Marjorie Dove Kent has been the Executive Director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) for two years, and moved from Prospect Heights to Ditmas Park this spring. A tiny organization in terms of staff, but powerful in numbers of members, JFREJ takes an intimate approach to change, and brings an unexpected presence taking on important issues in New York.
“JFREJ has been around for a little over 20 years,” Marjorie tells us. “We partner with community organizations that are led by low-income folks, people of color, and immigrant communities, working on campaigns to make changes in the lives of individuals and result in the long-term systemic changes that are about overcoming systems of oppression.”
Marjorie says the two campaigns JFREJ is currently working on are gaining justice for domestic workers with their Shalom Bayit campaign, and taking on police accountability issues like stop-and-frisk and Muslim surveillance.
“We’ve been involved in the Justice for Domestic Workers campaign for 10 years, starting in 2002 with Domestic Workers United, and pioneered this model of organizing employers of domestic workers to work for the collective liberation of all people involved.”
“We knew the industry wasn’t working for employees, but learned that it wasn’t working for employers either. Domestic work is so isolated that in most cases, it’s one employer and one employee. An issue for domestic workers is that if there are unjust or abusive employment practices, they’re the only employee. There’s no way to change that themselves, and they’re also very much at risk–they could be fired in an instant.
“On the employers’ side of things, though, we’ve also found that they’re very isolated, too. They don’t know how to find good care for their family members, and they tend to want to do the right thing, but don’t know how to do it. People ask their sister, ask their neighbor, ask their friends who had a kid two years ago how much to pay, what about benefits, how many hours is fair.
“Community knowledge is good, but we’ve found that people are constantly unsure of their practices, so there are feelings of shame and guilt,” she continues. “Employers don’t feel like they’re doing well for the people who take care of their children or parents, so they’re hungry for a network of other employers to help them learn how to make their home a just workplace, and to feel good about the practices they’re upholding. That also does really beautiful things for the relationship between employer and employee, which affects the whole family.”
JFREJ works to achieve these ends with individuals and communities, and, Marjorie says, is currently working through different synagogues. “The goal is for an entire synagogue, over time, to take on this ‘Code of Care’–we want a community to be able to agree, ‘This is what’s important in employment practices for our people.’ Then people have pride in it–it’s no longer a hesitant, ‘Well, umm, I happen to employ a nanny.’ It becomes, ‘I am an employer for justice.'”
Marjorie says a lot has been done, but a lot still needs to be done, too.
“We were part of a coalition that passed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2010. We’re now working on implementation of the bill, but also supporting employers to go above and beyond the very basic pieces of the bill. Mainly right now, we’re working with nannies and nanny employers in Park Slope, and with seniors and senior care providers on the Upper West Side. It’s very intimate work between workers and employers. We want to build relationships, and have these folks be involved in changing the industry from what it is.”
For their police accountability campaign, though, JFREJ uses a very different strategy.
“We’re part of a coalition called Communities for Police Reform. It’s lobby visits, demonstrations, mobilizing members in our base to call and email and meet with their City Council members, as well as supporting other groups in the coalition on things like Cop Watch.
“The most local Councilperson we’ve worked with on the Community Safety Act is Greenfield, but we’ve also worked with Koslowitz, Brewer, and Koppell,” she says. “We’ve focused on those four because they have signed onto certain parts of the bills and not others, and because we have members in their districts who are in support of the bill and want to mobilize around it–and in some districts there’s lot of Jewish community presence, where it would be effective for Jews and Jewish organizations to be active in support of the bill. Oftentimes, Jews are the unlikely allies in these campaigns. People don’t expect the Jewish community to be focused on police accountability–so in districts where that can be powerful, we want to mobilize on that.”
She says the power held in being unlikely allies changes in different contexts.
“I think that when people are talking to a City Council member or their staff, it’s a real plus. They can say the people came to them who they expected, like folks specifically from communities of people of color or who are being targeted by these policies, and then it’s a little bit of a double-take when we show up.
“People go, ‘So you’re a group of Jews’—and in many meetings, that’s meant primarily white–‘coming in, and you care about this too?'” she continues. “It’s not explicitly said, but there’s sometimes a double-take on the name on the list. Then they see ‘for Racial and Economic Justice,’ and they get it–but I think that it’s powerful to show that communities aren’t isolated in this.
“What we’re saying is that abusive policing practices make our entire city less safe. This makes us and our neighbors less safe. This is not what we want from a police force in the city that we call home. And I think that it demonstrates to City Council members that these issues affect everybody in New York. It’s not just communities being targeted that are affected, but it’s the whole city.”
In addition to making a powerful statement, Marjorie says, politicians consider the high voting rate of the Jewish community. “When we come in,” she says, “they know that if nothing else, we’re voters.
“We’re also really focused on making sure Jews of color and non-Ashkenazi Jews are part of the organization, and making sure their leadership is supported, and also that poor and working-class Jews, who are often marginalized within the community, have their leadership supported within the organization. We try to keep a balance of figuring out where the Jewish community has power and can mobilize on that, but we also want to be very careful to make sure we’re not making invisible Jews of color, and poor and working-class Jews in that process. JFREJ is a community that embraces the diversity of Jews in New York.”
She elaborates on how campaigns are chosen, and trying to support larger movements while sticking to JFREJ’s philosophy of starting at home.
“People ask, ‘Why don’t you work on national or international issues? Why just New York?’ We follow a tradition called doykayt, which can be translated as here-ness. It’s about working where you are, that where you are is home. That’s the place where you can and should work–where you can make the most impact. Staying local is very key to the work that we do.
“We support different workers’ rights campaigns going on in New York, but we’re also really small staff-wise–there are three of us. Rachel McCullough (also of Ditmas) organizes the Justice for Domestic Workers campaign, and Carolyn Klaasen takes care of administrative duties part-time. We have over 100 active members in addition to the nearly-1,000 dues-paying members that we have–but because of our size, we take on campaigns in a very specific way.
“Our last campaign selection process took six months and involved about 150 members. We’re very specific about it because we’re small, but we can also build power very quickly in an area, so we try to focus very specifically. We’d rather focus on two campaigns and put our energy there than focus on 10 campaigns that won’t have much of an impact. We make sure we’re strategically placed to have impact.”
In terms of legislation, the organization has had some great success with Shalom Bayit, and has few goals in mind for their police accountability campaign.
“The success we had in passing the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights is the model of what we can do when we work deeply in partnerships, and work on it for eight years,” Marjorie says. “The bill was passed in 2010. Around year five or six, people started suggesting we move onto another campaign–but we kept on, and set up a model for really long-term work, and the model for recognizing points of access and privilege. Now we know, where people who might be the most unlikely allies can be really powerful agents for change. Going forward, we’re trying to consider that model–with the Justice for Domestic Workers campaign and other campaigns.
“Passing the bill was also some of the most exciting labor legislation in 30 years in this country,” she continues. “It was the first legislation in the United States to include domestic workers. Since slavery, domestic workers and farm workers have been left out of state and national labor protection. This is the first time that they’ve been put in state labor protection.”
As for the Inspector General Bill, Marjorie says, “It’s about oversight for the NYPD. Right now, there is someone overseeing every other city agency besides the NYPD. What people know we have right now is the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is about individual cases of abusive policing. This bill is about looking at the police department as a whole and figuring out in what areas policies are leaning towards discrimination, and where there’s systemic abuse going on–not about one individual ‘bad cop,’ but about, how are the policies discriminatory on the whole?
“Then the Community Safety Act is against discriminatory policing. It expands upon the different ways can’t discriminate. Right now, the law is only that you can’t discriminate based on race, religion, or ethnicity, but the new bill also adds homeless status, immigration status, sexuality, gender expression, ability/disability, and other categories. It expands the protections against discrimination.
“There’s also a really important piece in [the Community Safety Act] that makes it [so that] to claim discriminatory policies, you have to prove impact, not intent. As the law stands right now, you only have to prove intent–that this policy is made with the intention of discriminating. Of course, police officers don’t intend on discriminating, but what we see is that the overall policy does. This way, you don’t have to prove intent, which is impossible to prove in court. You have to prove impact.
“We have the numbers that say, yes, these communities are being impacted by discrimination–so that paired with the oversight bill means that real change can be effected. You have this law on the books, you have an entity whose goal is to oversee system-wide issues, so this can result in real change.”
Marjorie says the organization would like to hold events and bring campaigns into the neighborhood.
“The vision is to broaden out nanny/employer organizing to different neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It would make sense to expand to Ditmas Park with that campaign, based on where JFREJ members are, and where we know people care about these issues, so we want to bring the campaign here.
“The organizing for the Justice for Domestic Workers campaign is very relationship-based, and it’s very individual-to-individual. What an individual employer in Ditmas Park can do is say, ‘I want to have this conversation here,’ and it can start with kitchen table gatherings or living room gatherings and build into something larger.”
She says neighbors can get involved in campaigns outside of the neighborhood in a few ways, too.
“Something we’re thinking about with campaigns now is, how can art and culture be infused? We have a team of members working on that–folks who have done arts and culture work for years, and who are fantastic artists. We’d love to have people in the neighborhood bring their craft and lend it as part of these campaigns. There’s also a communications team who broadcast our message on media and social media and through different mechanisms. If people have any expertise in communications or media, we’d love to have them.
“We just don’t want people to feel if they haven’t worked on a campaign before, that they can’t do it. We want them to know you can come learn, whether you’re an employer who wants to connect with the Justice for Domestic Workers campaign, or you plan on becoming an employer soon if your parents need home care and you realize, ‘I have no idea how to do this!’ This is a place you can come get knowledge and information, but you can also be a part of making a just system. Issues surrounding the police affect everybody, so people are welcome to join that campaign as first-timers as well.”
Today, Marjorie is more in tune with the concept of doykayt than ever.
“I moved to Ditmas because a lot my friends were here, a lot of people I love are thinking of moving here, and then the other week, I went to get food for Shabbos dinner at my house. I was headed to the fishmonger off Newkirk Plaza–I’m so happy to have that as a local resource, and they must think I’m really weird because I’m always so thrilled when I go in there–but I ended up just getting everything I needed for the dinner at outdoor carts on the way to the fishmonger.
“I thought, ‘This is good. This is better than having to go to a huge supermarket.’ This is a place that just feels like home. I could see it as a place that I could call home for a long time.”
Photos via JFREJ