- Posted by Mike Fishbein
- On January 23, 2015
- 0 Comments
This past summer, I led a group of nine high school freshman girls to live in Boston’s Chinatown, in a church basement, on minimum wage, for one week. We called this program “Urban Immersion.” Coming from a privileged school, I always felt like my school, Newton Country Day, wasn’t the real world. I was aware however, of all the injustices that happened around me in the city of Boston. I was sick of hearing people say “you shouldn’t throw that away, there are starving children in Africa.” There are starving people right next door to us, too. This is why I chose to help form what became Urban Immersion 2014.
The program lasted Sunday to Thursday. The structure of the program was that the first day we went shopping for food on a minimum wage budget. I split the girls into groups and they were each tasked with making dinner for one of the nights we were there. The girls found it very difficult to buy what they liked to eat – a healthy and nutritious meal – for less that twenty-one dollars. After shopping we drove the girls into Chinatown to introduce them to their home for the week. They described it as “urban camping” sleeping on the floor, sleeping bags, and, of course, lack of air conditioning.
Each day we went to different community service sites: soup kitchens like Rosie’s place and Women’s Lunch Place, childcare facilities for families in poverty like the Ellis Memorial School, and elder care facilities, like Hearth and Boston Health Care for the Homeless. In our social justice-dirven mission, advocacy was as important as service, so at night we had speakers from the Massachusetts Housing and Society Alliance, some of whom had experienced poverty as youth or as adults. The girls took away a variety of messages from those speakers, but specifically, that homelessness can affect anyone and that it is happening everyday all around us.
The last day of Urban Immersion we went to the Massachusetts State House to share with and advocate to our representatives about the things we’d learned that week. We shared with them the outline of the program, the stories of the people we’d talked to, and the ways we urged them to help. We explained to them the importance of subsidized housing and how the government is paying a significantly larger amount of money on emergency shelters than if they would help place families in homes. We then heard about what these representatives were doing to help end hunger and homelessness in the Boston area. To be able to connect what we’d learned that week to actually making a difference in the State House was a moving moment in the program.
After completing my second Urban Immersion program this summer, I think I gained a tremendous insight into how lucky I am for my health and for the health of my family, for my education, and for the food on my table and roof over my head. I have started to take notice of and be more grateful for the little things I used take for granted every day, before Urban Immersion. I learned that even if I cannot stop on the street and give someone money, that just looking in their direction and acknowledging them means the world to someone who is so often invisible.
I was moved by so many stories throughout the week at Urban Immersion. Two in particular stories moved me especially. Becca came to share her story with us as a young child who had experienced homelessness. Becca lost both her parents by age 15 and struggled with mental health throughout her life as she couch surfed her way through high school. To see the courage and strength that Becca had to move through the obstacles in her life with no support from parents is so inspiring. Now Becca has just been approved for section 8 housing and will continue to live in her own apartment.
Another story that moved me was Batman’s, Batman is a man I met while volunteering at Common Art last year and who I was delighted to see and talk to this year again. Common Art is a program where homeless men and women are invited to a church next to the Boston Common and urged to express themselves through art. Last year when I talked to Batman he did not have his own home and he was never quite sure where his next meal was coming from. This year Batman seemed to have had his spirits lifted, he told me he was due to get off a waiting list for subsidized housing and told me to “cross my fingers.” Batman and I talked for about an hour and a half and I found out that he used to be a camp counselor for a camp up in Maine. When I told him that this summer I would be a counselor in training for my own camp in Maine, his face lit up. It meant the world to me to make this connection with someone whose story is too often dismissed or unheard.
People often ask me what it’s like to be the “Jewish girl” at a primarily Catholic school. The Urban Immersion program is a perfect example of my answer. During Urban Immersion there was no religion; there was God. Urban Immersion may have been run through a Catholic school but it was rooted in the Jewish values I grew up learning at Temple Israel. Starting from barely eight years old I was given money every Sunday not to buy myself a bagel but to put it in the Tzedakah box for someone else. I became so passionate about social justice and community service through what I learned in myTzedakah project before I became a Bat Mitzvah. It was then at the mere age of twelve that I began to want to change poverty and homelessness in the greater Boston area. My passion for the Urban Immersion program and all the work I put into it was a direct connection to my Jewish values and the values of the community of Temple Israel – a connection I felt both when performing direct service at a soup kitchen, and when advocating at the State House.
I recently heard someone tell me they were, in a way, against soup kitchens, because people don’t have to take a stance on them like they do with other kinds of social justice matters. This person told me that often other places of worship (not Temple Israel) don’t engage in the same social justice that we do because it’s too “political.” I in every way understand the point that the people who volunteer at soup kitchens are only providing a temporary fix – however, I disagree with the idea that this “temporary fix” is a mistake. Think of a human: a human needs two feet to walk; to balance. I think social justice has two feet, too. The first foot, I believe, is direct service, helping people survive the crisis they are currently in. The second foot is social change – removing the causes of a crisis through advocacy and empowerment. Social justice, like a human, needs both of these feet to balance, and although yes, a soup kitchen is only a temporary fix, it is ultimately just as important as social advocacy and the more “political” part of social change. This idea of the two feet of social justice was another key component in the Urban Immersion program.
It was an honor and privilege to have been able to help make the Urban Immersion the annual program it has become today. I feel humbled and grateful that I was able to achieve my goals of informing privileged girls the injustices that are occurring everyday around them. Urban Immersion really exemplifies the steps and importance of social justice. The actual direct service we do is the first step towards realizing the problems and injustices that we then advocate about on a State level. Urban Immersion may not be the reason Batman is given housing or a family finally gets above the poverty level but it is the reason that this year those nine girls have the same passion and drive to work towards social justice I do. This passion and that drive is what will raise minimum wages and get more families subsidized housing and food stamps, and their new-found awareness will make them all the more grateful for everything they have in their lives, this is what Urban Immersion will do.