An interview with Marjorie Dove Kent of JFREJ about white racial justice organizing in Black Lives Matter movement times.
Author note: This post is part of a series of interviews with white racial justice organizers and leaders from around the country, to draw out examples of what white activists are doing and can do, along with insights and lessons born from years of experience. While white people need to be mindful of how white privilege operates, we must also be powerful for collective liberation, knowing that the time for us to rise against structural racism is now. Read more in this series here.
As New York City erupted in December, 2015 in mass, non-violent, disruptive direct action after the non-indictment of the officer who murdered Eric Garner, and the officers who were accomplices in this brutal crime, one of the actions that grabbed national headlines and many a heart, was organized by Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ). Over 400 members of JFREJ, including Rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community, took to the streets of the primarily white, wealthy, and Jewish, Upper West Side. This civil disobedience was planned with their longtime partner organizations based in working class communities of color, and coordinating actions across the city took place.
Tears ran down my face as I followed the news, often with my three year old son nearby, of powerful, defiant, Black life-affirming, white supremacist hegemony defy, marches, vigils, and large scale direct actions ignited around the country after the Eric Garner non-indictment, and NYC was galvanizing us all. And JFREJ was a powerful force mobilizing a majority, but not entirely, white Jewish base of members and supporters to be courageous for Black Lives Matter. I’ve long loved JFREJ, which began in 1990, and has been deeply committed to long term multiracial organizing and campaigns to build people’s power for collective liberation. They are “inspired by Jewish tradition to fight for a sustainable world with an equitable distribution of economic and cultural resources and political power.”
I knew that their actions in December were part of a years long campaign against police violence in working class communities of color, and that with their vision, strategy, organizing experience, infrastructure, and leadership, they could offer insights and lessons for many of us around the country who are asking, “how do we help carry the momentum of these mass action times into long term campaigns to win structural change.” Marjorie Dove, the executive director of JFREJ, shares from their organizational experience to help us think about that question.
Chris Crass: How are you working to move white people into racial justice movement in this time? What’s working? And what are you learning from what works?
Marjorie Dove Kent: Inspired by the strengths of all of our ancestors, we organize against racism from a Jewish perspective. Jews engage with whiteness in complex ways. Anti-racist organizing from a Jewish perspective must begin with the diversity of our own experiences: JFREJ’s membership encompasses the multicultural breadth of our community, including Mizrahi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Black and Latin@ Jews. Some Jews may engage with Black Lives Matter as white allies while others bring their insights and experiences as Jews of Color. White Jews may often engage with whiteness through diasporic family histories and immigrant memories, alongside their current lived experiences of race privilege in the United States. For white Jews, our anti-racist work begins with ourselves — through deconstructing racialization and whiteness in ourselves and our community, and fighting against white supremacy in our organization, our movement, and our city.
At JFREJ, we’re currently working to move white people into racial justice work in ways that will last beyond this current movement moment. The Black Lives Matter movement has mobilized people across the country, and their energy has inspired many white Jews to get involved in our police accountability campaign and other anti-racism work in New York City. We want to make sure that we’re training and organizing these hundreds of new members for the long haul, so they don’t abandon this necessary work when the mainstream media moves on.
Because of the trust and accountability we’ve built with organizations led by people of color, poor and working class, and immigrant communities over the last twenty-five years, we’ve been able to mobilize white people into bold action and to take strategic risks in our work. In that time, our community has learned that relationships built on trust and commitment are the most important element of our work, and that these relationships are cultivated through consistent and accountable action. Over months and years, we show up with our partners for campaign planning meetings, actions, and press conferences, but also as volunteers for their events, donors at their fundraisers, and for jail support when they get arrested. So when opportunities arise for strategic, visible action led by white members of our organization – whether that’s a civil disobedience, a public demonstration, a meeting with city council members, or a media campaign – we take those opportunities head-on. Our partners trust us to bring the same level of rigor and accountability to the action we lead as we bring to the action we support.
A helpful accountability mechanism we use before taking action is to ask ourselves two questions: For the sake of what, and who will this benefit? When we’re working in deep connection and alignment with our partner organizations and the larger movement against anti-Black racism, we show up better with each other. Being in the struggle together — with our bodies, our minds, and our resources — grounds us in what is most important. The moments when we have had to rely on each other (for jail support, for security at marches and protests), have helped us feel connected to each other and loosened the sense of isolation and alienation many of us grew up with because of racism and classism. As a community, JFREJ demonstrates that we are in this fight for the long haul.
CC: How are you developing your own leadership and the leadership of people around you to step up in these profound, painful and powerful Black Lives Matter movement time?
MDK: Our goal is to empower directly targeted constituencies to bring their experience, expertise, and vision to bear on the direction of the movement. We’re investing deeply in new base-building and leadership development at all levels of the organization. We’re working to center the leadership of Jews who are on the local and global “front lines” of resistance to racism, colonization, displacement, and erasure, specifically Jews of Color, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews and poor and working-class Jews.
At the same time, we’re continuing to leverage the race and class privilege of some of our members in powerful organizing work. We believe that modeling a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-class, intergenerational community committed to social justice is a powerful tool to shift the broader Jewish community towards justice.
We’re continuing to support the leadership development of our staff and members situated at the intersection of whiteness and Jewishness. Developing my own leadership and the leadership of the white Jews around me in this time has required a strong focus on countering isolation and individualism. Whiteness teaches us that our sense of self-worth is based on excelling as an individual, which can lead us away from long-term commitments to movement building. For those white people who grew up middle class or rich (like me), we also got the message that depending on other people was a kind of failure. This illusion of independence is built on the very invisibility of countless workers and carers in our stories and our lives. Alongside white JFREJ staff and white members, I struggle daily to cut through these messages of individualism and this isolation. For me, that has meant a daily practice of recognizing for myself and demonstrating for others — particularly white Jews — just how much I need them. It means showing vulnerability and not having all the answers. It also means recognizing the long history of anti-racism organizing that has come before us, honoring those ancestors and that lineage to which we belong, and laying groundwork for those activists who will come after us. Leadership development in this moment of profound movement building against anti-Black racism has meant cutting through the lies that white supremacy tells us, and learning and re-learning how to build connection and our sense of belonging.
At JFREJ, we strive to do our work from this place of love and connection. The bonds we make with our partner organizations are called “coalitions,” but really they grow out of our refusal of the illusion of independence that we’re taught under white supremacy. Our work itself asks the question: when we confront and resist whiteness and “independence,” and center the voices and the leadership of people of color, what can shift inside us and between us?
JFREJ is offering trainings for white Jews to:
provide a practical framework and action steps to practice accountable anti-racism, create trusting multiracial spaces, and keep building a powerful racial justice organization and movement
support white Jews to come to a common understanding of the ideology of white supremacy, the practice of American racism, and the assimilation of many Jews into whiteness, and situate ourselves and our community with that context and history
provide a shared language and a shared analysis of accountability and anti-racist practice specific to Jewish institutions, so we can understand and accept certain ground rules for our relationships with people of color, and specifically Jews of Color within our organization.
counter isolation and practice connection and interdependence in all forms of our work.
Anti-racism is really a lifelong struggle, so we work with our membership to build a new way of seeing our lives, making a long-term commitment to each other and our work.
CC: How do you think about effectiveness and how do you measure it? Can you share an experience that helps you think about effective work in white communities for racial justice?
MDK: We try to work with both urgency and patience. We think about effectiveness in three to ten year increments, and we measure it in cultural shifts as well as more directly measurable results such as policy change and effective implementation. We’ve learned from our organization’s history that it can take up to ten years to pass anti-racist legislation or win other battles for concrete changes to the political and social landscape.
For example, JFREJ organized from 2002 to 2010 in support of Domestic Worker organizations – led by Caribbean, South Asian, Latina, and African American women — to pass the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, the first state-wide legislation in the country to include domestic workers under labor protections. Over that nine year period, we worked within Jewish communities to raise awareness, build leadership, and organize employers of domestic workers, synagogues, and community members in the fight for equitable pay, benefits and respect, dignity and justice for domestic workers. Through this campaign, we also built the organizing skills, political analysis and capacity of our members, our synagogue partners, rabbis and Jewish communities to fight for and win campaigns for racial justice in New York. Since 2010, we’ve continued to organize individual Jews and Jewish institutions to ensure the effective implementation of the law.
JFREJ has also been working with our partners to fight against police brutality for nearly two decades, so the recent upsurge in movement work across the city and country is deeply inspiring. In today’s fight, we’re using multiple tactics that confront the violence of whiteness through the strategic use of public space and media, and the resilient insistence upon cultivating allyship. One effective tactic we recently undertook was civil disobedience on New York’s (primarily white, wealthy, and Jewish) Upper West Side to protest the non-indictment of the officers responsible for Eric Garner’s murder. The action involved about 400 JFREJ members and was done in collaboration with our partner organizations, led by Justice Committee, mobilizing in other neighborhoods that same night. Our goal at JFREJ was to take up space in public and move the conversation about police brutality into white Jewish communities and other white communities.
We succeeded in getting covered by every major national and local Jewish press outlet, in addition to many non-Jewish national and local media (and quite a few Jewish local papers outside of New York). White Jewish leaders across the city increased their engagement, and have continued to be a part of the conversation. The action has helped us to successfully mobilize rabbis and other Jewish leaders into subsequent tactics. Many of the national Jewish publications that had not previously printed articles on police accountability finally began to discuss this issue, making their readers face the subject of state/police violence against Black people. This coverage also brought widespread recognition of anti-racist movements to the mainstream Jewish press. We recognize, of course, that this tactic did not result immediately in a change in policing practices in New York City. But it has led to broader coverage of police violence, a significant rise in mainstream Jewish awareness, and an invigorated engagement with police accountability efforts over the subsequent months.
CC: What are the goals and strategies (as emergent, planned, messy, and sophisticated, basic as it is) you’re operating from?
MDK: We believe that fighting to win real change means growing movements and campaigns too strong to be ignored. So we’re building our power by building a robust base of members. We’re developing and supporting leaders, forming and supporting coalitions, and waging strategic campaigns to win systemic change in New York City.
As we organize in multiple spheres to transform systems of economic and racial injustice, we simultaneously transform the consciousness of the people who participate in organizations and movements, as well as the organizers themselves. We seek to make change that will last beyond any one issue campaign or election and will not sacrifice long-term outcomes for short-term gains.
We’re currently working in deep partnership with organizations led by communities of color to end “broken windows” policing, both through legislative reform and cultural change. In the last few years, we’ve joined in coalition with Communities United for Police Reform and alongside some of our long-term partners like the Justice Committee, CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, and the Arab American Association of New York. In 2013 we celebrated a victory when the New York City Council passed the Community Safety Act, establishing permanent oversight of the NYPD and protections against identity-based profiling. Our coalition is now organizing to pass the Know Your Rights Act which would end the practice of unconstitutional searches and require police to identify themselves during stops — which will be another step towards building the power of targeted communities in relationship to the police.
On the cultural front, we’re leading “Know Your Responsibilities” trainings for New Yorkers not targeted by the NYPD. The trainings demonstrate how to observe, record, intervene, and offer support to fellow New Yorkers when they’re harassed by the NYPD. Our goal is to develop new understandings of safety among white New Yorkers and to build a culture of accountability in our communities. These trainings were developed as a supplement and companion to the People’s Justice’s Copwatch “Know Your Rights” trainings, which give tools to people who are targeted by the police, specifically people of color, to protect themselves from abusive policing practices. By teaching white residents how to reach out to their fellow New Yorkers during police encounters, we’re demonstrating the kind of community we want to build and creating a culture shift with our allies and neighbors. As our trainers say, “Everyday copwatching is that radical and mundane act of watching out and caring for each other.”
We’re also creating opportunities for really exciting cross-pollination and development of cultural work between our members and our partners. We know that successful social movements advance through embodied critical thought and the culture shifts that come from exploring resistance with all of our senses and traditions. We’re committed to teaching each other and studying and creating with our allies.
CC: What challenges are you facing? How are you trying to overcome them? What are you learning from these experiences?
MDK: While we are working to transform our organization to center the leadership of targeted communities, we are still years behind where we need to be to truly embody anti-racist, anti-classist practice.
JFREJ started taking concrete action two years ago to create change in our organization. We decided to invest deeply in emerging leaders from marginalized constituencies within our community. We are working to ensure that these members, particularly Black Jews, are positioned to lead Jewish social justice work, rather than haphazardly being fit into support roles. We are steadily developing clearer thinking and principles to guide this transformation, and experiencing progress, but we recognize how much we still have to learn and build.
We are slowly growing the capacity of our own organization and the wider Jewish community to embrace racial justice as a Jewish priority that directly impacts our Jewish brothers and sisters, and we’re investing time, energy, and resources in bold action and movement-building at the Jewish grassroots. We are hopeful that we as a multiracial Jewish community will rise to this immediate and long-term challenge.
Funding this work is a challenge. Institutional funders often see this kind of work as an “internal” project rather than as a major challenge to white supremacy in the Jewish community and beyond. We have learned that in order to be the kind of laboratory of innovation & resistance we need to be, we have to fund this work ourselves through the grassroots — our members. Thankfully, the JFREJ membership is taking up this challenge and supporting the organization in bold and inspiring ways.
Marjorie Dove Kent is the Executive Director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) in New York City. She comes to JFREJ with ten years of experience in issue-based, identity-based, and neighborhood-based organizing in Boston and St. Louis. She gives thanks to Leo Ferguson, Anna Torres, Amanda Altman, Purvi Shah, and Julie JD Davids for their help with the interview.