Emma Mayerson
Emma Mayerson

Early lessons in philanthropy inspired her to create this group for teen girls

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When Emma Mayerson was a teen growing up in Berkeley, she wasn’t quite sure how she fit in Jewishly.

“I wasn’t necessarily the Jew that went to camp, or was super involved in synagogue,” said Mayerson, 33, who is the founding executive director of Alliance for Girls (AFG), an Oakland-based support system for hundreds of local organizations supporting girls and gender-expansive youth. “I expressed my Judaism through tikkun olam, and I wanted to meet other teens that felt the same way.”

Enter Judy Bloom, a grant officer working for the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, who was working to create a teen philanthropy board. Bloom pulled Mayerson into the strategic process of developing what became the Jewish Teen Foundation, offering her a chance to truly shape the process. That confidence in Mayerson accelerated Mayerson’s belief in herself.

“I had a chance as a teenager to be a kind of entrepreneur, and help shape what became a profound and influential program,” said Mayerson, recalling the opportunity to travel to Michigan to learn about the Kellogg Foundation, as well as to help hire the program’s first director.

This experience led Mayerson, at 16, to join the board of progressive nonprofit Bend the Arc: Jewish Action. There she learned the unsexy but vital skill of reading budgets, had a role in the strategic planning process, and even wrote her college thesis on that process.

It was these early experiences, she said, that “gave me the confidence at 24 to found the Alliance for Girls. I thought it was possible to do something new, in part because the institutions of the Jewish community taught me how.”

AFG is, among other things, an “ecosystem of leadership,” which provides professional development, mentorship and networking opportunities for nonprofit, educational and government leaders. Member organizations serve many different communities, and include the domestic abuse shelter Shalom Bayit; Oakland’s Oasis for Girls support center; Milpitas’ Teen Success, Inc., which empowers teen mothers; and the vocational arts program Turning Heads Sewing in San Francisco.

AFG is also an important source for research and advocacy, addressing issues such as sexual harassment, unequal educational opportunities and cyberbullying. This summer they published a new report, “Uniting Isolated Voices: Girls and Gender-Expansive Youth During COVID-19,” which describes the increased isolation, economic insecurity and caretaking responsibilities befalling girls, especially those from low-income families and communities of color.

While the report accentuates the work that must still be done in support of youth, Mayerson’s focus is on opportunities for empowerment. And one way to do that is to trust the capacities of youth — just as the adults in her life did with her.

“What I want for every girl and gender-expansive youth is the right opportunity and the right support. With that, they can do anything,” said Mayerson. “My task is figuring out, how do I provide that opportunity? And how do I support you?”

While the teen philanthropy board and Bend the Arc were foundational partners in Mayerson’s development as a nonprofit leader, another source of inspiration was even closer to home — her family.

Mayerson’s grandfather, Manuel Mayerson, was a Cincinnati businessman and philanthropist who started the Manuel D. & Rhoda Mayerson Foundation with his wife, Rhoda. As a kid, Mayerson recalled visiting a free dental clinic in downtown Cincinnati. “There was a line around the block, and my grandfather saw an opportunity to do something to help homeless people with dentistry. I was so inspired by that.”

Mayerson’s mother is the attorney Arlene Mayerson, a transformational figure in the field of disability rights who helped bring about the Americans with Disability Act in 1990. Currently a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s law school, Arlene Mayerson, according to her daughter, saw that people with disabilities were not sufficiently included in the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

From both mother and grandfather, Mayerson began to understand that tikkun olam “was not just about feeling good. It was a strategic understanding of what was needed. And to have that, you need to listen to people on the ground. You have to ask: What do you need? How can I be helpful?”

Mayerson’s belief in youth and their leadership potential contains a caveat, however.

“In some ways we have adopted a hyper-hero narrative” for youth, pushing them to do things that most adults would not have the capacity to do. This became especially clear to Mayerson after the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, when student survivors like Emma Gonzalez were thrust into the media limelight with little to no support.

“The day after her friends were killed, Gonzalez got pushed into the national spotlight. What was our responsibility to them, and their emotional well-being, while they were advocating to save the world for all of us?” she asked.

Although most of the organizations AFG supports aren’t Jewishly centered, Mayerson sees a strong Jewish angle to her work. Not just that, she feels that it’s important “to show up as a Jew as I do coalition-building and solidarity work in the area of gender equality.”

“It’s a privilege to carry on a legacy of tikkun olam,” she said. “It’s a guiding force for me every day.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.