What are other people’s lives like?

This question first led me to be a sociology major in college. Then, after graduation, it led me into a service year with Repair the World, a national Jewish organization committed to recruiting and engaging volunteers around social justice issues, especially those relating to education, food, and racial justice.

I wanted to pursue a career in social policy since high school, but I lacked the first-hand knowledge about policy implications in communities.

Social policies around issues like education and housing generally have an explicit or implicit objective to help, or harm, communities of color in low income neighborhoods with limited access to basic resources such as fresh produce, clean water, public transportation, and supportive schools. My hundreds of hours in classes learning about these issues were no substitute for actually being in these communities.

Repair the World approaches its work with a guiding principle to serve “with”—not for marginalized communities. As such, Repair partners with local non-profits whose programs address food and education justice through community-based programming. As an Education Justice Fellow in Pittsburgh, I spend much of my time volunteering in out-of-school-time programs with organizations like Assemble, which runs after school STEAM education programs in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood. The students at Assemble attend a variety of public and private schools, and arrive with varying amounts of knowledge about topics like coding, robotics, and chemistry. Working closely with these students is an up-close look at the knowledge, opportunity, and confidence gaps they face, simply by virtue of the schools they attend.

Education policy, I believe, should address these challenges by dispersing funding more equitably, providing more wrap-around support for students, and placing teachers with the most experience in schools with the highest amount of needs. When I read about proposed cuts in education budgets, I think about the potential effects on students at Pittsburgh’s low-performing Westinghouse Academy, whom I’ve gotten to know through volunteering with Homewood Children’s Village’s Bridge to College program.

Today, the divisions in our country are widening. People from all political backgrounds question the future of the country. Amid the often heated rhetoric, a year of service, or even an episodic service experience, is a way to not just help—but to build authentic relationships with those who are different than us. This is an integral part of moving from discussion to action. Research I have conducted on high school drop-out rates, early childhood education, and in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants, could not match the experiences that enable me to connect policy implications to people I now know personally.

As my year of service concludes, I look to continue learning how social and education policies affect communities. Through researching, volunteering, and dedicating my professional life to working for equitable policy solutions, I hope to do my part to make our world more just.

About the Author
Emily Katz just completed her year as an Education Justice Fellow with Repair the World: Pittsburgh. She is returning to the DC area to continue working on education issues as a Research Assistant at Child Trends, a research organization focused on improving the lives of children and their families.
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