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Colorado author Dafna Michaelson Jenet remembers a gorgeous, sunny Saturday in June 2014 when the title and first few paragraphs of her book It Takes a Little Crazy To Make a Difference popped into her head.
Five years earlier, she had embarked on a whirlwind mission to take a 52-week tour of all 50 states to meet and interview change-makers. She ultimately interviewed 500 “ordinary” people doing “extraordinary” things to better their local communities, sharing their stories in blogs and videos online. But in the process of putting together her book, she said, “life just happened” when she found a breast lump, underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction, and then miscarried a baby.
After a fight with her husband that ended with him saying, “I just want my wife back,” she realized that, she, too, wanted herself back. She began meeting with a therapist and a nutritionist, and just a few months later, her new idea for the book was born. That same summer day, her husband put her television table on the front porch in front of her rocking chair, set up her laptop, and she had a first draft of the book done in four days.
The book was published in March of this year, and in May it was awarded an International Book Award for social change. Here, Jenet tells us about the making of the book and what the award means for her.
What does this award mean to you?
When you put your material out there, you’re opening yourself up for great risk, great criticism. For me, the book is very raw, so it’s just, ‘Here I am, and I’m giving it to you to read and take out of it what you’d like.’ When the email came that said that I had won the award, there was this little bit of validation that somebody else thinks my book is good, too. What’s more, the social change category is at the heart of everything that I hoped to do. It was a really emotional experience to see it. I’m really honored, and now I hope to live up to it
Throughout the project and book, you said there were moments when it felt like it was too much or there wasn’t enough money. Did you ever hit a point when you said, ‘I know I can keep going. I know I’m meant to be doing this.’?
There was actually a point where I totally ran out of money and wrote a resignation letter to my board. The answer to, ‘Did I find the money?’ is no, which is the easiest answer. But somehow we made it through the journey. That day when I sent that resignation letter to my then-boyfriend, he sat down with me. I’ll never forget it. We were sitting down on the step [of our side patio], and he said, ‘We’re going to figure this out.’
The people that I interviewed fell into one of two camps. One camp is: They saw a problem, had an idea for a solution, and went ahead and implemented it. The other camp is: They saw a problem, had an idea for a solution, but said, ‘I’m not a leader, but I can be a cheerleader,’ and they went out and found somebody who did have the qualities to lead that solution. It takes both for there to be success. Michael was my cheerleader, par excellence.
The book was part autobiography, part storytellilng. How did you strike a balance and figure out how much of yourself to have in the story versus the stories of the people you interviewed?
When I first started the journey, I put together a whole board of people, and one of them was Adam Schrager, who used to be a political journalist here at our NBC affiliate. He said, ‘The story is going to be about you.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not. This is not about me.’ So, fast-forward. I finish the journey, and I start writing the book. Ultimately, I had it laid out: all 50 states. I was going to go in order and tell the reader the highlights of each state. The book was boring. It was tedious. I couldn’t find a thread. The string that held the story together that was missing was me. That’s where my story got into it. It made me really nervous to put my story into it. In the end, Adam was right. The story did end up including my story as well.
Is there any one big takeaway that you would want for readers?
My overall message is that no matter what you look like, what you sound like, how much money or education you have, you can solve a problem in your community. I made this strong commitment. I wasn’t going to tell you one bad thing all year, and I didn’t because I didn’t have to. Somebody else was covering hard news, hard problems. We were definitely talking about hard problems. We talked about poverty. We talked about abuse. We talked about sex slavery. Everything was covered in this journey, but we weren’t talking about it from the perspective of: ‘This could be you who is at risk.’ We told the story from the perspective of: ‘This could be you in the driver’s seat of creating a solution to solve a problem that is facing you.’ My daughter is a writer, too, and I tell her every single time, ‘When you write a story, you are writing your words, but the reader is reading their own story.’ That’s what I hope happens when people read this book. It’s your story that’s in there. It’s a choose-your-own adventure. What chapter are you adding?
In the book you challenge people to write down three problems in their communities and figure out solutions as they go through the book. Have you gotten any feedback from people who have been inspired by this?
I get emails all the time. Whether it is just from the book or from somebody who’s had a workshop with me [through my nonprofit, the Journey Institute], I know that it has impacted [people]. Somebody wrote a whole book about her life that she hadn’t thought to write before. She was a victim of domestic violence and had also suffered from child loss and struggled in her upbringing to be strong powerful woman. But she figured it out. It was the workshop that I did with her that helped her to open up and see, ‘I can share this story. I am not blemished because of it. I can help somebody else who might be feeling like they’re blemished who doesn’t deserve it.’ I encourage people to share with me what their solutions are or even reach out to me for some help, and I hope that they will.
Are you going to keep collecting stories?
Yes. I think you’re only as relevant as your content is current, to a certain extent. I have also found that I can’t stop collecting stories. When I go on vacation, I don’t want to go to a hotel a sit on a beach. I want to stay at somebody’s house and learn their story. It’s changed me in that way. I believe it’s the job of the storyteller to continue telling the story, and I believe that story is at the root of all solutions. So the more stories that I can tell, the better.
And you’re also helping other people learn the things you learned and communicate better?
Yes, absolutely, big time. Beyond just to tell the story, the workshops that we’ve developed are very powerful in taking groups beyond the team level and building them into a community. Team is the first rung on the latter. Community is the top rung on the ladder. Once you have this defined identity of who you are as a community, the entire world opens up for identifying challenges and solutions that fit your definition of community. They’re sustainable. They’re from within. And they’re all based on what we learned from ordinary people solving problems.
To see Jenet’s 50 in 52 project and to find out what she’s doing now to foster community and encourage change, including speaking engagements and workshops, visit the Journey Institute’s website.