On September 15, Repair the World is hosting Service Matters: A Summit on Jewish Service in New York City. This exciting gathering will convene leaders in the fields of service and social justice – both within the Jewish world and beyond – for a day of idea sharing, case studies, and conversation. In advance of the summit, we are opening up the blog to some of our inspirational speakers and giving them a platform to share their experiences and wisdom from the field.
Here’s Steve Rabin , a communications strategist who was Chief Speechwriter for the former Governor of Maryland, and Director of Speechwriting at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. He currently works as a Senior Advisor at NASA and had lots to share about how social justice and governmental organizations can be more effective in their communications.
What inspired you to work in the field of service and social justice?
I actually have had the desire to engage in public service since high school. I remember in 1994 being a sophomore and feeling upset when New Gingrich became Speaker. I had strong opinions and I wanted to fight for them. Around the same time I watched a debate between Ted Kennedy and Mitt Romney who were running against one another for U.S. Senate that inspired me to walk into our local Democratic party office and start volunteering. I felt good about not being on the sidelines. When I started graduate school and was studying public policy, I realized what I was most passionate about was changing people’s minds – because ultimately, nothing can change unless you change public opinion. That’s how I chose speech writing as a career.
Can you share an example of how your work with speech writing has been impactful?
I had the chance to work for one of my heroes, Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland for 6 years. During that time, he did some big and bold things in Maryland that have been replicated in other states. He passed a nation-leading ban on assault weapons and was one of the most aggressive public officials in America when it comes to protecting the environment, particularly the Chesapeake Bay. We were the first state in America to pass marriage equality and then successfully defend it at the ballot box. I also admired the way that the Governor was willing to make some tough fiscal decisions. Even during the Bush recession, he actually chose to invest more in K-12 education, children’s health care and affordable college – even as other states were cutting these priorities to plug budget holes.
None of these things were a given. He put his career on the line to get big, important things done. And that required him to move public opinion and bring the public along with him. If you want to make progressive change, you should not be afraid to explain why you’re doing it. If you have the willingness and courage to step forward and say “this is what we’re trying to do, and this is why,” you are much more likely to get public buy in. The more open and honest you are, the more credibility you have.
Where is one area that you feel organizations and change makers could do better when it comes to their social justice and service work?
I look to Cicero on this one and his three part formula for persuasive communication: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is your credibility – or why you are the right person or organization to tackle an issue – pathos is everything that pulls at the heartstrings, and logos is the logical argument you’re trying to make. In the non-profit and government worlds, you often see organizations engaging just one or two of these things, when you really need all three parts for effective communication.
Another thing is, it is incredibly important to have a strong sense of the current zeitgeist before you try to move it. A lot of the time, I think organizations get so wrapped up with whatever issue or cause their working on, that they start to think the rest of the world is focused on it too. But in reality, the rest of the world isn’t paying attention. It is vital to understand public opinion and what people are actually paying attention to, so you can effectively insert your cause into people’s day to day lives.
What role does Jewish tradition play in your work?
It definitely drives my values. It is difficult for me to separate my value system and the way I was raised from our collective heritage. They feel inextricably linked. One of the things I am most proud of being Jewish for is the value of Tikkun Olam. I am a secular Jew. When I consider the issues, I don’t look to see what the Torah has to say about them. But when I trace back my values, they absolutely stem from my Jewish tradition.