Social Justice, Advocacy, and Mission Alignment

Given the fraught nature of our current political situation, many entrepreneurs may be thinking about questions of communal responsibility and advocacy.

They may be wondering (as I am) about what role their organizations (or the organizations which they are in the midst of starting) should be playing, in terms of relationships to social justice issues and large political conversations, at this particular moment. This can be especially tricky if one’s personal or organizational vision is not overtly connected to such issues.

About six years ago, I founded theatre dybbuk, a company whose mission focuses on illuminating the universal human experience through the creation of provocative theatrical productions and innovative educational opportunities based on Jewish folklore, rituals, and history.

As you can see, our mission may be concerned with humanity and the ways in which we interact, but we are not clearly an advocacy organization (although one could argue that artistic endeavors which foster empathy are, by extension, advocating for social progress).

As an entrepreneur, however, who cares deeply about such issues, I’ve had to get curious – What does theatre dybbuk, and arts organizations in general, bring to the table that can contribute to the conversation in meaningful ways, while remaining true to our core programs and approaches?

The arts can be an advocate for that which is plural in nature and transcends argument – deep investigation.

theatre dybbuk’s most recent produced work, exagoge, infused the Biblical Exodus story with contemporary narratives of refugees, immigrants, and those who have been disenfranchised. The work also presented Moses as a figure whose sometimes violent actions could be viewed as either righteous or fanatical, depending on one’s point of view. By combining all of these elements, audience members cannot attach themselves to one answer. Instead, they must sift through layers of meaning in order to come to multiple truths that exist only in relationship to one another. Such complexity is inherent in the Jewish tradition, with our history of debate that takes place over time and traverses space. We are a people whose laws and rituals came about through reading between the lines and through the accompanying thorough exploration of words and phrases and intentions.

Artistic works can ask audience members and participants to transcend immediate reaction, in order to sit in that which is most uncomfortable: uncertainty.

In a play, we may be asked to empathize with a figure only to discover that he/she/they is the villain as the piece continues. Or we may find ourselves disgusted by a person’s actions only to then learn that he/she/they was wronged and is merely taking a necessary step to put the world right again. Engagement with the arts encourages an understanding that even as something may seem black or white there are places where elements combine to make gray.

In this time of rapid-fire response, sound-bites, and blurbs, works of art can cause lingering questions to arise, instead of providing immediate validation or easily dismissed opposition.

The theatrical experience, more often than not, requires audience members to have patience, taking in that which is being presented and to go on a journey over the course of a set period of time. Whatever feelings of joy, or anger, or outrage, are being experienced, they go unexpressed, and must be sat through as the performers do their work. By sitting through our emotional responses until we can get an entire picture, we are training ourselves to think carefully about the people and issues in front of us. We are teaching ourselves the power of empathy.

For example, theatre dybbuk is in development on a new piece which utilizes the stories connected to the lost tribes of Israel to explore questions related to assimilation, appropriation, intersection, and integration in our world today. The work will open in Spring of 2018 and it will use the theatrical tools with which we are most familiar to provoke conversation and to advocate for social progress.

So, what can you do to join the conversation?

1.) Identify the values inherent in your mission, which can address a variety of issues and concerns.

  • When thinking about advocacy and social justice, theatre dybbuk focuses on the aspect of our mission that is in relationship to “illuminating universal human experience.” This aspect speaks to a value of wishing to understand one another. Such a value gives us an entry point to focused engagement with issues connected to race, identity, and belonging.

2.) Engage with your primary skills and techniques, rather than crafting programs separate from them.

  • In order to address our concerns and to provoke conversation, we did not craft new programs which are separate from our main work. We allow our work to shift and evolve, remaining true to what we do well. In other words, as a theatre company, we use theatre, possibly aligning it with other forms and areas of interest, instead of searching for forms that are outside of our expertise.

3.) Get curious. Come from a place of questions, rather than answers.

  • We do not pretend to have concrete answers to complex questions (especially, in areas where we may have deep care and interest, but not necessarily nuanced knowledge). Instead, we ask questions of ourselves and the world in order to open space for meaningful interactions and learning.

4.) Look Outward and Collaborate!

  • We have a history of partnering with institutions, whose concerns are aligned with the themes of our work. We combine our resources to reach more engaged participants and to increase the scope of both our impact and theirs. We also rely, as indicated above, on their expertise in areas that are not necessarily where we have ours.  For example, in May, we collaborated with the Silverlake Independent JCC to present a reading of exagoge (the show mentioned above), benefiting the ACLU of Southern California, and featuring an attorney speaker from that organization. By allowing ourselves to look beyond our organization’s sometimes singular focus, we are able to support that which is in collaboration and conversation with all that we do.

As an entrepreneur, you can utilize your strengths to engage with your society in meaningful ways that both speak to your mission and transcend it…

Aaron Henne of theatre dybbuk
In addition to his work as theatre dybbuk’s Artistic Director, Aaron teaches storytelling workshops throughout the country and has designed and facilitated creative seminars for Lucasfilm, Pixar, Dreamworks, and WET Design. He has taught at American Jewish University, has served as a professional mentor at Otis College of Art and Design, and as faculty for the Wexner Heritage Program. Mr. Henne is a board member for the Alliance For Jewish Theatre and the recipient of LA Weekly and SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards for Playwriting.