“Feel the passion and direct it into curiosity, then build those trusting relationships that can allow you to ask the questions, to be a learner, to be a person who can then step into roles of leadership and be OK making mistakes and being challenged.”
Matan Zeimer, Passionate Community Organizer for Racial, Economic and Social Justice
Matan was raised in and around Baltimore and left for Oberlin College in Ohio to study Sociology. What he discovered at Oberlin, was an emerging program in Peace and Conflict Studies. The program was interdisciplinary and centered around history, political science, mediation and conflict resolution, and he worked as a peer mediator in the Dialogue Center, where one of his mentors, the campus ombudsperson, fostered compassion, integrity, curiosity and deep listening skills. “Yeworkwha Belachew was small in stature, but she was a mighty force.”
Upon graduation, he returned to Baltimore knowing it was very important to him to be here to engage in social justice work. “I was trying to develop a relationship with Baltimore as an adult rather than simply as the place I grew up.” Matan credits his father with introducing him to Jews United for Justice (JUFJ). “My father kept nudging me, ‘hey, I’ve been going to these cool community meetings with this organization called JUFJ and there are a lot of young people involved. Seems like it could be your crowd,’” Finally Matan attended a JUFJ meeting. “I remember being somewhat skeptical and walking in and suddenly seeing all these people, faces that I knew, people that I admired for doing all sorts of different work both professionally but also as volunteers. It was just amazing to see all of these people in one space dedicated to fighting for justice in Baltimore in the context of a Jewish space. I saw how I could bring together my political identity and my Jewish identity. It was an awakening moment,” and he became involved with JUFJ as a volunteer, serving on its Baltimore Leadership Council, as co-chair of the Baltimore Action Team, and as a Jeremiah Fellow.
Professionally, he accepted a position as Associate Director of Health Policy with Cure Violence Global, an international NGO, and continues to serve as member of the MD Violence Prevention Coalition. Subsequently, Matan was on staff in the Office of State Senator Mary L. Washington as Special Assistant for Research, Advocacy and Public Policy. In June, 2020, a position opened up at JUFJ, and Matan was hired as MD Community Organizer, blending his multi-year volunteer commitment with his parallel career track. In this capacity, he describes his job as “advocating on our legislative priorities for 2022, and organizing fellow Jews and allies across the state around the core priorities of JUFJ and our partners for racial, economic and social justice in MD. We also work with folks to strengthen their own leadership in community organizing, engaging them in the work of advocacy and reaching out to stakeholders in their networks to ignite their passion and activism.” In the last 18 months at JUFJ, his role has grown as he began representing the organization in more coalition spaces. “That requires deep trust with partners and diving into that interpersonal communication, and I’ve been given the space to be creative with the way we engage our volunteer leaders.”
When asked about his personal strengths, Matan first says, “listening, a strength I have worked on and continue to work on. Deeply listening with real intention and curiosity and attentiveness.” He also cites feeling deeply curious, “wanting to always ask questions about self, others, systems we are in and processes we use.” Matan explained that these strengths are “muscles that we constantly have to work.” He resists the traditional notion of mentorship, preferring to call it collaboration or partnered learning. “When I share something, there is a lot to be learned about how it’s received and then the reaction from there and the constant feedback loop.”
One persistent challenge of his leadership journey is how to be a leader while not being at the center. This involves finding new ways to model what leadership can be that feels more accessible to people. His advice to someone creating their pathway: “Try to learn as much as you can and find out who is working on it already. Feel the passion and direct it into curiosity, then build those trusting relationships that can allow you to ask the questions, to be a learner, to be a person who can then step into roles of leadership and be OK making mistakes and being challenged.”
His continuing leadership learning includes participation in the intensive and highly selective Friedman Fellows program for Jewish community professionals. He wants to understand how one builds organizations using best practices in organizational management, how to intentionally foster organizational culture and community in a way that allows people to develop new skills and be challenged while having the space to flourish and express the skills that they bring to the table, “especially when they are non-traditional skills.” He feels, “it is critical to continue to foster relationships that allow you to challenge existing power structures, especially when that includes addressing the way that you personally and professionally benefit from those very same power structures. It is a conversation that more and more people are having. What I’ve found in the leadership journey is having people who can be with you in relationship and that hold you accountable to that. It can be an uncomfortable space, but it is critical when we talk about the pursuit of collective liberation.” In concert with this commitment, Matan participates in the DEIJ community of practice.
So how does Matan unwind? “It’s something I’m trying to figure out. In the work of advocacy, friends and community building all blend together, which I actually view as the beauty of the work but separating the two is a work in progress.” He is passionate about hiking and biking and is a long-time volunteer at the Baltimore Youth Kinetic Energy Collective (BYKE), a youth empowerment after-school program centered on personal and professional development through bicycle mechanics and community building. “I spend as much time outside as possible and look for any opportunities to be with community: shared meals, learning new recipes, being with family and really cherishing any moments of real connection with people,” he said with a smile.