Exercising leadership to drive systemic change is a long-term game. It requires a deep understanding of how things work on the ground and how the people themselves perceive the issues that you, the leader, must decide. Ruth Messinger learned this in a teachable moment under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City in the United States of America. Whether in her 20 years of local government service in New York City, or her international work in countries like South Africa, India, and Cambodia, Ruth understands issues at the grassroots level so she can make decisions that truly positively impact the people. Join us in this conversation as Ruth shares her insights on exercising bold leadership and why leaders should always meet people where they are on the ground to make their impact count.
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Under A Bronx Bridge with Ruth Messinger
Real Transformation with Addicts, Mayors, and Presidents
Our bold leader in this episode joins us from the Big Apple in New York City. She spent many years in elected office serving the City of New York and ran for Mayor against Rudy Giuliani. She is the former President, Chief Executive Officer, and current Global Ambassador for American Jewish World Service, an international organization working in multiple countries around the world on human rights and social justice issues. She also received honorary degrees and serves on several USA and international boards.
Stay with us as we explore and uncover why exercising leadership to drive systemic change is, in fact, a long-term game. Also, her personal mindset teachable moment under the New York Bridge in the blackness of night and how meeting Nelson Mandela was a subsequent special moment in South Africa, coupled with her grassroots work around the world across continents from South America to countries like South Africa, India, and Cambodia, remind and teach us about the importance of cultural intelligence and that it always requires us to meet people where they are on the ground and literally. We warmly welcome Ruth Messinger to the show.
Ruth, it’s such a pleasure. It’s such an honor. I have been looking forward to meeting you. Thank you so much for being part of this conversation.
Thank you. It’s a privilege to be part of this.
You’ve had a remarkable career. You spent many years in an elected office in New York. You then went on, and you were former President, CEO, and now Global Ambassador for the American Jewish Service Organization. What have been your career highlights? What stands out for you?
My original professional training was as a social worker, but I’m using those skills. I would like to believe that I used those skills throughout but did local organizing in my neighborhood. As one of my first jobs, I held helping poor people and people of color fight for their right to housing and daycare. That worked slowly. Not immediately, but slowly convinced me that it might be good to run for office. I spent, as you say, many years in local government.
I love local government. You have tough moments. You have some difficult decisions to make, but you work closely with the people you represent. I don’t think enough people do this, to be honest, but you get to listen to what are the things on their minds, what kinds of help they most need, and provide that help and support for them. I love that.
Maybe it might not strike people as a good moment, but at the end of many years in elected office, I made a decision to run for mayor in a very difficult mayoral election. I lost, but I loved the experience of putting it all on the line and challenging the public to think differently than they were thinking. I think I convinced a lot of people, but not enough.
I had the amazing opportunity of going to run the American Jewish World Service. Every moment there was about learning about global human rights issues, understanding the real-life experiences of people in very different parts of the world, and being a part of those people’s personal struggles for human rights, which was amazing at every moment.
That’s such a broad span of different experiences, Ruth. I’m curious. I believe you ran for mayor in 1997 against Rudy Giuliani. If I recall correctly, you were the Democratic Party’s first female candidate.
Yes, I was the first woman nominated by the party to run for mayor. I wish to point out that although several women have been running for mayor since none of them has emerged as the party’s candidate. By the way, we’ve never had a woman mayor, making New York not nearly as progressive as it pretends to be.
I was curious about all that experience you’ve had in local government in New York. What do you think has changed regarding the politics and leadership of the day back then? Perhaps, at the time when you were running for mayor in 1997, how do you think that has changed in terms of the politics and leadership challenges now?
In general, sadly, politics has gotten less and less attractive and more divisive. People basically, not only the public but also the candidates that emerge. (They are) more interested in picking a fight with the other side and not doing thoughtful work to improve the situation. When I was in government, there was much more commitment to collaboration than in some parts of the government now.Sadly, politics has gotten less attractive and more divisive. The public and the candidates that emerge are more interested in picking a fight with the other side instead of doing thoughtful work to improve the situation. Click To Tweet
We see worldwide that there are fierce partisan efforts to use whatever word you want to use, tribal, nationalistic, xenophobic, all of those things. Not that those things haven’t always been present, but they seem to have a particular and ugly edge to them now. Even people who want to build a different and more inclusive approach have a great deal of trouble doing it.
Given that, what do you think the big challenges are now? Given this changing character of politics and how that plays out.
Suppose I’m in my most dismaying moment. In that case, I say the challenges like trying to preserve what we understand to be a democracy – because if it boils down in too many countries to bitter fighting, power goes to people with money. Not that these things haven’t happened before, but if they get worse or as they get worse, they lead to less acceptable behavior. They put the notion of a thoughtful democracy at risk.
Now in the United States, I know we are talking globally. You could point to lots of things as areas of division and concern. I would say that the fact that racism in the United States in one direction has led to a fierce effort to deny people the right to vote and tend to suppress voter activity. That’s a clear and present danger to democracy.
If we pivot slightly to your global work in human rights, I know you’ve had many moments from a leadership challenge point of view, but could you take us back to one example that has been a particular challenge? Take us back in time. What was the context? What was the mood of the moment?
Let me do that first from my time in government because one of the things in government is a legitimate question. People who get elected to office and have the privilege of voting on issues basically, most of the time, go ahead and vote on the issues. The fundamental question that sometimes creates divergence is, “Do you vote based on what you believe, your vision, and your understanding of the issue, or do you vote the way your electoral constituency would want you to vote?”The fundamental question for anyone elected into public office is, “Do you vote for based on your understanding of the issue, or do you vote the way your electoral constituency would want you to vote?” Click To Tweet
Obviously, those are often merged, and there’s no big deal that some people will like your vote and some won’t. You are basically representing the people who elected you, and that’s not surprising they elected you. From time to time in elected office, there are moments where, if elected officials were honest, everybody has some moments where it’s like, “Do I go ahead and assert my point of view, even though it’s not going to be popular with the people I represent?”
I had a couple of those moments, and I will give you the context of one. It was not a life-threatening or position-threatening moment, but in the earlier days, it’s funny to use the word the AIDS pandemic, so going back to the 1980s. There was a proposal in the City Council, the New York City Legislature, to support needle exchange. Letting drug addicts use clean needles.
Now, this all sounds very obvious. Anybody reading this story would be like, “That’s a good idea,” but when I first heard it, along with many people I represented, I thought, “This is the craziest thing I ever heard. These people are addicts, and we will essentially enable their addiction by letting them use clean needles.” I said that I was opposed to it. I was fortunate that the advocates who were the local organizations that were for it decided that I was a teachable subject.
They asked me to come to what was then a secret needle exchange. Secret because it was against the law. It operated late at night. I’m talking context underneath an elevated railroad train in the Bronx, where they set up tables with batches of clean needles and added to bring their used syringes, then you check to trade them in for clean ones. I went, still thinking, “This is like a wacky idea. I don’t quite understand why.”
It was a dramatic moment for me. I want to say 1) They were kind enough to invite me. I’m not sure they would’ve invited everybody. They thought as I said, that I was teachable. 2) I’m pleased that I went. I’ve always tried to be open to understanding the issue as other people see the issue because I’m not like all these other people. That night, everyone who came to trade in her/his batch of needles was told, I don’t know whether there were pejorative adjectives, but they were told a local legislator is sitting a little over there on a chair. Remember, this is midnight.
“If you would like to go speak to her, she’s interested in talking to you.” I would say that 3 or 4 people came over. It makes you feel like a fool when you listen to other people. It took two minutes. They would say, “Hello, Lady. I’m here because I’m addicted and would love to kick my addiction, but I’ve been unable to. Meanwhile, when I’m shooting up, I don’t want to be sharing needles, which would mean sharing disease.” Now, it would mean the risk of spreading AIDS. “I need clean needles because I have to keep shooting up now, but I don’t want to infect my partners, my friends, or colleagues.”
It took me two people to say that they were so eloquent and out of it that I had not been able to imagine the reason for this program. That doesn’t do for the drama of some of these but made a big impact on me because both before that but in a much more redoubled and intense way after that. I worked on understanding things from other people’s points of view.
At American Jewish World Service, that was critical. The organization’s philosophy is to find local leaders and local grassroots organizations, whether they are fighting for land rights or women’s rights or sexual health, reproductive rights, or what they know they most need to move their lives forward to a greater degree of equity and justice. We are unusual as an organization because we fund about 450 groups in 18 countries, but we fund them for what they want.
We ask them, “What are you doing?” For example, thanks to a generous donor, we have a very big program. We are looking for people in India who are working against child marriage. Now, I want to be clear with you. We didn’t go out and say, “We would like to talk to any group that wants money,” and have someone come and say, “We are in favor of marrying our girls off at eleven. Will you give us money?” No. We had a goal in mind: raising the age at which girls are married. The question was, “If we want to do that, we need to talk to anybody and everybody in India at a grassroots level who shares that goal and can tell us how they are working on it.”
Some of them were working on it by educating twelve-year-old girls and boys about human rights. Some of them were working on it by telling fathers that what they were doing was putting their daughters at huge risk of illness and even death from starting sexual relations early, from having babies before their bodies were formed. There were different groups with different approaches, but we listened to any group when it said, “Here’s what we want to do. Here’s how we are organizing.”
We offered help and advice. We urged them to be involved in trying to change the local law and the local practice, but we funded people based on their understanding of their situation. Given their idea of how to work for justice, given the focus of your video podcast, I would like to say in my mind how Mandela rose to prominence and then ended up, fortunately, being a world leader in his country.
To stay in India for a moment, Ruth, is there a particular example in India where there was a very present need? Can you take us through a specific example?
Not sure if I have. I can’t think of a specific example in India. I know what you are looking for, but our whole effort was letting people tell us what they need. That was the direction. There were a thousand moments when people said, “This is a better way to do this work.” I remember this is not in India but in Central America. I worked with a lot of organizations.
In one Central American country, I had a New York congregation that wanted to be engaged in our work, and many people were vaguely interested in my work. It was nice to have a Jewish Congregation say, “We love the idea that you are working in a country at the grassroots level, not with Jews but according to Jewish values, so we would love to help.”
Several prominent people from that congregation went to visit this project. It was in El Salvador. When I went to talk with them after they had visited, they were full of ideas and their ideas, which I understood from their point of view. Their ideas had nothing to do with what the people on the ground wanted. That was a difficult moment because they said, “We are people of some means. We want to make this our project. We have lots of money, and by the way, we have lots of doctors. We noticed that the children in this community were sick, so we want to organize a rotating group of doctors to go down and treat those children.”
All of this sounds fine when I say it to you now, but this was a hugely self-informed community. They were interested in protecting their land rights and fighting their government. By the way, there was nothing sick about their children. Their children were running around in an African climate with runny noses. To New York doctors, it looked like maybe there was some serious medical problem here, but there wasn’t. I was like, “It’s not like they couldn’t use a little bit of pediatric support, but they are not looking for a rotation of American doctors.”
Again, I spent much time not quite as dramatic as you suggested. I have spent a lot of time in the last many years telling Americans, I have a not very nice expression for it, that their instinct to clean their closets when they read about a world disaster to get rid of things that they don’t need and ask us to deliver them to communities in trouble, is almost always wrong.
That’s interesting. If we can stay for a moment, Ruth, with that example in Central America. I’m curious, how did you navigate the conversation? How did you help pivot out of that? What was the outcome?
Let’s be clear that the desired outcome, which worked in that instance, was to keep these people engaged but suggested to them that whatever they thought they had to contribute to this community, mostly what I needed was their money. This was a community where I said they weren’t looking for an outside stream of medical people.
If they needed any volunteer help from outsiders, it would have been to plow fields, and I didn’t have a bunch of New York Jews who wanted to go plow fields. It was like. We can support them in other ways. You run into this constantly in the developing world, and you must know it from your work in Africa. Even before you get into differences of race and class, not that those aren’t critical, they are, but they are different cultures. How does the culture work? What does the culture value?
Endlessly passionate people, in their farming communities in South Asia, in Central America, and here was the opposite example in a sense, would say, “Do you know that there’s a machine that would tilt this coffee field much more quickly? Why don’t we raise the money for AGWS (Note: American Guardian Warranty Services) to buy them that machine?” I was like, “It’s not how that community operates. It’s not what they are doing. Their life is built around when they plow their fields and how they plow their fields. If you want to help them, you will do something to prevent global warming,” which is destroying the crop road.
Let’s stick with that example for a minute. The answer is me talking to people and telling them the values by which the organization works. Those values are in accord with some basic Jewish teachings, which are not exclusive to Jews, but it’s the notion if you believe in it. The Jewish expression for it is, “Everyone is equally made in the image of whoever makes us all.” The community organizing priested in El Salvador has at least much right.
In my judgment, some more right to dictate to us how it is that his community can best be helped and that people are in trouble after a natural disaster, which obviously, they are. It’s not the shoes in the closets of my constituents in Connecticut that they need. How I do it is having learned some humility in patients myself and how to listen to people, articulate their understandings of their situation, and their presentations of their needs.
I have to be able to transfer that, first of all, to listen to the people who want to help and recognize that they have a strong instinct that they want to be helpful. They are distressed by the television or what they hear, and then help them understand that how they might first think of helping is not a way to strengthen the community.
Were there any particular techniques or tools you used to help them see it differently?
I want to say that patience in talking to people helps them understand the big picture. One technique I use is this with many people in many situations. I now use it entirely in situations in this country as well to encourage people to ask the question, “Why.” It sounds pretty obvious, but as important as it is to take dramatic steps to address segregated housing in which the people of color all live metaphorically on the other side of the track.
They live in one part of the neighborhood and not in the other. People can come up with some important ideas about we should address this. Usually, those ideas are quite good, but I want people to first ask, “Why.” Why are things the way they are? I will give you an example of America. In America’s wealth, not income but wealth. The full value of a White household is 10X that of a Black household. Most people don’t believe that when you tell them that. You say, “Let’s ask why.” Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing lots of things about it on the ground, but the question is, “Why? How did things get this way?”
This is a very simplistic analysis that I’m giving you. Still, one answer is that wealth is significantly built by homeownership and land ownership in this country over several hundred years. Home and land ownership has been denied to people of color. One point to make the go is that after the Second World War, we created various loan and mortgage programs created by the United States Government that was designed to essentially reward. I don’t know if that’s the right word but to recognize the service veterans have given to the war and make it possible for them to return to society with a foot up.The full value of a white household is 10 times that of a black household. How did things get this way? Wealth is significantly built on home and land ownership. Over several hundred years, home and land ownership have been denied to people of color in… Click To Tweet
Except we denied those programs. Most of those programs were written so that soldiers of color and veterans of color were not eligible. Now, that’s a shocking piece of information that went on for years. The consequence is that somebody who’s a renter now is, in some part, a renter because when her grandfather returned from the war in 1945, he had no way of buying property.
That’s an example. The good news is that I want to clarify that many people want to help. Their instinct is to help people in need to notice people who need clothing, food, or housing. I not only help personally but sometimes organize drives and get ready.
First of all, the question is, “Is that the help those people need?”
It’s not up to you to decide what they need.
Second of all is to ask at the same time as you are providing useful help on the ground, a useful service to urge people to ask that more difficult question of why. “Why are things the way they are?”
In many instances and the answer is that the laws are skewed in the favor of some people and not others. What we need to do is change the laws. The good news is that I live in a country, you live in a country where it’s possible to change the law.
The challenge, it’s a lot less easy. It takes a lot longer; therefore, it’s not quite as rewarding as having a party, raising money, giving it to people to buy new shoes, or whatever the issue is. We need to change some of these laws, which I do. It is somewhat counter to the notion that you are pursuing here. Much of my work is not that dramatic moment but the work that needs to be done afterward.
There’s a story, you would call it, which is often used to illustrate this, which has direct relevance to the life story of South Africa. In the vernacular, it’s called Upstream Downstream.
The essence of the story is that there was a small town by a river. Everybody in the town was quite happy. One day, the children in the town were playing on the bank of the river and saw something in the river. They ran to look and see what it was, and it was a human body floating face down. They ran to get the elders and said, “There’s a body floating down the river.” The elders mobilized immediately. They threw out ropes, dragged the body, and helped the guy cough up the water. They did artificial resuscitation and got him breathing again.
When he breathed again, the children said, “Three more bodies are coming down the river.” The elders mobilized the whole town and said, “This is a huge project. We have got to do this.” There they were, hauling in bodies and helping those people breathe again. They looked up, and the children were leaving the river bank and walking out of the town. They told the children, “There’s work to be done here. Where are you going?” The children said, “We are going to see why so many people are falling into the river.”
It’s a wonderful story, Ruth.
Whether it’s a broken bridge, in the South Africa story, it’s understanding of enough of the roots of the problem to tackle it at its core.
That’s a wonderful pivot into South Africa. You’ve traveled to South Africa. I believe you met the wonderful Helen Suzman, who played a key role in South Africa and politics. As I said, you remind me a bit of her. She’s a remarkable leader, a very strong, courageous woman. What is your greatest memory of South Africa?
Thousands of memories. It’s one among many countries where I met unbelievable people at the grassroots fighting to rebuild their communities. I spent lots of time in townships where the situation was not very good despite the end of a project and the work of Madiba (Nelson Mandela). Nevertheless, you have people on the ground saying, “We need to organize. We know what we need. We want help in putting more crèches. We want help in doing a better education for our kids.”
My years of American Jewish World Service were marked by the privilege of meeting hundreds of people who fight for the rights of their own communities. Sometimes against significant odds. In some cases, against real situations of risk. Most less true in South Africa. More true in some other places. I can’t tell you I have some particular notions. I did have occasion, as you know, I met Mandela in New York. I had a couple of occasions of meeting Archbishop Tutu. I want to say this about Helen Suzman, who I think was a hero.
Probably the thing that I love the most about her story, which is directly related to your research, is that here she is, a woman of some means, who has challenged the electoral system and gotten herself elected. It’s never easy for women to win office. She saw the greatness of Mandela and his promise to heal the country, so she took on the job of going to visit him in prison constantly and coming in, basically reporting to her colleagues in parliament, who, in general, she (Helen) would say, “Th(ey) couldn’t have been less interested.” That it was a request.
Again, what I admire is that I know she did it over and over again. He was clearly a strong influence on her, but it was also how she worked to share that with a broader public. I love that. I got to know a woman that you may know who’s one of these people that you can only call a force of nature. Do you know Helen Lieberman?
I know of her. I haven’t met her in person.
Helen Lieberman is a White Jewish South African woman. (Editor’s note: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion bestowed the 2009 Roger E. Joseph Prize upon Helen Lieberman, Founder and Honorary President of Ikamva Labantu – Future of Our Nation, in recognition of her exemplary work in providing programs and hope for the future for youth, the homeless, blind, aged, and disabled in South Africa. With more than 1,000 current projects assisting more than 70,000 people of all ages, including 45,000 children, Ikamva Labantu is the largest community-based, non-profit, non-governmental organization of its kind in South Africa. The presentation was made at Ordination and Investiture Ceremonies at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York on May 3, 2009, at 9 a.m.)
Her story, I’m not doing it a good service, but as a young woman in a fairly privileged household, she picked her career path. She was being trained as a social worker but with a particular interest in speech therapy. She was connected to one of the big hospitals where she was helping children on the wards with their particular needs. As she tells the story, she went to the hospital one day and asked for the child she had been working with weekly for some time. The hospital staff said, “The child has been discharged.”
Helen was, “I have to go see her where she lives.” The people of the hospital said, “You can’t do that. She lives in a (Langa) township (in Cape Town, South Africa), and Whites can’t go there.” That was our first understanding of how appallingly segregated her society was. She went (into the township) and kept going back. She ended up, long story short, running a network of foster care and other services for children all over the country and in a variety of ways and after-school programs.
An Amazing enterprise – Ikamva Labantu is what it’s called. When she stepped down from leadership, it was quite an extraordinarily large social service, child-focused agency. Again, working with people all over the country, virtually all people of color, gave them, in their communities and their families, the help that they needed.
These are remarkable carers, and their work stood the test of time. There are many more like them too. Take us back to your Mandela Moment when you met him in New York soon after his release.
I’m as capable as anybody of lunatic hero worship. I was by then 50 years old, but the story around the world of his release was unbelievably dramatic. The notion that he would come out virtually immediately and take over running his country is an astounding story. You were in the middle of it there. Still, I was fortunate because David Dinkins was then the one Black mayor we’ve had in New York City. (Editor’s note: David Norman Dinkins was an American politician, lawyer, and author who served as the 106th Mayor of New York City from 1990 to 1993, becoming the first African American to hold office. He passed on November 23, 2020.) One of his first moves through sets of channels and connections he had was to invite Mandela in that notion you have in common, “We will give you a key to our city.” We reflect(ed) on it a little bit. It’s probably quite amazing that Mandela came because he had his own challenges in the country.
He had a very busy schedule.
He built a country and built a democracy, but he came. He was the host of the city. I got to sit with him. Unfortunately, not for a long private conversation as much as I would’ve wished but to listen to him speak. His manner is extraordinary for any human being and a human being who had lived through what he had lived through. It’s unbelievable.
Having listened to and met him briefly, what stands out for you regarding Mandela? You made reference to the possibility of being a ‘lunatic hero worshiper.’ In the quiet of the night or the sensibility of the day, what stands out for you as being relevant in terms of Mandela’s leadership?
For me, at least, it attracts some of the things I’ve already talked about. That is his total passion for his country and its people. It’s totally meant to see, maybe more than I can do, seeing the good in all people. Think about how (and) what he might do to change a lot for so many South Africans who had suffered severely from a party, but at the same time to not alienate the universe of international figures and business figures.
The people who had to be brought together around their love for their country and their sacrifice to build. It’s an amazing life story of commitment to a set of ideals and values. We don’t have enough of those, and we like to admire them wherever they come but to see it in somebody who went through the prevails that he did and who spent time in that jail, which you can visit on Robben Island to get some notion of what you are talking about, when Mandela come out, in every one of his public presentations as not being somebody who hated people. Someone with love for all humanity and a fierce determination to do everything he could to build the country. Not enough people like that to admire.
I know you also took a trip to Robben Island and visited his cell. What was that moment like for you?
With great respect for the country and the notion of the decision, I have no idea whose decision it was. I don’t know if it was Mandela’s or others, but the notion of having the tour guides be people who were imprisoned on Robben Island, in and of itself, was amazing. You want to see it. I have been there twice, maybe three times. It’s a piece of the story of the country, but I didn’t realize until I was picking our time and paying for the trip then you meet a guard.
I was told all of the tour guides were people who were in prison. People can tell you their personal stories. Not only about their time on Robben Island but about the struggles that they were in before that. 1 or 2 of the people who were active in those very early days of the end organizing. The current head of American Jewish World Service, Robert Bank, is a cousin of Denis Goldberg. I got to meet Denis Goldberg when I was there.
For our readers, if you can share who Denis Goldberg is?
Denis Goldberg was one of the relatively few White activists who was ‘right’ in whatever word you want to use. The central committee of the early days of the ANC when all of their work was illegal when they were planning and plotting their own efforts, for which a large group of them got arrested and sent to jail.
What’s interesting about his story is that in a very segregated way, when he was also sent to prison, he was sent to a different prison at Central Pretoria Prison. He wasn’t sent to Robben Island, where the rest of them were sent.
As I say, meeting him, being there, and having the privilege of touring with people who have been imprisoned there, for me, Mandela is a hero. He would have been a hero in any event. It’s one of the most dramatic stories of the 20th Century in every regard. It’s clear that the story, that is, the change in the in-country ending of official apartheid, is rather, in some cases, a one-person story. It doesn’t mean there weren’t many other people, but it was a story by a leader who stood out, rather than having the additional (personal) experiences of knowing that was a hero story.Mandela was a hero in one of the most dramatic stories of the 20th century. And it's clear that that story, in some cases, is a one-person story. Click To Tweet
Essentially, my century of it was to meet him, see his surroundings and have the opportunities I said through American Jewish World Service to do serious work in the country. The longer you are there in a country, especially with American Jewish World Service. You are meeting the people on the ground who are still struggling to make a change, and so I had that experience (too). Change is hard. Change is slow. It looks like a royal mess in the middle.
Switching gears a little more regarding some fun, fast facts. What is one of your greatest reads, one of your greatest books?
I couldn’t possibly answer that, and I read all the time.
“Which one comes to mind?”
Nothing. No one particular book comes to mind. It’s always like some of the last books I read. I don’t want to dignify them with that. I have been privileged to read, Long Walk to Freedom. In the spirit of what we are honoring, I will list that as one of my favorite books, which it is.
What have been some of your favorite cities to visit in the world?
I will answer that differently. First of all, I will say that there are some of the most obvious major cities in the world that I’ve not visited. I love London but except when I was a child, and I don’t remember it. I have never been to Paris. I have not been to any of the cities in Spain. I want to answer the question differently and say that I was privileged to spend time in at least twenty countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America through American Jewish World Service.
Those countries are picked because they are places where we meet with very poor people and work side by side with them. When I was doing more with American Jewish World Service, people often asked me, “What are your favorite countries?” If there’s any way to answer that but here’s what I said, and I still say this, “Of the countries where I was privileged to spend time on my work, my favorite one is India because it’s the most complicated story of democracy and social change and of continuing inability to address its unbelievable problems of poverty.”
I would say to people going a little further, “Favorite is not the right word but the two countries where we worked that challenged me the most and therefore engaged are Cambodia and Haiti.” The reason for that is that those are two countries in which I believe it is fair to say that virtually all of their current problems were caused by my (our United States) government.
That’s a big statement.
I feel attached to them. I feel a sense of moral obligation to the work I have not felt in many places. I loved working in South Africa. I worked in some places there (South Africa), but a lot of work on issues in Sudan, Burma, and Myanmar. Each of these countries is one I’m attached to in some way or other, but India has a little bit of everything: the struggles with democracy, corruption, and poverty. In Cambodia, to some extent, and in Haiti, to a total extent, I can’t go without feeling responsible.
One more, what’s one of your favorite childhood memories, Ruth?
I was privileged to grow up in a wonderful family with good educational opportunities. Like many people in my generation, my earliest exposure to the issue of race as a problem was traveling from the Northern part of the United States to the South. Seeing the very visible signs, which you are used to from South Africa but which did exist in the South.
Seeing that and being open with my parents to learn that the country was fraught with problems and difficulties. Other than that, I had a fortunate childhood. I must say I had a wonderful experience after that. Not only holding interesting jobs but having a wonderful family, raising 3 children, and now having 8 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren.
That’s a wonderful circle of life. Perhaps in closing, in our final moments, what would you say are the biggest challenges? What are the biggest wisdom and insights you would pass on to our younger generation in dealing with the challenges we face?
Let me put that question backward. One thing that gets me up every morning is that there’s a lot of engaged energy on the part of the next generations. I can point to all of the issues of extra privilege and comfort. The fact that all over the world, environmental movements are being led by people who are quite literally one-quarter my age. There’s some real humanity in the communities of color in the (United) states to try to address some of these longstanding issues.
The only advice I have to them, which they’ve already figured out, is that none of these will easily be one battle. You think about all of the issues, but you have to organize. You have to set your sights on small changes, which will hopefully lead to larger changes, because you can’t realize your vision, which hopefully will sustain you. You can’t realize it all at once.
Ruth Messinger, meeting you has been an honor and a great privilege. I loved chatting with you. I can’t wait to meet you in person.
I look forward to that.
Thank you so much for contributing to this conversation and sharing your wisdom.
There is an unvarnished authenticity about Ruth Messinger, which is powerful, compelling, and deeply connecting. She has an empowered and empowering social worker ability to dine with workers, and walk and talk with mayors, presidents and kings, treating them all with equal dignity, respect, and humility. It is hard to be humble, especially when we demand that we are perfect in every way.
Ruth Messinger has a confident boldness to admit when she gets things wrong, and yet many almost tend to blame, name and shame others when we make a mistake. When in reality, for every finger we have pointed forward at another, there are three facing back at ourselves. Exercising bold leadership, the way Ruth Messinger has done, whether in an elected public office or working in multiple countries and communities around the world, requires that we step out of our ivory tower or our high-end boardroom or our corridors of power, because real transformation and understanding the perspective of others happens on the beat of the street or under a Brooklyn Bridge.
Until next time, remember that leading boldly requires that we make thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership calls us out to take bold actions just one small step at a time. One small step for you, but together, one giant step for humanity. Come back soon, share with your friends, and join our Global Leadership Movement For Change, because if not you, then who? If not now, then when? Take care, and take thoughtful, bold action.
- American Jewish World Service
- Long Walk to Freedom
About Ruth Messinger
Ruth W. Messinger, Social Justice Activist in Residence
Ruth works at the Marlene Meyerson JCC with the Center for Social Responsibility helping develop programs, teach classes and involve the broader community in organizing on such issues as immigration, voter rights, race and the environment. In addition, Ruth serves as Global Ambassador for American Jewish World Service, as organization she ran from 1998-2016, and does international human rights and social justice work.
She is, also, the Social Justice Fellow, at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America; a consultant and teacher for the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and the Jewish Social Justice Round Table; and has recently completed the development of a social justice curriculum for Melton Schools. Previously Ruth was in elected office in New York City for 20 years. She was the Democratic nominee for Mayor of New York City in 1997 and ran against the incumbent mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Ruth serves on boards for several domestic and international organizations; has received honorary degrees in recognition of her long term commitment to social justice; and is an active member of her synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. She holds a BA degree from Radcliffe College and an MSW from the University of Oklahoma; is married and has three children, eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren.