Students Take to the Road for Social Justice

By Virgil Dickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007

In the basement of Maryland Del. Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher's house lies a chunk of drywall that has motivated him over the years as he has navigated the political world.

Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery) gathered his treasure on a summer trip 11 years ago with Operation Understanding D.C., a group that each year takes more than 30 African American and Jewish students on a tour of the South to meet with civil rights leaders. Waldstreicher went during the summer that several black churches were burned in Alabama, and part of the trip was spent helping a congregation rebuild. He kept a memento.

"That piece of drywall is often an inspiration for me," said Waldstreicher, who lives in Kensington. "It helps to prevent cynicism from creeping up, and it's easy to let that happen when working in politics."

This morning, 31 students are set to embark on a 25-day journey to learn how they can continue a shared legacy of social change. The trip will take them to New York to visit historic synagogues and churches, and they will head south through North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. They are scheduled to meet such people as Joe Levin, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, an activist who challenged officials in Selma, Ala., over the right to register black voters.

The trip is part of a year-long program in which students are immersed in African American and Jewish cultures through such things as lectures and potluck dinners. They also visit places of worship during Passover and Easter.

"It's a rare thing where you can have a meal with matzoh ball soup and Jamaican jerk chicken side by side," said Adam Yalowitz, 18, of Montgomery County, who completed the program last year.

Yalowitz has since remained active in social justice causes. He was campaign manager for Valerie Ervin, the first African American woman elected to the Montgomery County Council, and he worked with the high school group Students for Global Responsibility, which works for gay, international and immigration causes.

"Once you begin to think about what's going on in the community, you can't stop thinking about it," Yalowitz said. "You want to act."

It is that kind of commitment that Operation Understanding hopes to inspire in its participants, said Rachael Feldman, executive director of the program.

"We are looking for students who like to be inspired and inspire others and are willing to speak out when they see injustices in their community," Feldman said.

Donnell Powell of Prince George's County is part of the new class. Before it began, he knew no Jewish people and very little about their culture.

"I grew up in a setting where all I was surrounded with was black people, and I went to school with black people," Powell, 17, said. "I didn't know much about Jewish people except the Holocaust."

Since joining the program, he has attended a bar mitzvah and participated in a Passover Seder.

"It was one of the best experiences I've had in my life," Powell said. "When I first went over there, I thought it was going to be really conservative and really drawn out, but we were, like, joking."

Waldstreicher, after college and law school, returned to Operation Understanding and served for four years on the board of directors. He helped select participants for the program.

"They walk in with these biases, and they walk out knowing that even though they are different in appearance, they are much more alike in values," Waldstreicher said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company