Shannon Ferguson, a Repair the World fellow in New York, took some time to share the impact she was able to have on others over the course of the year, and the impact the fellowship had on her.
Growing up, I didn’t feel very connected to Judaism. But during my Fellowship I’ve learned that social justice is a huge part of Judaism, and it is possible to express your Jewish identity through engaging with it. That’s very meaningful to me.
I’ve gained a comfort level of talking with people different from myself. I grew up in a Long Island community, and when I graduated college and started teaching in East Harlem, I felt like I didn’t know how to relate to my students’ parents. I’ve had the opportunity to engage with volunteers and people getting food at a food bank. I’ve talked with children and CEOs. Repair the World has actively helped to facilitate this growth through workshops, but a lot of it has to do with opening the door to our community space in Crown Heights for people from the community stopping by.
I decided to become a fellow after I spent one year as a teacher in New York City. I enjoyed my work as an educator, but felt there was a lot more I needed to learn in order to be as effective as I wanted to be. I started thinking more seriously about switching from teaching, and went to a food justice conference where I ended up meeting a Repair the World fellow. When I realized that there was an organization that focused on both education and food and social justice, through a Jewish lens, it felt perfect.
One of the organizations I worked with was Brooklyn Community Services. They are a non profit that has been around for 150 years working with youth at risk and adults with mental illness and developmental disabilities. We worked with their Gary Klinsky Children’s Center, which runs an after school program from kindergarten through eighth grade. We brought volunteers there to tutor and play with the kids. I was also there every week working with the classroom teachers, helping kids with their homework, and teaching them ukulele.
Another organization we worked with was New York Cares. I worked on their major days of service and worked closely with a school in Bedford Stuyvesant planning beautification projects. I also worked with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. On Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service we had volunteers come and do a big event. We also hosted a Passover traditions exhibit, planning exhibits throughout the museum like making your own seder plate and tasting Passover foods.
One other program I started was a ukelele club. The model of the fellowship is to listen to the needs of the community and create opportunities guided around those needs. As the year went on, I saw that there weren’t any free music programs in the community, so I asked my boss if we could start a club. Repair the World supported the venture by buying 10 ukuleles and I began a weekly get together and lesson. It started out with mainly my friends, but then it grew to include people who had come to an event or seen a sign around the neighborhood. We also ended up volunteering at a school. One of the farmers from Imani Garden, which is one of the groups Repair the World partners with, became the co-leader of the club. Now that I’m leaving they are keeping it going.
As a fellow, I had opportunities to meet important people from the Crown Heights community including a man named Richard Green. He grew up here, went away for college, and came back to start some amazing programs within the community. He’s run after school programs, summer camps, and does a monthly food giveaway. He’s well known in the community. If anyone has a problem with anything he’ll connect them with the right people. He has an office he works out of that has pictures of him with former presidents, the Lubavitcher rebbe, and many other influential people along with thank you letters written by kids he worked with.
We had a meeting with him for an hour. He baked us all cookies and told us his story. While he was talking, his phone would ring once in a while. Each time he’d answer it and say, “I’m in a meeting right now, but I’ll get back to you.” And you knew that he would. It made a huge impact to see how connected he was to his community, and how seriously he takes that.