An Interview With Michael Jenkins
I first met Michael Jenkins in the fall of 2007, only several months before my decision to leave – in body, even if I’d long left in spirit – the Hasidic community. I spoke to Michael for only a few minutes, but was immediately intrigued by his insight, compassion, and wit. He struck me then, as he still does now, as having the singular capacity to listen, to absorb, and to immerse himself fully in the story he is hearing. This capacity for listening, and in turn for understanding, is the essence of his work at Footsteps, the organization in which he has served in various capacities over the past five years, most recently as Director of Programs.
Footsteps is a unique organization. Founded by Malkie Schwartz in 2003 to assist former Charedim in exploring the world beyond their former insular communities, Footsteps is part social club, part therapy-house, part educational laboratory. Members gather for a bite to eat from its well-stocked pantries, to read the latest issue of the New Yorker, or simply pop in at the end of a day’s work or schooling to meet with others of like mind, to “hang out,” to laugh over the latest absurdities in their lives, past and present. They also come for more formal discussions: free-flowing drop-in groups, dating and sex talk, and educational lectures. They might stay for five minutes or five hours. And Michael Jenkins is always there to greet them with his easy cheer.
Along with Executive Director Lani Santo, social worker Alix Newpol, and a dedicated group of volunteers, Michael organizes the organization’s programs, facilitates many of the discussion groups, and provides members with one-on-one counseling. He also organizes camping trips (where he’s not above showing you the proper way to roast a marshmallow), annual parties (where he’ll woo hoo loudest when you get on the dance floor), and art exhibits showcasing the latest talents of Footsteps artists.
I sat down with Michael recently in the Footsteps “Space,” as the organization’s hub of activities is called, to discuss his role at the organization, the work of Footsteps, and the unique challenges of its constituency in their many stages of transition. –Shulem Deen
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Shulem Deen (Unpious): Tell me how you got involved with Footsteps.
Michael Jenkins: Several years back, a colleague was facilitating the drop-in group twice a month, and she called me up one day and said, “This is one of my favorite jobs, but I can’t do it anymore. Would you take it over?” She told me a little bit about it, and she said, “I think you’d be a perfect fit.” I said, “Really?” She suggested I check out the people, let the group check me out, see how it goes. I came in to one – maybe two – groups, and just sat there, said a little bit. And I was totally in, probably after 15 minutes. I was amazed at the stories people were telling, at the power of their stories, and what people were choosing to do at considerable risk to themselves and their connections, their supports, their relationships. Then, as Footsteps grew, I came on as a part-time staff member, to expand groups, and to look at other things we could offer, and to firm up the things we were already offering, pulling together the volunteer stuff, the educational resources, stuff like that.
At the time, the drop-in was, I think, the only official program. But there were other things beginning to happen. There were some volunteers. We had a phone and a desk. We could send faxes. [Laughter]
Unpious: In terms of timeline, what year did you start?
MJ: It was around May, I want to say, around five years ago.
Unpious: Tell me about your educational and professional background.
MJ: I went to NYU for my social work degree. Before that, my B.A. was mostly in the arts, visual arts, theatre, directing, writing; it was a very varied undergraduate experience. I went to a great school on the West Coast called Evergreen. And I spent a year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which was a great experience.
Unpious: This is interesting stuff that I never knew about. But it makes perfect sense, having known you for several years, that you have a background in the arts.
MJ: It’s funny. I lead here as a social worker, because that’s my role, which feels completely fine, but there’s other stuff that I occasionally bring into the mix, that hopefully enhances the work. But for the most part I leave it out, or, I shouldn’t say leave it out – sometimes I wait until it seems right. Because my role as a social worker is to allow someone else to experience themselves as fully as possible. And for me to stay out of that as much as possible. When it seems appropriate to move it in and it helps or enhances the other person’s growth, then that’s the right thing as a social worker. I mean, one of the tenets of social work is that you always let the other person lead. Well, I would amend that slightly – there are times where you might give a strong suggestion, and there are times when people actually don’t know – and then you might—
Unpious: Gently guide them?
MJ: Yeah. Or to say, well, “These are your options, and these are some of the consequences.” You don’t just let go, and say, “Oh, yeah, whatever you want.” It’s more like, “Ok, well, if you’re going to choose to do that, let’s look at that. Is it going to get you to where you want to go? Or is it a nice scenic vista –” And that might be fine too.
Unpious: Do you ever feel conflicted about advice you might give? Is it ever a concern that you might encourage someone to take steps that might lead to painful consequences?
MJ: Well, first I want to say, life is full of inevitable turmoil. That’s just a given. I have a very strong belief that for the most part, in this day and age, people don’t need to be in pain. But pain is also part of living. And it’s a great motivator. People change when they’re feeling pain. And pleasure is also a great motivator. I generally think that each person is going to make their own decisions. I would like people to be thinking through those decisions, slowing them down, really exploring them fully before taking action. My role is to try to stay as neutral as possible. Does that mean I won’t say to someone, “Really? Right now? You sure that’s a great idea?” No. But that’s a question to ask. People are going to lead their own lives.
But there’s also an important thing about Footsteps – and very specific to Footsteps members – and this is something that I learned in one of the first groups I led. I was much more used to facilitating therapy-type groups, where it’s the same people each time, people come on time, leave on time, no one answers their phones, and if you’re late you sort of explore why you were late, and in the first couple Footsteps groups I realized people were coming and going, there were no apparent rules – except confidentiality. And I was a bit thrown; it was unusual for me. And then I thought about it, and also consulted with the person who facilitated the group before me, and I realized that for this particular group this made total sense. They were often coming from places with lots of rules, for the most part very rigid environments. And what happens when you’re in a group, no one’s setting the rules for you, and you set them? It’s a whole new way of being.
Unpious: So does this depart from conventional social work methods? Are there any actual rules on how to facilitate such groups?
MJ: It always depends on the group. Each will have its own rules or guidelines. This is a drop-in group, and it’s every other week. The people who come change each time. The consistency is that everyone in the group has something in common. And that makes sense to me, because often, when people first call here, each one is afraid he or she is the only person who thinks that way, and they’re curious as to whether there are others like them. Often they want to first speak to a participant before coming in. And often they want to speak to a participant but not someone who’s originally from their particular community, or from their particular neighborhood.
Unpious: We’d discussed the issue of general personal questions and you expressed reservations about responding to those. I totally respect that, but I was wondering if we could talk about it a bit.
MJ: Professionally, social workers and – I’m also a psychotherapist – we don’t answer a lot of personal questions. The reason for that is that the focus is on the person we’re working with, and we don’t want our lives and our personal stuff to get in the way. So, if I do tell people personal things, I would like them to be there, so I can say to them, “What do you think about that?” And just to see their reaction and how it affects them.
I am very open to answering questions one-on-one, and sometimes in the group. And some things are completely appropriate in Footsteps. One of the first question people ask is: “Are you Jewish?” No, I’m not. Or rather — “Did you grow up in –” whatever community they’re from. Like, “Are you Satmar?” No, I’m not.
But I think those questions are completely valid in this setting because that’s what people are grappling with. The question is really: Are you going to be close enough to home, and at the same time far enough? They’re asking, Are you going to understand me? That’s why they ask things like, “Do you know Yiddish?” There might be some people for whom you really need to know Yiddish to speak to them, but most people know enough English – although they often don’t think they do. People often say, “I don’t really speak English,” but by the end of the conversation I realize I understood everything they told me.
Unpious: To what degree do people come here seeking answers regarding religion and belief? Or do you think by the time they come here they have already reached their conclusions?
MJ: People come here really questioning, and pretty quickly – although not always – they make some sort of choice. Even just to come to Footsteps, to walk in the door, is a choice to check it out, to explore another way of living. We’ve had people who came and explored and decided this was absolutely not for them; they wanted the religious community, and that’s fine. I do think that exploration comes on pretty quickly because they’re entering a peer group, and a lot of the conversations happen within the peer group, because everyone else has been through a similar process of questioning. For some people it’s the first time they’ve ever voiced these ideas out loud, the first time they were able to voice the questions without feeling judged or directed, and it allows people to simply have time to just let it sit with them.
So yes, it’s a place for religious questions, but I don’t know that the deeper exploration happens here. I also think those kinds of questions are part of a lifelong journey.
Unpious: My own sense is that these questions are often grappled with in ways that allow deeper and more personal reflection. Often it’s an internal process of thinking about these issues for a long time, reading up on certain subjects, etc.
MJ: I think that’s very accurate. It makes sense to me that that’s a very personal exploration and it makes sense that it’s very internal. I think that belief systems are really fundamental to how we see ourselves, how we identify in the world, how we identify with other people, but I think what Footsteps offers is that when the person comes to us they might have those questions, then perhaps take off for a week and, I don’t know, walk in the woods, or however that particular person does their own exploration, and what they know is, there’s a group of people asking the same questions and that group is walking in their own woods somewhere. I think that’s extraordinarily important, because you’re not necessarily doing all the verbalization with that group but you know they exist, and that’s comforting.
This group also tends to read a lot, to write, to want to tell their story. And I think that this group works through a lot of things intellectually. Not everyone, of course, but I think a large number of people.
Unpious: I’m wondering about your own religious background and how it affects the way you relate to the experiences of Footsteppers.
MJ: I’ve always had a driving interest in religion and spirituality. And the Enlightenment. In particular, the idea that each individual will have a direct relationship with what they might call the divine. So my way of thinking is very broad. And I’ll also say that I think and believe independently.
Also, regarding the personal questions, in general – and I thought about this before the interview – is that anybody that’s reading this who knows me or has worked with me, or has been around for the last five years, I bet if they sat back and thought about it, they could describe me. In very personal ways. When I told you about my background in art, you said, “Oh, that makes so much sense.” Well, if I left you to your own devices you could probably come up with it yourself. I think that’s something we forget. That we know a lot about people just by being with them, and it’s often not about specifics. I can tell you where I live, and this and that, and you can rattle off that information and it will have nothing to do with who I am. You know, “I live in midtown.” Yeah? Well, so do a lot of people….
Unpious: I’d think, though, that we gather bits and pieces about people, random little facts, and some of those will be irrelevant, but within those we’ll find tidbits with which we’ll make sense of the person…
MJ: Right. That’s surface to get to the other stuff. You don’t ask someone, “What’s your deepest darkest secret?” while you’re shaking their hands… Although some people do… [laughter]
Unpious: What was your exposure to Orthodox Jews, Chasidim, before you started working here? What was your perception of that community, and has it changed at all?
MJ: In terms of Chasidim and Orthodoxy: Limited. And generally only in a social work context. I worked for many years in an HIV clinic, and worked a lot with immigrant communities, and some of the clients were Chasidim. A lot of people, because of the diagnosis, were obviously struggling with life and death issues, and they were also struggling with – I mean, when you get a life and death diagnosis (which it was, at that time, for the most part) it rocks your whole world, including your belief system. And it usually rocks your relationships and your family life. And often being rocked by this kind of diagnosis presents a crisis in faith. And there were a few people there who were Chasidish. Their experience in that situation was similar to people who were Islamic, mostly about having to keep HIV secret and not being able to tell family or friends, and not being able to get the support from family and friends. But I have to say, this wasn’t true across the board. There were Islamic and Chasidic people who would offer support, step up to the plate, and help the person out. But in terms of the person feeling like they can talk about things freely, there would definitely be consequences.
Unpious: Coming from the Chasidish world, I am not aware of a single instance of HIV, and we know that it’s almost statistically impossible. So it makes sense what you’re saying.
Can you speak of Footsteps’ mission, if and how it has changed over time?
MJ: The mission over the time that I’ve been here is sort of an ongoing discussion. Originally, the mission was worded to assist anyone coming from insular, ultra-fundamentalist communities, and it was worded to mean beyond necessarily the Jewish world. Obviously, it currently serves mostly Jewish people, I think because it’s in New York, because of just the way it evolved, because of who happened to be contacting us, how word got out. So the mission in its intent is still the same. Which is, we are here to offer a safe and non-judgmental place for people to question and explore beyond their insular communities. And I think we do that.
That’s at least the way we see it. Although we’ve had discussions about how taking a non-judgmental stance is actually not neutral, at least not from the insular religious standpoint.
Unpious: It’s a very conscious decision to be non-judgmental, and that’s an active position, not a passive one.
MJ: Right. And this is something I had to learn, because I kept saying, “But we’re neutral! We’re neutral!” Until I realized, wait a second, they’re speaking a different language. And that gave me a deeper understanding that saying we’re neutral is – to those within those communities – a statement. And that’s why we often get questions like, “Why don’t you send them to religious therapists?” Well, if the religious therapist can remain neutral then I’m all for it, and I believe there are religious therapists like that, but I know that it’s often not the case, just from what people tell me.
Unpious: What are the day-to-day things you’re involved with? Can you give us a day in the life of Michael Jenkins?
MJ: Beginning of the week there’s usually a ton of emails, from participants, from volunteers, from people reaching out who’ve never been here, maybe wanting to become participants. So the first part of the week is trying to respond to all those. Usually participants get responded to first, and certainly anyone new. Then I usually meet with people one-on-one, appointments, people who want to discuss things from what next steps to take academically to I’m not quite sure what’s going on now in my life, to I’d like to find a therapist, can you help me with a referral, to I need to find a job, can you help me find a place that can assist with my resume. Evenings are generally for some kind of event. Sometimes I do the event, but sometimes not. I like doing the groups, but I also like to not be there all the time. I’m sure people get really sick of seeing me – but also just to broaden the experience, to bring in volunteers to do discussion groups. Usually, there’s initial work with volunteers, like how to get a particular discussion group going, how to broaden the way they’re thinking about it. But once the volunteers sort of get underway, it flows. Something might come up sometimes, or I’ll just check in. The “Heimish” discussion [about what values to take from the past you grew up with] has been really great, and people love it. The dating, relationships, and sex-ed group is one that people are always asking for. And that group is as much about dating as it is about meeting people in general, how to network, how to expand social opportunities, etc.
Unpious: I remember you once told me about advice you gave someone regarding conversation in the secular world: You’re allowed two questions for each statement. I thought that was pretty funny, but it was also insightful. That there are people who need to be taught such things very precisely.
MJ: With most people, if you’re asking a question you’re asking for something. So you might want to give something. So I’d say, for every, I don’t know, three questions, give two things. Then it’s a conversation. Otherwise, it’s an interview.
Unpious: Is there anything you find yourself doing that you didn’t sign up for? Anything weird or crazy you’ve found yourself doing as part of your job?
MJ: There have been situations where I’ve been very “inside” the Chasidic community, doing stuff that makes sense in my role as a social worker, but it’s me actually going into the community — [Unpious: Actually meeting with people from within? Physically, as in geographically?] MJ: Uh huh. Like going into a room where I’m the only goy. I don’t know why I didn’t imagine it, and I wouldn’t say it happens often, but it happens.
Along with all the reading and studying about religion and religious belief and spirituality, I’ve done a lot of reading about the “Other” and what it’s like to be the “Other,” which is really important in terms of my role here, working with people where I am the “Other.” Also, in the Footsteps transition, people often bring up the feeling that, no one’s going to fully get me, no one’s going to understand me, I’m never going to totally fit in, which are all questions about being the “Other” in the world. A lot of the things you read about, the philosophy of being the “Other,” so to speak, is that you don’t really identify who you truly are until you come up against someone that’s completely different. And that’s when your real identity starts to sink in.
So I would imagine for a lot of people here, they’re having questions even about whether to consider themselves Jewish. And I would imagine that once they start really hitting up against the goyish world, they’re like, “Oh, yeah. I’m Jewish.” And that makes sense, because they’re hitting up against the “Other.”
Unpious: Have you ever had angry phone calls from, say, a participant’s family members?
MJ: Yeah, but they’re not often, they’re usually brief interactions. And even if they’re angry, they’re usually concerned. And that makes sense. I think if someone’s going to make the effort to call – aside from the swearing-and-hang up kind – I think if someone’s going to take the time to work up the motivation to call, it’s got to be some drive other than just to vent, it’s got to be out of concern. If you have a child and you think that for the child to have success in the world, to be full, to be happy, that child needs to be religious and the child is saying “No!” then as a parent you’d be concerned. Because that child is saying, “I am not going to do what I need to do to be happy. I am not going to do all the things that in your mind means happiness.”
Unpious: Is this the equivalent of a secular parent alarmed about a teenager acting out, say, with drugs?
MJ: Right. Well, I think in the secular world, the boundaries are more blurred, so a parent might say, “Oh, he/she is just being rebellious,” and there’s a wider allowance of loosening the rules. Thinking this is just part of growing up and not a fear that the child will get lost in some unknown world. But here there’s a finality in the way people see it, and it’s very black and white. Whereas in the secular world, a parent might say, Yeah, sure, he dropped out of college, but he’s living at home and working this year, and maybe he’ll end up going back to college. There’s more of a wait and see attitude. But here they sense a degree of finality.
And some of the actions involve a clear breaking of the rules, so there is actually a sense of finality on both ends. Like someone who comes here and, say, cuts off his payess. That’s a huge statement for the person who’s doing it, to himself as much as to everyone else.
Unpious: That’s true. From a very young age, the payess are an inherent part of a Chasidic boy’s physical identity. And I think that’s why a lot of people don’t cut it off all at once, because the act is so laden with significance. It’s usually removed bit by bit, over several weeks or months.
MJ: Uh huh. It’s an extremely deep and strong choice. And it’s physical. It’s not just something you’re doing inside yourself, you’re making a decision to say something to the world about you.
And because I know other people will be reading this – we do not encourage or ask people to cut of payess to come here. That’s an individual decision, and we certainly don’t direct people to make any kind of decision.
Unpious: How intense does the work get here for you?
MJ: It can get really intense on a lot of different levels Footsteps has grown quickly, and it’s a parallel process to the participant experience. Think of someone who came in, say, five or six years ago. They made a decision to move towards the secular world. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. It’s going to have successes, it’s going to have setbacks, and it’s going to happen fast. So we’re sort of a mirror to that growth. It’s like, just as we’re figuring out how to field those first phone calls, we’re also figuring out how to do a scholarship program, how to recognize that some people very much want to keep some of their traditions and they see that as part of what we do here, whereas others are adamantly atheist and want us to incorporate that here. How do we keep people that are living out in the secular world and only attend, say, the larger social events, how to keep them involved and contributing and us contributing to their growth as well. Because they’re still connected. It’s not like they’ve said, we no longer want to be connected with Footsteps and that’s the end of it. So how do you do the six- and seven-year people, and how do you do the six- and seven-day people, and how do you do the six- and seven-month people, and the three-year people. And then, how do you work with different sets of people overall, participants, volunteers, board members, donors, staff, community liaisons. It’s a small staff for a big job.
Footsteps is also a very diverse for a group that all comes from this one demographic. But within that, each person has a particular way of dealing with the issues. Each with his or her own personal history, and a personal present. So that’s challenging too. How to keep everything on the radar, and sometimes you need to choose a middle ground.
So that’s the intensity on the personal level. Sometimes it’s a stretch. You know, how can I do this in this moment. How can I step up to the plate more effectively. Sometimes I’ll be leaving a group and, on my way home on the subway, I’ll think, Oh, I gotta get back to that .
Unpious: You actually think about this on the subway?
MJ: I try to think about it on the subway so I’m not thinking about it at home. And I try to think about it at home so I’m not thinking about it when I’m asleep.
Unpious: I’d mentioned to some friends that I was going to do this interview, and one person specifically asked me to say this, to put it on record: There are so many people for whom Footsteps in general and you in particular have been the very first positive force in their lives.
MJ: Frankly, my response is: Wow. I don’t know that I hear that often, or at least not with that kind of force. So, yeah, wow.
And in some ways, you know, my response is, that feels good, I’m glad. On the other hand, that feels sad. I would’ve liked for people to have more positive experiences in their lives.
I don’t know that I would’ve known when I started this job the degree to which I now “get it”. That I do understand. And granted, I don’t understand everything, I don’t know Yiddish, for instance. But I think there’s something fundamental and deep that I think that I get, and I think that people respond to that. And I strive to be very non-judgmental, I think I’ve relaxed more so that I allow more of myself, just who I am, to be in the mix, more willing to make an off-the-cuff remark, or just talk real. And I think people appreciate that.
Unpious: How many media requests does Footsteps get?
MJ: Tons. And that’s another thing that I never thought I’d be doing. I never thought I’d be doing media. I think [the media interest] is partially because this particular experience seems profound, but it also mirrors the curiosity of the world in general. The world is wondering about these kinds of things, about the experiences of people from fundamentalist religious backgrounds.
And I think that one of the things I too have learned is the importance of people finding their own belief system. And within that, what it means for people who land in their belief system in the realm of atheism or agnosticism, because the world is religious, the world is predominantly religious.
Unpious: At least America is…
MJ: Yeah. Although I think in America there is a higher percentage of people who will say they’re religious but aren’t really. And then there are places in the world where you can’t say you’re not religious and stay alive for very long. So I’ve learned from people about how profound it is to be a minority in a world that works religiously. And what that means to the rest of your identity. Can I be an atheist Jew? Can I be an agnostic Jew? Certainly plenty of people will say yes, but I don’t know that all Footsteppers realize that.
Unpious: Oh, I’d think there are many who do. I think many understand that being Jewish is cultural as much as it is religious.
MJ: But a lot of people question that. They say, I don’t know what to say when people ask if I’m Jewish, because I’m not observant in the way that I was raised and that was Jewish to me. For a lot of people it’s learning that you can be…
Unpious: That there’s a cultural side to Judaism…
MJ: Well, and I’m going to stretch it here a little, but I think the cultural side has a spiritual side too. In the broader sense of “spiritual.” That there’s something of deep value to being Jewish, even without the religious aspect necessarily I mean, the food’s good, but it’s not just about the food….
Unpious: It’s also about a specific value system, which, even if not religious, is informed by religion…
MJ: Informed by religion, and informed by community, and informed by history, and informed by oppression, and the spirit of fighting that oppression…
Unpious: How are the challenges different in dealing with male and female participants?
MJ: I think there are very broad generalizations. You know, I can say before every sentence, for the most part. For the most part, the women that contact us are more educated secularly than the men. They’re less educated religiously. Which may feel like a real slap in the face to them. There are all these rules for them, and “I don’t even know how to pronounce the rule.” Or, “I was left out. I, in fact, wanted to go to shul, and study Talmud.” The men come with less secular education, however they have more experience with being really motivated intellectual learners. These are sort of concrete things, which are important. If you’re an adult and you’re moving from a world where you’re supported in some ways and you move into the secular world, you’ve got to have skills to survive. All fine and dandy that you want a transition in identity, but how you going to pay for it? Where are you going to live while you sit there and think about this?
Going back to an earlier question, that’s one thing that I will say to people. Someone might say, “I want to leave,” and I’ll say, “Not yet. Not now. Do some work. Figure it out. Do you really want to? How do you want to? Where are you going to end up?” So in some way Footsteps allows people to slow things down.
Thinking back to the male/female thing, those are the concrete issues, like I said, but there’s also the question: What does it mean to be a man in the secular world? Or if we want to combine a bit of both. What’s a blend of Judaism and secularism and being a man.
Unpious: And I’m sure being a woman poses the same question.
MJ: Yes, I was going to say, and what does that mean for a woman. What’s it like, for example, if you’re a 24- or 25-year old woman, and you’re going to your first job interview and you’re not married and you don’t have kids and you’re going to meet a man? You’ve got to be walking in the door thinking, “I’m so not supposed to be here.” And how’s that going to translate in an interview? How can you leave it at the door? Same thing for a guy. What does it mean to have done all this work, gone to school – what is it? Seven in the morning till six at night, all of your life?
Unpious: Or till ten at night.
MJ: Yeah, and then you walk out and you’re in the secular world and you’re told that very little of this translates. Part of being a man is feeling like you have accomplishments, that you can stand on your own two feet, you can hold things together, you can hold someone else, that’s sort of…
Unpious: How people identify masculinity.
MJ: Yeah. And again, broad generalizations, but they also go very deep.
Unpious: So men come out of that world and face new expectations of themselves as men, and find it hard to fill?
MJ: Yes. It’s hard to fill, and it’s hard to face. And this isn’t the only group that experiences this. But again, it’s like a slap in the face. How do you turn that into a strength? How do you take what you’ve actually done and say, “That is a man.” I think Footsteppers tend to minimalize what they’ve gone through, what they’ve accomplished. They think of their past as something separate, something outside of their current lives, something to be ashamed of and to keep hidden, but when you think about it, look at that choice! If someone chooses to leave their entire support system because of something they believe deeply and fundamentally, that’s hugely courageous!. People don’t do that every day. And then to put that out in the world and try to make it work, that is being a man! Or being a woman! I mean, if you want to put a secular value on things.
Unpious: What were some of the high points for you personally, that have made you think this is a great job, and a great experience? And what were some of the low points?
MJ: Low points for me – no one would have to guess the answer to this – are when people have hurt themselves. I mean, that’s just crushing. You don’t want to see that. You don’t want to experience that. You often wonder, did you do everything you could? Is it even possible to do everything? So those times have been profound and challenging and extremely sad. But it also makes you realize you’re not omnipotent. Footsteps is not omnipotent. Individuals are not omnipotent. So it involves being reflective about what can you do differently, but also being reflective about your limitations.
High points are, well, what you mentioned before. That people feel recognized. That stuff feels good. Also, whenever a Footstepper sends me an email or calls me up or comes through the door and they’ve accomplished something, they’re happy about it, they’re celebrating it and they’re feeling good. It feels really good to see people feeling good about their accomplishments. Some of the larger get-togethers really mirror that. I’ll be at the winter party and have people come up and say, “Oh my god, I’m having a great time.” Or , “I’ve never danced before.” For me, that’s like, whoa. That’s phenomenally cool. And you know, finishing college. Or you coming in and telling me that you’re doing this. That’s great. That’s phenomenal. Also, the camping trip is always great. And again, it’s that feeling of community, and the feeling of positivity, the feeling that we’re just going for whatever happens in the moment. “Oh, sure I’ll go swimming in the lake. Canoeing? Sure why not.”
Unpious: What part of Footsteps’ work are you most proud of, and what do you think Footsteps could’ve done better?
MJ: I know this sounds a little funny, but I actually feel very good that we exist. The last five or six years, all over the world, have been economically tough. Small agencies have closed, or they’ve merged with other agencies. So that’s an incredible accomplishment for us. I think we’ve been able to grow with the participants even though sometimes we feel like, We’ve gotta catch up. That’s a huge success to me. I mean, this organization is never going to be exactly what I want it to be, or what you want it to be, or what the board wants it to be, what Malkie Schwartz wants it to be, what Lani wants it to be, what Alix wants it to be. It’s a collective, and that it’s been able to move the way it has is very positive, because it becomes more than a one-person thing, and by and large the organization tries very hard to keep its hand and its ear on the pulse and voice of Footsteppers. That’s really positive.
What we could’ve done better? Everything. Everything could be tweaked. GED program could’ve been a little more accessible and easier to flow through. Expanding and addressing the needs of Footsteppers that have been out for five, six, seven years and what they might be wanting or needing. Employment, getting internships together, that will give people skills and get something on a resume, give people a feeling that they’re standing on their own and contributing and also getting something for themselves. I think all those areas could be tweaked.
Unpious: Any major projects that you see in the future, a wish list, so to speak?
MJ: Yes, there’s a short term list and a long term list. Short term list is, I want a sports team. I’m looking at the moment for a gym or an outdoor space to play basketball. And I want everyone to be able to participate, and the people who are really good at it can also teach, coach, and play a game at the end where everyone else is cheering them on, but I want it so that everyone is learning something and having fun. And I think it would be great for Footsteps to have a team and to challenge other teams from other places. And you can make a list of places that we will challenge to play.
I also want to do a café night, which would be sort of an open-mic for music, readings – essays, poetry – maybe have invited people come in to read. So it’ll be open to everybody but sponsored by Footsteps.
I’m thinking – and this sort of just came up so I’m not quite sure how it’ll work – but maybe do short, six to eight week intensive classes in the summer, when people are out of school. Maybe philosophy, maybe psychology, maybe writing. They’d be more advanced, they’d be real work in terms of academics, and it’ll get you a certificate when you’ve completed the class. And Footsteppers often ask for things like this. But again, it’s just an idea.
Long term – and I’d love for this to have happened years ago, but financially and logistically we aren’t there yet – is housing. I envision – and I’m sure it would never be exactly like this – a large apartment that can house maybe six to eight people.
And I would like to have an internship program. That’s not quite on the short-term list but it’s not on the long-term either. I think that’ll happen within the next year, maybe even within this year.
Unpious: Anything about divorce and family issues?
MJ: Definitely. At this point we have a working project – I think the title is “Family Issues Group” – that is specifically looking at people contemplating divorce, marriage, separation, custody issues, and looking at how to serve those people better. If you’re leaving – and people know this way better than me – you may not have finances for a lawyer and you may not know the system at all. So it’s to give at least some information about how the system works, and also where to get help if you can‘t afford a lawyer. It’s very hard to get a free lawyer that‘s going to take on a family issue. Eventually I could see us doing a legal fund. I don’t quite know how the logistics would work, and I don’t know that it would just be for divorce. It could also be for other things, like economic issues, debt, finance… And in the short run we’ll probably have one or two nights a year that would be like a legal clinic where you can come in and ask basic questions.
Unpious: Is there anything you want to say in closing? Any message to people reading this?
MJ: Certainly if anyone wants to have a further discussion about what I’ve talked about, you know how to reach me. If you’re new and you’d like to contact us, our emails and contact info are on the website (www.footstepsorg.org), or contact me at Michael@footstepsorg.org.
For people within the religious community that might be reading this, I want to say that people come to us, we don’t go looking for them. People come with particular questions that they don’t think they can bring up in another arena or they’ve exhausted the places in which they might be able to question. We try to provide a safe place to allow that questioning to happen, for themselves, for people to come up with their own answers.
I want to say something particularly to families, those who’ve had a family member who’s left. I think that Footsteps members, for the most part, make extraordinary efforts to keep those doorways open and I would really encourage families – and I understand it’s difficult – to try to do the same. Relationships don’t have to end. They may change, and they may be strained, and it can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be that final. At some point – and this is a long term goal – I could see Footsteps (or maybe a related agency, probably not me) having a group for parents that are still in the community but their kids may have left, or for people whose spouses have left. That seems both an extension of what we do but also a fundamental part of it. I always think of my work to be about individuals and families and communities. It’s about the individuals but it’s also about how they connect to the world.Printable Version