Proximity

Working five days a week is similar in a lot of ways to going to classes five days a week, but it is also very different. In both cases, there are times when there is not a lot of work, and I have time to work on long-term projects. But there are also frantic days before a big event, in the world of work, or a big paper, in school, where it suddenly seems like there is not nearly enough time.
This week, we had a graduation for the New York City corps members, an event that almost 100 people attended. It was really amazing to see all of the different people come who had been inspired or affected by AVODAH’s work, whether it was rabbis or alums of the program, many from many years ago who still stayed connected to AVODAH. It was also nice to see the event come together so well after all of us the office had been preparing for it.

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My name tag from the graduation

I appreciate working at AVODAH because of the work environment. Not only are all of my co-workers helpful, but everyone is also deeply engaged into their work. People discuss not only how to get their work done, but also why they are doing it and the larger implications of social justice work in general.
For example, we are currently reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which talks about his work as an lawyer with disadvantaged clients on death row as well as children who had been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were sometimes as young as 13. Although AVODAH does not work directly on legal cases, one central concept in the book is proximity, which is a concept that is deeply embedded in AVODAH’s work. Stevenson argued for the need for proximity saying, “This is my challenge to you: We need to embrace need. We need to get closer to the problem. Human beings have the capacity – when we get close – of finding our way to justice.”* AVODAH corps members directly engage with the populations they are serving, so they can better understand what those populations want and need, instead of simply assuming what they need or the corps members deciding.

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I think proximity is really important, but I also think that there is the risk that it can be used to simply assuage someone’s guilt, rather than actually address the problem. For example, I went on a service trip in high school that had policies that forbade giving out any food or goods, both of which were not related to the service we were doing there. When the trip first started, I did not understand why. We were in a very poor neighborhood and I did not have to look hard to find something easy that I could do to help someone, like giving a child water or food. The program did not ban giving out food or goods to be stingy, but to try to ensure that relationships were not just a relationship where one person gave and another received, but rather a relationship between two equals. While I do not necessarily completely agree with the policies, by the end of the trip I understood why they were there. They forced me to look beyond simply giving a child a little food and then feeling good about myself to grappling with why the children needed food in the first place and what my role as an American was in the causes.
Proximity is an important tool in social justice work, but I think it can be also dangerous, which is why it is so important to have discussions and truly grapple with the issues, like what I think is happening at AVODAH.

*Quote is from: http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2014/11/bryan_stevenson_huntsville.html

Lydia Ruddick-Schulman ’17

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