Educator and activist Yavilah McCoy joined Michigan Hillel for a Shabbat dinner on Friday to talk about social activism and the role Judaism plays in activism.
The event, “Courageous Conversation Towards Equity and Empowerment for All Students,” was one of a series of events that took place Feb. 1-3 with McCoy as Hillel’s Scholar in Residence for the weekend.
McCoy is the CEO of Dimensions Educational Counseling, Inc., a nonprofit led by women and Jewish people of color which consults and trains on diversity, equity and inclusion. She also founded Ayecha, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Jewish people of color and provides support for Jewish and multiracial families. McCoy spoke at Hillel in 2017 and is a member of the leadership and steering committee for the Women’s March.
McCoy focused on the interplay between different aspects of her identity at the discussion Friday.
“I’m an African-American, Jewish woman, and I’ve lived for many years saying I’m unapologetic about my identity,” McCoy said. “So freedom, the idea of liberalism is always in front of me.”
Students gathered in the main lounge of Hillel after a dinner with McCoy. McCoy began the talk by teaching them a song in the Jewish gospel, singing “Shabbat Shalom” and having attendees respond singing the same words.
McCoy said people sing because it brings courage. She said activists often sing and chant in marches to bring about more courage.
McCoy explained the four levels of courage: personal, interpersonal, system or institutional and cultural. Through examples of leaders showing courage, she said oftentimes acts of courage transcend all four levels. The examples she provided included the gymnasts who spoke out against Larry Nassar and Starbucks closing stores to provide racial bias training to employees. McCoy pointed out that in both cases, those acting with courage faced several risks.
“What’s at stake around having courage?” she asked. “It’s not just about you and me. There’s huge losses that can come as a result of a lack of courage.”
The conversation transitioned into small group discussions, where McCoy had attendees break into pairs to analyze a Jewish religious text. The discussion style was in the chavruta form, a traditional rabbinic approach where pairs of students examine and debate Jewish texts.
An overarching concept of chavruta is that no single person ever has a full understanding of any idea. Using the text, attendees discussed which characters in stories were perpetrators of violence and which were targets, bystanders and allies.
LSA senior Ali Rosenblatt has heard McCoy speak three times and was part of the student committee at Hillel who organized the talk. One of her key takeaways from the discussion was the idea of people playing different roles in social justice situations and the importance of joining together with other communities to address social justice issues.
“At any one time, we’re not just the perpetrator, target or bystander,” Rosenblatt said. “It’s something I recognized and want to bring more into the Jewish community. How do we get students to talk more about issues affecting non-Jewish communities and not just the Jewish community? And how can we work together with these communities?”
When debriefing as a group, attendees pointed out people could play multiple roles in conflicts, often not realizing they could be a perpetrator and an ally at the same time. McCoy agreed and said leadership requires courage to make the right choices in defending personal beliefs, especially if it means going against cultural norms. McCoy said this was especially relevant today in a world she believes is led by leaders oppressing those with less power.
McCoy challenged students to be the next Nelson Mandela.
“In my lifetime I never thought we’d be living in the world we are in right now,” McCoy said. “I never thought the depths of injustice would have escalated. I thought I’d be talking about it, but as a recollection. This conversation about courage is not hypothetical anymore.”
McCoy also touched on activism via social media, saying she found Facebook activism to be far less courageous than actually engaging with someone face to face and seeing their suffering. She said society has released people from having to engage with others in discussion which often leads to an understanding others’ suffering. Instead, many use Facebook as a means of sharing social activism articles, insulting those who disagree with them and deleting friends with opposing perspectives, all while sitting at home instead of participating in events like marches or protests.
“That’s voyeurism, not activism,” she said. “I do not respect activism by Facebook as an actual social activism. You have to use your body.”
At the end of her talk, McCoy discussed her experience as a Jewish person of color. McCoy said her goal was to eliminate the designation of race when talking about being Jewish, an identity usually associated with being white.
“To be a Jew of color is to be a Jew wanting to be rid of white supremacy,” McCoy said. “To be a Jew yearning for the day when color doesn’t matter. To celebrate the beauty of all that we are.”
Art & Design senior Frannie Miller said she had heard McCoy speak once before. She said she found McCoy’s talk to be relevant to issues Jewish people of color face today.
“Her conversations about whiteness in the Jewish community are very important and was incredibly powerful,” Miller said. “They are conversations that people are afraid to have and that can be very divisive in the community. It was incredible of her to use the Jewish tradition to speak more about it.”