Alumni Spotlight: Miriam Fogelson

Miriam Fogelson
Alternative Breaks, El Salvador, 2003

Miriam Fogelson participated in AJWS Alternative Breaks in El Salvador in 2003 and the AJWS Young Adult Delegation to the Dominican Republic in 2004. She received an AJWS-AVODAH Double Impact Social Justice Grant this summer to support her internship with Save Our Schools New Orleans Louisiana (SOS NOLA). Miriam is currently the director for leadership programs at the Lower East Side Girls Club in New York City.

What motivated you to participate in AJWS service programs?

I was a senior at Boston University and Alternative Breaks was an opportunity to combine a lot of my interests. I was studying photojournalism with a concentration in sustainable development and taking Latin American history, politics and economics classes. This seemed like an amazing way to bring it all together. I had just started to reconnect to Judaism and was looking for my own Jewish community. I'd always felt drawn to social justice, but this trip was the first time that I was able to make those connections between my Jewish identity, my Jewish values, my family and my passion for social justice, and find other like-minded Jews. It was really exciting.

I stayed involved and in November 2004 I went on a young adult delegation trip to the Dominican Republic. On this trip I felt like I needed to really find out more about how I could contribute to this field and I decided to go to graduate school. When I came back I applied to the New School graduate program in International Affairs. I just graduated from there.

Have you had the opportunity to participate in other international work?

In the summer of 2006 I spent three months in Buenos Aires working with two youth development organizations working in youth photography, education, employment, marginalization and civic engagement. Last summer, I worked in Bogota, Colombia for an organization based in New York called the Institute for Cultural Enterprise. They were interested in investing in programs for youth in Colombia, and I went down to do research about what organizations might be a good fit for their funding focus and develop relationships with those organizations. And through the Lower East Side Girls Club, I've done some work with our partner Girls Club in Chiapas, Mexico and brought girls from New York down to Chiapas.

How has your background in international affairs impacted your domestic work this summer?

I've had this conversation with a lot of people who are recent transplants to New Orleans, post-Katrina. I've met a lot of people who have a background in international development but have found that the degree is really useful in New Orleans because of the low level of development. I came down in April for the first time but was blown away by the conditions and the stories that I saw here. I had no idea things were so bad. That's a big reason why I wanted to come back. It was so similar to the work I'd been doing in Latin America with housing, healthcare, education and economic development.

Because you've had diverse experiences both internationally and domestically, do you have a greater interest in one or the other?

After Colombia, I had a feeling that I wanted to work domestically, and after being in New Orleans it was even clearer. There's so much to be done in this country. The work that I'm doing here in New Orleans is focused on education reform and I'm working with different groups that are focused on youth organizing. It solidified something I already knew: that I'm really passionate about investing in young people and supporting organizations that are preparing youth to be decision-makers and leaders in their community—not just because it's a right that children have, but because there's a huge ripple effect on the rest of society. Just looking at the causes of poverty and racism in the city, I think so much of it comes out of a lack of investment in youth and education.

Have you been able to maintain your interest in photography?

Yes, and I also hope to continue to use photography as an educational tool. There are so many things happening down here that I feel these stories need to get out. I feel really compelled to bring these stories back. I've been documenting the work that SOS NOLA is doing and I've been able to get into some of the schools that haven't been reopened. They're just totally destroyed from Katrina – one school I went to had the dates from August 26, 2005 still on the chalkboard in the classrooms. It's just a mess. I've been trying to photograph everything I can and then hopefully bring it back and see what I can do with it.

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