TEDxUCLA 2015: Beyond the Box

Inspiring social change through community organizing


About Dara

A graduate of Stanford University, with a B.A. in Feminist Studies and Religious Studies and a Masters in Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, Dara was ordained in 2006 at the  Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Dara was recognized in 2014 as the Human Rights Rabbi of the Year by T’ruah, the national Jewish justice organization. The award reflects her outstanding leadership at Isaiah, among interfaith communities in Los Angeles, and nationally, on issues of health, environment, education, hunger and human rights.


So if you’d asked me what causes I cared about when I was in high school, I would have told you Greenpeace. Save the whales and the love the Earth. Now, did I really care about Greenpeace? Probably not enough to make a difference.

It’s not that I wasn’t an empathetic kid. I was. But environmental issues weren’t connected to my core interests. Spotted owls and oil spills didn’t keep me awake at night, and frankly they weren’t what got me up in the morning.

Now if you’d asked me to tell you a story about what life was like for me at 16, you would have heard about the stress of balancing homework, about trying to stay connected to friends, playing sports, and obligations to family. And you would have heard and known that those were my core issues, my core interests. And so not surprisingly, those were the things I was willing to spend my time and my energy working on.

Now, the reason I tell you this story today is because it’s been 20 years since I graduated from high school. And I still need to remind myself that my desire to pursue any issue of justice is deeply and intricately connected to my self-interest. I can talk about a lot of issues, and trust me, I do. But there are only a few that I’m willing to give my time and my energy to work on. And if you want to know which ones, you have to know my story.

One of the biggest challenges we face as agents of social change is that we forget to learn people’s stories as we attempt to enlist them in our cause. And that’s a mistake. Because what we care about is deeply connected to who we are: our life experiences, our pain and our disappointment, as well as our greatest joy.

And if we can just remember to get at those kinds of stories and share those of our own, we are far more likely to create a network of committed people who are ready to bring about real social change.

We live in an age of surveys. Five simple questions will tell you everything you need to know about who I am and what I care about. And this is true for businesses, for universities, and in fact, even for synagogues. I can provide you with a better product, a faster education, maybe even a more satisfying spiritual experience.

The problem is that surveys don’t work for social change. Here’s an example from Temple Isaiah, where I work. Our congregants a few years ago began talking about health care and the Affordable Care Act, and they wondered: were people in our community struggling with access, or were they suffering under the debt of unpaid medical bills? And how could we help act on their behalf? So, of course, somebody said, “Let’s send out a survey. That way we’ll know.”

Instead, we focused on sharing stories. We invited 10 to 15 people to come to a local home and to share an experience that they had, had connected to insurance or to health care. And as a result, those of us who sat around the table that night learned together about the struggle to care for aging parents at the same time as adult children with a variety of health care needs. We heard about the fear of changing jobs because that place of unemployment would mean a loss of coverage. We did hear about bankruptcy and unpaid medical debt, and we also heard about the lack of mental health coverage in Los Angeles.

Surveys will never be able to produce the feelings and the emotions and the sense of connection that people receive when you sit together and listen to people telling their stories, right? Surveys are not stories.

Stories remind us that what we think are deeply personal, private issues are in fact shared public concerns. And as a good house meeting host, if you can remember to spark people’s imagination before they leave, you can actually begin to transform their lives.

“Imagine,” you say to them, “if we began to work on any one of these shared issues together. Instead of you fighting alone, there would be others now standing by your side. Instead of one voice, there would be many.” Stories, sharing stories out loud, give us a chance to begin to see ourselves differently as well as other people, and they can even begin to change how we see the world.

Now about a year ago, I had the good fortune of being in a lobbying meeting with one of our California representatives. I was there with a pro-Israel pro-peace group attempting to convince this person to work harder to push for a two-state solution. Now, we shared a lot of statistics and we made a strong argument for international security, and we listed all of the other representatives who were already on board with our plan. We thought we were being pretty persuasive.

But as it turns out, nothing was happening. And it wasn’t until one of the members of our group chose to share a personal story of heartbreak and sadness and anger connected to this issue that that representative went from that polite head-nodding to leaning in for a better listen. Something in that story was a trigger for him. And as a result, he then shared a story about heartbreak and about sadness and about anger. And you can sense the entire tone of the room began to change and a partnership was beginning to form.

Towards the end of the meeting, the representative asked us to stay in touch, to continue to use our voices, to not be strangers to that office. And the reason is because those kinds of stories lead to connections that create a sense of accountability on both sides. And that is the accountability you need if you want to turn people out for your events. It’s the reason why if you call me up and you say, “I need you to show up for me, to stand up, to speak out for this event, this cause that means something to me,” I am far more likely to say yes if I know your story.

Now I know I’ve been talking about stories, but I just want to take one minute to talk about email, because one of my favorite tools of procrastination in anticipation of a very big social justice event is the dedication of time and energy to the mass email. I can spend hours constructing the words, adding colors and highlights, and then with one simple click, I can send it off to the masses and await their response. Of course, this doesn’t work. Because unless my event is handing out cash or puppies, email is rarely the greatest tool of turnout, right?

Imagine, instead of email, if I spent 30 minutes talking to every single person on my distribution list. And not just a casual conversation, a real conversation about who we are and what we care about. And now imagine if I went back and face-to-face asked that person, “Will you come out for me? Will you turn up? Will you use your voice?”

Here’s an example from Temple Isaiah. Recently, actually two weeks ago, we gathered a group of baby boomers together at our temple and we asked them to share stories about what it was like to be aging in Los Angeles. And they shared some really powerful images of what it felt like to be aging in place here: the lack of public transportation, the fear of isolation, the rising cost of housing, and the inability of their children to move back to Los Angeles to be closer to them.

We listened really closely as they told those stories. And towards the end of the meeting, we made them an offer. We said, “Listen, a week from now, we’re going to be at a special board meeting at the Metro where our community organizers are going to be presenting on affordable housing and laying down new public transportation and the places that are most important to us. This is in your interest. We heard your stories. So come with us and see what’s possible when a group of thoughtful, committed people get together and work for social change.”

We share stories and we reveal something powerful and important about what we really care about. And if we can remember those stories, then we can offer people a real opportunity to act on their self-interest, and slowly they’re gonna begin to see their worlds change.

Now, if you want to use your story for social change, you’re going to want to incorporate something that I’ve learned to call calculated vulnerability. This means what do you need to share about yourself, who you are and what you care about, so that the people listening really understand you and your interests? And more importantly, will your story invite them to share a story as well?

So here’s an example. If I wanted to get you involved in the Reform California campaign to address racial profiling in our state, I could simply tell you, Llisten, I am heartbroken about the escalating rate of violence between African-American men and boys and law enforcement. Join me.” I could do that.

Or I could tell you a story — and this is true — about the fact that my husband and I, both white, are currently in the process of being certified as foster parents in Los Angeles, which means there’s a very high likelihood that someday we will be part of a trans-racial family. My interest in being part of a movement that addresses systemic issues of race and violence is because I don’t know how much protection I can offer my child if our society continues to function in the way that it does. Will you join me?

Calculated vulnerability. You don’t need to know my entire life story. You don’t even need to know why we’re adopting. But you do need to understand why this campaign is important to me personally and how it’s connected to my core interests.

And because this is about an exchange of story, then I need to make sure to ask you to share a story as well. So tell me, what has been your experience with race and violence? And don’t just tell me what you care about. Tell me a story that helps me understand why you care about it. Because it’s those kinds of stories that build the relationships that give us the power to do the work we want to do in the world.

Now I’ve just been talking about these stories, but I want to tell you, as comfortable as I am doing this, this kind of work is completely countercultural. Right? Sharing stories, expressing vulnerability. This is not how our society operates. In fact, it’s not even how synagogues operate, although they probably should.

When we do one-to-one trainings at Temple Isaiah, we warn people as they’re about to go out and begin interacting in our community: “Listen, you’re about to go out. You’re really excited. You’re gonna go up to one of the people in our community and say, ‘Hey, let’s get together, let’s have coffee, let’s talk about who we are and what we care about.’ And they’re gonna think you’re selling them something, right? They’re gonna say ‘You’re looking for a donation again, aren’t you?’ Or ‘You want me to join a committee.’ Or here’s my favorite response: ‘Tell you what, we don’t need to meet. Just send me an email. I’ll let you know what I think.'” Right?

We are so uncomfortable sharing our stories out loud. Unless it’s our therapist or our best friend, talking about who we are and what we care about in public feels scary, feels uncertain, feels unnatural, which is too bad because that means we’ve lost a valuable tool in building community.

But we can bring it back. If you want to be someone who transforms people’s lives. If you want to be someone that makes this city, this state, this nation, and this world a more just and equitable place, then you need to slow down and you need to start with story. Because story is gonna be your building block.

Start with telling your own story and then go out and start collecting others, through one-to-one conversations or through house meetings, and find a way to remember those stories because that is going to be the key to your political turnout. You have to hold all those stories together. And if you can, try not to rely on email or Facebook or SurveyMonkey. Start with conversations and start with story.

Look, we are all standing in a tragic gap between the world as it is and the world as it could be. And you can cross that gap alone, screaming at the top of your lungs, or you can invite other people to join with you.

If you start with story, I can promise you: you won’t be walking alone. Thank you.