Alumni Spotlight: Ilana Zafran
Ilana Zafran participated in AVODAH in Chicago 2006-2007. She continues to work at her AVODAH placement organization, Umoja Student Development Corporation, a model of school-community partnership that works to develop students as learners and leaders.
What motivated you to do AVODAH?
The short version is that I grew up as secular or culturally Jewish in Boston. I went to Workmen's Circle; I never had a traditional or formal synagogue education. College was the first time I asked, what does it mean to be Jewish? AVODAH seemed like a really good opportunity to continue figuring out how Judaism fits into my life while being able to do the nonprofit and social justice work I wanted to do. I grew up in a very social justice-oriented household but it wasn't until I started doing AVODAH that I realized that a lot of my values are tied up in my Judaism. I can't necessarily reference the Torah practices that have taught me to do social justice, a big part of the reason I believe so passionately in the social justice work that I do is because I'm Jewish.
How has your work with Umoja progressed since your AVODAH year?
When I first started, I was in the student advocate position doing mostly direct service: tutoring, offering academic support, and co-facilitating identity development and leadership groups. Now, in my position as leadership coordinator, I help Umoja think about, expand upon and move forward in how our leadership development work is actualized: what does it mean to be developing young people, especially in the communities we work in, as leaders? We're not just developing them as leaders; we're developing them as agents of change and people who are going to be engaged activists and give back to their community.
How did Umoja become involved with food justice issues?
We run a summer internship called Community Builders that combines leadership, post-secondary development, and academic development. We partner with Free Spirit media, an organization that involves under-resourced youth from under-resourced communities in making their own media. Each summer we take on a different social justice issue. This summer, we decided on food deserts because the communities that we serve are considered food deserts and we know that there's a lot of action around it right now, but our students aren't necessarily going to identify this as an issue in their community. Over the summer, the students did community- based research through surveys, created a blog and made a video called "Hungry for Change".
How has the project impacted students and their communities?
Educationally, I think the students came out of the summer really understanding what a food desert is and why food access and food justice is so important. Students told us that they were telling their families about what they were learning, so it was really exciting for us that they thought what they learned was important enough to share with people outside of the program.
Also, we believe in looking at any kind of social change from an action-based perspective. It is important for our students to see that there are problems in their community around food, but that the community has the ability to turn things around and to make a dent in the issue. For example, we sent the students' research to an organization that's trying to start a produce vehicle in the community. The organization shared that our research will be tremendously helpful to them in getting the initial funding to get their project off the ground. So, there have been some powerful moments for us.
If you could do anything in your work, what would it be?
For me, what it comes down to is helping young people dream and have access to the resources they need to make those dreams a reality. A lot of Umoja's young people come from communities that are under-resourced and have never been asked, where do you want to be in this world? What do you want to be doing? I think the first step is that every single young person needs to be exploring those questions. They need to know that the world and their community cares about them and where they end up, and then we need to work on getting them the resources they need to get to those places. It's not necessarily going to happen in my lifetime, but in my ideal world, I will continue to work toward that.
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