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Rachel Rosenberg Making a World of Difference: Young Adults as Servant Leaders

“In my practice, I try to empower my clients by being a servant leader. While I counsel individual clients about options and strategies, I ultimately take direction from them, and in doing so I am their servant.”

Rachel-1-211x300.jpgRachel Rosenberg

Undergraduate Institution: Emory University
Undergraduate Major: Religion
Graduate Institution: Harvard Law School
Concentration: Law and Social Change
Current Studies and/or Employment: Skadden Fellow at the EdLaw Project
Responsibilities: Representing court-involved (delinquency and care & protection) youth in special education and school discipline matters, defending students who are facing exclusion from school, and advocating for students with disabilities to get appropriate special education services.
Future Career Plans: Juvenile Public Defense

Interviewed by Pamela Crosby, Character Clearinghouse Editor

In what ways did you participate in Emory’s Ethics and Servant Leadership (EASL) Forum as an undergrad? What insights did you gain from your participation?

The most important insight I gained from my participation was the concept of “servant leadership,” which continues to inform my work today. Every EASL participant is given Robert K. Greenleaf’s (2008) bookThe Servant as Leader. Greenleaf proposed that the best way to be a leader was to consider yourself a servant first. Though it has universal appeal, his theory’s original application, I think, was in corporate management.

There are some scholars on the left who believe that legal services attorneys disempower their clients by acting as “experts” who solve clients’ problems for them, generating dependence on an elite legal class. In contrast, in my practice, I try to empower my clients by being a servant leader. While I counsel individual clients about options and strategies, I ultimately take direction from them, and in doing so I am their servant. (When I meet a new kid, I often open the conversation by telling him or her, “I am your lawyer; that means that you are my boss.”) At the same time, doing this work makes me a leader in the movement to fight back against the school to prison pipeline.

Describe your responsibilities as an EASL summer intern at the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Atlanta office. In what ways do you think students benefit from participating in the internship program? What are some of the aspects you might want to change about the program if you could?

I had many responsibilities at ADL, but a couple stand out the most. The summer that I was an intern, we put on a week-long training program for Catholic educators called “Bearing Witness,” designed to help them teach their own students about the history of Jewish-Catholic relations, including during the Holocaust. This program was especially interesting to me as a former Jewish Catholic High school student and as the granddaughter of Holocaust refugees from Austria and Lithuania. I also researched extremist hate-groups by tracking their activity on social media sites and listening to speeches that were given at hate-group rallies in the region, which was fascinating. For this project, I was able to attend an FBI presentation to learn about the different symbols that hate-groups use.

I think the biggest benefit of the EASL internship program is the weekly meeting of all participants. We always started the meeting by going around the table and giving updates on our successes and frustrations at work. I think this is a crucial practice to sustain anyone working in the public interest long-term. Even today, I meet monthly with the other six Skadden fellows in my community. Individually, we all sometimes feel that we’re isolated on the losing side of a war against poor people and people of color. Together, we realize that our work comes together in a meaningful way: if my client needs emergency shelter, I can refer him to X; if he needs immigration assistance, I can refer him to Y; if their client faces expulsion from school, X and Y can refer him to me.  

Your studies as an undergraduate at Emory University focused on religion and ethics. Why did you choose your particular course of study?

Rachel-225x300.jpgAlthough I grew up in an observant Jewish family, I decided to attend a Catholic high school because it offered the most affordable high-quality academic program in the area. I now believe that the intense alienation I experienced as a Jewish student at a parochial high school inspired me to study religion in college. Perhaps as a form of catharsis, my studies focused on the ways in which religion has created social progress, and I gravitated towards classes with names such as “Religion, Human Rights, and Civil Society,” (taught by Edward Queen, director of EASL) and “Religion and Social Welfare Policy.” I remained theologically and culturally committed to Judaism, but whenever I was able to select my own topic, I researched and wrote about politically progressive strands of Catholicism such as Liberation Theology and the Catholic Worker movement. Studying the Catholic Worker not only helped me develop an appreciation for the revolutionary possibilities of Catholicism but also helped me form my own political consciousness as I meditated on the concepts of personal responsibility and voluntary poverty. My studies of the Catholic Worker tradition led me to believe that instead of relying upon “ballots or bullets” (the social activist Ammon Hennacy’s phrase) to create social change, I must do it myself through the life I lead and the career I choose.

How do you connect your religious experiences to your advocacy for social justice?

Although Jews in this country no longer face structural barriers to success, I was raised to believe that as a member of a historically persecuted minority, I carried special empathy and responsibility for other disadvantaged populations. In addition to my cultural identification with the marginalized, I was steeped in the Jewish religious tradition which teaches that Jews are to be “a light unto the nations,” striving to repair the world (tikkun olam) through deeds of loving-kindness (gimilut chasadim). After Shabbat dinner each Friday night, my mother read a selection from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s highly practical Book of Jewish Values, always followed by a family discussion. I learned early on that the Hebrew word often translated as charity (tzedakah) literally means justice—something that is mandatory because it is right regardless of whether you personally feel moved by compassion.

My high school had a community service program that required freshmen to volunteer with children, and I chose to do my service at M’yuchad (Special), a non-denominational Sunday school for Jewish children with severe cognitive disabilities. After my initial volunteer hours were completed, I was hired as a teacher’s aide and worked there until I graduated. I developed my passion for child advocacy as I became close to some of the children and their families and witnessed firsthand the parents’ struggles to get the children the services they needed. And these were relatively wealthy, well-resourced parents!

At the same time, I attended weekly Hebrew High School at my synagogue where I enrolled in programs such as the Jewish Civics Initiative, which focuses on civic engagement, leadership, and service driven by Jewish values, and Shalom Y’all, a class on the Civil Rights Movement and its connections to Judaism. Both courses augmented my conception of Jews as (ideally) progressive actors in society. Shalom Y’all culminated in a week-long winter break trip to Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia. Intrigued by Atlanta, a city entirely different from my hometown of San Jose, California, I decided to attend Emory University.

How did your student experiences in such courses as “Religion, Human Rights, and Civil Society,” “Suffering, Healing and Redemption,” and “Human Goodness” help to shape your worldview?

Together, these three classes profoundly shaped my worldview and my decision to work in the field of juvenile justice. In “Suffering, Healing, and Redemption,” I developed deep empathy for a diverse group of sufferers from Oedipus and Job to the Rwandan Tutsis and Haitian victims of structural violence to those living with chronic illnesses. The case studies we contemplated in “Human Goodness” led me to believe that despite popular belief, humans have innate capacity for good rather than overwhelming inherent selfishness. Last, “Religion, Human Rights, and Civil Society” taught me about the complexity and importance of developing social systems and structures that harness the positive qualities of humanity to ensure that all are treated at least decently. These three lessons led me to my current profession.

In the public defender world, we are often asked: “How can you defend those people?” It is really very simple. I have empathy for my clients, all of whom are suffering greatly and (almost) all of whom have innate goodness that has simply been overwhelmed by poverty and racism. On an individual level, my clients deserve and need an advocate. Perhaps more systemic change will be brought about by this individual advocacy because it forces authority figures to consider my clients’ humanity and the structural deprivation they’ve faced.

How do you think religion can play a role in furthering social justice? How would you respond to those thinkers such as Richard Dawkins who have challenged this idea?

I still struggle with this question because religion has undoubtedly caused an enormous amount of suffering and conflict. But many religious beliefs have the potential to inspire radical social change. Catholicism, for example, has a concept of human dignity by virtue of being God’s creation. In the United States, this religious idea may be what underlies the near-universal belief in “equality of opportunity.” Unfortunately, in my opinion, many people on the right end of the political spectrum ignore perverse structural forces and instead imagine a level playing field and a mythical American Dream. Many liberals, on the other hand, fall short because they consider their moral responsibility fulfilled when they donate to charity or vote. But theoretically, the Catholic concept of human dignity could lead to a very progressive vision of social justice. In my view, a person who truly believes that all humans have God-given dignity would have a religious duty to cultivate empathy for all. Ideally, empathy for those who are suffering would lead to “solidarity” with them: working for social change alongside marginalized people while learning from them and fully respecting their humanity. This can be seen in the Catholic Worker movement.

You were selected as an UPGRADE (Undergraduate Program in Global Research and Development) grant recipient and traveled to Bolivia to volunteer at Los Pitufos, a daycare center. What was your role there? Do you think that you made a lasting difference in some way? If so, how? What are some of the insights you gained by your experiences there?

When I received a grant to spend my junior year summer as a “Youth and Education” intern in Bolivia, I was assigned to a daycare center, Los Pitufos (The Smurfs), run by a Catholic convent. My service was coordinated through the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD), from which I received $200 USD to implement a “sustainable project.” I soon realized that tutoring students and feeding infants from an indigent barrio plagued by alcoholism, unemployment, and domestic violence would have only an ephemeral benefit. Discovering cobweb-covered, long unused industrial baking equipment in Los Pitufos’ basement presented a fortuitous opportunity, and I transformed my comfortable position into, what was for me, uncharted territory: microenterprise. With my supervisorHermana (Sister) Liliana’s enthusiastic blessing, I set out to establish a bakery that could provide a source of income for Los Pitufos, daily fresh bread for the children, and low-cost rolls for the neighborhood. I naively drew up a short to-do list, but each seemingly simple task presented numerous, unpredictable challenges that required enormous energy to resolve in seven fleeting weeks with a limited budget in an unfamiliar environment. My mantra that summer was “¡Cada día, un nuevo disastre!” (“Each day, a new disaster!”).

By the time I returned to the United States, the bakery was a success, nourishing the community, providing a salary and proud identity for two previously unemployed local residents, and earning sorely needed money for the daycare center. But ultimately, I left Cochabamba somewhat skeptical of international development efforts and exhausted from facing so many unpredictable challenges. Even though I knew that Hermana was grateful for my tireless work and the economic capital that I brought to Los Pitufos, I reflected on being an outsider who parachuted in to Bolivia to lead (though as a servant) from an outside, more privileged position. My greatest privilege, the one which caused me the most guilt, was my ability to leave it all behind at the end of the summer. I realized that my passion for advancing poor children’s rights would best and most ethically be utilized in my own geographic community.

Five years later, I do not know if I made a lasting difference. I did leave Los Pitufoswith a potential source of sustainable income; however, I do not know if the community was able to sustain it. My hunch, unfortunately, is that the bakery was unable to sustain itself without a dedicated person to oversee its operations and finances. Additionally, whereas one of my goals was to provide the community with affordable bread, I found that many of the neighbors were buying the low-cost bread with the intention of reselling, rather than eating it.

What suggestions can you offer young people who want to participate in international service?

My advice depends on the young person’s goal. There are plenty of programs that provide opportunities for young people to have an experience in international service that is fulfilling, rewarding, expands their horizons, etc. Those are legitimate goals that are probably easily accomplished. If a person wants their service to be rewarding for the host country, however, I suggest that s/he commit to stay in the country for at least six months, if not longer. The risk of paternalism in international service is much higher than in domestic service. It takes a while to gain basic familiarity with the culture of the host country and to learn how to overcome language and cultural barriers. The young person needs to truly get to know the community, listen, and figure out what the locals want rather than having a pre-conceived idea that’s ready for implementation upon arrival. It took me about a month to realize that I would be most useful starting a bakery at Los Pitufos, and by that time I had only a handful of weeks to make it happen. I would be more confident in the bakery’s success if I had stayed in Cochabamba for a few more months to ensure that it was truly sustainable.


Greenleaf, R. (2008). The servant as leader. The Greenleaf Westfield, IN: Center for Servant Leadership.