our work to combat poverty.  JCUA is committed to addressing economic inequality in our city and state.  That is why we are members of the A Better Illinois coalition.  By working with A Better Illinois on changing Illinois’ flat rate income tax system, we are not only advocating for a more fair income tax.  We are also advocating for a solution to Illinois’ massive deficit and the resulting cuts in vital programs and services for the economically marginalized.  Together, we can stop the growing stratification in Chicago and draw a new map with more just colors.


 Want to get more involved with JCUA and A Better Illinois?  Click here.


Following the Legacy of Mayor Washington, 26 Years Later

December 2, 2013

Harold Washington served as Chicago’s first African-American Mayor from 1983 until his death in 1987. Christopher Huff, JCUA’s community organizing intern, attended the ceremony commemorating 26 years to Mayor Washington’s death, on November 25. In this post, Christopher reflects on the future of Washington’s legacy. 

by Christopher Huff
Community Organizing Intern, JCUA

Christopher Huff at Mayor Washington's grave.

Christopher Huff at Mayor Washington’s grave.

Fairness is much more than just a favored position. Fairness is a necessary condition for the existence of a civilized society. Fairness is a guard against injustice and a key component to any act derived from the intent to be free from bias or prejudice.

We must never forget this important role that fairness plays in the development of our society. Fairness is one of the most important tools we have to ensure not only the promotion of social justice, but the advancement of economic and political opportunities for those in need.

No leader could have understood these concepts more than former Chicago mayor Harold Washington. His belief in the advancement of fairness as a crucial value to promote during his campaign and tenure as mayor is arguably the most salient issue addressed during his inaugural speech in the fall of 1983. In this speech he said:

“I hope someday to be remembered by history as the Mayor who cared about people and who was, above all, fair…

One of the ideas that held us all together said that neighborhood involvement has to take the place of the ancient, decrepit and creaking machine. City government for once in our lifetime must be made equitable and fair.”

Mayor Washington at a JCUA event in 1983. With him (right to left): Rabbi Robert Marx (JCUA founder), Jane Ramsey (JCUA executive director, who later served in Washington's cabinet), and Kurt Rothschild (then JCUA Board president).

Mayor Washington at a JCUA event in 1983. With him (right to left): Rabbi Robert Marx (JCUA founder), Jane Ramsey (JCUA executive director, who later served in Washington’s cabinet), and Kurt Rothschild (then JCUA Board president).

Now, we fast forward 30 years following his inauguration and exactly 26 years past his shocking death and there I stood in front of his gravesite as a community organizer in training at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and student at the University of Chicago – School of Social Service Administration inspired by his words and dedicated to a call for a more fair Chicago for all the city’s residents.

Chicago has a come a long way since the passing of the Harold Washington. It has grown to become home to more than 2.7 million people and the second largest labor force in the United States. It remains the premier location for global conventions, tourists, and immigrants of all types of colors, creeds, and ethnic backgrounds.

Jesse Jackson speaking at Washington's memorial ceremony. He said: "We will not let let the flame burn out... without Harold there is no Barack."

Jesse Jackson speaking at Washington’s memorial ceremony. He said: “We will not let let the flame burn out… without Harold there is no Barack.”

However, if we are going to truly address the issues of racism, classism, and anti-Semitism that has plagued our city for generations once and for all, we must increase our willingness to work collaboratively across culture and religion – regardless of any fear or caution we might possess.

For nearly 50 years, JCUA has worked collaboratively across various cultures and religions to help address issues of race, class, and anti-Semitism.  Building on the prophetic Jewish values of “Tzedek” (justice) and “Tikkun Olam,” (repairing the world), JCUA inspires me to continue working toward the creation of a more fair and just Chicago.

And now, more than ever, I hope that you also stay committed to the principles of Tzedek and Tikkun Olam as you look to continue or renew your commitment to Jewish life.


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