Lisa Curtis

Her Favorite Book

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

It was the first book I read that made me really connect with a character – it made me cry.

 Her Mantra

“What I do matters.”

When I think about that, it reminds me that I need to be present in the moment and show up, and be the best that I can be in every moment. Because even the little things – what I do matters – those little things add up and mean something so much to someone else.

Her Leader

Oprah Winfrey

She has always been my mentor in my head. I love how she brings a real passion to the work she does – that resonates to people that watch her and listen to her. I love the philanthropy work that she does and how she really tries to engage in a meaningful way in the world. I hope to emulate that and be somebody who can authentically show up in different spaces and inspire other people.

Tell me something about yourself and What’s your journey to become the director of Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project? 

I am from the mid-west, from Kansas City. My mom is a single mother. I got a lot of my love for community, advocacy, activism and education from my mom, who was very active in our community back home. She worked a lot with youth, raising awareness about how they can feel empowered and get involved in community. From a very young age, I knew that I wanted to do something like that, something related to community advocacy, though it has taken a lot of different forms.

My junior, or senior year of college was when I finally decided I wanted to become a lawyer. I took a few years off after graduation. I taught high school in Charlotte, NC with Teach for America. I love teaching now – many of my teachers through my academic career have had a major impact on my life. But, at that time I was terrified of going in and teaching high school students when I wanted to teach 4th grade kids… So, going in to teaching, I was nervous and that’s an understatement. I was scared. The years of teaching were very challenging – I taught U.S. History, Civics and Economics to 10th and 11th graders. For the first few weeks of school, I came home every day in tears, because it was such a new experience and just really challenging to reach the kids, get their attention and stay on task. But looking back on it, I would say, those years are some of the best of my life. They really informed the work I did as an attorney. They changed my outlook on education, education reform, and what empowerment of youth really means. After teaching, I got into law school at American University, and threw myself into the public interest world and community of D.C. Then I graduated and was an education and domestic violence attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. That was a pivotal move for me, because I didn’t really understand what homelessness was. It opened my eyes to how being in a family with income and housing insecurity impacts children. So, I worked at Children’s Defense Fund and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights in the Educational Opportunities section. These experiences informed the work I do now as the director of the Marshall-Brennen program. I am so excited to serve in this position because it really blends my experience of being in the classroom with my knowledge of the law and advocacy, and my core passion for youth development and empowerment and civic engagement.

What’s your role in Marshall-Brennan?

In the role of leading the program, I am responsible for seeing the vision and mission of the program through. Jamie Raskin founded this program back in 1999. He was since then been elected to the U.S. Congress and so transitioned out of his role at the beginning of this year. I really see my role as moving his dream for Marshall-Brennan forward, which is, to create a movement in D.C. and across the country, of engaging high school students and law students in this work of building our community of civic engagement and civic advocacy. But I also see my role as educating the law students and empowering them. Having that direct access to the high school students is a position of great power and influence, and I want to engage and support them in a way that encourages them to use their experience to inform their future advocacy in a meaningful and fulfilling way. Many of our former teaching fellows, who may have had some of the toughest students, who may not understand what civic engagement is and why they should care, would tell me that, you know, I thought I would go into the classroom and change their lives, but they ended up changing my life. What I want to do is to expose law school students to that perspective, and have them be open to new experiences and the evolving dialogues.

Briefly tell me something about this project itself? What do you see as the core value of Marshall-Brennan?

We engage upper level law students to teach the Marshall-Brennan youth justice course in public high schools that serve underrepresented students for a full year. We have eight schools in D.C. and twenty teaching fellows that teach those courses. Each week, Law Fellows typically teach three days per week. The youth justice course curriculum is about educating the high school students around those amendments that are most relevant to high school students’ lives. We try to really educate them about what their rights are, what it means and how they could apply them in their lives. One way we do that in the fall is through our William H. Karchmer Moot Court competition. Through the fall semester, we are teaching the high school students advocacy skills, analytical skills and skills of persuasion – how to read something and how to justify your stance and argument. The culminating activity is the students arguing before local attorneys and judges in that moot court competition. We have hundreds of students, faculty members, teachers, judges and lawyers from community to participate. The top six competitors from that competition get to go to our national moot court competition. On our national side, we have 18 chapters around the country that are modeled on the same mission and activities.

The hallmark of the Marshall-Brennan Project is this belief in our youth, that they really hold such power and influence in American life and American democracy. All that’s needed is for us to engage them in a real way that relates to their lives.

Why is civic education important and how does Marshall-Brennan facilitate this type of work?

We have seen in the past few months, with the new administration we have, the importance of educating our population around what it means to be a member in American democracy. We oftentimes take for granted our constitutional rights and forget about the power that the people have, to create the mold, and to serve as a light and beacon of American democracy. I think it starts young, and we believe that if we can start with students who are at the beginning of their academic careers, it really excites them and ignite their passion for civic engagement. Whether or not they go into public service or become lawyers, they will use that information in the work they intend to do and really have the love and passion for civic engagement.. It’s important to inform people of what their rights are and how to implement and exercise those rights, then we can in some way ensure that our democracy becomes all that it can be.

In our program, we do that by really making sure we are bringing this old text, which people are always confused about what our framers intended to say, into life. But, if we can make it real for our students, and translate that text to them in a way that makes sense for their lives, right here right now, I think that they really get the power of it, and that’s where the passion and the love of our founding values comes from.

What do you see as the major challenge of teaching civic education in today’s classroom? How does Marshall-Brennan overcome the challenge?

Being outside of public school and secondary education system allows us a little bit more flexibility and opportunity to be cutting edge and creative in programming. We work nicely in tandem with local school district. There’s power in engaging law students because they are young enough so that high school students could see themselves in them. And they also get what is going on currently in the lives of America. Part of the challenge of doing this work is to tell the story and narrative in the way that students can relate to and see themselves in the cases that have shaped our constitution. That is a major challenge and one that Marshall-Brennan commits itself to – making the constitution relevant to the lives of the students. There’s real power in that, and once you can light that flame, where and how they will use that information is limitless.

Do you see any shifts in the way constitutional value is understood among younger generation, compared to your generation?

I think a big difference has been with technology and social media. The quickness that people can mobilize a protest and a movement is something that previous generations didn’t have. I think that has a huge impact in the way people relate to the constitution, constitutional rights and our democracy, cause it’s quicker now and you can see what other young people like you are doing, how they are speaking out against injustice and things they see as needing to change. The ability to share your voice and get it out there is a lot more impactful and easier to access than in previous generations.

However, that also brings up problems. We’ve seen a lot of fake news over time. It’s a big theme for us this year talking about what is fake news and how can we decipher that.

What we do with Marshall-Brennan is try to set that context and a critical thinking framework so that in the sea of this massive influx of information, individuals will be able to filter out what is useful, and what is meaningful and true.

Imagine you are at the other side of the table and become this “mega citizen” who cares about American democracy. Think about it philosophically and practically – what does it mean to fund American Democracy?

One thing that I think is the key to American Democracy, is that we are so diverse and we have so many people here with different experiences and cultures, languages and loves. I think that’s what makes our democracy so strong and we have a framework for supporting our diversity. But it’s really up to the people to bring those values and rights to life and make sure that it’s executed and in a fair and just way for everyone.

If I were a mega citizen, I would create more opportunities for education and engagement in the civic process. We are doing great work in Marshall-Brennan, and more work needs to be done to translate the democratic process. Something that I think is really cool that I’ve seen in the past few months are these groups/ organizations that come out and use social media as a tool to engage people. Every time something needs to be done they will text people, urging them to call their representatives, and tell them what they could say. I think that makes the democracy and its process accessible to everyone.

Another thing I think will be cool is that, there’s no one language for American democracy. I think in the past we talked about it using terms like civic engagement. I think we all know what that means, but what are some other terms we can use to describe the ways that people can engage in our democracy? Another idea that I would like to bring to life is  a program, that selects young people from across the country to become ambassadors of American democracy.  Essentially this would be a training ground for young people to learn about the fundamentals of American democracy and our governmental process in the Constitution. But also, they learn about the advocacy tools and tools for movement building and organizing community that they can use to inform their work. Based on the information they learn, the students would create a project to solve a community ill.  The more we can get youth from diverse cultures, ethnicities and social-economic backgrounds, the stronger and more relevant it will be.

Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, recently came and  spoke at the American University Washington College of Law’s Commencement and said something that has stayed with me – he said that “there is power in proximity.” I think that this statement really illuminates an issue we have as Americans.  Everyone is living separate lives and we are not in tune with one another. America is diverse but we don’t have diverse communities. I think what Bryan is saying is that let’s leave the comfort of the communities, let’s connect and create solutions. If we can have a space or spaces where people from different communities can come together and engage in a solutions-oriented conversation. I think that is the strongest way forward.

Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project was a grantee under Bernstein Family Foundation’s American Democracy Committee during year 2012 to 2016. 

In the fall of 1999, Professor Jamin Raskin of American University Washington College of Law launched the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project named in honor of the late United States Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan, Jr. This project, founded with the enthusiastic support of Mrs. Cissy Marshall and the late Mrs. Mary Brennan, was designed to mobilize talented second- and third-year law students, as well as LLM students, to teach courses on constitutional law and juvenile justice in public high schools in the District of Columbia and Maryland. The national program is headquartered at the Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C., and the program has expanded to licensed chapters in law schools across the country.

This movement for constitutional literacy is rooted in the belief that students will profit for a lifetime from learning the system of rights and responsibilities under the U.S. Constitution. Many citizens do not participate and feel disengaged from politics. The Marshall-Brennan Fellows work with teachers, administrators and lawyers to teach students their rights as citizens, the strategic benefits of voting, how lawmaking occurs and other fundamental constitutional processes.

Melinda Cooperman

What was your journey to becoming the Associate Director of Marshall Brennan?

I have about 10 years of experience in civic education, and I’ve always been interested in teaching. I was a volunteer with an organization called the San Francisco Urban Service Project, which is an organization that places volunteers in community settings to lead programs and teach, and I was placed in a homeless shelter. I led a family education and activity program at this shelter for a year, and then I had a legal services fellowship in New York, and then I was a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador. I was in a very rural town and did a lot of education with students and adults and had a women’s group- teaching sex ed., environmental education, and English- and then I went to law school. I really enjoyed teaching while I was there and so I started teaching high school students through the New York Coalition for Civil Rights. I was trying to figure out what to do after law school and was fortunate enough to get a clinical teaching fellowship with the Street Law Clinic at Georgetown. I was there and came here afterwards.

What is your vision for Marshall Brennan, and what types of programs do you run?

The program is really here to empower two groups of people- high school students and law students. It’s a dual constituency program, and we have 19 chapters across the country. In all the programs, we teach law students who then teach in high school classrooms. We have communities in our law schools and then our students are leading communities, so we’re really trying to empower our law students with the skills and tools to then work with the high school students in the program. People learn more by teaching law, and our law students are gaining strong legal, strategic planning, and teaching skills from being in front of the classroom- and then they’re giving their high school students the knowledge to do something with their passion.

Brett Phelps, Marshall Brennan Fellow from University of New Mexico:

That reminds me of how, when I started doing this last year, how much I learned about the law from having to teach it. It was really great to realize by the end what I had walked away with. Having to know it to be able to teach it you really have to dive into it and wrap your head around it to be able to explain it, especially to high school students. So it was fantastic in that way. I’ve done a bit of teaching before this, so it was really great to jump in on the legal side. There are pertinent issues that students are very interested in, not theoretical things that you get in a lot of other high school classes. It’s not the kind of thing where someone can say- “yeah you’re going to need this one day”- it’s the kind of thing the students can go out and immediately use or understand in their community. I learned a lot and feel like they took a lot away from it too.

How do you wish people around the country and national dialogue engaged with civic education? And why are you so passionate about civic education?

One of the things I wish other folks would know and buy into is the importance of civic education. We talk about wanting to have a healthy democracy, but there are lots of conversations right now about how so many different communities within our country are separated from one another. For instance, we can choose the media that we look at, so we’re getting less of a broad spectrum of ideas and more just what we want, which doesn’t help democracy. It helps polarize people, and this is why we’re having such a breakdown both within the Beltway and everywhere else. It seems like there are a lot less people now who are willing to understand why people feel the way that they do, or vote for whatever candidate they believe in. I think civic education is incredibly important because not only does it give people the tools and the knowledge to participate in a democracy, it shows people how to be good citizens. It’s really how to interact and engage with one another as citizens. I think that by teaching in this very experiential way and having students engage with the law, where they have to debate and defend their ideas, but also listen to what other people are saying and respond to them, helps to strengthen our democracy.

And I think for me in terms of passion, a piece of this that I’m passionate about is watching people have those debates, they’re hard skills that you need to learn in order to be successful. In order for 21st Century students to be successful- and certainly in our economy where we’re less goods based and more services based- the folks who are going farther are the folks who can have jobs and work with people and relate to one another, so students need to be able to understand different perspectives, and respect them. They’re soft but yet hard skills that you need to succeed.

How are you using social media and all the changes in technology and the way that people access information in your work? How do you see this developing going forward?

It’s a great question and there are a number of ways in which we use it. Education broadly is trying to adapt to this, so one thing we’re doing is trying to use more tools in the classroom. For example, one activity that I’ve done numerous times, whether it’s an ice breaker or something more substantive, is to just have people take out their phones, look through, and pick out a picture that represents justice to them. They take 5 minutes, and then share it with someone they don’t know in the room. That is a way to integrate technology, and technology is responding to the use of technology. There are now text to poll apps, where kids download the app and can respond to questions the teacher posts on a PowerPoint, and it’s all live. I’ve had teachers give homework where part of the homework is to go find pictures that represent some concept and Instagram it.

In terms of the substantive, the last two years our Moot Court problems- we’ve actually collaborated with the Street Law Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center on this- have started to include technology based problems. We’ve been doing this partnership where the Street Law Clinic works on Mock Trials and we do Moot Courts, and we have kids in similar classes, so we’ve been playing around with the idea of exposing kids to the opportunity to take a case up the chain of litigation. So the case this year is a cyberbullying case, where a student wrote a song off campus and out of school, and then uploaded that song to Facebook and other kids downloaded it and used it to bully another kid. So the question is- at what point does the school’s reach stop, and when can the school reach out? These are real questions that are happening all the time now. If I post something on Facebook or Snapchat and bully you through that, if this is happening at home, when can the school start suspending me? What’s interesting about these questions is that they are very universal in experience. We have kids from all different backgrounds in this program, across the 19 chapters, and even across the city, but everybody has phones and everybody’s a teen and they’re all doing this. So it’s something, no matter whether you’re at a very wealthy private school or a really underserved public school, you understand phone bullying. Hopefully you haven’t experienced it but you know the concepts.

Brett Phelps: One thing I would add to that too that’s been interesting is that from a legal standpoint this is all newly developing law, and these younger kids are kind of at the forefront of where these laws are developing. So just from that standpoint it’s very different from a lot of other legal issues that are out there, and it gives them a chance to be at the forefront of how our laws are developing right now.

How is Marshall Brennan thinking about and leveraging partnerships with other civic education programs?

We do a lot of partnering with other organizations. For instance, there’s an organization called ConSource, run by Julie Silverbrook, and she started the National Campaign for Constitutional Literacy, which we’re a part of. What’s interesting about this issue, in terms of Constitutional Literacy and democratic engagement, is that it spans the aisle. In DC especially, those aisles are very present- we’re within the Beltway and many people have a strong political identity. But this National Constitutional Literacy Campaign is nonpartisan and has very bipartisan support. You have people looking at the 4th Amendment from the perspective of policing, the 1st Amendment from religious rights, and more. To have informed citizenry is important for all sides.

We’re part of the conversation in different ways. Last year I wrote an article for the Washington Times. I’ve presented at the National Council for Social Studies, and I am going to be presenting there again in December. I’ve presented about law related education at a number of different conferences within the legal and educational worlds. We’re growing through partnering with people in this space.

Brett, can you talk about the Fellowship program and your experience as a fellow and now working for the program?

I had some teaching experience before I came to law school, and come from a family of educators as well. When I saw the class, which also has its own seminar component, where we had a couple of attorneys who work with youth, I got to learn a whole lot about youth law and education policy and the way that that works. In New Mexico there are a lot of issues with our education system, so to meet these attorneys who are working on the behalf of students was really interesting. And then I got an opportunity to go into a school that was great, but that doesn’t have a very good reputation in Albuquerque. I grew up in rural New Mexico and I kind of had the same perception of this school, but I got there and it ended up being great, the students were a blast, and we had a lot of fun. Really they deal with the issues we talk about on a regular basis, so they had so much to contribute. It was really rewarding to really see them dive into this stuff with the Moot Court competition. Really they were little lawyers. We got them all suited up for our Moot Court competition, and they did really well. Two of the students from my team came out to the national competition here, and one of them actually made it to the semifinals. So I was really happy with how that went and how they came out at the end of the semester and we kind of went through all the things that they had learned, and we were all just blown away at how much we’d covered. Now, coming out here it’s a totally different environment, but the same kind of atmosphere and attitude in the classroom. I started my first day teaching yesterday at a great school, the Thurgood Marshall Academy, and I’m really excited about that. I have a little bit smaller group of students, who are very engaged, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how things are similar and different out here as we go through the semester. Also, I’m going to be reaching out to our other 19 chapters around, so I’ll get to learn a whole lot about how things are done at these other schools as well.

What is your future vision for Marshall Brennan?

There are more and more people interested in this. The University of Nebraska has reached out to us- they haven’t started a formal chapter yet but they’re in the process of exploring. Cornell started a chapter, and Howard University restarted a chapter. There’s a high school teacher in Kentucky who’s been very active in starting a chapter, so he’s reaching out to the University of Kentucky, and has been really active in trying to get that together, even though they’re around 2 hours away from his high school. So there’s a lot of interest. One thing I hope to see is that there is continued interest and growth. I think there’s going to be a time of change as Jamie Raskin, our executive director, is running for Congress. So there’s just going to be a lot of change. I think that looking forward its looking for the growth and the sustainability of the program. Our model is that we are partly funded by the university, and we also have soft money through grants. I think that as our community grows the grant support we need is going to get larger, because we’re bringing more people to this national competition. What’s also new for this year- that I’m working with the university on- is a wonderful research assistant of mine would like to start a mentoring program. She has clerked for a number of judges and she wants to start a mentoring program with them. She already has one of the judges, a Federal District Court judge, talking with one of her students every other week. So she’s trying to start that up and it’ll be a less formal way that people can be involved. Marshall Brennan is such a wonderful thing, and it also requires a very big commitment from the law students. So this is a way that students can get involved in a less time heavy way.

When you were growing up did you ever imagine working in Civic Education?

Not really. I liked teaching, and I always liked volunteering and community work. I mean you never know, this journey is a long one. I’m going to be taking my next steps actually in the next few months and moving on to a practice position. So there’s going to be change within the organization as well.

My mother always told me I would be a senator. I guess I could still be that. I just always wanted to work with people. I’ve always been very community oriented, and have always done a lot of community service work. There were times when I wanted to be a veterinarian or a marine biologist, there were lots of things I wanted to be. I think we’re always growing up and have a continual process of development.

If you could take the day off and go anywhere in DC where would you go?

I love to go paddle boarding on the Potomac. I’m a member of the Washington Canoe Club and I do that regularly.

What is your favorite Smithsonian museum?

I like to go to the bug zoo at the Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of American History.

Favorite restaurant?

We have a lot of good food in this city. I haven’t been there in a while, but I always loved Georgia Brown’s. It’s a great southern food place. I live on Capitol Hill so there’s a great Balkan place called Ambar there. Ted’s has a Tuesday evening milkshake and cheeseburger special, so that’s great too.

Eshauna Smith

Eshauna Smith

What was your journey to becoming the CEO of Urban Alliance?

How much time do you have? I’m just teasing. My own background is that I come from a strong family that had its share of economic challenges, among other struggles, and I grew up in a neighborhood in LA that was pretty violent. A lot of my peers were not doing the right thing, and we’re ending up in situations like early pregnancy. But because of my family, family friends, neighbors, and different folks who looked after me, I was able to make it out of that neighborhood. And I’ve been able to be exposed to what else there is in the world.

Once I realized that the opportunities for exposure and learning outside of my neighborhood were not accessible to all, it made me think about how lucky I was and how I should do something that would honor the opportunities that I had, and ideally open doors for other people to get some of those opportunities as well. Once that hit me, I began to think about what that looked like, and so I did a lot of youth organizing in college around trying to get young people to apply to universities, educating students about what they would have to do to be eligible for a college education, etc. And that connected to me to working at the Boys and Girls Club right after college, working directly with the students, helping them with their homework, reading, and math. You know, I just wanted to give back. Eventually, as I learned more about myself, what I was good at, what I wasn’t, where my passion really was, I began to understand that I wanted to uncover some of the pieces around systemic change. I was very interested in how you get services to last, how you get them funded, how you get them integrated into the fabric of communities, etc.

So I went on to get a Masters of Public Affairs, and from there came to DC to work for a consulting firm in their governmental contracting department. But what ended up happening is that the consulting firm over-hired, and didn’t have a job for me when I got to DC. So I had to restart my job search and I ended up at a small family foundation called the Moriah Fund. My job at Moriah was as the Junior Program Associate for their Reducing Poverty initiative within their DC portfolio. And I quickly realized that DC had two cities- one that was prosperous, wealthy, and ok, and one that was poor and in dire straits- and that was happening right in the shadow of the nation’s capital. It was saddening, fascinating, and horrifying to me. And I felt that I had found a passion and a calling to do whatever I could to help. At that point I’m really young and don’t have a ton of skills, but I knew that I wanted to do everything that I could to try to help those families, maybe some of them were just like my family growing up, to become more economically and otherwise stable. So after working at Moriah, I did various jobs, always around supporting low income families and young people and communities of color. So I was able to become the first executive director of the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, and then worked at the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, all of which led me to Urban Alliance.

Urban Alliance, is a direct service organization, and I really do believe that because of our model, where we use work experience as a vehicle to wrap around young people holistic and comprehensive support, we actually have a very comprehensive way in which we approach the challenge of helping young people become economically secure.

How many students does Urban Alliance serve in DC, and overall nationally? Is there a way to serve more or does it seem like that’s the right capacity?

In DC we have about 160 young people in the high school internship program. Nationally we serve about 420 in the high school internship program- in DC, Chicago, Baltimore, and Northern Virginia. We reach another 1,500 young people through our alumni services, stand-alone training partnerships- like our partnerships with the Economic Club of Washington, and the World Bank- and curriculum outreach and work readiness training. So overall around 2,000 young people a year.

Could there be more? That’s a very interesting question. Urban Alliance is looking at expanding to other cities, so we do want to serve more. We want to do that for one reason and one reason only:  there is more need in the world. Knowing that 100 percent of Urban Alliance interns graduate from high school on time,  90 percent of them go on to a 2 or 4 year college, and 80 percent of them persist in college, we know that we can help more young people find success.

But, wanting to serve more is a complicated situation, for a number of different reasons. The high school internship program is very intensive. They’re working 12 hours a week, they come to workshops at Urban Alliance on Fridays for several hours, they have preliminary training, and they have to get evaluated 3 times a year. It’s a rigorous and intensive model, and the quality level is very very important for us. So we take scale very seriously. We have to really consider how we scale in a way that is very responsible, and continues the quality level that we know our young people deserve. Scale is tied to our job partners. Whenever we get a new job opportunity, we can have a new student. So our growth is directly tied to companies saying they will take more interns.

How is Urban Alliance thinking about scaling up, and what are your plans for expanding in the future? 

We do have plans to grow in DC, Chicago, Baltimore, and Northern Virginia. We want to provide at least 200 internships in DC, 200 in Chicago, 90 in Baltimore, and 75 in Northern Virginia. So those are our goals, but we are also happy to exceed those goals if we can find more job partners. And we also are expanding to a 5th city next fall.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I try to work with my team in a way that recognizes that everyone is capable, has talent, and has ideas to bring to the table. There’s an expectation that we are here because we’re all passionate about young people, and we should act accordingly. We should get the work done, work as hard as we can, and recognize that it’s a privilege to do this kind of work. To be even one tiny part of the solution potentially is an amazing opportunity and we don’t want to squander it.

I try and figure out the best way to push Urban Alliance as far as I can push it, as fast as I can. I think that the model is absolutely brilliant, it is amazing. I can’t take credit for it, but it is comprehensive, it is working, and it is being evidenced to work. So we need more and more people to know what we’re doing, so that more people can get supported. That’s pretty much what drives me every single day waking up in the morning, and what drives me in my leadership: who else can we talk to about Urban Alliance, who else can we expose to this work?

We have to have 10 requests out to get 1 yes. So my style is, how many irons can we have in the fire at one time, while still having a clear set of goals that we’re driving towards? This is all about what we can do for young people, and so it’s a game of pushing out more and more information, building out the network, and getting more and more people to understand what Urban Alliance does.

What leaders do you admire?

Someone that I really admire is Kaya Henderson. I am in complete awe of her. The reason why for me is, what she’s taking on in terms of reform, in terms of changing culture and organizations, and righting the ship, is so huge. When you hear her speak she’s always inspiring and motivating. She’s very clear in her thought process around why she does what she does, why they make the decisions they make, and why they don’t make the decisions they don’t make. She has great technique and sense of style, and every time I hear her put her thoughts together to explain or articulate their mission or their vision, it makes me more motivated. She’s also a black woman and there aren’t a ton- I mean there are more and more- but there aren’t a ton of black women in high level leadership roles. Michelle Obama is another leader I admire as well. They’re definitely a reminder to me of what’s possible, and what can be.

I also admire everyday women who are juggling a job, and motherhood, and also active in their community, and maybe even running the Parent Teacher Association. I have a general spot in my heart for working mothers, who do that double shift. It is incredibly hard and incredibly powerful.

What makes you so passionate about the work that you do?

We’re myth-busting, and stereotype crushing.

I think because of the society we live in, the bar isn’t that high for people who come from disadvantaged circumstances, and/or communities of color. People aren’t expecting them to be amazing, to be exceptional, to be brilliant, and to be beautiful. So when we are able to bust through those myths, when a young person does their internship and now they have 50 fans across the company, who think that they are the absolute most amazing young person that they have ever met, and they’re trying to give them a scholarship for college, or give them a job when they’re done with school, that’s incredible.

To me we create value when people, who if 10 months ago would’ve walked by a young person and not given them the time of day, but now have seen them, who they are and what they do, and their perspectives have changed. We are absolutely a social change organization. I love that we have found a way that puts that on the table. Now people are trying to hire the young person we work with. I really love that about Urban Alliance.

I’m a huge fan of Civil Rights history and the Civil Rights movement, and the myth-busting and stereotyping that we are doing is sort of a new age of civil rights efforts. I love that about us. To go back to your question about leaders I admire, one of my all-time favorites are the Freedom Riders. They came down to the South, from all walks of life, and came together to register people to vote. I am in awe of those folks because, even at the age of 19, 20, and 21, people packed up their lives and moved to new states that were full of people who wanted to kill them, for the purpose of working to support other people. In my opinion there’s nothing greater than that kind of leadership.

How can people who have heard about Urban Alliance and are passionate about your work and mission get involved and support you?

There are a number of different ways. The first thing, which is the thing we need the most, are more companies that are willing to hire an Urban Alliance intern. Whether it’s part of our high school internship program, or sponsoring an intern at another organization, that is a great way to get involved. Another way is to talk to other people, your spouse, uncle, cousin, dad, mom, etc., about Urban Alliance. It’s amazing- people come to us and say things like, “Oh my dad is a partner in a law firm, maybe they’d like to have a young person”, and lo and behold it ends up happening.

Particularly with something like Urban Alliance, everyone knows somebody in a professional capacity, so you can get the word to them, and let them know that we’re always looking for companies to partner with. We also have public speaking challenges every year, and people can volunteer at those events and learn about Urban Alliance and our model. We also do career days, and college essay days that people can come to and get involved.

If you could take the day off and go anywhere in DC, away from emails, where would you go and why?

I love Bus Boys and Poets. I love the feel of it and what it represents. It’s a restaurant, the first one is at about 15th and U Street, but now there are more. It’s named after Langston Hughes- he was actually a bus boy in DC, while he was an aspiring poet. So “Bus Boys and Poets” is in homage of him. And really, not only him, but also so many folks who set the tone for what opportunity could look like for everybody.

When you walk into Bus Boys and Poets you feel that history, and the spirit of the Civil Rights movement. Also, next to the first one, there’s a restaurant that used to be called Eatonville, and Eatonville is the hometown of Zora Neale Hurston. The name has been changed now, but those two places are such vibrant cultural places for African Americans.

Favorite restaurant?

I used to love Lauriol Plaza because I love Mexican food. I like the atmosphere there and I grew up in LA, so I enjoy tacos and enchiladas. I don’t go anymore now that I have kids- we eat at home a lot. But I do like the Hamilton downtown as well.

Jim Beck, Sasha Bruce

Jim Beck

What was your journey to becoming the Vice President of Planning, Development and Evaluation for Sasha Bruce?

Before Sasha Bruce I had worked at a great non-profit in San Francisco called Haight Ashbury Free Clinics. In 2004 my partner and I were visiting her sister nearby, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and next to her sister’s house was a big old farmhouse that was broken down and foreclosed on, and there was a note on the door that essentially said “This will go to the highest bidder” and you just posted a number online to respond. So we posted a number just for fun, that we thought in no way would be successful, but next thing we know we own this farmhouse on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

My partner worked, and still does work, at an advocacy non-profit that was interested in opening a DC office. And our families are from the East Coast. So we said, change is good, why don’t I start looking for a job and then we’ll have this great place to go on weekends. So I went looking for a job at a non-profit whose mission was compelling, and youth services, homeless youth services specifically, was my primary area of interest with Haight Ashbury and in general, so I wound up interviewing with our executive director and founder Deborah Shore. And, I’ll never forget it, I came to this interview all nervous, having flown from San Francisco for the job of development director, and I get here, and Debbie comes to interview me, and she’s barefoot, and I thought- this might work out! Long story short I got and took the job, and moved here July 4th, 2004, and have been here ever since. Over the years I’ve taken on more responsibilities, and so now I oversee evaluation, so we can measure our outcomes better and demonstrate our work, which is a strategic priority, and I also oversee our strategic planning.

Working with homeless youth sounds like it can be exhilarating and exhausting. What do you do in your spare time to balance your life?

On weekends I like to garden and I work on my house, and I exercise and play basketball. I’m with my partner. So really when I’m not working I’m either reading or exercising, or just being with my partner. There’s a particular kind of stress that comes with dealing with young people that are in trauma, that have a lot of challenges in their life. So, even though I’m in an office and I’m a paper pusher, there’s still a lot of pressure that comes working for a mission driven organization, and so you do have to pay attention to separating yourself from work life. There are people who don’t and God bless them, I think they do a great job, but I sometimes think you become ineffective if you aren’t able to separate yourself from your work. So I do think you have to.

You’ve been developing a new aftercare program for youth involved in your shelter. Can you talk about the evolution of this and how you and your team have gone from inspiration to implementation?

When Debbie started the organization the real need was to have harm reduction services, where you would build trusting relationships with young people who have been burned in life. So we really started initially as a drop in center, then we developed into a shelter. To this day we have the only youth specific homeless shelter in DC. Then we’re thinking, that’s great, but what you realize after all these years is, however important it is to help young people overcome the trauma, to provide a safe home, to make them healthy again, to reunite them in school and reunite them with family, if you reunite them with family that still has a lot of the problems that cause the young person to be homeless in the first place, you’re still doing good work, but you’re not preventing future episodes of homelessness. And so for years now we’ve known that an important initiative is to try to have an aftercare component. There’s no government entity, there’s a dearth of grantmaking institutions that would want to support our aftercare program, but we know it’s important to continue to stay in touch with the young people and continue to do family work with them in their natural settings so we can reduce future episodes of homelessness.

So we were really strong advocates the past couple of years at the DC council level to create a specific act called the Homeless Youth Act. And they created it, and it had budget teeth. The city put out an RFP for non-profits to bid on to create a drop in center, for which there were none, and a continuous shelter. The Act also mandates that an annual count of homeless youth be conducted, so that we can continue to demonstrate the need. Homeless youth are probably the most hidden kind of homeless population, and they don’t fit the federal guidelines for priority. For HUD and other federal agencies that try and help non-profits deal with homelessness, the goal understandably is that the outcome should be a transition to permanency, the housing first model. You want to get people into permanent housing so that all the conditions can be addressed. But that’s not relevant for homeless youth, because they’re not ready for permanent housing. They should be looking to get into school and reuniting with their family. So homeless youth kind of get left on the side as government entities focus on permanent housing outcomes.

So we were really excited to have this new DC council level legislation, which is hopefully going to be matched at the federal government level. The recognition is that the youth have specific needs, and one of them is drop in centers, because they’re recalcitrant to come into institutions and mainstream organizations. There’s shame, there are all kinds of things that are particular to youth around homelessness. So we bid on the drop in center- it was almost like we were going back to our roots, in that initial kind of place prior to shelter- as a safe place for people to be, where we can determine their needs in a competent way, offer them shelter if they’re ready, and if not continue to build a relationship so that they make good choices. It’s almost like aftercare in reverse. So that happened, and we got the grant, and another organization has the grant, and now the city has a more robust homeless youth services system, and a better recognition of the particular types of services that young people need. It’s been a neat evolution. So drop in and aftercare remain priorities for us, so we can offer a continuum of services.

Can you talk about some other programs you and Sasha Bruce have for youth?

A great example is an event we did with Shinola Detroit at the end of June. Shinola Detroit is a big high-end watch and leather goods manufacturing company, and they just opened up a flagship store in DC. Through Tracy Bernstein- our Board Chair- who knew some of the principals there, we made the connection and invited them to come learn about Sasha Bruce. Their President is named Jacques Panis- he’s a really great guy, who didn’t graduate college, and who gets our mission and work- and they became supporters of ours. With them we organized a panel in their new store of well-known people who would describe to our young people- we brought a group of 20 or so young people who are interested in careers and who haven’t completed high school- how they made their way in life, what attributes you need, and what focus you need to become successful.

We had a former Washington Redskin talking about the way he made his career, a radio personality who is very popular among youth called “Sunny in the City”, Jacques Panis, a young person who had gone from homelessness to career, and the head of the DC Mayor’s Office of Economic Development- basically the person in charge of jobs for DC- as the moderator. Even though they were panelists, it was really more of a discussion and there was great back and forth. So it was a neat thing to have this kind of discussion, where young people heard from people who made it by really pulling up their own bootstraps, and what it was that they did to make their careers. I think the panelists learned a lot from our young people too. It was a neat thing and we want to do more of that.

There are young people we serve who come from the poorest parts of DC, and it’s common for them never to have even been to the Capitol, or to know about the professional opportunities one might have. Their community, for many of the young people, is limited to the neighborhood they grew up in. Poverty, joblessness, substance abuse, and school failure is the condition. So it becomes the norm. If you can get them out of the norm and to see other possibilities, my experience is that the young people embrace it and want those other possibilities. They just need to be shown the opportunities and then they will be their own agents to go for it.

How can people who are passionate about Sasha Bruce’s work and mission get involved and support the organization?

We’re looking for opportunities where we can make connections with people who want to give training and job opportunities for youth. That’s the biggest thing. When we talk to our young people, we ask them, what do you need the most, after a roof over your head? The answer: Jobs. So we’re looking for opportunities to make connections in industries like IT and restaurant service, etc.

I think a reasonable thing for us would be 20 opportunities, for our youth to have really more of an intensive experience in this. We also want people to be advocates for our mission. So we want people to be active in the policy area- supporting legislation and policy which helps young people be safe and have opportunities.

Of course, we’re also looking for volunteers. We’re right in the middle of developing our capacity of our volunteer program. We want volunteers to have a meaningful experience, and for the young people to have consistent volunteers. The thing we don’t want is for young people to get a mentor for instance, and for it to be a short term proposition and the person goes away. Because that’s repeating the experience they had in their families. So we want to find and train really good volunteers, to be mentors for a significant amount of time.

And finally, you can get involved with financial support. There are so many ways to do that, but I think one of the ways we want to grow most is for people to come, learn about our organization, meet our kids, so that they can really see if this is the right type of investment they want to make, and of course take next steps if they want to.

What is your favorite Smithsonian museum?

The Natural History Museum. I especially like their dioramas!

What was the last book you read? Favorite movie? 

I read books all the time. The best recent book I read is Big Rock Candy Mountain by William Styron. Styron was famous in the middle part of the century, and it’s a semi-autobiographical story about a family that travels all across the US, and all the things that happened to them, and it depicted a swath of time in US history that I found fascinating- the Western migration.

One last question, when you were little, what did you dream of doing when you grew up? Did you ever imagine yourself working in the non-profit space, and helping others in especially difficult circumstances? 

I wanted to be a cowboy. And I almost became one. I was in Wyoming during my college summers working at a ranch camp, and after my final year I got a job on a ranch right at the end of the season. So I actually had my own horse and a truck, and I was mostly irrigating- I wasn’t punching cattle- but I was pretty close to being a cowboy. I got to pretend I was one. But after failing as a cowboy I was thinking maybe I want to be a farrier- a person who does horseshoeing for horses- but I didn’t go to school for it. There was a cool school in Bishop, California that I almost went to to become a farrier, but then after that I went to San Francisco, and that’s when I realized I wanted to start working with homeless youth and people that had limited access to healthcare.

 

Sarah Lefton

Sarah Lefton

What was your journey to becoming the founder and executive director of Bimbam?

I worked in media, advertising, and tech when I was in my 20’s, and on the side I became really excited about adult Jewish learning. Coming from a small southern city where there wasn’t a lot of this available, and since I was working online I thought- I can create web based Jewish learning! Essentially my idea was to create was a Schoolhouse Rock for Jewish learning, and I kept thinking- I cannot rest until this thing exists! So here I am now.

What makes you so passionate about Jewish early childhood education and your new early childhood focused show “Shaboom!” ?

I have two young kids now, and I’m reminded by watching Sesame Street, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and other shows how effortless learning from media is. Children under 6 nationally are watching on average almost 2 hours a day of media. So it’s an effortlessly fun learning place for kids, and I thought- why not do the same thing for Jewish learning?

When did you realize animation is the transformative tool for reaching young Jewish kids? Are there other Jewish animation companies out there? 

Everyone knows that it’s so transformative. Especially anyone who’s a parent. Saturday morning cartoons are like magic. So of course we want to work with magic, and some of the people we’re working with at BimBam are also at big animation studios, which is really cool.

To answer the second question, yes and no. There are some people who do Jewish animation on their own, but as far as animation companies- not on this side of the world. There are some in Israel, and Chabad has some people who make cartoons for their website. In Israel the Hop! Network shows animation, and we’re actually talking with them now. The difference is, here its Jewish animation, there it’s Israeli. But we’re actually working on distributing in Israel!

How would you describe your leadership style and what leaders do you admire?

I actually didn’t set out to found a non-profit, and I didn’t go to business school. So my leadership has actually been quite emergent. I started out acting more like a traditional film producer, but recently I’ve been acting more like a non-profit leader, with the input of our board, and putting creative organization first and foremost, and delegating to our artists when they’re taking the lead. It’s situational, fast moving, and great.

You recently changed the name of your organization from G-dcast to Bimbam and have rebranded around Bimbam. Can you talk about why you decided to change the name, how you navigated through the process, and how you see it playing into your longer term success?

I actually came up with the name G-dcast directly. And this week’s parsha was the first episode I ever made. This week is actually the 10 year anniversary of it.

I thought the name was funny- it rhymed with “podcast”- and it was on a whim, something I did for fun. So for years the name stuck and the organization grew, and now we have over 3 million views on Youtube. But the name has been a problem in recent years. For some people, seeing “G-d”, or the dash, made it look evangelical, and they wouldn’t return phone calls. So when we launched Shaboom!, we knew we wanted to change the name.

We decided on BimBam, because it’s from a song that people know a lot- “Bim Bam… Shabbat shalom- hey!”- and it resonated with people. It’s a cool word, and easy to read!

What are the social implications of BimBam in the contribution of Jewish identity of the 21st century? 

So for younger generations, I bet if you want to know how to do something you spend a lot of time on Youtube figuring out. That’s where people are building their identities. Billions of dollars go into beauty videos on Youtube, and like anything in the world that people are passionate about, there needs to be great Jewish material on Youtube. It’s about building identities and building the identity of Judaism itself. If you search Jewish videos, chances are the video that comes up is a man with a beard discussing Judaism. With our work, we try to show the many faces of the American Jewish Community, and the richness and identity of it.

If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow for a weeklong trip, where would you go and why?

I have a specific answer: I want to go cycling through Japan. Shimanami Kaido. I’ve been to Japan twice, and it’s where I did my undergraduate thesis- studying interactive media. So I want to go back there again and have a chill trip and experience their culture.

When you were growing up did you ever imagine creating something like Bimbam? Jewish media, TV shows, etc?

No! I was always interested in filmmaking. I took lots of film classes. I did camp at the local public access media channel, and was really into Jewish music, but I never put two and two together until my mid-30s. In college I took a class on myth film making, but it didn’t occur to me to use Jewish myths! In my late 20’s I took a job as the marketing director of a Jewish summer camp, and I got really interested in the Jewish non-profit world. So now it’s all connected.

What goals do you and BimBam have for the next year?

There are 250,000 Jewish families in North America. I want all of them to see Shaboom!, and get excited about Shabbat, Jewish culture and values. We want to be a really welcoming place on the internet to learn about Judaism.

Jason Benkendorf

What was your journey to becoming the Executive Director of AU Hillel?

I came to American University as an undergraduate when I was 18, and when I came to American I thought that I was going into politics- my dream at the time was to be a political speech writer. During my time at AU, I did a lot of things in terms of political activism and internships, but was also very active in the Jewish community and had a number of internships within the Jewish community. Over the course of my time here as a student I found that I was less and less interested in a political career, and noticed more and more that the most fulfilling work I was doing was within the Jewish community. So it was really here at AU that I started thinking about working professionally in Jewish leadership. After I graduated I pursued first a couple of opportunities that were designed to be a hybrid of the two, and allow me to engage both in politics and the Jewish community, but after a couple of years I decided that what I really wanted to do was work with Jewish young adults. The most meaningful experiences I had were when I was able to be a part of people’s journeys to finding what was meaningful to them about being Jewishly involved. So I worked for a number of years with Jewish high school students, doing engagement and educational work, and 5 years ago I was presented with the opportunity to return to AU as the Hillel director. It really has been a dream come true in so many ways to get to do the work that I find really meaningful, challenging, and exciting, and to be able to do it at my alma mater is kind of the best of all worlds.

In what ways do you and Hillel engage with Jewish college students on a regular basis?

AU Hillel ran more than 200 programs last year, everything from Shabbat dinners and Jewish learning to service projects, social justice discussions, and Israel programs. Just as importantly, we focus on building relationships with those Jewish students who might not seek us out – meeting them where they are and helping them find Jewish experiences that will be personally meaningful to them.  We have a team of dynamic students whose role is to identify and engage those Jewish students who aren’t yet connected with Jewish life on campus; between them and our staff members, we have more than 2,000 one-on-one interactions with Jewish students on the periphery of our Jewish community every school year.  All of the research out there, and our experience on campus, tells us that relationships are really the key. For a student who’s not already closely identified with the Jewish community no event is going to bring them in, while the opportunity to build a real relationship with a peer or a staff member- someone who really cares to take an interest in them- is the way to open the door and hopefully help them find some point of connection to Jewish life.

How does AU Hillel differentiate from other Hillel programs?

There are 550 Hillels around the world doing really amazing work.  One focus for AU Hillel is the development of what we call micro-communities, small groups of students who come together on a regular basis to share meaningful educational experiences.  We have big events that draw hundreds of students, but the truth is that the magical moments – the really transformative moments – usually happen in a smaller group setting.  We have a weekly student-led Torah study program, a Jewish LGBTQ group, an affinity group for our Israeli and Israeli-American students, a women’s Rosh Chodesh learning group, and the list goes on.  The learning and growth that takes place within these micro-communities is tremendously inspiring.

In your role, you engage regularly with people from many different backgrounds- students, your team at Hillel, foundations, university leadership, etc- so how does this play into your approach to leadership?

The concept of relational leadership has always resonated with me.  When you’re in the business of enriching people’s lives and building community, relationships are everything.  Whatever success I’ve had as a leader has resulted directly from my ability to build relationships with stakeholders, to actually understand them, and to find the points of intersection between what they value and the values of the organization.  As Executive Director of AU Hillel, that’s the process I go through with students and university colleagues and prospective supporters. The conversations can be very different but when it comes to the approach it’s really very much the same- building authentic relationships with people who are part of our constituency in one way or another, really trying to understand what they care about and what motivates them, and seeing if there are things we are doing that excite them and make them want to be a part of it. I think we’ve had considerable success with a variety of different stakeholders, so it’s something that I strive to do, and when we bring on new staff and work with student leaders we focus on this in their training as well because it’s really at the heart of what we do.

What leaders do you admire most, and why?

I believe strongly that, as Jews, we have a responsibility to the Jewish people and to the broader world. That’s something I often challenge students to think about.  So I admire those Jewish leaders who demonstrate a real commitment to our particular community and to the broader world.  One great example was a gentleman named Phil Klutznick who, in the second half of the 20th century, served as president of B’nai B’rith International and of the World Jewish Congress, and also as U.S. Secretary of Commerce and a U.S. delegate to the United Nations.  He was somebody who naturally transitioned between leadership roles in the Jewish community, and in American society at large. The way that he moved back and forth between these different types of roles, it’s clear that he didn’t see them as separate endeavors but, rather, as different ways in which he could serve and make a difference in the world.  For me, that’s really inspiring, and a wonderful embodiment of how I think of leadership as a balance between the particular and the universal.

As a non-profit leader how do you evaluate your progress and success? How do metrics play into your work, and what suggestions do you have to other non-profit leaders about using metrics?

We at Hillel have developed very clear metrics to measure our success, and we are very serious about data collection.  It’s not just about knowing that we’re doing a good job; strategic data collection and analysis allow us to learn and improve in an ongoing way.  For example, we might hypothesize that student participation in one of our Birthright Israel trips or our freshman peer mentorship program spurs these students to deepen their Jewish involvement in subsequent semesters. But does data support that hypothesis? It’s crucial for us to have that information as we make decisions about strategy and resource allocation, so it’s something that we monitor really closely.

More and more funders are approaching philanthropy with an investor mindset, expecting to see proof of results.  The truth is that we in the non-profit sector shouldn’t need to be pushed on this.  We at Hillel have an absolute responsibility to our supporters and our students to do our work in the most effective way possible.  I’m really proud to say that the entire Hillel movement takes this challenge very seriously and has invested significantly to develop the understanding and the tools to do this well.

What is your favorite (kosher) restaurant in DC region? 

I wish there were more of them!  I’m a big fan of Char Bar- its downtown near Foggy Bottom.  The pulled brisket is fantastic.

What goals do you and Hillel have for the next year?

We’re actually in the process of setting our goals for the year right now.  This past year, we had an unprecedented 80 students in ongoing leadership roles within our Hillel community, and we’ll certainly have as one of our goals to continue growing that number. The depth of experience that comes with that sort of role is just unmatched.  We’ll also be looking to launch additional micro-communities and content-rich educational programs.

Rabbi Aaron Miller

What inspired you to create Metro Minyan – the flagship program of Washington Hebrew’s Young Professional Group, “2239”?

2239 has been thriving for 15 years. It started as a way to engage Washington Hebrew’s young professionals in dedicated young professionals programming. Our flagship program, Metro Minyan, began about four years ago. It is a once a month Shabbat experience, the largest of its kind in the Reform movement.

When I got to DC, one of the things we quickly realized was that there weren’t a lot of Reform options, especially for impactful Jewish content. There were a lot of happy hours, kickball teams, and social events that Reform Jews could go to and feel like an authentic part of their community, but as far as religious expression goes there weren’t a lot of good options out there for Jews on the margins. The vast majority of DC’s Jewish community identifies as Reform, so we wanted to create a religious experience where Reform Jews could feel authentic and appreciated and in a space they could call their own. So we created Metro Minyan as a Reform Shabbat, specifically for Millennial Jews.

In what ways do you and 2239 engage with Jewish young professionals on a regular basis?

My favorite program is Metro Minyan, as I mentioned, our monthly Shabbat initiative. The question behind Metro Minyan is “how can we create a compelling, rich, vibrant Jewish experience where we cram as much Judaism as we can into a Friday night, and how can we make Judaism the draw for what brings people there?” Metro Minyan begins around 6:15 with “Shot of Torah”, basically a Torah Study over drinks. We have a happy hour setup, people come in, grab drinks and a copy of the Torah portion, and we do a really deep dive into the parsha. After “Shot of Torah”, we begin our Friday night service. The service is filled with singing, and we bring in a professional song leader from New York, who is fantastic. The service has this resonance to it, that even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the melodies you’re able to participate in a really full way. And then afterwards we have dinner, which is catered by any number of excellent restaurants in DC. We just had Indian food from one of my favorite Indian restaurants here in the city, and we’ve done Thai, Mexican, Mediterranean, etc, and it’s almost always a terrific meal. We try to make even a Shabbat dinner, which is a very social thing, a very Jewish experience as well. Before we eat, we light candles together, say kiddish together, we do motzi together, we have conversation starters at every table that help people to get to really know each other, and we sing birkat hamazon together at the end. We then partner with a local bar to keep the social component going even after the Jewish event is done. That’s Metro Minyan in a nutshell.

We also do other events, intensive Jewish learning with “12 Jewish Questions” and other social events that we do about once a month. So typically there’s a social event about once a month, and then Metro Minyan once a month as well.

How do you connect the traditional and the modern to talk with today’s young professionals about Judaism?

One of the things that we try to do with 2239 is root the modern Jewish experience in an ancient tradition, and one of the ways that we do that is through what is very much a modern Shabbat experience. Shabbat is one of the most Jewish institutions there is, and by creating Metro Minyan as a Millennial experience, for Reform Jews, we have redefined what it means to celebrate Shabbat. It’s more than a Shabbat dinner, and there are a lot of great Shabbat dinners out there. What we want to do is give people a sense of real and deep Jewish authenticity, through study and prayer that infuses the entire Metro Minyan experience. So we’ve taken these very ancient customs, and have brought them out of our congregation’s halls (we actually meet in churches along DC’s metro lines). We’ve really tried to modernize what a Shabbat observance could mean, but the Jewish pieces remain the same. I hope people rediscover their Jewish identities through Metro Minyan, whether it’s through the learning or the music, or the dinner afterwards, and I hope that Judaism comes to mean a little more with each Jewish experience Millennials share with us.

Are there any innovative approaches you’ve taken and seen work well, and how has social media played into your work?

2239 would not be nearly as successful as it is today without social media. Social media has been huge, with Facebook and with Twitter, and with all kinds of other ways that we’ve been able to promote and get the message out, beyond just word of mouth. Social media, though, is really just a launch pad to real human connection. The goal of social media is not just to have a conversation online, but also to get people into the same physical space, which, especially in the age of social media, is so desperately needed. People are craving face-time and community, and our use of social media is to get people in a space where they can celebrate Judaism with other Millennials who are looking to do the same.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Most of 2239’s best ideas have been offered by our Steering Committee. What makes 2239 terrific, and really outstanding, is that we have recruited some of the most dynamic and creative minds in DC to develop and lead the programs that make our work so great. At every Metro Minyan, we have a newcomer’s table or two that is staffed and led by our Steering Committee of lay volunteers. This idea came from our steering committee, and it’s a great way, when you’re new to Metro Minyan and if you’re new to DC, to meet other people who are new. NextPage, our 2239 reading initiative, also came from our Steering Committee. Our Steering Committee allows us to consult with some of the most creative and passionate Jewish Millennials around, and our success is our collective vision for Judaism come to life.

Are there any leaders you especially admire?

I especially admire my grandfather, of blessed memory. He was a rabbi with no small measure of chutzpah. There was a courage about his rabbinate that I really admire. Not just in steering his congregation- which he did for decades of his life- he was also a national voice in social action. He was one of the Jewish voices leading the fight against segregation. He went down to the South in the 50’s and 60’s more times than I could count. He was beaten, shot at, and arrested, but he was passionate about the Jewish values that made the Civil Rights movement a fight worth fighting. At every juncture in American history, he was able to summon not only his Jewish tradition, but also the courage and bravery to fight the fights that needed fighting. And he was able to inspire his congregation behind most of these causes as well. I believe that he not only made our country more just and compassionate, but that he inspired his Jewish community to be more just and compassionate as well.

I know you recently became a father, and congratulations by the way, how has fatherhood changed your perspective on leadership, managing time, engaging with young people, etc?

Well, thank you! When you are a dad there is never enough time to do all of the things you want to do. So one of the things I’ve discovered through being a dad is that you have to prioritize and you have to prioritize strategically. One of the things I think that has really helped me in thinking about Millennial engagement is that you don’t have to be a dad to be really busy. My whole life is Jewish, but when you’re working with Millennials, you’re working with people who have social and work commitments, academic pressures, hobbies, passions, and not a lot of time. They’re prioritizing too. Being a father has taught me that priorities matter, and the only way we can get Judaism to be a priority is to make it matter, to make it different enough that people can’t get it anywhere else. Millennials are already going to happy hours, they’re already going to museums, they’re already doing these things but they’re not doing Jewish- not yet, at least. So we’re looking to offer additional color and texture to their busy lives and to make Judaism something that is worth it, worth coming back to, and worth bringing their friends.

If you weren’t a rabbi what would you be doing?

Applying to rabbinical school!

If not that, I think I would be a teacher. There’s a kind of satisfaction that comes from walking with someone as they discover something new. Rabbi, after all, means teacher. When you are able to teach and when you are able to guide someone along a learning journey, you have the ability to have a profound impact on how people understand themselves and understand the world.

And if had to choose a grade to teach, I would probably teach at a university level. I think college is especially an age when people are considering new ways of thinking. Most of them, for the first time, are discovering a higher level of learning and engagement with the world. And I feel like the best of what Judaism has to offer, and has had to offer for the past 3000 years, is written by and for Jewish adults. So to be a part of someone’s religious journey, as they’re first exploring religion from an adult lens, would be a privilege.

If you and your wife could take the day off to go anywhere in the DC area, and have an amazing babysitter, where would you go?

First of all, we have amazing babysitters! My brother and sister live in DC, and about 20 cousins as well.

If Lauren and I could design a perfect day I think it would include a hike at Billy Goat Trail, and assuming we had made reservations months in advance, end with dinner at Rasika.

What books do you recommend for good summer reading? 

It’s not a light read, but it is the High Holiday season, so every summer I read This is Real and You’re Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew. It’s a book about the season leading up to and including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s a transformative book and I read it every year. It also helps me get into High Holiday sermon writing mode.

What is your favorite kosher restaurant in the DC area? 

I actually think there’s only one! It’s called Char Bar.

I also just found out there’s also a kosher food truck. A GW student started it, which is amazing, and I’m excited to give it a try.

What goals do you and 2239 have for the next year?

The next stage of 2239 is to create some national momentum. We’re thrilled that our numbers are high, and we’re especially thrilled that our success is from an event as Jewish as Metro Minyan. But the real success for us will be when other congregations in other cities are able to establish their own thriving professionals’ communities. Through our work, we’ve been able to pioneer a sustainable and effective model for creating lifelong Jewish connections for Millennial Jews. Other congregations around the country are really beginning to do the same as they’re pivoting from exclusively social events to real, deep, and transformative religious content. We’ve started working with rabbis all over the country, and the Reform Movement as a whole, to expand the 2239 model of engagement as something that could affect not just Jews in DC, but Jews throughout the country.

Beyer, Megan Headshot

Megan Beyer

You recently became the Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. What is your vision for the Committee and how does your work play into and support the Arts and Humanities in communities throughout the nation?

President Obama appointed me late last year, and my mantra is:  No denouement!

Under the Obama Administration, this has been an incredibly activist Committee supporting the arts in America. The Committee runs on passion. One reason is about half the members are working artists like Yo-Yo Ma, Kerry Washington, Chuck Close, Alfre Woodard, John Lloyd Young, Sarah Jessica Parker, Forest Whitaker, Kerry James Marshall and Kal Penn. All the members passionately believe in the power of the arts to improve cultural diplomacy, education and the economy.

Not long after I got here, just one month after the President’s visit to Havana, we led an historic US Cultural Mission to Cuba that will be the subject of an upcoming PBS Lincoln Center Live program. With the Chairs of the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities and the Secretary of the Smithsonian, we took Usher, Smokey Robinson, Joshua Bell, Dave Matthews and our artist members to collaborate with Cuban artists and extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. Bilateral meetings there resulted in the first government to government collaborations in the wake of the President’s historic speech at the Gran Teatro.

In Education, the Committee sought to prove the value of reinvesting in arts education as part of an overall strategy to make America more competitive.  It set out not only to prove that the arts were important to education, but that for the schools in deepest trouble in America, the arts were a uniquely effective tool for education reform.

My predecessor, Rachel Goslins, created a program called Turnaround Arts that has shown remarkable outcomes in the nation’s most fragile schools by infusing the teaching approach with the arts. A report by Booz Allen Hamilton indicated the first 8 schools in the pilot phase outperformed other schools where reform efforts were brought to bear. Math and reading proficiency scores not only shot up, but attendance, parent engagement and community support improved as well. And there were more students headed to play practice than the principal’s office.

This year is about protecting this program and positioning it for scale through a strategic partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  It is a perfect match because our program aligns with their national arts education initiatives. We developed a Legacy Committee of funders, partners and artists who have made substantial commitments for the next three years ensuring the program is strong and ready to scale. We are exploring new partnerships with companies like AOL,  Google, Estee Lauder, and Deloitte to bring resources, and greater outcome focus as this successful program faces the future.

How has your background as journalist, public policy advocate, and champion for gender equality informed your lens of and passion for the Arts and Humanities?

At bottom, much of the work I have done is about supporting the values of equality and fairness in America. The arts and the humanities are the soul of America. They tell the world who we are. They shout our values, question our character, express our concerns and reflect both our strengths and weaknesses. The arts keep us honest by challenging us.

But the Arts and Humanities are like gender equality. If it is there, you have the luxury to take it for granted. It is almost invisible. But if it is not there, the lack of it can threaten your very existence. It is then that you have the job of trying to explain its value, sometimes to people not inclined to notice it is not there.

When the Obama Administration came into office, the arts were waning due to economic problems. Schools dropped arts programs, even foundations that once supported arts education moved on to other issues, cultural institutions faced funding challenges. This Committee joined the conversation and provided the evidence that the arts and humanities were not only important, but critical. It was done through communication, discussion with policy leaders, convening stakeholders and pinpointing inequities in arts engagement. This is a job I have prepared for my entire life.

What makes you so passionate about the Arts and Humanities?

When I was in middle school I found my home in the theater.  I worked at the Old Town Alexandria Community Theater from the age of 12 working props. I loved everything about it: building sets, endless rehearsals, shouting directors, emotive actors, it all made sense to me. In high school and in college I was constantly acting in a play: Arsenic and Old Lace, Lysistrata, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, No Exit, Vanities, Twelfth Night, I cannot remember them all.

Later, I was able to support the arts and humanities as a board member serving the Richmond Ballet, Wolf Trap Associates, Theater Four, the historic Alexandria Athenaeum, the Woodlawn Plantation and WETA television in Washington.

When my husband was Ambassador to Switzerland from 2009-2013, he handed me the public diplomacy portfolio and I worked with the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Locarno Film Festival and Art Basel. I was able to see the strong connections we make through the experience of art, and concluded it was the best way to engage our neighbors abroad.

How would you describe your leadership style, and what leaders do you admire?

I like to be creative and collaborate for a common good. I have spent so many years on campaigns, working to advocate for causes, that this just comes naturally. I admire Christine La Garde who leads the International Monetary Fund, Geena Davis who enlightens Hollywood on the gender imbalance in American film, and First Lady Michelle and President Barack Obama who lead with grace, collaboration, humor and intelligence.

How can people who are passionate about the Arts and Humanities and your work get involved and support your mission?

Just go to our President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanties’ website, www.pcah.org, and read about all the programs this small Committee leads to bring the power of the arts to youth development. We have a National Student Poets program founded by Committee Member Olivia Morgan that selects five top teenage poets to advocate for poetry among their peers. We have another project to give recognition to after school programs using the arts and humanities called the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. And finally, our signature program, Turnaround Arts, is now in 68 schools—some in Washington DC. The students in these schools now have art supplies, art programs, school plays and every class is taught with song, dance and the visual arts. Sign up for our social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to find out about events. Or just call us at 202-682-5560.

If you could take the day off and go anywhere in DC where would you go and why?

I would start the day at sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial, then take a walk around the reflecting pool and spend the day at the National Gallery of Art. There is nothing more nourishing for the soul.

What is your favorite book?

I like non-fiction. It is the old journalist in me. You can have your Phillip Roth, give me Walter Isaacson.

When you were a kid did you ever imagine becoming a journalist, or a national leader in the Arts and Humanities?

I could and did. Imagination is what got me here. Believe in it.

 

 

Esther Safron Foer

Sixth & I Synagogue

Sixth & I has grown to become one of Washington’s most valued religious and cultural landmarks. With a non-denominational, non-traditional approach, the synagogue has welcomed thousands of people through its doors, and distinguished itself as a place of openness and engagement. By leveraging its grand space, Sixth & I has hosted some of the most venerable individuals at the top of their fields whether in music, politics, journalism, or literature. Bernstein has proudly supported its efforts for several years, and commends the dedicated work of its staff, including Executive Director and CEO, Esther Safran Foer, and Development Manager, Heather Koslov. 

Esther Safron Foer

Esther Safron Foer

Sixth & I is a unique and forward-thinking synagogue that has challenged traditional institutional models. What was the mentality behind creating a non-denominational space?

Sixth & I is just a little over 12 years old. The building was synagogue, then a church, and was about to be sold and converted into a nightclub; it was saved at the very last minute by three Washington developers. The building had been looked at by other Jewish organizations who believed there was no need for another competing institution. Washington is a magnet for young Jews, and there was a huge population waiting to be served and willing to come, although on their own terms. We are grateful for those traditional institutional models, but the younger generation does not want to define themselves by denominations; they want to experience a Judaism they are comfortable with. Sixth & I evolved over time; we didn’t know what we were doing, and that was the blessing: that we didn’t know what couldn’t be done.

Our greatest asset was our magnificent building, and we believed our seats should be filled for more than just the High Holidays. We tried various Shabbat alternatives and found a non-denominational prayer book that could be used with a variety of different types of services. The beauty of this prayer book was that it made everything equal – it had the Hebrew, the English, and a transliteration in an equivalent way. The first night that we did the service, 300 people showed up; we ran out of the 200 prayer books we had ordered. I stood at the back of the room crying with joy. That’s when we knew our vision was not only going to work, but it would thrive.

How did Sixth & I become the cultural hub it is today?

Sixth & I is all about valued partnerships. We had to evaluate our assets and figure out how to leverage them for the benefit of the community. We thought hard about how we could use the 800 seats available in our sanctuary. I remember when I first came, I asked myself whom I would like to see speak here, and Michael Chabon came to mind. He was just coming out with a new book, so I contacted his agent-. When I learned his fees, I realized that it would be sustainable to bring in talent this way. But because he had a book coming out, it meant he was on book tour. So Rory Zuckerman, the wife of one of the founders, and I went to Politics & Prose and said, ‘When you have a really big event, you rent a space. What if we give you the space and see what happens?’ They had never done anything like this, but the owners were willing to give it a try. The event sold out, and We realized this was a model we could successfully develop.

The same thing happened with music. We developed partnerships with people who had access to great talent and needed a venue. Now, talent wants to come here, even when they have the option to perform at larger venues.

In addition to presenting events with partners, we produce half of our cultural events ourselves. We are at a point where if you have a big book coming out, and you intend to put Washington on your book tour, you want to come to Sixth & I. I am told that on a big night, we can sell more books than any venue in the country.

How did you make your way to working at Sixth & I?

The best things in life happen by accident. One of the founders called me and said, ‘We just bought this synagogue and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it. Would you be interested in helping us think about it?’ I was in a different line of work doing public affairs consulting; I began as a volunteer, but Sixth & I soon became the client that took the most time. At some point, when things were not working here, the position was offered to me. I asked my kids what they thought. they said, ‘Mom, you always told us to go for it, and this is your turn.’ It has been an amazing ride, and I have loved every minute of it.

What major changes have you instituted since taking the helm?

There have been a few including hiring wonderful people and giving them the room to really run with their ideas. Another was realizing that the future is based on partnerships, and that we couldn’t do it alone. We developed an understanding that there are so many young Jews out there, or ‘adjacent Jews’ as our rabbis call them, who want to explore Judaism. The traditional Jewish organizational model has been a synagogue model, which does not readily accept interfaith marriages, but this is something we are open to. If we had said no, there would be no rabbi involved, and if this is the setting they choose, then we have a shot at a Jewish family.

Last book you read?

I read more than I used to because I am exposed to so many amazing writers who come through here. I just read Irene and Abe: An Unexpected Life by Irene Pollin, which was a real pleasure because they were founders of Sixth & I. I did recently finish the galley for my son Jonathan’s next book, Here I Am, which I highly recommend.

Greatest inspiration?

My mother. I see a woman who is tough, determined, caring, and the ultimate definition of a survivor.

Heather Koslov

heather-koslov

As Development Manager, what does your position entail?

My position here is different from anywhere else because we are a unique organization. My job is to secure the resources needed to support our programs. I manage many aspects of Development, from relationships with donors to writing grant applications and creating our mail appeals.

Each day here is unique – for example, today, I started with a call about our database in order to discover better ways to structure our data. Then I attended our weekly staff meeting, afterwards I met with our rabbis to discuss the language for a grant application we’re submitting for a new program they want to do.

Many foundations provide general operating support to contribute to our bigger picture. Bernstein gives us a very generous grant every year, without which we could not do our Jewish Welcome Workshop. Sixth & I is known for being innovative – we take chances that other organizations might not. When our programs are successful, we serve a tremendous amount of people. Our staff has been trained to take smart risks, our organizational culture encourages experimentation; this yields valuabel learning experiences that result in better programs.

What do you think makes Sixth & I so successful?

Our partnership model helps us share costs and available resources with other local organizations, ensuring efforts are not duplicated. One of our best partnerships is with Politics & Prose. We buy all of our books from them, giving us the opportunity to support a local bookstore. We offer the benefit of our beautiful venue with 800 seats, so an author can sell 800+ books in one night. We also offer a very centralized, metro-accessible location. We work really hard to keep ticket prices as reasonable as possible.

We are lucky to have a staff that are really welcoming and a true pleasure to work with; they take wonderful care of our guests. Sixth & I has really developed a reputation for being a place that is opening, accepting, non-judgmental with a specific interest of serving people in their 20s and 30s. Unlike a lot of arts organizations that are struggling to get millennials through the door, we have already established that they’re welcome here. We program things that people really want to hear about. Our staff takes the time to learn what resonates with people; often, that involves taking risks. For example, when we started programming podcasts, we thought, ‘Would people come and listen to a live podcast?’ Turns out that they love to do that.

What’s on the horizon for 2016?

We have lots of new projects on the horizon! As part of the Jewish Emergent Network, we are bringing in a Rabbinic Fellow, Rabbi Suzy Stone. She will be with us for two years, leading classes and doing some new programming of her own. We have really exciting cultural events and concerts ahead on our calendar. For the High Holidays, we are currently working on our theme for the New Year. We take over three different buildings around town because we have so many people coming, and we offer many different types of services because that’s what we do. We give people high-quality choices. That in itself is a major undertaking.

Kate Goodall

S&R Foundation embodies the embrace of ingenuity and creativity in the nation’s capital. Entering its sixteenth year, its visionary mission is to support and foster innovation among talented artists, scientists, and social entrepreneurs. S&R is in the dedicated hands of Chief Operating Officer, Kate Goodall, who has galvanized S&R’s programs and operations.  

Can you tell me about your background and your path to assuming your position as COO of S&R?

I originally set out to become an architect, however I changed the course of my path and found myself working in museums after receiving degrees in English, and Maritime History and Underwater Archaeology. Before joining S&R, I spent years working for the Association of Science and Technology Centers and the American Association of Museums. Having a knack for identifying and strategizing new opportunities, throughout my various positions, I built partnerships, identified new sources of revenue, and innovated marketing plans. This led me to S&R, where I have been dedicating my strengths to maximizing its impact and success for the past three years.

What is the process of selecting & investing in your fellows? How do you track their progress?

For the Halcyon Incubator, we focus very concretely on a few things, including potential scalability, how innovative their ideas are, and most importantly, how well they understand the complexity of the challenge they’re approaching. For Fillmore, the criteria will be similar but different, as they’re artists, not entrepreneurs.

What makes S&R unique compared to other accelerators?

We consider Halcyon an incubator, not an accelerator per se, as we concentrate on early stage ventures – and, most uncommonly, do not take equity, but rather offer many benefits, including free residency, a stipend, expert mentorship, and many other resources. We support social entrepreneurs who are prioritizing measurable social impact as greatly as profit.

How is S&R using the iconic Evermay Estate, Halcyon House, & Fillmore School as spaces for social good?

Halcyon House is the home of our Halcyon Incubator, where our selected social entrepreneurs accelerate their ideas and tackle the intricacies of the problems they’re trying to solve. These entrepreneurs have the opportunity to reside in this beautiful space whilst working on their ventures.

We will actually be diminishing our use of Evermay with the launch of Fillmore. We have built The Studios Program, which seeks to provide free studio space to artists who are committed to social inquiry and innovation. These artists will be able to pursue their individual practice and study over the span of seven months, giving them the space necessary for creative thinking.

What do you find is the most challenging aspect of your work?

Email. Period.

I love the talented team we work with, as well as all our stakeholders who work so hard bringing the vision to life. The people we support are amazing, and I derive huge amounts of energy helping them.

Typical day at the office?

Very varied, which I also love. It jumps from a meeting about arts, to a meeting about social enterprise, to a meeting with potential partners, to strategic planning. It’s never boring.

Who has been your greatest influence throughout your career?

It has changed with time, and I have a wonderful set of mentors who have generously and patiently guided me including Wendy Luke, Marc Pachter, Sachiko Kuno (my boss), and Teresa Carlson just to name a few.

As COO, what is your vision for S&R?

The vision for S&R comes from Sachiko – she is truly a visionary, who believes in finding talented creatives in every field and giving them the time and space they need to achieve greater impact than they could alone. I work on the strategy to bring that vision to life.

When you’re not busy running the show at S&R, what do you do in your free time?

Hanging out with my children, Jasper (10) and Felix (7), hiking, sailing, touring art exhibits, cooking etc.

Last book you read?

I’m afraid to say that it’s been a while since I’ve had time. Much more likely to find me reading Stanford Innovation Review, the New Yorker, or Vogue!

As a non-Washington native, what do you love the most about this city?

I love it all – it’s an incredible city! There’s incredible intellectual capital here, many generous spirits, the overlap of all the sectors, as well as the federal government and international portals. Also, great food and art!