Segal: Building power, building community

David Segal
Guest Commentary

Last month, I traveled to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to join America’s Journey for Justice. The NAACP organized this 40-day march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C., to bring national attention to ongoing racial and economic injustice.

I went because 200 Reform rabbis volunteered to carry a Torah scroll the entire distance of the 860-mile journey. Each day, a handful of rabbis shared the responsibility of holding the scroll during the 20-mile daily stretch. We held in our arms the words, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9; see also Exodus 22:20, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19).

I went on the march because I love this country. I am a sappy patriot, a total sucker for Americana. I get emotional when I hear “God Bless America.” I get excited every Fourth of July to reread George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, declaring America a land that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Never before had a nation made such a promise to the Jews. It makes me swell with pride and gratitude — and also humility, as I think of other groups who have known bigotry and persecution all too well. I love this country because it gave my immigrant grandparents not just a haven but a home, and they instilled in me the duty to give back to the community. I love this country for what it is and what it promises to be. The Journey for Justice was a chance to celebrate the progress and potential of America.

The march reminded me of a quote by E.B. White: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Here in the Roaring Fork Valley, we’ve mastered the “savor” part. Whether we’ve moved here or visit part-time, the natural beauty, outdoor recreation and slower pace of life bring us joy.

But I want us to get better at the “improving the world” side of the equation. I want to push this community toward a more holistic, sustainable approach. What does that look like on the ground? One answer comes from the Manaus Fund, whose board I recently joined. George Stranahan, local philanthropist, education reformer and strategic troublemaker, founded the fund 10 years ago to combine social entrepreneurship and community organizing. We are trying to change the way people relate to each other in this valley. Our lives are so atomized, we rarely know what’s going on for someone behind the veneer of “How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” It’s a shame that people keep their struggles to themselves when there could be public solutions for our private pain.

The key to transforming our community is deep listening. The Manaus Fund has already had success through this method with the Valley Settlement Project. Community organizers went into low-income, mostly immigrant Latino communities — and listened. They found extreme isolation. They heard stories of struggle around employment, education, childcare and language. Out of that listening came several projects for children and adults, including a mobile preschool, neighborhood parenting groups, GED prep classes and parent mentor training.

We often think of charity or justice work as something “we” do for “them” — we, the privileged, can give a better life to the less fortunate. But the highest form of giving is to enable self-sufficiency. And the truth is, these initiatives within the Latino community advance our entire community. When they organize to improve employment readiness, neighborhood networks, parenting and school support — all of us benefit.

Changing the conversation around how we do this work also means changing how we think about power. We may need to dismantle some of our misconceptions around power, especially those of us who think of ourselves as empowered, with the financial and social capital to get what we want.

For my fellow Jews, consider the lack of recognition of Jewish holidays by the public school districts. I have made some headway on this in Aspen in the past five years by building relationships with parents, the school board and school administrators and expressing our concerns around the scheduling of school events during our holiest days. The new district calendar now includes a special color code for Jewish holidays, and yet, the conflicts continue: This year, the Aspen High School experiential-education program overlapped with Yom Kippur, our holiest day of the year, leaving many of our families to make a difficult choice. It’s not a failure of will — it means we haven’t built enough power to change it.

Now, imagine if we were organized. Imagine a coalition of Latinos and whites, of Jews and Catholics and Protestants, of parents and teachers and engaged citizens, who could bring real leverage on this issue. And then — imagine what else we could accomplish together.

How many of us are concerned about aging in place without sufficient assisted-living facilities? Did it keep you up at night when the Basalt Continuing Care Retirement Community fell through? How many worry about the lack of affordable housing as more families move farther downvalley and parts of Aspen become, in the words of a local pastor, “a ghost town”? How many parents worry about raising socially conscious kids in a bubble of privilege? How many of us lose sleep over anti-Semitism that pops up in nasty letters to the editor?

We can’t address any of these issues alone. In fact, the more we retreat inward, the worse our problems become. Look for opportunities in the coming months to build power through public relationships with people who are often invisible to us — both across the street and “across the tracks.” Look to be challenged to test your assumptions about who needs help, who has power and what it means to be in a community.

Rabbi David Segal can be reached at or 970-925-8245. He blogs at, where you can read the version of this article that he gave as a sermon to his congregation on Yom Kippur. His column runs the first Sunday of each month.


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