This year I spent many nights volunteering at the men’s homeless shelter at my synagogue. Me duties were very limited. I basically had to unlock the beds, the pantry, log the mens’ names as they arrived, write down if they were running out of bread, canned tuna, or soap, and wait two hours for the overnight volunteer. They did the vast majority of the setting up by themselves, and could have done it all, but for technical the synagogue needed to always have at least one volunteer present. Often while I waited one or two of them would come talk to me. I didn’t pry, but they often were glad to have someone to listen to them, and I learned a lot. I learned that most of them worked extremely hard, often with relatively high-paying jobs with terrible hours and no security. I learned that almost all of them had been launched into homelessness by some unaddressed physical or mental health problem. I don’t think they were representative of the homeless population of New York City; the shelter only has room for ten people per night and works closely with social work organizations that are extremely selective, trying to help the people they think have the best chance of getting back on their feet. Those organizations do very good work with very limited resources, and the synagogue helps out as much as it can, but this isn’t a sustainable or humane system. A real solution to this problem will come from local government and will use federal money, and will tackle health issues, unjust housing practices, and worker’s rights.
The beginning of Stefan’s class, Power Politics, and Citizenship, has focused primarily on the presidential election. None of us had any trouble discussing current events or the characters of the major presidential candidates, but not all of us were on equal footing when it came to discussing the issues of policy that are at stake this year. In fact, all of us were pretty unclear about just what it was Trump and Clinton were proposing on issues that hardly come up in the debates, like climate change or healthcare. After only a few discussions in class it was clear that the class, the community as a whole, and anyone else who was interested, would benefit from having one site, one page, where the two candidates could be compared solely on the issues, not because the noise of the campaign isn’t important in choosing our next president, but because we should not let the noise drown out other important aspects of that decision. Morgan Carmen and I tackled healthcare, taking information from the site only from platforms entirely controlled by the candidates. For Morgan, who was investigating Clinton’s healthcare plans, this was easy. All of the information as right there. For me, things were difficult. Trump’s website is a mess of spelling mistakes, 404 errors, and vague plans which hardly make any sense. Plus, the website was overhauled twice in the few days I was looking at it for information. We didn’t want to use interviews or appearances on television, as these could be too easily misused; our main sources of information were the candidates’s websites themselves. It was tricky.
My grandmother, grandfather, brother and I woke up at 6:30 and were on the road to Bethlehem by 7:00. We got there by 9:00, received a half hour of basic training, and our assignments. We went to a very popular local supermarket, and planted ourselves on both sides of its entrance. For the next six hours we asked every single person on their way in to the supermarket if they were registered to vote, and if their voter registrations had been updated. For the most part we met with resentment and anger. Almost everyone thought their registrations were up to date and that they didn’t need our help. We found ourselves in tough political conversations with very angry people who believed all kinds of conspiracies we knew to be untrue, and it was a great struggle to not be antagonistic. We were cursed out. We were yelled at. It was exhausting. In the end, I personally managed to register five people to vote only two days before the registration period ended, which was incredibly rewarding. I was struck by the unequal distribution of who had access to information about voters, and was particularly disturbed that people of color were consistently less informed about the requirements for voting. Some did not know that they had to redo their registration if they had married and changed their name, or if they had moved since last voting. Some did not know that in Pennsylvania, convicted felons were actually re-enfranchised. In the end, four out of the five voters I registered were black or hispanic, despite the fact that ninety percent of the people that passed us that day were white. I’m proud to have empowered those people, and hope to be able to do more work in spreading access to information next year to have an even bigger impact.