Conviction, Compassion and Outrage

New York’s Activist History That Changed City and Nation


By Erica Brody

Published May 21, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
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The signatures engraved on a silver platter given to Wald — displayed in the exhibit near a list of German-Jewish philanthropists and potential donors — are a who’s who of the movement. Many of those activists went on to shape child care, housing and labor laws during the New Deal.

The exhibit also honors an immigrant named Rose Schneiderman, the first woman to sit on the national board of a union. (She is perhaps best known for saying, “The woman worker needs bread, but she needs roses too.”) And there is Clara Lemlich, the 23-year-old Jewish organizer whose 1909 speech set loose the Uprising of the 20,000, an 11-week strike of women garment workers that was the largest strike of women to date.

There are many ways to define activism, and “Activist New York” takes a broad approach. “Activism does not just take the form of public protests and noisy demonstrations, but can be expressed in art, behind-the-scenes organizing, direct action, political lobbying, publishing, education, fundraising and a variety of good works,” the exhibit’s introduction reads. Or, as chief curator Sarah Henry, the museum’s deputy director, put it, it’s “whatever ordinary people are doing to make the city better.”

Of course, not everyone agrees on what “better” looks like. The exhibit is explicit about how New Yorkers have come down on both sides of most issues, including abolition, suffrage and civil rights. There’s also a section on conservative activism that highlights Commentary, the magazine that became synonymous with Jewish neoconservatism. “Activism,” Henry stressed, “doesn’t belong to any particular point of the spectrum.”

Beyond trying to be fair, “Activist New York” connects the dots to real-life, real-time New York City activism. On one of the gallery’s four main walls, recent photographs of activists in action are projected, and visitors can send in their own photographs. When I visited, there were already photos of May Day marches, along with pictures of Occupy demonstrations, a New York Taxi Workers Alliance banner on Great Jones Street, a presentation at Demos and bike advocates at Prospect Park. There are interactive “Meet the Activists” kiosks where visitors can engage with groups focusing on contemporary issues, like workers’ rights and immigration, and visitors can also nominate organizations to be added to the “Meet the Activists” lineup.

Today, there’s a sense of growing collaboration and cohesion among New York’s Jewish activists that includes synagogue-based organizing and increasingly connected networks, both online and in person. Take a look at the long lineup of organizations co-sponsoring Inside the Activists’ Studio with Pursue: Action for a Just World — a May 20 event featuring presentations, workshops, networking and a showcase of opportunities for action — and you’ll see a who’s who of Jewish social justice organizations.

On May 7, the last group on that list, Uri L’Tzedek, the New York-based Orthodox social justice organization, celebrated a successful two-year campaign against Flaum, a Brooklyn-based kosher company that finally accepted a $577,000 settlement to pay workers for wage theft and other labor violations. It’s a great 2012 case study not just in ethical consumerism, but also in how collaborative organizing, perseverance and creative partnerships can lead to activist wins, better hummus and a little bit more justice in the city.

Our American narrative is one of opportunity, open shores and the American Dream, but our history has been shaped and reshaped by citizens and activists who chased their ideals from the ghetto to the halls of power, transforming a city and setting precedents for a nation. “Activist New York” does something exciting: It shines a spotlight on these everyday New Yorkers while reminding us that our activism is already a part of living history. Right now.

Erica Brody is a native New Yorker and Brooklyn-based freelance writer, editor and strategist. Follow her on Twitter @ebrody.


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