This past Thursday, 85 Jewish communal professionals attended a diversity forum hosted by The Darrell Friedman Institute for Professional Development, a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. The event was a culmination of a year-long cohort learning process on appreciating diversity and inclusion, funded by the Blaustein Fund of The Associated.
The first speaker at the forum was Allison Fine, renowned author and innovator of the term “matterness.” The key to success for any community program, fundraising campaign, or general engagement initiative is addressing the universal human need to “matter,” she said. Fine cautioned that in our era of digital marketing, we tend to lean too heavily on social media as a primary tool of engagement. The best use of this tool would be to enhance and support real human relationships. Creating and maintaining those relationships marks the path of success for any nonprofit.
In this spirit, the program then opened the floor to the voices of 14 individuals in the Baltimore community who come from populations that require more sensitivity. These stories were read by volunteers to preserve anonymity, but most contributors were sitting in the room. One vignette came from a day school parent who is a Jew of color and had encountered insensitivity from people which, despite being unintentional, had serious negative ramifications for her child’s identity as a Jew and person of color.
Another story was from the mother of an Orthodox gay son, and told of her experience of loneliness during the time her son first came out and she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Another example came from our disability community: when her synagogue was undergoing renovation, a woman was told that the one handicapped-accessible entrance, around the back and through an alley near a dumpster, would continue to serve as the only such entrance as it would not be worthwhile to make expensive changes to the construction plan to create a more accessible entryway to the shul.
A deaf child who, because of the coach’s fears for his safety, was told that he could not be on the swim team.
A Jew of color who, though a regular in his synagogue, is constantly asked by members who are less regular if he is in the right place or if he needs help following along.
he facilitator, Mandy Diamond of Bluezone Thinking, led the group in a reflection on how to move from our initial problem-solving habits, which at times may not be able to address the needs of an individual in that very moment, and to move into an approach of empathy and active listening. How do people feel when they believe they do not matter? Can I say something or respond in a way that will let a person know that he or she does matter? The answer is always yes, Diamond said.
While she also addressed pathways for organizations to assess physical, communication, or policy changes, Diamond expressed strongly that sometimes it is not possible to make shifts based on an organization’s values. However, in every moment we do have the responsibility and capability to make the person before us feel that he or she matters. It behooves us to take these conversations back to our organizations and understand how respect and understanding are key, as we are all different from each other, we are unique individuals, yet we all have more in common than we think.
There is a saying that each person should carry around a note in each pocket. In one, the note says, “The world was created for me alone.” In the other pocket, the note says, “I am as irrelevant as the dust of the earth.” This is both a humbling and motivational practice. However, when we encounter others, we don’t expect them to have this down. Some people may live like they are only the dust of the earth and may be treated by others that way. We have the obligation as a community to remind each of our members of the note that says, “The whole world was created with you in mind.”
This event was a step deeper into the heart of what inclusivity is about.
Miriam Gross is the Engagement Coordinator at The Darrell D. Friedman Institute for Professional Development, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.