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Finding Visionary Leadership

This week's blog post is written by Heidi, a Yahel fellow living in Lod. Last week, Heidi finished the fellowship and is continuing to law school in the US in the fall.

“Find a visionary leader from that community and follow them.” - Ravit Greenberg

As fellows, we came to Israel from the outside with the hope of working with different minority communities to create relevant societal change. Each of us had our own motivation for embarking on this journey, but we also understood that in order to serve a community we don’t belong to, we must work with them, alongside them, listening to them, and leaving our own assumptions at the door. Over the past year, we met with leaders and changemakers from different community groups in Israel and learned from them about their challenges and needs. When it came time to begin our volunteer work, we turned to these community leaders in order to better understand how to help.

As a group of mostly white, American, Jewish volunteers in Israel, we walk into every room with the acknowledgement of our privilege in just being there. We came here to help those who lack our advantages. Now, we are returning home to North America and Europe while the world is undergoing a process of critical change. Marginalized communities are speaking out and the world is listening - as are we. Once again, as we will continue to do throughout our lives, we are walking into a room of people from a community we don’t belong to, wielding the full weight of our privileges, asking how we can help.

We met Ravit Greenberg in February 2020 during a seminar exploring social change in the Negev. Ravit made Aliyah to Israel from New York in 2005, and has been working with the Tamar Center Negev since 2016, doing work to uplift Arab Bedouin society. As an outsider, Ravit looked to work with the Arab Bedouin population by seeking a visionary leader from within the community who was affecting important change. That is how she found Ibrahim Nsasra and the Tamar Center Negev. This grassroots organization brings incredible advances in STEM education to Arab Bedouin communities in the Negev, aiding in the process of bridging prevailing socio-economic gaps. I asked Ravit if she would sit down with me (via Zoom) and talk more about her model for serving communities as an outsider.

Q: Can you tell me more about the process of realizing you wanted to serve a community that was not your own, and how you identified the community you wanted to serve?

A: When I worked at the Mandel Foundation, a leadership institute in Israel, [before joining Tamar Center Negev,] a lot of what I struggled with was that I didn't feel like a local. I felt like, “What right do I have to promote the Negev or to make sweeping statements about what I believe should happen in the Negev, what I believe would help the periphery?” I had questions of when do I become a local, when do I start having that privilege that I’m “allowed” to make those statements. When entering Mandel, I knew that I didn’t want to be promoting Aliyah...I also knew that I wanted to be working with people who lived in the Negev and not be getting people to move to the Negev. I understood the problematic nature of that. It’s not that it came to me one day and I never understood it before, I understood it before. I understood the problematic nature of me, Ravit, an American Jew, who started a community in the Negev to help progressive American Jews come to the Negev, who spoke of the need for Anglo professionals to come work in the Negev. That approach and that language and the problematic nature of it became more and more apparent to me. Again, I don’t want to say that I didn’t know, I knew, but I deepened my appreciation for that.

So as I was at Mandel, I gave myself permission. I basically said, “Okay, I want to work for people who live here, where are the biggest gaps?” And I said I either will work in public health or with Arab Bedouin society. Those are the biggest gaps. I was specifically interested in economics and women, and that’s why I met Ibrahim Nsasra. I wanted to work on starting a business that would do on-the-job training for Arab women. I have a business degree and I’m a big believer in economic development. That’s what I wanted to do. I interviewed Arab leadership who were engaged in business development in Arab Bedouin society and Ibrahim was one of the people I met. He showed me what he did and I liked what he did, and I asked him if I could work for him. They didn’t yet have an English speaker on staff so I brought a lot to the game. Ibrahim had aspirations and he also wanted to connect internationally. He wanted me to do fundraising but he also wanted, he himself, to be more connected internationally. So, he saw the advantage of hiring me. That’s how it happened. I didn’t want to work for a STEM education organization. It was not my interest. I really wanted to be working in economic development, but then I met Ibrahim. And I was like, “I can work with this guy. He needs me. If the whole thing here is that I’m saying I want to go along with what leadership says is important, then who am I to come here and be like ‘Hey! But I want to work in domestic violence!’' This is important, but I hadn’t really met with someone who I trusted and believed in who is working in that field.

Q: Why is it important to approach serving a community you don’t belong to differently than you would approach serving a community you do belong to?

A: It’s just about accumulated knowledge over the years. Especially if it's a community you belong to. When you grow up in a particular community with accumulated knowledge associated with that community, you have enough to base positions on. When you work for a community you’re not a part of, even if you’ve heard about them on the news or have some interaction or pre-existing notions, you haven’t lived in that community. You haven’t lived it. You haven’t accumulated knowledge in it. And I still learn each day. There’s an amount of nuance on the table to engage with now that is light years ahead of the amount of nuance I was able to engage with in 2016. And that level of nuance is essential to the leadership of these organizations.

I can give an example. Let’s say I jumped in and I said “Okay, we need a program for girls.” Now, 70% of [Arab Bedouin] students are girls at the basic [education] level. I know STEM education from general Western society and there’s a lack of women in STEM. And I’m a feminist, so I say we need programs for girls. Without realizing that in Bedouin society the largest dropout rates are among boys. So then I could say “Who cares. What I care about is female empowerment, if that’s what’s happening, it’s okay.” I’m not realizing that then these girls get into their 20s and 30s, the ones who really pursue STEM education, the ones who go to college. Then they either, frequently, marry as a second or third wife [which presents its own set of challenges] or they don’t get married which means they live in their parents’ house. We don’t know what’s gonna happen yet with them because this is a new generation. We don’t know what the long term vision is yet. Many of these women, I think, will ultimately leave their house. But I don’t know when. That’s a simple example of nuance that’s not understood, a future trajectory that’s not appreciated, a social challenge that’s created by a certain level of intervention.

So, let’s let people who are a part of the population teach us what those costs are so that we together can determine if these are prices that we are currently willing to pay as an organization. Let’s not decide that on our own, or as a board of foreign executives.

Q: How do you define visionary leadership and how do you define finding a visionary leader in a minority community?

A: I define visionary leadership as someone who is really courageous and resilient, has an ultimate goal but takes risks, and puts skin in the game. And that might be money or it might be being a vocal opinion about something. Ibrahim is vocal about certain issues, he is not vocal about other issues, but he is putting a lot of money into this, and that proved to me he’s a visionary leader. If you’re a businessman who is first-generation, 37 years old, and you’re putting a tremendous amount of money into hundreds of kids, I believe in you. I automatically believe in you. I don't care what people are criticizing you about. You’re a first-generation Arab Bedouin businessman and you want to make change in your community. You just paid out money and got things done, which isn't allowed by the system.

How do you find local leadership? I think it's really easy. You hone in on a small community you want to work with. You either have to decide what neighborhood or in what area or field of interest you want to work in. Let's say public health is our interest. Women's rights, education, whatever - in minority communities. Sababa. Decide which minority community. Are you interested in working with immigrant communities, are you interested in working with the black community, who are you interested in working with? And what area? And then start talking to people who are in that field. Don't rush into a job. First, get a sense of the voices and what names keep coming up, “You should really meet with X, you should really meet with Y, you should really meet with Z.” Don't not meet with someone because they work for a tiny nonprofit that doesn't have a good website. It doesn't mean anything. Don't do that. If you hear someone's name several times, meet with them. Start having conversations, start hearing names, don't rush into anything, don't judge based on internet presence. Go. Sit with them. Speak to people. And small grassroots leaders are busy as hell, but if someone really takes interest in what they're doing in a serious way and wants to help them they'll have time.

Q: How do you start this process of networking? Let’s use the example of someone who is seeking to work with refugee communities and undocumented immigrant communities in New York City with no existing connections.

A: The first thing I would do is post on Facebook and say “Does anyone know anyone working with undocumented communities or refugees in ____?” You could decide on one neighborhood, but if you have no network I would just start with New York. When you write your first post you can also write, more specifically at the end, “minority leaders” or “leaders from” those communities. Don't make it exclusionary, don't say you only need those people because that’s where you’ll start. Now in New York City, it's different than in Be'er Sheva where I didn't need to decide a field of interest because that would have limited me, and I didn't need to decide a neighborhood or an Arab yishuv because that would have limited me. But New York is on such a massive level [that it’s different].

The next step would be to look up some articles or just look up COVID-19 because then you’ll see things that are most relevant to right now, like non-profits or civil society organizations helping undocumented immigrants receive health care during COVID-19. Or virtual education, and then you will get to an education organization for undocumented immigrants. I would also contact public figures. AOC [Alexandra Orcasio-Cortez] - I would write on her Twitter. I would write in response to something on her Twitter or to one of her PR people, “Can you name the top five local leaders from those communities doing grassroots work in New York?” Then I would say a neighborhood. She represents Queens and the Bronx, so “Top organizations lead by minorities from the communities in Queens and the Bronx.” And write that to a couple of [Congressional] representatives who are already representatives there.

And then I would recommend volunteering. Even if it's just a three-month commitment. I wouldn't make a commitment for longer than three months, but shorter than three months might be too short so I recommend a three-month commitment once you've done a little outreach and a little Googling. Field out those names and reach out to two or three of them for meetings to volunteer. Don't go with the first one. Get a feel for a few of them. Get a sense of those three and you make the choice. If you're willing to volunteer for three months, they’ll probably take you. And there you'll start to develop relationships. But when you volunteer, I advise you to be really smart about volunteering. I think what matters more is the organization you work for and the people you work with rather than what the job is. Even though I know the “American internship way” is to get experience, it's also about building the network. And here you're basically saying you want to be in touch with the right people.

So that's how I would go about it, that’s how I’d start. And then I think once you’re in that organization, you’ll quickly build connections and start hearing. And you'll make mistakes and that’s okay.

Q: What other advice do you have for people who want to work in these areas?

A: Find or stick with a passion outside of work that makes you feel really good about yourself or that you really enjoy. Sometimes people say “self-care.” I wouldn’t actually even just say self-care, I would say a place that feels yours. And it might be a place that challenges you, but that’s yours. Working with a population that you're not a part of [sometimes involves] putting yourself second. Not in terms of self-care, but in terms of your voice. “I’m going to listen to their voice, they know better, they know what they want.” And then can get you to a place, it got me to a place, where you start saying “I know nothing. What do I know? I don’t know anything.” And I think it's really important to have something that feels really good on a regular basis outside of work. It doesn’t need to be a huge passion, just something you love. Give yourself that. Even if it costs money, be generous. If you're working off of a small non-profit salary and you want to go to a really good yoga class, say “Okay, I can go to this really good yoga class, because I’m doing a lot of good. I get to go to this really good yoga class because it really matters and I really feel worth it.”

There’s a lot of emotion involved in this work. I’m also a very emotional person. If you’re an emotional person, forgive yourself for being emotional. That’s what got you there. When it’s brought up to you by a boss, say “One of the reasons you hired me is because of my passion and because I really care. So you’re getting the other end of it.” Sometimes I’m crying, sometimes I can’t take it anymore and I have to walk out of the office because it’s too much for me. Whatever it is, forgive yourself for being emotional.

When you’re working with large bureaucracies, it’s an opportunity to learn, especially for the first five years. This means practicing neutrality. One action might burn a bridge just as much as it will build a bridge with government partners, especially if they are oppositional to whatever you’re doing or think they know better. When you’re with those government partners, check back with your bosses for the first couple of years because those are important relationships. Don’t be afraid to have someone else make the executive decision when it comes to large partners. You don’t need to make those choices. You don’t want to be responsible for burning a bridge, even if it would feel really good. Preserve that relationship and make it better.

For women: Know when you’re uncomfortable at the table. Respect your gut. If someone speaks to you in a way that you feel is demeaning, choose if you’re going to speak up in the situation or if you're going to do something about it after, but [don’t choose to not] do anything. Do something with it. If someone calls you sweetie, or kind of talks down to you, like “Oh, you're so young!” decide how you want to respond. Try to think about it. Choose how you're going to respond to demeaning comments.

I also would encourage people to be forgiving towards grassroots leaders, especially when it comes to anger and short fuses. Grassroots activists tend to get angry, not easily, but they’re mad. Part of what is driving them in life is their anger. They also have short fuses because they're really thinly spread. So I think that’s a place to practice forgiveness. Now, it should never get into a place of an abusive relationship or like verbal abuse. For example, I worked for someone who has yelled at me a few times on days where he’s angry and it's really hard for me. But I was able afterward to say to him, “Please don't take that tone with me. I understand you're angry, please don't take that tone with me.” I don't want to write him off the first time he gets angry. That’s also important. Again, we don't want to get ourselves into bad situations where we feel badly about ourselves because we're yelled at by a leader. However, I do think there can be compassion practiced toward leaders.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ravit Greenberg: Hailing to the Negev from Upstate NY, Ravit has spent the last 12 years in key roles advancing influential institutions in the Negev region. She is delighted to serve as the Development Director of the Tamar Center and Philanthropic Advisor to Ibrahim Nsasra. Her tenure includes directing Nefesh B’Nefesh Go South program, the grant writing team at Ben-Gurion University, and establishing the Chicago Israel Philanthropic Fund.

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