Voices from the field

My Narrative: The Story of Self, of Us, and of Now

By Michael Hoffman

Here is my story.

When I stepped foot on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus as an incoming freshman, I was there to get away from the life I had been living in Baltimore.

I was getting away from my small private school and while it was not a conscious thought at the time, I was getting away from the Jewish life I associated with my upbringing in Baltimore.

One day as a freshman I opened a Time magazine and discovered a full-page ad for an essay contest sponsored by a group called the NAAA Foundation. The topic: “Does the ‘Israel Lobby’ limit Free Speech on Middle East Policy?” The prize: $5,000. 

I had no idea who NAAA Foundation was but I didn’t really care -- I was going to win the money. Only after I was named one of 10 national winners did I learn that NAAA Foundation was the National Association of Arab Americans. To their credit, they outsourced the contest judging to academics.

Word traveled. One day I was approached by a woman who asked me if I was the one who won the essay contest. It turns out, she was deeply involved in Hillel and campus Jewish life and wanted to know whether I would be interested in becoming the editor of the Jewish student newspaper on campus that they were working to revive. So much for my escape. I spent the next 4 years living in the Jewish co-op Ofek Shalom and spending my days huddled in Hillel saving the Jewish people through an occasional rag called Genesis. 

And it’s this story that’s responsible for you hearing from me today. It was this experience that set the tone and the foundation for my adult life as a Jew.

The Importance of Personal Narrative

Our personal stories are not only a key to why we do what we do, but also a key to connecting with and motivating others in our work. The story I just told was my way of grounding you in who I am so that you can hear what I have to say, and be motivated to go in the direction I want to lead you.

The definition of leadership that I like is, “taking responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty.”  One critical way to enable others is through story. Marshall Ganz, the Harvard professor and social activist, talks about public narrative as a critical tool for motivation. He tells us, with lots of experience to back it up, that you will pay more attention to this part of what I am saying because of the connection I made with you through my story. He talks about three types of stories we tell to move others to action:

  • The Story of Self
  • The Story of Us
  • The Story of Now

The Story of Self is your individual narrative that tells the story of how you got to this particular place. And through telling this story you connect with others, who see themselves in your choices and wonder at how they would act under your circumstances. My Story of Self – the one appropriate to this audience – is the story I told you at the start. 

The Story of Us is the weaving together of individual narratives. There are many different groups of “us.” Why are we here, for example, in this community of people who care about Israel education? Our individual stories intersect and tell a greater narrative about community.

The Story of Now answers the question, why now? Why is what we are doing so important right now? What is it about this time that makes this work particularly relevant? The Story of Now puts our stories squarely in the present and makes them relevant to today.

Watch any great speech and think about how these three stories are woven together to motivate an audience to see the world differently, to see themselves in the story, and to take action. How would this speech been received if it was a list of facts? Think about how these three stories can be used in your work to ground your community in a common narrative and motivate people to action.

Rosh Hashanah – Personal and Communal Stories

The High Holidays are a time when we are taught to reflect on our personal story and how it fits in to the Story of Us as the Jewish People.  We also consider the Story of Now and how the challenges we face now and the changes we need to make are unique to this moment. 

Our Jewish heritage is built upon stories. But many of us have moved away from using story in our work and seeing its relevance in our lives. This Rosh Hashana, my hope is that you have the opportunity to reflect on your personal story and find the meaning in it that can motivate you through new challenges and in new opportunities.

When you value your own narrative, you can then put it to work connecting you with others.

For more information on how the work of Marshall Ganz can have practical applications for community organizing, check out the New Organizing Institute.