Andrea Bernstein earned her master’s degree in social work from UW–Madison in 2003, specializing in school social work. In addition to her role as Hours Against Hate program coordinator, Bernstein holds leadership positions with the Fox Point-Bayside Educational Foundation Board and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), a grassroots, volunteer-run organization that advocates to improve the lives of women, children, and families. Bernstein has previously earned a School Support Award from the Coalition for Jewish Learning and was named an Emerging Leader by the NCJW.
Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position.
After I graduated I worked as a treatment foster care therapist for St. Aemilian-Lakeside in Racine County for about a year, and then I had my first child. My husband was in medical school at the time and I needed to stay home. I was home for 12 years, and during that time I got involved in a lot of volunteer work, including being the president for the National Council of Jewish Women, Milwaukee section. So, I was able to keep active and use some of my skills from social work school on a schedule that worked for me. I’ve always had a strong interest in diversity and equity, and this opportunity presented itself at a time when I was ready to come back to work. I definitely would not have had this opportunity if I hadn’t remained active as a volunteer.
What do you do in your current role?
The idea that I was tasked with was to engage schools and other organizations in pledging lunch for Hours Against Hate. You pledge one lunch period per month to engage with people across lines of difference. In the first year, I focused my outreach to schools and created a mini-grant program that schools could apply for to use for funding for bussing and lunches that would bring people together for these conversations. I also created a speakers’ bureau so that there are diverse community leaders who are available to speak to schools or other groups to raise awareness about different, diverse groups in our community.
Another aspect has been raising awareness of Hours Against Hate on social media. I have conducted at least 10 mini-interviews that were sample Hours Against Hate conversations and put them on Facebook Live so that people could learn about some of the diverse members of our community and their experiences and also observe what kinds of conversations you can have when you do a lunch hour.
I am available to any workplaces or faith groups that are interested in either finding a partner organization to plan lunches with or to think about creating opportunities within their organization to get people together, getting to know each other just as human beings beyond just what’s related to the work they do together – the idea being that we inherently dismantle biases when we get to know people across lines of difference.
What do you like about this job?
I meet the most amazing people. This work has given me the opportunity to explore other people and organizations that are doing incredible work around the community. There are a lot of people that really, truly care about fighting segregation, dismantling bias, and promoting equity. When I’ve met with people, we have conversations about how to elevate each other’s work, because everybody’s approaching this work from a different angle. It’s been a great opportunity to be able to be creative, and the collaborative process of planning programming is so exciting to be part of.
What is challenging?
Scheduling is often a huge challenge. There’s a huge desire to engage across lines of difference, but sometimes the logistics are difficult. Sometimes people are reluctant, especially when thinking about engaging as a school, because talking about diversity can be messy and can bring up discomfort. Even when people understand the importance, I think many people feel they need more training and preparation to facilitate those conversations.
Do you find it challenging to reach audiences who might not be open to engaging with this type of program?
Unlearning bias is something that everybody needs to do. Nobody’s immune from bias. So those conversations are impactful even for people who understand the importance and are open to the idea.
What I love about Hours Against Hate is that you can start from exactly wherever you are at. We can challenge bias without talking about bias because really, this is about getting to know somebody on a human level. What are their interests? What are their traditions? What are their stories? Having conversations about racism, about privilege, about systemic oppression – those are all necessary conversations, but that’s one piece. Hours Against Hate approaches the human connection, and getting to know another person, which is a different part – it reaches the heart.
What did you learn from graduate school that has been useful to you in this role?
The UW–Madison School of Social Work really stressed a systems approach, and while Hours Against Hate does focus on the individual level through these one-on-one conversations, my eye is also always on thinking about organizations on a systemic level. I also did a school social work internship, so the familiarity with working with students and understanding schools has helped with the creation of the mini-grant for schools. And, of course, the coursework around diversity and oppression and privilege certainly has been impactful.
What kinds of things have you done that you think helped you get to this job opportunity?
Maintaining curiosity and an approach that there’s always more to learn, that’s immensely helpful as you continue along pursuing your career path. Also, when you stick to really your core values and your core commitments, it’s great guidance and it’s visible to other people. My view on going to social work school was that it was such a versatile degree, there are so many areas of social work where you can use your skills, so I think it kept me open to thinking about how my social work degree could apply in various roles. This isn’t what people might typically think as a social work job, but my social work skills absolutely help me in the work that I do.
What advice do you have for current graduate students interested in this type of work?
Finding mentors is incredibly helpful. It’s good to have people that you can consult and be vulnerable with to fully explore your choices and areas where you want to build yourself up. Career paths aren’t always a direct, linear path, and that’s OK. You can find ways to be engaged in a very meaningful way even if you’re not in the workforce. You can always find ways to connect the way you’re spending your time with skills that will be helpful in your career.
Anyone interested in learning more about Hours Against Hate can contact Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.