Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Interview with Ariana Siegel

Project Director Amy Ellenbogen interviewed outgoing Mediation Center staff about their experiences at the Center and with the work they've done. Ariana Siegel was an AVODAH corps member, serving full-time at the Center during the 2012-2013 year.




Ariana at Arts to End Violence Gallery with S.O.S. volunteers 
  
Amy Ellenbogen: What did you do this year at the Mediation Center?

Ariana Siegel: That’s a big question to start with! I feel like I could speak to that in a number of ways: I could say what my responsibilities were here, or I could talk about what my life was like working here every day, or I could talk about the impact I feel I made and the impact the mediation center made on me....

Ariana Siegel: I’ll answer the former first. In general, my responsibilities included walk-in (or "front-office")
services, coordinating volunteers, planning/administering events like Arts to End Violence and the Kingston Avenue Festival, conducting communications like writing/maintaining the blog and doing event publicity, and a few special projects like the Clergy Action Network book and Community Conversations.

Amy Ellenbogen: Why don't I just also ask those other questions: what kind of impact do you think you made this year on the programs we run and the neighborhood in general?

Ariana Siegel: I feel pretty humble about the impact that I've been able to make personally... I feel more as though I'm part of a team that's making an incredible impact on the community--helping folks to think about how they can organize and be proactive about the issues the community faces, particularly one so terrifying and dauntingly deep as gun violence. S.O.S. and the Mediation Center give people hope, and I'm really happy to be a part of that.

Ariana Siegel: On a personal level, I feel that I've tried to bring warmth to my work and my relationships with clients and co-workers. I hope that people feel comfortable around me and I also try to empower people by helping them identify their strengths, so I can encourage them to use their skills.

Amy Ellenbogen: I definitely think that you've brought a lot of warmth and a lot of joy to our office and to the work!

Ariana Siegel: Thank you!

Amy Ellenbogen: What do you think are some of the lessons you learned this year during your year of
service?

Amy Ellenbogen: Or, maybe a better question is. . . what is the story that you are going to share with friends and colleagues later that you think best shares what you learned about being here?

Ariana Siegel: That's a great question.

Amy Ellenbogen: Thank you!

Ariana Siegel: I think that as the year has been coming to a close and I've started to reflect on my time here, the way I've best been able to measure the progress I've made is by looking at my relationships with people.

At the start, I was always very self-conscious of my identity as a young, white, educated, Jewish woman from an upper-middle class family, and how that impacted my conversations with people of different identities, particularly in an office with a diverse staff and clientele. I wanted to build relationships with the S.O.S. team who are all black men and older than me, and I also wanted to interact positively with clients and community members, who are mostly black and in different socio-economic positions than myself. I measured my speech carefully and often reflected on my interactions with people, worrying whether what I said might be offensive or ignorant.

Over time was able to pick up on the language and behavior that made me feel both integrated as part of the community, and also acknowledged my background and difference. I also learned to be humble to immense struggles that those around me were going through and had endured, which made me admire all the more their courageous activism.

As a specific example, part of my duties this year included changing the signs about the number of days since the last shooting. At the beginning, I felt strange about changing those signs, and acting as the face announcing to the community that there had been a shooting. But though I didn't expect them to, people would engage with me on the street, asking me about the shooting and what had taken place, and over time I felt more a part of what was happening—I felt more included in the community and therefore more responsible for helping to organize against the gun violence within it. I also felt that my relationship with volunteers changed from being one of administration—someone responsible for organizing them, asking them to engage with S.O.S., to one of partnership—someone organizing alongside the volunteers, invested, as they were, in the same desire for a safer and healthier community.

Amy Ellenbogen: That is great to hear. Do you think there is something that happened, or some type of change that we initiated that allowed for that type of shift to happen (from the volunteers being organized by us to the volunteers organizing together with us)?

Ariana Siegel: For me, being a part of the volunteer meetings and community conversations, and sharing in conversation with volunteers and S.O.S. team members made the effort feel more collective. We asked people to express why they were motivated to organize, why they felt the problems in the community were happening, and what they thought they could do about it, and hearing their answers made me feel both closer to them and more keenly aware of the factors impacting the community—family relations, school issues, etc. — that I wouldn't have known without talking to them. When we first started organizing meetings I think we set out to try to "teach" people, but in the end it was much more about what they could teach us. Or, what we could all teach each other.

Amy Ellenbogen: Cool. So, what do you think you'll bring with you from your time here? What is it that the volunteers and staff have taught you?

Ariana Siegel: Some of them have taught me about strength and endurance; Anoinette, who lost a son to gun violence, could have been stunted by fear but instead is incredibly active and accomplished, and is one of our most ardent activists against gun violence. Several people on the outreach team who have faced long sentences in prison came out with major momentum to not only succeed but to generate change in the community. That requires energy that even those who haven't been through such harrowing experiences are often unable to give.

Some of them have taught me about community and love; people have welcomed me in unequivocally, as a sister and as family. I feel very accepted for who I am by staff and volunteers, and an openness to sharing who they are, which is pretty rare. I have also been incredibly inspired by the dedication people show toward the community; Kenneth works such long hours and difficult shifts providing support to families in terrifying and emotionally bottomless situations, like losing a loved one in a violent way. It's not just Kenneth but all of the outreach workers and violence interrupters. I thought of Kenneth in particular because he works in a hospital setting that is in such constant crisis, and it seems particularly emotionally and physically draining work.)

And Amy, I’ve learned so much about dedication from you and Ife, who have stayed and worked for the community for so many years, across so many different programs. You continue to get funding and to come up with new, dynamic ways to cater to the local issues that are both persistent and always changing. I think that's incredibly admirable and it's taught me a lot about what it means to be really dedicated to a cause and to a community.

Amy Ellenbogen: Great. Have you come up with a story?  Or a "moment" to share?

Ariana Siegel: I'm thinking about two moments where I realized that my work was both incredibly important, and could be done without me. In the first community conversation we were discussing root causes of violence and a lot of people were discussing the issues of youth, who seemed to have a "different" or more violent, or disrespectful mentality than previous generations. I had been feeling that the conversation was placing too much emphasis on "them" rather than "us" as responsible, and just when I was going to say that a young man, maybe my age or a bit older, made that very point; he stepped up in a courageous way to call out people for not taking enough personal responsibility.

There was another moment where [our volunteer] Carzei came over to the Mediation Center to visit and told me that she was planning to attend and help out at Peace Games, or a march, or some other event that I hadn't even yet told her about. I was so impressed that she was so on top of our needs, and didn't even need to get a request from me! Those moments made me feel both empowered because of the momentum that I had helped to generate, and also so humbled because now that the momentum had started, I didn't always need to be the one to keep it going.

Amy Ellenbogen: Yup. I totally know what you mean.

Ariana Siegel: Yeah, I'm sure you do

Ariana Siegel: I'm really glad to be doing this interview- it feels like a great reflection for me.

Amy Ellenbogen: Great. Me too. Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Ariana Siegel: I think something I haven't touched on is Arts to End Violence, and how much I loved being part of a program/event that connected arts and activism. It's something I really believe in, especially because I have a bit of an artistic temperament myself (I write short fiction).

Amy Ellenbogen: Oh Yes! Please share about ATEV! What do you think is important about ATEV?

Ariana Siegel: I felt so inspired by the art that came in through our contest, the way youth were able to express themselves— their fears, their hopes, and just their observations and experiences—through imagery. Especially in a time where our social interactions are so focused on images (TV, social media, etc.), it was a really strong channel through which to reach youth.
We also made some great connections with adult artists, some of whom hadn't specifically used their art towards activism in the past (and some of whom had) and for whom that connection between arts and activism was now much stronger. I also was, of course, more inspired to figure out ways to engage those two parts of my own life.

Ariana Siegel: Also, seeing people from the community interact with the art was fantastic! I loved staffing the gallery after the opening, where people would just come by and ask about the art, interact with it, sometimes opening up about their personal experiences with violence just because they were looking at the pieces on the wall. People often brought their kids to come draw on Post-it notes, and the kids really picked up on our message in a strong way: one kid drew a gun because he saw one in a picture on the wall, and when I told him that this was an anti-violence gallery he portrayed it shooting hearts. That really impressed upon me the purpose of art in general—to communicate messages, and also the fact that this initiative really achieved our goals of raising consciousness about gun violence.

Ariana Siegel: And last thing—it was also so cool to get a feel for the talent in the community, and to get honor youth by putting their work in a real gallery that neighbors could see!

Amy Ellenbogen: Yes. I love Arts to End violence.  Once an artist came and said to me, "people think that the opposite of violence is peace, but the opposite of violence is creation." I've got to think more about what I think about that, but I definitely love the fact that the Arts to End Violence initiative creates a space for young people to showcase their talent and celebrate positively a complex and dark issue.

Ariana Siegel: Absolutely. I love that quote.

Amy Ellenbogen: Well Ariana, it has been a complete pleasure having you as a member of our team. Do you want to share with the readers where you will be next?

Ariana Siegel: Sure! I'm going to be doing the Shatil Social Justice Fellowship in Tel Aviv, organized through the New Israel Fund (NIF), which supports progressive civil society organizations working on-the-ground in Israel. I'll be in Tel Aviv working with an organization that does community organizing. So I’ll continue building on the awesome community organizing and social justice experience I got here!

Amy Ellenbogen: Great. Well, I know that wherever you are you will be doing great work and building wonderful relationships that will make positive change to our world. We will miss you!!

Ariana Siegel: Thank you! I will miss you all so much too, and want to stay in touch. I definitely want to remain connected to the Mediation Center and your work for a long time (forever). Plus, this was my first formalized, full-time job, so I think in that way it will always hold a special place in my heart.

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