I was invited to be the guest speaker and performer at the Unitarian Church of Edmonton for its quarterly “Social Justice Sunday” on October 28, 2018. The topic was “A Safe Space for Activism.” Visit my blog at Sacred Social Justice for a video of my talk and performance of four songs, as well as my notes.
I am the Marketing/Social Media Coordinator for Mill Woods United Church. On September 3, I presented a reflection on my faith journey and the work I do for the church.
Subtitle: Activism and Spirituality, or, “What’s a Nice Jewish Girl Doing In the United Church?”
I was asked to make a presentation about my spiritual journey, activism, and accomplishments, in the context of what exactly I do for Mill Woods United, in approximately 20 minutes or less. So, please fasten your seat belts. Here we go.
I recall my job interview in the spring of 2016 with Ian, Brian, Mary-Anne, and Janice. It was going pretty well, but there was something I had to fess up to: I wasn’t from a United Church background. In fact – get ready for it – I’m Jewish. “That’s okay,” replied Ian, “So is our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” I tell this story quite often and it always elicits laughter.
Many of you also know me as being involved as the email list and social media coordinator with the Moving Forward with Reconciliation group which is comprised of members from a number of Edmonton’s United Churches. So, how did a nice Jewish girl end up working with the United Church?
I was raised in a fairly traditional Modern Orthodox family. Saturday was the Sabbath. We observed all of the Jewish holy days: the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana (also known as the “Jewish New Year”) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement and the holiest day on the Jewish calendar), but also Passover and the other feasts and festivals as well. It was fun – I got to take a lot of days off of school for “religious observance.” We also strictly observed the dietary laws, the most well-known of which are no pork products and no shellfish (Levitical restrictions), both of which I still observe to this day.
Then came the teenage years of rebellion, and I, like many of my peers, fell away from the faith of my family. I still always identified as being Jewish but stopped being as observant. Saturday became just another day. I considered myself secular. I didn’t need a spiritual life as such. And so my teens became my 20s and I started to feel a spiritual longing that led me on a path that included everything from east to west, from Buddhism to even a time spent in the Messianic Jewish movement, which is basically Evangelical Christians who celebrate the Jewish roots of Christianity, and Jewish people interested in exploring Christianity in a Jewish context.
It was ironically during my time in this extremely right-wing, Zionist movement that I became interested in getting involved in Edmonton’s activist community – and by activist, I mean of the politically progressive kind. I had always been interested in issues of human rights and social justice but never found a way to connect. Enter the Internet, which I had been spending a lot of time on since my university days. I taught myself how to make web pages, and was starting to learn the ways of what was going to be known as social media.
Eventually, I connected with local groups that dealt with independent media, peace, the environment, women, and Indigenous issues, and as I left organized religion behind yet again I felt more affirmed in my Jewish identity as ever. There is a value in Judaism called Tikkun Olam, which roughly translates to “healing or repairing the world.” In many ways, activism has become a form of spiritual expression for me.
My role as an activist has largely been documenting local social movements through photography and video, posting my work online on my blog RadicalCitizenMedia.com as well as on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and more recently, Instagram. As a result, I have gained a large following online while learning the ins and outs of social media, which I have been able to apply to my work as a communications consultant who works largely with non-profits and NGOs.
For example, in my (just a little over a) year with Mill Woods, I have helped fix up the website, make sure it is updated regularly, while ensuring timely and relevant posts on Facebook, Twitter, and the Instagram account that I set up for the congregation. Ian’s reflections go up every week, announcements are posted, events are promoted, and at the same time I curate material to go online that pertain to the work of the congregation and the wider United Church, particularly concerning Reconciliation and LGBTQ issues, since we are an affirming congregation. Numbers on social media are growing and hopefully this is translating into both communication to congregational members, and inspiring others to attend. In addition, I help proof newsletters and print/promotional materials when required. You get all of this and more, packed into what is now five hours per week.
I heard about the position, which was called Marketing Project Coordinator but is now simply referred to as Social Media, through my involvement with the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action, where I am a board member. The building that hosts the Interfaith Centre’s office also houses Garneau United Church, where I occasionally attended as a guest, particularly to video the sermons of a friend of mine who occasionally led services as a layperson. Quite simply, I saw a posting for the job on the communal bulletin board and I applied. And so, here I am.
Last summer I also began working with the group Moving Forward with Reconciliation, which is made up of people from several Edmonton United Churches. I took over the email list announcing events in Edmonton and area pertaining to Reconciliation and Indigenous educational opportunities when the original founder of the group moved to another province. I wanted to enhance and augment the position, and created a Facebook page for the group, as well as a Reconciliation calendar that is now part of the Mill Woods website.
My work in social media, combined with my involvement in activism, started to receive recognition from my community in 2012, when I received the Salvos Prelorentzos Peace Award, an award annually given by Project Ploughshares Edmonton (historically an ecumenical Christian peace organization), to an individual or organization in Edmonton working for the cause of peace, who has not previously been honoured for their work. Around this time I began working with the founding steering committee for the annual Daughters Day event, held in City Hall to honour women and girls for their achievements, the first Daughters Day being held in September of 2012. In 2014, I was named one of the Daughters of the Year at that year’s Daughters Day event for my leadership and being an example to women in activism. Most recently, I was named a Human Rights Champion by the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights in December of 2016, and was a co-organizer of the Women’s March on Washington Edmonton “sister march” on January 21, 2017, which saw over 4000 people converge at the Alberta Legislature grounds to proclaim and affirm that women’s rights are human rights.
Most recently, I have become involved with an initiative called Completing the Story. We’re a grassroots group of women who came together last year to address the lack of visual representation of women in public spaces, not only in Edmonton, but throughout Canada and elsewhere. It was a logical move from my experiences with Daughters Day and the Women’s March, to work on projects that work towards an equitable society.
So even though I don’t come from a United Church background, I have always been attracted to the United Church of Canada’s commitment to social justice and a better world. I’ve often told people that if I was Christian by birth, I would have chosen the United Church as my spiritual home. From peace to reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations, to a just resolution to the conflict in Israel/Palestine, the United Church has been a part of all of these struggles, and I am very grateful to have been welcomed into this congregation and to be able to serve you in the capacity of Social Media/Marketing Coordinator.
I was invited by Southminster-Steinhauer United Church to speak as a guest during the service on February 5. I was asked to speak about my experience as an organizer of the Women’s March on Washington – Edmonton Solidarity Event, as well as activism in general. The theme of the service was “The Spirituality of Activism.” My talk was entitled, “Reflections on Being an Active Citizen.” Here is the text of my talk, as well as a video.
Reflections on Being an Active Citizen
In September of 2005 I showed up to my first peace march. I happened to have a camera with me, and I asked the organizers if it would be okay to take some photos. They said yes. I posted the photos that evening on some website space I happened to have, and announced that I had done so on an email listserv (remember those?). The response was so great that the website crashed. It was at that moment I realized the importance of documenting the activist and social justice movement in Edmonton not only for historical purposes, but as a way of communicating messages of peace, environmental stewardship, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, Indigenous issues, and so on.
I also became involved with a few groups as an organizer, such as the Edmonton Coalition Against War and Racism, and so did double-duty at events on photos and videos, as well as sometimes being a musician or emcee.
Flash forward to November of 2016. I heard about a Women’s March on Washington to happen the day after Trump’s inauguration. The friend who told me about it, asked if something similar would happen in Edmonton, since, after all, I am quite connected to the activist community. My inqueries online led me to a national organizing group overseeing the creation of “sister marches” in cities throughout the country, and I signed up to help with organizing in Edmonton. I was put in touch with two other women who had expressed similar interest, and together we organized one of the biggest rallies held in Edmonton in recent history: reports of 4000, maybe more, people crowded the north side of the Alberta Legislature on January 21, 2017. The experience for me was exhilarating. The energy was palpable. Even though I have never addressed a crowd that large before, any nervous feelings just slipped away when I got to the microphone. It was definitely a day I will never forget.
What was my motivation for getting involved with the Women’s March in the first place? It’s similar to that which motivates me to be involved in social justice in general. From a faith perspective, I was raised in a Jewish household, and while I am not religiously observant in a traditional sense, save for some of the dietary laws, there are some aspects of the Jewish culture and philosophy that continue to shape my life. There is a Jewish value called tikkun olam, which means healing or repairing the world, and this has been a guiding force for me in activism.
More specifically, I viewed the need for a Women’s March in Edmonton in a very local context. I have been appalled by the messages of hate and violence directed towards women politicians in this province. I recoil in horror at stories of Islamophobia directed at women who wear hijabs. In our world today, building love and hope and cooperation between people of all faiths and cultures and genders is more important than ever.
That being said, we, the organizers, worked very hard to make the Edmonton sister march less about Trump himself, and more about the need for a society with civil discourse, where people can disagree without resorting to hate speech, and where there is equity for all people. What was so heartening about the event, was seeing so many men and boys there, standing in solidarity with their partners, daughters, sisters, and mothers.
The question, which, of course, followed the march was: where do we go from here? I, and one of the other organizers, decided to keep the momentum going by building a Facebook page as an offshoot of the main event page, using it to promote local women’s initiatives and related events, and for any future events we may organize. The reaction was strong, and within a few days we had over 700 “likes” and it continues to grow – we’re close to 1000 at the time that I am preparing this talk. When people ask, “what is the lasting effect of something like the Women’s March?” I point out that the simple fact that so many people responded to the event and turned up, is proof in itself that more and more people are not willing to be complacent. That they want a world where gender-based violence, racism, and hatred of all kinds are not acceptable.
I have been involved in activism and attending protests and rallies for over a decade. The main comment I get from naysayers is that protesting has no effect, no lasting result. From all early indications, when it comes to the Women’s March, this is simply not true. Also, “protest” does not necessarily mean standing in the street with a placard. It can mean taking action by writing letters, making phone calls, and being active online in promoting the kind of social justice and change you want to see in the world.
If we want a world with gender equality – or any other form of social justice – we have to be willing to make a stand and put ourselves out there, in whatever way seems appropriate. Recent events in the world continue to demonstrate why we needed to march. To summarize, and to elaborate on a meme I saw recently on Facebook: sometimes we look back at history and think what we would have done had we been there. But we are here now. Whatever we’re doing at this point in history, is what we’re doing because we’re present. Don’t wait until you are looking back and wondering what you could have done. We all have a choice to be active citizens now.