Last Sunday, I ventured down from my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan into Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, to volunteer to get out the vote with Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), a local community organization. I joined 30 other Jews as part of a larger effort in multiple cities pulled together by the Jewish Social Justice Round Table and spearheaded in New York by Jewish Funds for Justice (full disclosure: I work at JFSJ and have known and loved FUREE’s work for years).
This was the first political outreach I had ever done. I was a little nervous and a lot excited. I wasn’t sure how I would feel canvassing in a neighborhood I had never stepped foot into before or how the community, which is largely African American, would react to me and a bunch of other Jews knocking on their doors, talking about voting, and collecting signatures.
We started the afternoon by digging into why we had come to do this work. Potential Jewish motivations were posted around the room — they ranged from biblical to historical, from cultural to spiritual. My group felt that we wanted to redeem the reputation of Jews and the Jewish community in these spaces. I recalled my own embarrassment that there were a good many Jewish names on many “Top NYC Slumlords” lists.
Wanda and Desiree, the FUREE organizers, explained that our purpose was not to recommend one candidate over an other but to ask people about what they saw and experienced, to learn about the issues that locals felt were most important, and, finally, to promote FUREE’s platform: to advocate for responsible development, affordable housing, local jobs, and safe neighborhoods.
My proudest moment arrived towards the end of our outreach when we stopped to speak with two women. They were beaming and explained that their two sons, who looked about 11, were down the street selling pumpkins to passersby. They had been doing this every Saturday and Sunday for the last two months. This was no lemonade stand: these pumpkins weighed at least 10 pounds each, and the boys, who were partnering with an organic farmer, were running back and forth, collecting cash and helping shoppers select pumpkins.
These women loved their neighborhood and were passionate about raising their boys there. They wanted to live in a place where their kids could explore their entrepreneurial side, where they could run a local business, and could all be safe. But they were also passionate about making sure that the neighborhood would not be ceded to developers. They supported FUREE’s platform to convert empty condos and luxury developments into affordable housing. They were aware that the features that made their neighborhood a great place to live were the very same things that could tilt the balance in favor of irresponsible overdevelopment. They signed FUREE’s card because they understood that elected officials, whether Democrats or Republicans, needed to be responsive towards towards the community, and they knew that an only organized community could keep its blocks safe, its homes affordable, and its jobs local.
I had never met these women before, yet I felt deeply connected to them despite our obvious differences — from the color of our skin, to the locations of our homes, to our ages and life stages. Our conversation uncovered our shared concerns for the future of our city and our country. It reinforced my belief in the power that is created when strangers encounter each other and come together to discover mutual values and hopes.
If you are interested in getting involved, JFSJ are having a second GOTV event this Sunday in Washington Heights. You can find more information by following this link.