On Sunday, May 20, Pursuers in NYC will gather for Inside the Activists’ Studio: Finding Your Voice in a Global Movement. The event will feature an incredible array of local Jewish change-makers speaking on a panel, presenting workshops, or performing. As a sneak peek, we chatted with workshop presenter Emily Saltzman:
What inspires you to work on issues of allyship (being an ally)?
Mutual learning and meaningful connection inspire me to do this work. Learning from and reflecting on personal relationships is one of the main ways that I have seen myself grow over the years. I find human connection to be incredibly powerful, so I hope to work toward removing barriers that would prevent that connection from occurring. For me, true allyship is an integral part of organizing for folks who hold privileged identities and should not be taken lightly. I do this work because one of the effects of oppression is that it dehumanizes us. It prevents us from connecting to each other in meaningful ways or it can stop us from connecting at all.
Many of us have heard of stories where folks–typically white–work in mixed-race spaces in hopes of delving into their own experience in their privileged identity. This can most certainly be helpful and challenge folks to think deeply about the spaces that they occupy, although many times it falls on the folks of subjugated identities to educate the others. It is for exactly this reason that folks with privileged identities need to also have space to process their experience, socialized ideas and internalized superiority. There are feelings, values, thoughts and hurtful language that needs to be processed and challenged prior to and alongside all-identity organizing. While these spaces can be incredibly helpful and transformative, they can become problematic if not done alongside organizing in spaces where a variety of identities are present.
Allyship is taking a stand–both internally and externally–where we can use our privileged identity (or identities) to elevate an issue that is often silenced. Developing an ally identity allows us to challenge ourselves internally while also providing space to challenge other members of our privileged identity group externally. A large part of ally identity development is knowing when to step back and simply be present, which can be quite a challenge. The allyship development process is constantly evolving and non-linear in nature, which can also cause us to want to “give up” or “check out.” We need to take the necessary measures to support our development and connect with folks that can nourish this process while simultaneously holding us accountable.
How does your Jewish identity relate to what you do?
Growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, I was not connected to a Jewish community, and I didn’t learn how to integrate Jewish values into my social justice work until moving to New York City. I felt drawn to issues of social justice, equality and equity from a young age, but I did not have strong Jewish leaders that modeled this work for me. My family was one of a handful of Jewish families in my suburb, and I was often treated as an anomaly by friends and teachers. While I did not experience overt anti-Semitism until college, I did feel isolated and alone at times. I was commonly used as the “token Jewish person” in class to discuss the young adult classics like Number the Stars and The Devil’s Arithmetic. At the time I felt special and excited that my classmates and teachers wanted to discuss a section of Jewish history but, looking back, the support was empty and fleeting once the reading unit was over.
I mention this all to say that seeing the world through a Jewish lens has greatly affected my career and organizing path. To be seen as an “other”–overtly and covertly–allows one to begin noticing the social hierarchy. Fortunately I was never harassed to the point of violence, but these formative experiences stayed with me into adulthood.
When I moved to New York, I was bombarded with so many different illustrations of Jews and Judaism that it was difficult to tease out what felt right for me. Participating in AVODAH allowed me to see the connection between Judaism and social justice for the first time. My experience in AVODAH was unique in that I took part in very few Jewish learning opportunities prior to becoming a Corps member, so nearly everything we discussed in AVODAH was new to me. I was so intrigued–and thrilled–that there were younger Jews like me who had figured out a way to integrate Jewish culture, values and traditions into social justice work. After leaving AVODAH, I continued to pursue social justice ventures through my graduate program and noticed that so many of the folks I met were also queer-identified Jews. The active queer and trans community of Jewish organizers continues to support my journey. The resiliency and creativity that stems from this intersection inspires me both personally and spiritually to do this work.
What are you most excited about at Inside the Activists’ Studio?
I am thrilled to be part of such an energizing and exciting event! I have been disconnected from Jewish-based organizing for a while and I’m very much looking forward to learning from my peers and re-awakening this piece of myself. Oh, and I’m also looking forward to the delicious treats from Adamah!
Why should folks come to your IAS workshop?
Folks should join Erin and I if they are feeling stuck in their current ally identity journey, want to think deeply about how they wish to take a stand (internally and externally), are interested in learning from others’ experiences, are looking to form connections with folks doing similar work, and are interested in developing an accountable space to support this dialogue.