Learning to Tell Stories

A Leadership Training for Jewish Environmentalists

 

"If you’re going to be a leader, you have to claim authorship of your own story and learn to tell it to others so that they can understand, appreciate, and share the values that move you to act, because it may move them to act as well." – Marshall Ganz, Harvard Professor
 
As a leader in the Jewish environmental movement, I’m continuously searching for ways to increase our effectiveness. Within our movement, we are full of passion, but when we go further into our communities and the mainstream of Jewish life- we struggle to get our message across. 
 
We tell people why we care.  We try to get them to do the right thing. We share with them how deeply environmentalism is embedded in Jewish tradition.  And yet, change is slow and difficult.  The challenge of protecting the environment can be complex and frustrating. We often form committees that peter out and make speeches that don’t generate ongoing enthusiasm. 
 
As the director of Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah, I am in contact with a global network of more than 300 leaders who are seeking to empower their Jewish communities to protect the environment. We’ve created lesson plans, Torah teachings, program ideas, and eco-reminders to stimulate Jewish-environmental education and action.  However, these resources are simply not enough to support leaders seeking to create change in their communities. To support these change agents, and all the Jewish environmentalists out there who yearn for community change, I began to look for community organizing and leadership tools to empower us.
 
As I had conversations about this in the Jewish community, I learned about the public narrative methodology developed by Harvard professor Marshall Ganz and the New Organizing Institute.  This methodology helps leaders identify their purpose and communicate their values in a way that motivates others to act. The public narrative methodology is based on the famous Hillel dictum:
 
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, who am I?  And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14)
 
Who are you? Who is your community? And what do you need to be doing now? These fundamental questions are key to making change in any community.  We can communicate the answers through stories that empower ourselves and others.
 
Professor Ganz’s methodology focuses on the power of stories as a way to express values in a way that resonates with others.  A story includes a character who is presented with a challenge, and makes a choice in the face of that challenge. The choice leads to an outcome. The outcome – the end of the story – teaches us something about the choice.  This lesson is the “moral” of the story.
 
As Jews, we have an ancient history with the power of stories: imperfect leaders (e.g., Moses, David), heroic individuals (e.g., Miriam, Pinchas), and shared experiences as a community from the times of Egypt through today. These stories teach us about who we are and what is possible for us.  We can use the stories from our own lives to teach others, as well.  
 
With the support of the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators (founded by Lynn Schusterman), I was given the opportunity to test this methodology with a series of leadership trainings in 2011. I organized Jewcology Public Narrative Trainings in partnership with three major Jewish environmental conferences (the Kayam Beit Midrash in Baltimore, the Teva Seminar on Jewish environmental education in New York, and the Hazon Food Conference in Sacramento, CA). All together, we educated 48 Jewish environmental leaders – individuals who are pursuing or currently engaged in educating local and national audiences.   
 
Within the 8-hour training, participants learn to identify and tell powerful stories that can express our purpose, unite our community and inspire meaningful shared action.  The methodology is organized around three different “stories” which one defines for oneself and the group: the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now.  
Self: Participants identify their own personal story so that they can explain how they because committed to Jewish-environmental activism. 
Us: Drawing upon common values with the group in the room, participants identify a “story of us” which could resonate with the values of all the people there.  
Now: Finally, participants were asked to identify a story of now: one single, specific, urgent action that could be requested of all the participants.  
 
Participants have the opportunity to learn about the stories, develop their own, practice them, and provide feedback to others. After developing the three stories separately, we learn to weave them together into one brief (four minute!) leadership narrative.
 
For me, the most useful part of the training was working on the story of now. I realized that I have spent a lot of time talking about myself and about community initiatives, but not very much time making clear and urgent requests. It was also useful for many to explore how to bridge their personal story and their “ask” with a “story of us” which enables others to feel a part of a common movement.
 
After the training, participants expressed greater confidence and preparation for future public speaking. They felt more empowered to tell their personal stories and to ask for participation from their communities. As one recent participant commented, 
 
“I felt empowered to tell my story… and I felt the intense writing sessions forced me to focus in on the most important aspects of my story. I fully intend to use what I've learned in ‘the real world’!”
 
Participants reported being more empowered to speak to their target engagement audience and also to people who do not share the same Jewish or environmental values. 
 
The New Organizing Institute is committed in helping local leaders develop the skills to offer the training within their own communities. In fall 2011, a subset of our recent participants will be educated to assist with providing the training within the Jewish environmental movement, so that we can carry the capacity for this skill into our community in an ongoing way.  As we become more effective at telling the stories of what inspires us and why we are called to act, we can engage communities more effectively and requests for action become more natural.  
 
As we learned in the leadership training, “the story starts the fire.” But activism is not only about stories. We also need to know how to organize campaigns and what to ask for. As a next step, we plan to organize multi-day trainings which include the public narrative as well as other components of organizing.
 
To learn more about the Jewcology Leadership Trainings, visit the Leadership Trainings community on Jewcology at http://www.jewcology.com/community/Leadership-Trainings  
 
The public narrative methodology is a useful tool to help leaders of all faiths and causes communicate their values and commitments, inspire others, and motivate action.  To learn more about the public narrative methodology and using these tools in your community, visit the New Organizing Institute at http://neworganizing.com/.
 

 
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