Teen fighters of social injustice celebrate 20th anniversary

Coming soon to a scene of social injustice near you: someone from Jewish Youth for Community Action to try to correct it.

That person might be a teen, or a group of teens, involved in the East Bay program. Or it might be a participant from the past two decades who has gone on to make social activism his or her life’s work.

Either way, it’s proof that JYCA has been fulfilling its mission to help high school students learn about social justice, leadership and community organizing. The nonprofit celebrated its 20th anniversary with a May 31 gala at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.

“JYCA has been a great opportunity for me because it gave me a voice I didn’t know I had,” said Liana Thomason, 17, of Berkeley. “My whole life, I thought I had to be an adult in order to have a voice that mattered.”

That voice came through loud and clear last year when Thomason and some of her fellow participants started a grassroots movement at Berkeley High School called BHS Stop Harassing.

Its formation was in response to what the student organizers said was a culture of sexual harassment at the school — including an Instagram “slut page” run by some teenage boys, and comments from administrators that seemed to imply that girls’ personal attire or behavior either invites or justifies such harassment. One of the group’s first creations was a T-shirt reading, “Stop blaming my body for your harassment.”

Liana Thomason at a JYCA interfaith vigil at an immigration detainment facility photo/courtesy jyca

“It was begun to raise more awareness in our community and start a conversation about sexual harassment culture,” said Maya Siskin-Lavine, 16, of Berkeley. “We have begun to create changes in education and policy … [and have] affected the way in which the school board responds to sexual harassment and student movements.”

Maya and her twin sister, Rachel, were two of the founders of BHS Stop Harassing, along with Thomason, Brea Kaye and Emily Levenson — all current participants in JYCA. A few girls who aren’t involved with the group helped get things rolling, and now it’s a campus-wide movement with a seven-member steering committee.

Shira Batalion, the adult executive director of JYCA, said it is gratifying to see teens take what they’ve learned and apply those lessons, on their own, to situations that call for action.

“It’s really amazing, a complete validation of everything we do,” she said. “And they’re not the only ones doing this type of thing. Two guys in the current cohort each started their own organizations; one collecting raincoats for communities in Central America and another focused on animals that are being illegally killed for their ivory.”

In any given year, between 30 and 50 high school students, most residents of Berkeley or Oakland, are involved in JYCA. It’s a two-year program in which the second-year participants mentor the newcomers. The teens handle a lot, deciding which social projects to embrace and running their own committees, among other tasks. They also have the say in budgeting, fundraising, recruiting new members and handling social media.

“They are making big decisions for an organization, participating in every level of decision-making,” said Batalion, a North Carolina native and Reconstructionist-trained cantor who has been with JYCA for 18 months. Her last job was as kolbo (someone who serves as a cantor-rabbi) at a Phoenix-area congregation, and she also worked as a professional field organizer on both of President Obama’s campaigns.

She loves her work with JYCA. “It’s really powerful for me to be able to integrate Jewish values and social action in such tangible ways,” she said.

In recent years, the teens have chosen to work on programs like the Healthy Corner Store project, in which they cleaned up small, inner-city stores, rearranged them by moving fruit and vegetables to the front and, via taste tests with customers, showed owners that selling healthier products was a good idea.

“This was really rewarding, and nicely tied into our discussions about gentrification and poverty,” said Rachel Siskin-Lavine, 16.

JYCA teens also helped lead a vigil for immigrants’ rights at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, and they helped “get out the vote” on state Proposition 47, which since its November 2014 passage has reduced penalties for some nonviolent crimes. They also sold fair-trade chocolate and cocoa after learning about the issue from Fair Trade Judaica.

“The thing that makes JYCA so special is that it is an organization rooted in youth decision-making and activism, so we as youth are the ones out there making positive change in society,” Siskin-Lavine said.

At the same time, JYCA makes positive changes in the teens themselves beyond the scope of the program. One alumna is Sara Shor, who works for the global climate agency 350.org and has helped coordinate some of the largest anti-fracking rallies in the United States. Other alumni include Sari Bilick, who has worked on behalf of low-income tenants in San Francisco and volunteered for Hand in Hand as an advocate for domestic workers, and Miriam Grant, a staffer at Bend the Arc.

Perhaps one or more of the girls who started BHS Stop Harassing will walk a similar career path. They’ve already received props in the form of coverage from the San Francisco Chronicle (www.tinyurl.com/sfgate-stop-harassing) and on KGO-Channel 7 (www.tinyurl.com/abc7-stop-harassing).

Moreover, Thomason recently testified at a state Senate hearing, supporting legislation that would require high schools to teach about sexual assault and violence and how to develop healthy relationships. And BHS Stop Harassing helped spark a Title IX investigation by the federal Office of Civil Rights into whether Berkeley Unified School District has failed to respond adequately to reports of sexual assault and harassment.

Thomason credits her participation in JYCA with helping all of that happen. “JYCA has been so important in helping me find my voice,” she said, “and helping other youth find theirs.”

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.