Throughout my year as a Repair the World Education Justice Fellow, I have had multiple coffee meetings with millennial Jews to discuss community engagement. Early on, I recognized a recurring theme that would come to shape my year of service: People sought a space in which they could have meaningful discussions about racial justice. I started to brainstorm. What would it look like to create an inclusive space for people to first engage in these deep conversations and then feel empowered to act? This vision manifested as BOOKlynites, a social justice-themed book group.
New York City has the most segregated schools in the country, so our first meeting focused on this local issue. Although there was no book to read, the meeting’s structure served as a guide for how the meetings would function. After an icebreaker, we read primary sources on the effects of school segregation, watched a John Oliver clip, and analyzed statistics. People came from a wide range of backgrounds and professions, firmly yet gently challenging misconceptions of others and offering support as participants shared personal experiences. The beauty of the group is that the challenging topics push us to reexamine our roles in society. The natural next step is to take action.
My desire to stay accountable to my community motivates me to assume a permanent learning posture. I have signed up for trainings, read articles, watched videos, listened to podcasts, and asked for advice constantly. As a facilitator, my role is to lead discussions, share resources, and promote an environment in which members can feel a sense of ownership over the group. To this end, I work with a different member each month to design an agenda and arc for the meeting and allow them to co-facilitate. This thought partnership adds so much to BOOKlynites. After their turns co-facilitating, members have gone on to lead social justice discussions in the wider community. This structure creates a ripple effect of action and advocacy.
What makes BOOKlynites unique is its effect on the wider community. Since our founding, we have read Lies My Teacher Told Me, Hillbilly Elegy, Born a Crime, The New Jim Crow, White Teeth, and The Underground Railroad. When there is an issue that resonates with the group, especially when it relates to reading and literacy, we act. The first volunteer project that we hosted was a book packaging project for incarcerated people. I designed service learning around mass incarceration on a local and national scale, and juxtaposed these startling statistics with Jewish texts about punishment. BOOKlynites participants invited friends and community members, and the wait list for the project was almost as long as the capped number of volunteers. The positive response led me to create other volunteer projects, such as a prison poetry workshop, and events such as a workshop on Activism Through Writing and an author’s lecture on Spirituality and Social Justice. By opening these opportunities to the community, BOOKlynites is able to have a wider reach, while still maintaining the intimate size of our monthly meetings.
What started as a dream is now a thriving group of brilliant and strong leaders, activists, volunteers, and organizers. The model of a multimodal social justice book group and social action community has since been replicated across the country. I cannot wait to see where we go from here.