Q&A: An advocate for all kinds of tolerance

Name: Steven Cohen
Age: 64
City: Berkeley
Position: Communications consultant, writer


J.: Your work shows  a wide range of interests: communications consultant, writer, political organizer, education advocate. How did your family background — your mother was Sally Lilienthal, a prominent humanitarian who founded the Ploughshares Fund — influence your involvement in progressive causes?

Steven Cohen: It goes back to my Jewish heritage. My mother and father were both involved with civic life and human rights in San Francisco. He was a partner at a law firm and did some work for the San Francisco Council for Civic Unity, and he also worked for a group that assisted immigrants. My mother was involved with the NAACP and other groups. Through my family I feel connected to this work of fighting discrimination and intolerance.

Though I didn’t have formal Jewish training myself, my younger daughter was the first person in our family since my father to have been bar mitzvahed. As she went through it I thought about how my family values relate to the tenets of the faith: education, learning, justice, tolerance. I trace all those things back to my father. Somehow they came to my daughter as well. My mom, she was a real dynamo in terms of being a change agent, changing the world. It’s tough to follow in those footsteps.

Steven Cohen

You’re a founding organizer of Bay Area Democracy Funders, which grew out of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision on organizational campaign spending. Can you tell me about it?

BAD Funders is an affinity group, all volunteer-run. When Citizens United hit about six years ago, a lot of people were disgusted and horrified. I went to a meeting at the San Francisco Foundation with Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who said 83 percent of Americans — both Republicans and Democrats — felt there was too much money in politics. He’d never seen such unanimity on a topic. But not a lot of strategies were coalescing around it. About a year later, we hatched this idea — our basic mission is to help foundation officers and donors make smarter funding decisions in support of organizations that help reduce the influence of money in politics.

You’ve spent most of your career doing communications work for education organizations. Which projects have meant a lot to you?

I’m more interested in the advocacy work, education in the public interest. I’m proud of promoting new alternatives and educational changes. I did some work editing an award-winning magazine for the U.C. Berkeley school of education called Connected, about teaching in urban areas. Also at U.C., the president created a magazine highlighting policy priorities in terms of education outreach and getting more underrepresented students at the U.C. campus. At the time, affirmative action was going down in California [after Proposition 209 passed in 1996]. Between that and the curriculum wars of the mid-’90s, it was a pretty exciting time to be in education.

You’re also the part-time communications manager of Islamic Networks Group. What does this San Jose-based organization do and how did you get involved?

I can tie it all back to my parents. For my father, it was about racism, but now Islamophobia is a big part of it. ING’s tagline is “pursuing peace through education and interreligious engagement.” In a year they talk to about 25,000 people through training seminars and workshops for interfaith groups and congregations, including temples and synagogues. They’re countering prejudice through education, primarily about Islam. They do specific FAQs on being Muslim in America, sharia law, women, history, ISIS — covering a lot of contemporary topics. They have various curriculums on topics like Muslim contributions to civilization, getting to know American Muslims, Muslim women beyond the stereotypes. My job is social media, curating and promoting their events and their accomplishments. It’s just a small part of my work, and I work remotely for them, but they have good values and I’m happy to help promote their work.

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David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.