What Does Empowerment Look Like?

Every week, there will be a post on the Yahel blog from one of the participants from the Yahel Social Change Program. This week’s blog post comes from Harris Engelmann.

As a group, we Yahel participants spend a great deal learning and talking about the principles of meaningful social change. We have spent the last five months in our twice-weekly learning sessions taking an in-depth look at how to do the type of volunteer work that empowers others and looks at their skill sets from the position of strengths. These learning sessions are meaningful and inspiring, and I often talk about the specific topics that we have learned with other participants in the days and weeks following.

That being said, given the routine of our volunteer work, social change can sometimes feel more like a theoretical concept rather than something that we are actively participating in on a daily basis – when you’re struggling to figure out how to help an 8th grader who knows no English complete his homework assignment, it can be easier to be frustrated with and angry at a school system that allows students to pass through seven years of language classes without knowing how to ask someone what their name is than to the view the situation as an opportunity to create sustainable educational mentoring networks.

This week's blogger, Harris
This week’s blogger, Harris

Our work in Gedera is centered around a partnership with Friends by Nature, an Ethiopian-Israeli community empowerment organization that works on a grassroots level within difficult neighborhoods to create social change from within the Ethiopian-Israeli population. For the last five months, my roommate and I have been attending the Open Space program, a program brings at-risk teenagers off the streets at night and looks to give them something productive with their Sunday nights. The program mostly consists of us watching a different Hollywood comedy or action movie every Sunday – recently, we have watched Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Remember the Titans, and Pulp Fiction.

In general, the teens who attend the program come not only to watch the movie, but also to have a space to hang out with their friends inside. This means that in addition to whatever film we are watching, there are usually multiple side conversations, music videos, or games going on at the same time, in addition to the more than occasional smoke break. At times, the lack of attention that the teens pay to whatever movie we are watching can be frustrating or even seem rude.

Two weeks ago, we brought in Avishai, an Ethiopian-Israeli filmmaker and tour guide who also works at Friends by Nature, to come speak about his work as a filmmaker and his most recent trip to Ethiopia. From the moment that Avishai got up to present his work, I noticed a change in the attitude of the Open Space boys. As he began to present a short history of Ethiopia, noting how it was the only country in Africa to not be colonized, I noticed the group growing more and more attentive, asking him questions, putting away their phones, and attempting to add to what Avishai was explaining. They spoke about what their parents and older siblings had told them about life in Ethiopia; it was clear to me that there was a significant difference between the more pastoral village life of the isolated areas in northern Ethiopia where Jews used to live and the Ethiopia that Avishai wanted to show them. We learned about the Kings of Ethiopia (some of whom were Jewish), about the ancient capital of Axum, about the Simien mountains, about the variety of cultures, traditions, and religions that make up the various regions of Ethiopia, and saw film of the Gondar region where a large portion of Ethiopian Jewry emanates. During this evening, I saw these teenagers as being confident in themselves and in their identities. I saw them enabled to learn about history through the eyes of their ancestors and about culture that they could wholly identify as their own. The Open Space boys and Avishai lingered in the office after the movies had finished, talking about their families’ villages, customs, traditions, and culture, and about the history and places that many of them had just been exposed to the first time. The next week, as we watched Remember the Titans, the cellphones were out and the smoke breaks were prevalent, but so were the sounds of a traditional Ethiopian music, being strummed from an instrument that one of the teens had brought to our movie night.

Grassroots empowerment is not a simple task by any means. At-risk youth do not suddenly become not at-risk overnight, and our best intentions and efforts during our time on Yahel will not undo years of marginalization and bad policies. That being said, every time that a student I am tutoring learns and internalizes a new word in English, every time a new connection is made between Ethiopian- and non-Ethiopian Israelis at school, every time an older adult finds meaning and purpose in the urban agriculture project, and each time a teenager learns about their heritage and finds pride in themselves, I see social change in action. The work that we are doing may never truly be completed, but I for one know that I refuse to allow that fact change my resolve to make Shapira, Gedera, Israel, and my world a better place. It may have started with showing a movie, but who knows where this journey will end?

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