Bay Area AJWS fellows recount private room meetings on advocacy trip to Uganda

When 16 local Jewish leaders traveled to Uganda with American Jewish World Service last year to learn about threats to gay and lesbian rights in the country, they expected to hear stories about personal struggles, but they didn’t expect to be walking into a political powder keg.

With Uganda’s president on the verge of signing a law that would impose draconian criminal sentences for homosexual behavior, the group spent a week in the country meeting behind closed doors with local LGBT activists who often couldn’t safely meet or travel openly in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city.

In Uganda, (from left) John Cape, Betsy Hausman, Ruthann Richter, Amy Randel and Ellen Greenblatt photo/leah price

“We met with a transgender rights organization in this private room of a restaurant, and whenever the wait staff came in, we would change … what we were talking about because we didn’t want to put them at risk in any way,” said Danny Kaufman of San Francisco, a development and communications officer with the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights. “It kind of felt like what we could imagine a late-1930s Germany would feel like.”

Kaufman was one of the 16 Bay Area AJWS Global Justice fellows who spent a year studying international human rights and poverty in the developing world. AJWS launched the Global Justice Fellowship in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago in 2013 to train local Jewish leaders to become advocates for human rights.

In addition to meeting regularly for professional development training as well as to study social justice, human rights and international development, each group traveled to a different international location (including Mexico, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic) where AJWS gives grants to local agencies advocating for the rights of women, girls and the LGBT community.

“Sixteen people can have an incredible effect on their networks and galvanize many more people,” said Rachel Jacoby-Rosenfield, director of the fellowship program, which also includes two national cohorts: rabbis and graduate/rabbinical students. “We are training Jewish leaders who have the capacity to mobilize the Jewish community to use our voices to stand up for international human rights in the U.S.”

AJWS used to run a large number of service learning trips to the developing world for students and young adults, but it ended those programs in 2013 as it launched the smaller but more focused Global Justice Fellowship. The organization, led by its president, Ruth Messinger, decided it could better fulfill its mission to end poverty and realize human rights in the developing world by cultivating American Jewish leaders who could advocate for beneficial U.S. foreign policy rather than sending volunteers abroad.

“The service programs were alternative breaks or summer programs,” Jacoby-Rosenfield said. “This is a much deeper model.”

Global Justice fellows from the Bay Area visit Washington, D.C., where they lobbied for the International Violence Against Women Act. photo/ajws

The Bay Area fellows, who marked the end of their fellowship year with a commencement celebration in San Francisco last month, ranged in age from 25 to 67 and came from a wide variety of fields, including law, education, high-tech and social work. While in Uganda, they met with AJWS grant recipients to learn about the challenges of the local LGBT community. AJWS dedicates the bulk of its resources to funding change-making organizations in the developing world; it dispensed $39 million in grants last year.

In Kampala, the AJWS grant recipients included non-governmental organizations advocating for female sex workers, transgender sex workers, LGBT refugees from other countries now living in Uganda and intersex people. They also included a legal NGO representing Ugandans who have been arrested for homosexuality, and groups focusing on violence against women and the transgender and LGBT community.

“To hear about the threats and obstacles that they face on a daily basis was incredibly challenging,” Kaufman said. “[We heard about] people’s homes and families’ homes being burned down; [there were] stories of verbal, physical and sexual violence.”

Kaufman’s agency awards rapid-response grants to groups championing women’s and transgender rights, and he was able to coordinate with an African partner organization to issue emergency funds to some of the groups AJWS fellows met with.

“The dangers are so numerous and complex, depending on the group,” Liora Brosbe wrote in an email. She was a 2014 Global Justice fellow who works as a Jewish educator and storyteller in the East Bay. “Perpetrators of dangers range from neighbors [to] members in the public acting in forms of ‘mob justice’ [to] police, family members and governmental officials.”

Members of the LGBT community, Brosbe noted, are subject to rape, assault and imprisonment. They can lose their jobs, businesses or homes and be rejected by their families. The group met with a transgender sex worker whose father abandoned her mother and siblings because  she was transgender, Brosbe said.

“Without the father, the family became destitute without any form of income. The neighbors found out why the father had abandoned the family … and retaliated by burning down the family’s home,” Brosbe said.

The LGBT activists repeatedly asked the AJWS fellows to share their stories when they returned to the United States.

“Because we were able to hear these horrible accounts, it gave us a layer of responsibility,” said Leah Price, a human trafficking and deportation attorney with Oakland-based Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach. “We cannot ignore the lessons that we’ve learned and the stories that we’ve heard.”

Beyond taking trips to various countries, all the U.S. fellows gathered in Washington, D.C., in May for a policy summit, where they lobbied for the International Violence Against Women Act, which would make ending violence against women and girls a foreign policy priority.

The Bay Area fellows have formed an action team to continue their activism locally; they hosted a screening of a film about Ugandan LGBT activists over the summer. A second cohort of San Francisco global justice fellows will be underway early this year.

“I think a lot of us [felt we] didn’t have the right to say anything about things that were happening abroad,” Price said, “but having that firsthand experience gave us a lot of credibility and power.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.