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How to Use MLK Weekend (and Every Day) to Advocate Effectively

As members of the Jewish community, we connect – to one another and to our history – through stories. Stories of our collective past – our trials and tribulations – are handed down through generations, shared through Mishnah and Torah, and through social media and sermons. Our stories help us interpret, motivate, draw strength, and find comfort.

As citizens, we weave more stories; we build narratives to compel politicians to enact change we believe in, to ensure our voice is heard. We identify with or distance ourselves from components of our national identity through stories of our resistance to hate, our defiance of fear, and our advocacy of justice.

As we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during MLK Day, many of us feel pride in the powerful intersection of our Jewish and American identities as we retell the story of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching from Selma to Montgomery alongside the Reverend. There is, however, a fine line between our pride and obligation to continue fighting for justice, and the fact that ownership of this story does not truly belong to all of us. In fact, it is a story of the power and determination of African-Americans through an ongoing struggle for equality.

For those of us whose racial identity is not part of the story, we must be aware of that fine line, and the need to share this part of our national history authentically, in a way that strengthens our role as advocates and allies without co-opting the narrative ourselves.

How do we do that?

Here are four ways to get started.

1. Talk about the movement, not just the man.

This holiday may honor a particular man, but he was part of a larger movement. Jews didn’t just march alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they also marched alongside other historic black leaders, including Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Pauli Murray. Our story is not about a partnership with one person; the story did not end with Dr. King, and it is not simply left to be retold. The story is still being written; the movement lives on.

2. Acknowledge white privilege as part of our story. 

The white activists who led Jewish movements to embrace values of tolerance, equality, and racial justice, did so with bravery, strength, and courage, often in the face of danger. There are places in which the European Jewish narrative overlaps with the civil rights movement, but we must not forget the points where our stories diverge and our non-white neighbors, including Jews of color, face challenges that we white Ashkenazi Jews circumvent, mainly because of the color of our skin.

Similarly, white Jews who lived and worked in Southern communities had to make tough choices not only about whether to put their own lives on the line, but also about whether to endanger the lives of their families, their businesses, their futures. Outing themselves as allies of the civil rights movement could have lasting repercussions. The color of their skin allowed them to make choices about how to align with the movement.

3. Adhere to the “nothing about us without us” mentality. 

If you, like so many, feel called to action on behalf of racial justice in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s honor, find organizations that are being led by people of color, and ask what you can do to best support them. Are you volunteering with a large group or congregation? Work in partnership with other communities of color to ensure that they’re guiding the actions that are most relevant to them and that you’re supporting their self-directed efforts.

4. Engage in action year-round. 

While using Martin Luther King Day weekend to inspire direct service is well-intentioned, there are many who dedicate their lives to this fight, as well as those who spend every moment of every day facing the realities of being a person of color in the United States. We can choose to use this annual holiday to share a story about collaboration for civil liberties, or we can spend the year writing the next chapters, in which our personal stake in this fight is woven into our daily lives.

Whatever you may choose to do to advance the struggle for racial justice, this weekend or throughout the year, take pride in the pages of the story you’re helping to write.

Alexa Broida is the former director of URJ Mitzvah Corps, a social justice travel program for Jewish teens.