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JFREJ’s Evolution: A Conversation with Dove Kent

November 17, 2016

From the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents.

JFREJ’s Marshall Meyer Risk-Taker Awards event is on December 7th in New York City. Click here for more information.

doveJFREJ, or Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, has been a vibrant presence in New York social struggles for the past quarter of a century, in coalition with groups led by people of color, immigrants, and low-income communities. JFREJ’s most notable campaigns have included an eight-year effort (2002-10) with Domestic Workers United to gain basic worker rights, which culminated in passage of a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the New York City Council, the first bill of its kind to pass in the country, and then the New York State Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, the first such state-wide legislation in the United States. JFREJ has gone on to partner with the National Domestic Workers Alliance for the past six years to implement and expand these hard-won gains.

In 2000, JFREJ joined the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in the fight against the privatization of New York schools by the Edison Corporation. This campaign helped stop or at least slow the transfer of public schools to private corporate control. From 2000 to 2003, JFREJ teamed up with the Latin American Workers Project to support Mexican and Central American workers’ efforts to win back wages and overtime pay at the Tuv Taam factory, a manufacturer of Jewish foods, in Brooklyn, which ended with a million-dollar settlement on behalf of the Tuv Taam workers.
Since 2013, JFREJ’s Campaign for Police Accountability has helped transform New York’s conversation about discriminatory policing, including stop-and-frisk policies and mass incarceration. Working within the Communities United for Police Reform coalition, JFREJ helped win passage of the Community Safety Act, and has brought elements of the Jewish community into the streets in conjunction with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

All of this activism has been informed by a creative spirit of celebration, street performance, Purim parties, and loud-mouthed Jewishness.

Dove Kent has been director of JFREJ for five years, and is leaving the post in December. Jewish Currents’ Lawrence Bush and Esther Cohen caught up with her for a conversation about the organization’s growth and new directions, and her own organizing philosophy, at the JFREJ Manhattan office in June.

Jewish Currents: Which of JFREJ’s accomplishments give you the most nakhes?

Dove Kent: JFREJ pushes questions about the role of the Jewish community, the role of the Jewish social movement, and the boundaries of the Jewish community. That’s been a continual thread, embedded in our founding.

In terms of specific campaigns, over the past five years we have done really strong work against abusive policing and for police reform, through legislation like the Community Safety Act, which became law in New York early in 2014, or the Right to Know Act, which is designed to create more transparency and accountability in the NYPD. We’ve been very active on the legislative track within a broad coalition, Communities United for Police Reform. We’ve also been part of powerful mobilizations within the Black Lives Matter movement, where we have been able to build trusting, lasting relationships with our partners in struggle and able to mobilize the Jewish community in really powerful ways: in protest of the non-indictment of police officers for the killing of black people; in mobilizations to hold city officials accountable for police abuses; in support of families that have lost loved ones to police violence; and in the pro-active “cop watch” and day-to-day radical neighborliness.

I’m also proud of our strategic visioning process, which we did in 2014 and 2015. We involved hundreds of members and allies in taking stock of twenty-five years of JFREJ’s history and looking toward the next ten, twenty, thirty years. In that process, we found that some things needed to stay consistent — building a strong base, participating in campaigns, deepening partnerships and alliances — while some things need to shift, such as creating leadership pipelines for Jews of color, Mizrakhi Jews, poor working-class Jews, to take on more leadership within the organization. There continue to be important ways for white Ashkenazi Jews to be actively leading and engaged in social justice work, but we learned that without having Arab Jews, Jews of color, and poor working-class Jews in leadership, we were actually not practicing what we preach, and we were severely limiting the vision and potential of our work.

Two examples of how the movement shifts when we shift leadership: Our Jews of color caucus has been working for police accountability with organizations led by families of color who have had family members killed by the NYPD. That’s a place where Jews of color, reflecting on their own vulnerability in relationship to policing, are able to build really strong ties with our partner communities, who are also on the front lines of that struggle. And our Mizrakhi caucus has been building community with the Arab American Association of New York, with Muslim and Christian Arab women, working together as a multi-faith collective against anti-Arab racism. We’ve shifted the conversation from a “them” to an “us,” which changes how we organize, and the responses that we’ve gotten from our partner organizations have been very affirming. In a few years we expect JFREJ to be a truly multiracial Jewish movement with exciting new vision.

JC: Tell us a little about the current make-up of JFREJ.

DK: At this point we have about 1,800 dues-paying members. It’s an intergenerational community, with an age range from 15 to 104. Twenty-five years’ worth of cohorts and leaders have come through and given their spirit and vibrancy and strategic thinking to us, and so many people have stayed involved. We have a youth organizing program, and we’re also organizing seniors on transforming senior care. We have members in all five boroughs, and members all over the country who support our work, although the majority of us are in New York City and State.

There’s a real diversity in Jewish observance, folks who are very religious, folks who are completely secular, folks who identify as spiritual in some way.

The majority of the membership is white, with increasing members of Jews of color joining — the Jews of color caucus is maybe thirty people and growing, the Mizrakhi caucus is about forty and increasing. The poor working class caucus is smaller right now.

JC: T’ruah, the progressive rabbinical organization, has really taken up the ball of organizing on mass incarceration. To what extent is JFREJ involved in that effort? And with what other Jewish groups are you working?

DK: Truah’s work on mass incarceration is really dynamic. I’m really excited about it — it’s great that they can bring that kind of rabbinical moral authority to the work. Our work against abusive policing connects directly to campaigns against mass incarceration — we’re all putting pressure on different points along the system to transform it.

We’re also working with Jews United for Justice in Washington DC, and Jewish Community Action in Minneapolis. Bend the Arc is a partner for us in anti-racism, civil rights and labor work. Jewish Voice for Peace is our partner especially on anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, and connecting those lines between racism here in the U.S. and racism in Israel-Palestine, and our thinking about displacement and militarization. The Jewish Multi-Racial Network has been our partner in co-leading Jews of Color Convening, which we held earlier this year, and in supporting the leadership of Jews of color in the Jewish community. We’re really excited about the growth of the Jewish justice ecosystem, new groups emerging like If Not Now, which does anti-occupation organizing. A lot of those folks are JFREJ members; a lot of our groups share memberships.

JC: JFREJ has a large queer constituency. Why do you think radical Jewish activism has disproportionately attracted those folks?

DK: A bunch of people who founded JFREJ are queer, and when queerness is in the DNA of an organization, it doesn’t leave. Queerness as part of JFREJ for twenty-five years means there’s been creativity and dance, love and sex and dynamism and color in ways that a lot of other organizations have not been able to embody.

When I came on as director five years ago, a trusted colleague said, “You’re gonna have to make a decision — either you do the sparkles and the glitter and the dance and the puppets, or you get serious about building power for the kind of social agenda change that you want to further. You’ll have to make that choice, as the director.” I promised that we would do both, because one actually isn’t separate from the other. The kind of change we want in the world requires campaigns, base-building, a legislative strategy — and it requires art and music, peoples’ full hearts and visions. If you separate one from the other, you’re not actually creating the world that we need.

Jewish oppression, including internalized oppression, really lines up with queer oppression. Historically, Jewish woman and Jewish men have been seen as ‘wrong” gender-wise. Jewish women: too much, too loud, too powerful. Jewish men: too effeminate, too weak, too intellectual, too unathletic. These are the some of the stereotypes that have prompted our being attacked, and they really line up with stereotypes of lesbians and gays and queers and trans folks. So I think queer Jews across the gender spectrum have been able to find a home in a Jewish community, a community that generally is thinking well about them and is excited about whatever Jewish embodiment they’re bringing, I think that when we’re talking about healing Jewish trauma, we’re talking about creating pathways for people to be their full selves. Jewishness and queerness have an interplay in this.

JC: Why do you and others in JFREJ choose to work within a Jewish setting?

DK: We’re about Jews taking our rightful place in a global movement. Social movements need all of us. That may mean for some people an explicitly Jewish perspective, or woman’s perspective, or queer perspective, or black perspective, but what’s most important is for people to bring their most powerful, embodied selves to the work.

I also think that the American Jewish community is an important target to organize, to shift. Jews have an outsized role in American politics, for better or for worse, so there’s a responsibility for us as Jews to use our leverage points to have a positive influence on the American political landscape.

JC: What do you make of the rise of Donald Trump, and the Tea Party before him?

DK: The extreme right has done an excellent job of base-building, while the left has focused less on base-building and more on trying to be vocal in shaping public opinion. On the person-to-person community level, the right has been very effective and has been shifting the country their way. Yet people of color and progressive whites, if organized, are actually the majority in this country. We need to do our base-building.

Trump’s rise is built upon the emergence of racism and xenophobia that have been underground, dormant, until he blew the dog whistle.

JC: Don’t we have to take some responsibility for that on our shoulders? We’ve been so afraid of the right-wing boogeyman that all our energy has gone into defending the Democratic Party and the liberal establishment, to the point at which we ourselves are the establishment, at least in the eyes of much of America. We’ve certainly relied a great deal on the courts to win on our agenda, much more than we’ve organized the country to agree with us.

DK: Yes, a lot of what we’ve seen in left activism depends on those strategies: legal challenges in courts, influencing the media, swaying public opinion that way. That’s why, in JFREJ’s circles, the emphasis these days is on base-building. It doesn’t quite matter if you’re placing an article here or there if you’re not building a base of what we will need: hundreds of thousands, growing to millions of people.

Building new trust with constituencies that the social-justice left has ignored will take years. There’s just no shortcut to the movement-building that we want to see. But it’s not quite about a group of people called “us” going to a group of people called “them” and asking questions. There really is a “we.” If we’re building now for the November election, we know that it’s only going to be impactful for that length of time, then drop off. What we’ll be creating for November is important, but we need to be thinking simultaneously about a fuller strategy.

I’m with you in wanting to create opportunities for people to actually be able to listen to each other, but as far as social change is concerned, playing to the middle and striving for consensus have never led to anything. It’s obviously very very important for electoral work, and it obviously needs to be part of our collective strategy, but change that will affect even electoral work for the long haul needs us to build and create social alternatives, not just spend all our time trying to push the middle to the left.

Another issue that JFREJ has been doing a lot of thinking about is trauma, the trauma that communities have suffered for generations, and how that plays out in our society today. I’ve found, as an organizer, that there’s a face-value to what people are saying and to how they’re acting, and there’s also often a long history of traumas that have shaped the kind of choices they see as possible. When we’re talking about organizing different constituencies that are economically depressed or otherwise oppressed in this country, we have to be thinking about the many points of displacement that have happened to their families, that they’ve been shut out of opportunities, that the system hasn’t worked for them, possibly for many generations. It’s a matter of taking a long view, incorporating our histories, and thinking about the twenty- or thirty-year trajectory of our work. I believe that healing of old trauma is central to moving forward in powerful partnerships. I’m committed to working with Jews and our allies to do the internal work we need to do collectively to create a different future for the next generation.

JC: Tell us something about your own perception of the role of a leader.

DK: I try to practice loving, relaxed, vulnerable Jewish leadership. As Jews, it is, unfortunately, so natural for us to act from a place of fear, isolation, and the need for self-protection. I default to all of those as well, and it makes me hard and stressed out, and it limits my view of what’s possible and who my potential allies may be. So I try to practice the opposite of that as consistently as I can.

JC: What in your own background, led you to this work?

DK: When I was 14, my Jewish community center in Northern Virginia
had a bomb threat soon after the building was built, and all of us inside had to evacuate. That was a moment of very real fear and very real confusion. It was the first time that I had experienced the threat of death because of my identity. There was no bomb, it turns out, but that feeling of vulnerability stayed with me and began to inform the way I thought about the world. It was definitely a root for my activism later as a young adult. I wouldn’t have articulated it then, but over the course of years it became was an opening for me to see how hatred, violence, and bigotry have such deep impact — and that if I didn’t want this to happen to me, and I couldn’t let it happen to anyone else.

I’m also very influenced by Jewish leaders who came before me. Someone I deeply admire is my ancestor, Zivia Lubetkin, who is my first cousin three times removed. She was the only female high commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. By reading her memoir and learning about her, I found in her a profound commitment to building community as a form of resistance. The well-being of the community and the spirit of the collective was deeply important to her throughout her work. I strive to bring the same commitment to the community of people I am in the work with, not just to the mission at hand.

These days I’m most interested in a phrase I learned from my dear friend Anna Torres — “tender comradeship.” It reminds me that the movement will succeed only if we are loving with one another.