What’s in a name? Finding Solidarity in a Young Jew’s Herstory
Yesterday, as Yom Kippur approached, social justice organizers and progressive Jews gathered in downtown Boston to not only "remember" often underseen and undervalued laborers but also to stand in solidarity with the current labor struggles of our day. Here is Erica Concors', one committed organizer's, powerful speech.
Question 1: Can you think of a janitor that you know? Take a moment to really think about it.
I was asked this question just two weeks ago by Ben Kuss, an organizer from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 615, the area Janitors’ Union, at an event hosted by the Moishe Kavod Jewish Social Justice House. And upon hearing this question I quickly realized that I couldn’t think of one. Not one. I couldn’t think of a single janitor that I had ever interacted with--not even one that I could pass off to the person sitting next to me in an anecdotal story.
Here I was, an organizer for the Moishe Kavod House, a social justice community, a supposed ally to this movement, and I couldn’t even think of one name. As Margarita, an incredible SEIU janitor who spoke that night sat just two seats away, I was faced with another question as my face burned in shame and confusion: Why? Why couldn’t I think of a janitor that I had had a particular conversation with. A face? No, not even a face -- not even a name. Margarita had spoken about feeling invisible in her work to all of us at that event; and there I was, just two seats away, a manifestation of that invisibility.
Question 2: Why didn’t I know that my great-grandmother’s real name was Sorita Casoy?
After that night, I began thinking about connection--or in my case, about disconnection. About what is shared, be it broad like the feeling of being oppressed, or be it specific, like the way a slur makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end just like the way your heart skips a beat when you hear the same thing. These tiny connections, I have come to see, are what make solidarity possible. They are the building blocks on which social change can happen, and how the seemingly powerless can take down the very very powerful. On top of these building blocks, there are very fragile bridges between us all, where I walk from my island to yours so that I may know you. Exploring our own stories can very well reveal these links. And in my case, that’s exactly what happened.
When Sorita Casoy came to America at the age of three from Argentina, the Ellis Island official told her mother, Rosalita, that Sorita could either be Sylvia or Sherri. Cohen. Jews were Cohens; I didn’t know this. I didn’t even know I was Argentinian until I was 14. I have an entire history in my family of immigration, of disintegration with the U.S., and of Sorita’s father who I later learned about after much prodding of my very distracted grandmother, during a phone conversation last week. She told me, as I sat in amazement, feeling farther from home than ever before, that David, Sorita’s father, was a carpenter and repairman in New York City for his entire life. I’ve spent the days after we spoke imagining this man.
Question 3: What was he like? Question 4: Did his tenants avert their eyes when he walked past? Question 5: Did they know his name?
Just this Monday, on September 24th at 12pm, members of the SEIU bargaining committee, Moishe Kavod House community, and the Jewish Labor Committee, came together in a true, honest, and incredible expression of solidarity. Yom Kippur loomed on the horizon of the lucid, blue fall sky, and I was handed a megaphone. As my voice echoed over the crowd, I found not only Sorita’s name, but the names of countless others who stood beside me. Surrounded by a circle of 80 janitors, Jews, and people off the street, I felt a deep connection to a movement that had previously felt so far away.
Solidarity, I have only just began to learn, is possible when our histories, our similarities, our shared experiences, and our names are known. The erasure of our histories is a tool of isolation, oppression, and it is what made it okay for me to not know my janitor’s name, his plights, and his joys. It is a radical act of resistance to know one’s stories. These stories fill the space between the hairs on the back of my neck and the skipped heart beat in your chest, the space between my life and your name.
Question 6: Whose names don’t you know?
If you're interested in getting involved with the struggle contact Erica Concors: email@example.com
Erica Concors is a recent Smith College graduate, majoring in the study of women and gender and concentrating in women’s health. A self described “ex-premed student,” Erica felt disillusioned with medicine’s inability to answer issues of marginalization and oppression within healthcare and began a career in community organizing. Having interned in hospitals and labs, Erica is excited to start organizing around issues of health inequity in the Boston area. Besides her JOIN fellowship placement at the Moishe house, Erica hopes to continue playing rugby in Boston and advocating for women’s rights.
Moishe Kavod House creates a strong network of relationships that are the foundation of our community-building and our justice work. Participants can try out different activities, learn new skills, and take leadership in areas that are personally meaningful.