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The Power of the Grassroots
by Daniel Kaufman

I used to describe a typical day as a Legislative Assistant (LA) at the RAC by telling people that I got out of bed each morning and read the newspaper for clues about what issues I might be asked to focus on that day. Whether I was drafting a speech for Rabbi David Saperstein about election reform, meeting with Representative John Conyers about Civil Rights legislative strategy, or lobbying Congress along with a coalition of religious liberty leaders, the work was always engaging, though sometimes overwhelming, and often life-changing.

It was at the RAC that I learned the power of community organizing and grassroots activism.

One of my favorite assignments was designing and implementing the campaign finance component of the RAC’s L’Taken program which brings Reform high school students from around the country to Washington, D.C. to learn about policy issues through a Jewish lens. Students are split into opposing groups on a particular political issue, such as gun control, and charged with learning about the issue, developing an advocacy campaign (lobbying, media, grassroots support, etc.), and presenting their perspective to a mock congressional committee. They come to understand how grassroots activism gives voice to those who cannot afford to write big checks to politicians.

At the end of the weekend, each student becomes a grassroots activist by meeting with his/her elected representative and advocating with passion and creativity on an issue of his/her choice. One, for example, made a compelling argument for the minimum wage entirely in rap, and the member of Congress later entered it into the Congressional Record. Just as I had as an LA, the students experience empowerment, the feeling they can make a difference.

After completing my RAC service, I attended law school and then worked as a litigator for a law firm as well as counsel to an emerging company. I enjoyed the work, but missed the passion and excitement of being at the RAC. So last year I left the law to focus full-time on the One Percent Foundation (OPF), a grassroots philanthropic organization I founded in collaboration with friends, including some of my fellow RAC Legislative Assistants. Our mission is to build a broad-based movement of next-generation philanthropists by creating a more inclusive and participatory culture of giving. The One Percent Giving Circle program targets unengaged or under-engaged 18–39-year-olds who make a commitment to give at least one percent of their annual income. Every quarter, the circle funds one grant selected by the members and funded by member donations. OPF also trains members in how to assess organizations and give thoughtfully.

My commitment to the One Percent Foundation is rooted in the same values of social justice and civic engagement that informed my work at the RAC. Like advocacy and voting, philanthropy is a core component of democracy. If every individual earning an income for the first time sees it as his/her civic obligation to give back, OPF believes that nonprofit organizations will then reflect the values and priorities of the millennial generation.

OPF’s advocacy approach borrows a key lesson from the RAC. Typical RAC letters, editorials, and press releases start with an accounting of the number of synagogues, congregants, and clergy the Religious Action Center represents. The RAC’s influence is great because it aggregates the will of the Reform Jewish community; congregants or clergy acting alone would be hard-pressed to develop the same level of influence in the eyes of elected officials and the public. Similarly, working in the arena that puts a premium on large sums of money, OPF garners influence through widespread, collective participation. I can only hope that the One Percent Foundation will be as successful in philanthropically empowering the next generation as the RAC has been at giving voice to Jewish values and impacting social justice policy through the voice of Jewish values.


Dan Kaufman is founder of the One Percent Foundation.



 


Union for Reform Judaism.