Calling all Millennials to Make a Difference

Everybody Dance Nowby Jackie Rotman

When I was 14, I heard an allegorical story that informs how I think about social change to this day. Years ago, there was an accident on a train track, in which a train hit a car and killed an entire family. After the incident, the community sued the train company. During the trial, the night watcher, who had been on duty for the train company that night, testified and explained “I kept waving my lantern and waving my lantern, but the family simply would not move off the tracks.”

Due to the night watcher’s convincing testimony, the train company won the case. The night watcher and the train company’s partners went out to celebrate, but the night watcher broke down crying. When asked why he said, “Because if they’d ask me whether I’d turned my lantern on, I don’t know what I would have said.”

This story has stayed with me as a way to show that we all have a “lantern” – an ability to make a difference and stand up for the injustices around us – but it’s up to us to turn our lantern on and make an impact.

For me, that lantern arrived in the form of a dance routine when I was twelve. Growing up, I had always felt a deep connection to the Jewish value of tikkun olam, meaning “to repair the world,” but in 2005, I had such a profound volunteering experience that it illuminated my lifelong tikkun olam path and ignited my drive to make the world a better place – one dance at a time.

My tikkun olam journey began with a hip-hop dance duet for a room full of teenagers living with disabilities. Half way through my dance, the music stopped. An audience member shouted, “Do it again!” so my partner and I started over, but the music stopped again. This time, a girl in the front row shouted, “We want to dance!” Acknowledging her request, we invited the audience members on stage to learn dance steps and perform in front of their peers. As I watched the way they united, so full of happiness, I learned that I could bring people together and help them cultivate self-esteem through the power of dance.

With this goal in mind, I founded Everybody Dance Now! (EDN!) two years later to provide free hip-hop dance programs to young people who could otherwise not afford access. I recruited three friends from my dance studio to volunteer to teach classes and help me reach out to after-school partners in the community. Eventually, our small, but resourceful team secured grants to pay professional dance instructors, and sites across Santa Barbara were soon contacting us to partner and serve their students. To date, EDN! has worked with more than 25 after-school programs, low-income housing complexes, Title I schools, homeless shelters, and teen centers in Santa Barbara County, serving thousands of students through weekly programming.

As Everybody Dance Now! grew, I wanted to give teens, like me, the opportunity to embark on their own tikkun olam journeys by blending their passion for dance with making a difference. That’s why we evolved the mission of EDN! to empower young people across the country to create their own EDN! chapters, starting with a call to action on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew in 2010.

Since then, we’ve helped dozens of teenagers from 12 cities build sustainable EDN! chapters through our national leadership conference and training programs. We currently provide more than 30 free hip-hop dance classes every week across seven cities, serving more than 1,000 students this year and 3,500 to date – and it’s all because of our teen leaders’ eagerness to get involved and give back to their communities.

As a teen social entrepreneur, I’ve gained confidence, a sense of fulfillment, beautiful relationships with kids and mentors, and skills in leadership, communication and running an organization. What began as a simple idea to make an impact in my community during high school (and college) has since evolved into a very dynamic and rewarding post-grad path.

I now oversee EDN!’s strategy as a national nonprofit organization and mentor inspiring students across the country to build successful local programs and carry out EDN!’s tikkun olam vision. My job has allowed me to network with key figures in social innovation, attend and pitch at interesting conferences and most recently, participate in a Silicon Valley accelerator program called StartX as the first nonprofit accepted to the program.

Creating your own philanthropic endeavor can not only be a platform for doing good, but also a catalyst for learning and meeting fascinating people. My advice for socially-conscious teens out there? A great first step is to volunteer for a cause you are passionate about, bringing you closer to your community. In my case, volunteering for Santa Barbara Dance Alliance gave me the inspiration to create EDN! as well as the mentors I needed to implement my idea. Secondly, read about social entrepreneurship and start talking to people about your ideas. Check out award programs like the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, which gives Jewish teens $36,000 to support their volunteer projects or education – I know this grant really helped me with my education and vision for EDN!

We’re often told that teens are the world’s next generation or future leaders, but I think young people can be agents of social change today – it’s up to us to use our lanterns to create good and repair the world.

Jackie Rotman is the founder and Executive Director of Everybody Dance Now! She graduated with University Distinction from Stanford in 2012 with a BA in Public Policy and concentration in International Development. She worked as an Associate Consultant at the nonprofit consulting firm, Bridgespan, in New York City before leading EDN! full time. Jackie is a 2009 recipient of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, a CORE18 Fellow and a former PANIM National Young Jewish Activist of the Year. In 2011, Jackie was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women.