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Rabbi Michael Lezak’s Alabama Pilgrimage message to GLIDE’s Board of Directors

michael, alabama, rabbi

In April 2018, GLIDE brought 85 people to the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The museum tells the brutal birth story of slavery in America and its evolution and metastasization into racial terrorism, mass incarceration and mass poverty of people of color.

The nearby memorial tells the immeasurably vicious stories of 4400+ known African-American victims of lynching. Long before the group left for Alabama, we gathered multiple times at GLIDE in an effort to coalesce these individuals into a cohered group capable of loving and learning together. We sang together, shared meals, laughed and studied challenging history together. 

This requisite spiritual preparation enabled us to form a vibrant and caring community, one that was capable of supporting and loving one another through the hard soul-work we would do in Alabama and beyond.  Vernon Bush, the leader of the GLIDE ensemble and Isoke Femi, GLIDE’s Maven for Transformative Learning have anchored each of our journeys with their soulful presence and musical wizardry.

We raised money to bring 25 front-line GLIDE staff with us on this trip. In addition to being essential members of the group that we build, GLIDE staff often serve as gifted teachers for outside participants and for one another, helping to make personal connections between the stories we learn in Alabama to lived stories back here in the Bay Area.  

This first collective journey left a searing imprint on the souls of all participants. Upon our return home, the group gathered for recurring reunions to process what we had learned. GLIDE’s leadership pushed Center for Social Justice’s (CSJ) leadership to think about how to elongate and dial up the impact of the journey. We thought about circles of power and influence that we could invite on this transformational journey.

After several conversations with key leaders, we decided to build out a journey for medical leaders to look at the intersection of racial justice and health equity. By the time we organized GLIDE’s 3rd Alabama Justice Pilgrimage in March 2020, we brought 110 people with us, including 25 senior leaders from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). We returned from that pilgrimage on March 5, 2020, just as COVID-19 was cresting over America.

We were supposed to have two in-person reunions upon our return. COVID-19 interrupted those plans. Instead, the group of UCSF leaders has been meeting on Zoom every week or two for 3+ years now. These gatherings prove to be fertile ground to grow our relationships, to process hard racial justice stories near and far, and ultimately to support one another in our shared healing+justice work.  

In March, 2023, we returned to Alabama for our 4th Justice Pilgrimage. In addition to 60 GLIDE staff, Men In Progress and community participants, this year’s journey included Chancellor Sam Hawgood, Police Chief Mike Denson and 22 other leaders from across UCSF.

Before joining up with the broader group from GLIDE, this group learned from courageous justice leaders from the University of Alabama Medical Center, met with the Chief Medical Ethics Officer at Tuskegee University and rural activists working on sewage-justice challenges. On top of these challenging visits, we witnessed Black brilliance and resilience, visiting the Gee’s Bend Quilter’s Collective, and, for the first time, visiting Michelle Browder’s Mothers of Gynecology site.  

Since we have returned, intersecting groups of alumni from this year’s pilgrimage have been meeting regularly. UCSF Alumni from all 4 pilgrimages are gathering twice a month now, harnessing the power of the trip, supporting one another through personal and professional challenges, and thinking deeply about how to turn dials on justice at UCSF and beyond.  

We are already in conversations with UCSF and our partners on the ground to build out future pilgrimages.