My Tivnu Gap Year on the Pale Blue Dot

My Tivnu Gap Year on the Pale Blue Dot by Aliza Saunders - Photo by Molly Voit

Some time ago, I found an excerpt from a speech Carl Sagan delivered about the Pale Blue Dot, a photograph of Earth taken from 6 billion kilometers away. This small blue dot that Sagan is referring to is tiny in the grand scheme of the universe, but it’s the place where we all live and the place we care so deeply about. Sagan believes this tinyness “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” My home in Portland, Oregon, where I did my gap year, was not the only home I’ve ever known. It was, however, my whole blue dot for that year, and it was the place where I learned to live more kindly.

I participated in Tivnu, a Jewish, social justice-focused gap year program where we all had internships at local nonprofits and learned about domestic social justice issues together. Four days a week, I worked with people I learned to care about who I wouldn’t necessarily have cared about before—whether that be working the front desk at Street Roots, a street newspaper that employs houseless individuals as vendors to sell the paper, or working on a construction crew building tiny homes for formerly houseless people. These folks came from widely different backgrounds from myself—backgrounds fraught with trauma, abuse, loss, and stress. Even though our backgrounds are so different, I was able to create connections with them and cherish our relationships.

A few weeks before I graduated from the program, a vendor walked through the Street Roots office’s front doors holding several unwieldy bags and looking utterly exhausted. This vendor was just released from the hospital after being found uncontrollably shaking by another vendor earlier that morning. While in that moment, I couldn’t cure her deep physical pain or fix America’s broken health care system, I could offer her a smile and a safe place for her to go. And that’s exactly what I did. I greeted her by name, brought her bags into the back for storage, and handed her a cup of freshly brewed coffee. A few hours later, as I was closing down the office, this vendor was opening her sleeping bag, setting down her packs, and settling into her home for the evening: the Street Roots doorway. Less than half an hour later, I would be in the air conditioned Tivnu bayit while this vendor I’d just had a connection with would be on the sidewalk where I’d last seen her, because she had nowhere else to go. What I came to realize is that we’re all on this pale blue dot together—with some of us having so much we can give, while others have so little. This huge disparity upsets and frustrates me so much.

I could wallow in that frustration. Especially right now, as COVID-19 spreads and disproportionately impacts those with nowhere to go, houseless folks and others in the margins…it would be easy to wallow. But I can’t allow my memory of this woman who I met in the Street Roots doorway, truly drained both physically and emotionally, keep me in a pit of wallowing and despair. I have to let it propel me. I have to let it push me forward to support those on this pale blue dot in the most dire circumstances, and to create systems to make sure people aren’t in this position in the first place. It’s small yet powerful interactions like these that fuel my motivation to pursue justice in this world.

And I know it can’t stop there. I can feel the deep desire to change the world all I want, but I have to know how to improve this pale blue dot. I keep coming back to all the Tivnu educational programs we had last year—I learned about the environmental injustices people of color face, the lack of affordable housing in the Portland-metro area, and labor unions’ fights to earn a living wage. We examined solutions, learned about community organizing, worked on a campaign to preserve Oregon’s sanctuary state status, and built homes from the ground up for formerly houseless individuals. All of this helped me not just feel, but understand my desire to care for and support those living on this pale blue dot who need it most. It helped me delve deeper into understanding causes I care about in nuanced and complex ways, and have somewhere to channel my desire to help the world.

Before going on Tivnu, I knew I wanted to create positive social change, but I only had a faint idea of exactly what change I wanted to create and why this change is so crucial. Working directly with houseless folks gave me this answer—because real people, like the vendor in the Street Roots doorway, are behind each and every cause I want to fight so hard for. There are human beings affected by every broken system I want to change. Because, in the end, we are all living on this pale blue dot that I cherish so deeply and want to improve for the better.

I was on the front lines supporting people during my Tivnu year—witnessing the stress of being unhoused, the frustration, the fights, the uncertainties. And I was also sometimes in the background, witnessing the kindness—a vendor giving another vendor money to buy papers and a formerly houseless construction worker volunteering at her church’s warming shelter for days when the temperature dropped to unbearable degrees. It upsets me to witness all of this, but I’ve also been able to see such beauty in these situations. I saw people under extreme stress constantly making connections with and caring for one another. Seeing these positive interactions makes me want to get involved in kindness at a larger systemic level, where I can take the passion for these people with me and use what I’ve learned in Tivnu to create this change in communities I care about.

I’m in college now. My world as a freshman at Cornell University, both on campus and now remotely from my family’s home in Maryland, is pretty different from living with a bunch of peers in Portland, laughing and crying about our internships and immersing in social justice experiential education. It’s a different kind of learning. I’m majoring in Design and Environmental Analysis, and I plan to create healthy spaces for low-income folks, or maybe do user-experience design work. No matter what I end up choosing, though, the one-on-one connections from my Tivnu internships, as well as learning about the larger picture of injustice, continue to propel me. It was through those moments that I realized that I truly cherish this pale blue dot and the people living here. I will spend the rest of my life, whether that be at a design firm or a nonprofit or whatever comes next, working to create a more just place that we all call home.

A different version of this piece was previously published on
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Aliza Saunders is an incoming sophomore from Maryland studying Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University. Last year, Aliza participated in Tivnu: Building Justice, a gap year in Portland, OR where she worked with three social justice organizations mostly revolving around helping houseless individuals. Aliza is a strong supporter of long walks, the Trader Joe's dessert aisle, Orange Is the New Black, and Camp Ramah.
Accompanying photo by Molly Voit