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Playing the Long Game of Social Change

Playing the Long Game of Social Change

Students and others at a rally protesting a detention center in Tornillo, TX

The week before Thanksgiving, I participated in Rabbi Josh Whinston’s “Let Our Families Go!” caravan to Tornillo, TX, to witness and protest the detention camp there. Since my return, everyone has been asking about the trip.

“How was it?”

“What did you do?”

All perfectly natural questions, straightforward, to be expected, even. And yet, I have struggled to respond sincerely.

I imagine people want to hear how inspiring it was, how powerful and moving it was to walk across the bridge into Mexico, to sing with 200 people outside the fences of the camp, to stand in the front lines as we marched to the gate, pleading to see the children detained there. I also imagine they would be disappointed or put-off to hear otherwise. I do not wish to disappoint, nor do I wish to lie or brush off the question, to avoid it, or give a non-answer response. I am still processing the experience. For now, the best answer I can give is that it was challenging, in ways I did not expect.

In the evening after the rally, we gathered together for a celebratory dinner. Looking into the eyes of my fellow participants, I saw empowerment, drive, motivation, hope. In truth, I felt none of those things. I felt despondent. It took me 24 hours to understand why, to process and reflect. I had to ask myself some tough questions, including: why did I go on the trip?

I went on the trip to...because it felt like doing something, anything.

For months, I have wondered about the efficacy of the work I do. It is important, valuable, that I know. But how does it stack up against social workers, lawyers, judges, politicians? To be a teacher, I realized, is to play the long game. It is not about making a big impact today. It is about making small impacts every day, positioning for major impacts tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade.

After the rally, I spent 36 hours feeling unaccomplished. I had fallen victim to the expectation of instant gratification, believing my two days in El Paso should have a noticeable impact on this vile situation, on those around me, on me. In addition to the problems that arise from technology’s instant gratification, the way we teach the history of social change also is problematic. We teach the big events, skipping entirely the decades of work that build to those events, the series of little successes and failures that define the perseverance of real change makers.

I went down to Tornillo to satisfy myself. Yes, I went out of concern for the teens, out of disapproval of the injustice. But mostly, I think, I went to mollify my own guilt over not doing more.

As Rabbi Josh reminded us the night before the rally, there is a fundamental difference between an observer and a witness. An observer sees. A witness testifies. For Tornillo, there is no court in session, no judge on the bench, no jury to hear my eyewitness testimony. Not yet, anyway. Until that day comes, I will create my own.

I will play the long game. I will ensure that my friends, my family, my community, my elected officials, and especially my students know what I witnessed – the barbed wire, the blacked-out busses, the tarped fences, the camp in the middle of nowhere, the vile attempts of government officials to avoid the laws they break each day, the line of sullen teen boys marched through the camp by adult guards like criminals – so that when my students become the leaders of our nation, they have no patience for racism or hate.

Martin Luther King, Jr., famously taught that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Let's speed it up together, one testimony at a time.

Rabbi Daniel K. Alter serves as the director of education at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, MI.

Rabbi Daniel K. Alter
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