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The Secret Sauce: And it’s Kosher!

Alan van CapelleFilmed at UJA-Federation of New York 2014

Working for social justice often requires work that is difficult, un-sexy and filled with more defeats than victories. So, how do successful change movements survive?  Listen to this talk if you are a leader in an organization or trying to make social change and I will tell you the secret sauce of successful leadership and….it’s kosher.

Alan van Capelle is a nationally recognized leader in the field of civil rights and social justice. Selected by the Jewish Daily Forward as one of the “Forward 50,” Mr. van Capelle catapulted Bend the Arc into the forefront of the national progressive landscape as CEO, representing the American Jewish community in his speech at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

Also chosen by the New York Observer as one of New York’s top “power gays,” Mr. van Capelle won major victories for LGBT rights as Executive Director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. In forming partnerships with labor unions and faith communities, he paved the way for marriage equality in New York, while more than tripling Pride Agenda’s budget.
Mr. van Capelle began his career as an organizer and contract negotiator in the labor movement, eventually running the day-to-day political operations of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, the largest and most powerful building service union in the country. He also served as Deputy Comptroller for the City of New York.
Mr. van Capelle lives with his partner, Matthew Morningstar, on the Lower East Side where they are they are raising their two children, Ethan and Patrick.

I want to begin this evening by asking you, where are you on your happiness quotient? On a scale of 1 – 10, where do I find you right now? With 10 being completely blissed out and 1 being to the point where we need to call an interventionist. Where are you right now? Think about it. At this moment. Not how are you doing in life, not how are you doing at work today. As you sit in these chairs, where do I find you? I’m a seven and a half and depending how this talk goes I might be a nine by the end of it. How many people here are a seven and a half or eights any eights? Any nines, tens? Anybody who is lower than five? Four? Good, this is going to be great night.

That’s how I start nearly every single one of my staff meetings, by asking the people in the room where I find them on their happiness quotient. I believe it’s our job as leaders to ensure that each one of the people who work with and for us are a seven, eight, nine and ten and, if they are not, it is our job to get them to that point.

Now I want to tell you from the beginning I am a freak about joy. I am a joyful person. When we do leadership exercises and we have to stack up all of the things we value in life: family, work ethic, trust, patience. I always put at the very top of my value pyramid, pleasure and joy. When I was in first grade, the nurse called my mother and she said Mrs van Capelle, you have to come, and you have to take Alan home. My mother said to the nurse, well did he throw up? And the nurse said no. My mother said does he have a fever? And the nurse said he doesn’t. And then my mother said well is he complaining of stomach pains? And the nurse said no. My mother perplexed, looks and says well I’m confused, what’s the problem? And the nurse said, he’s not smiling. Even as a young child for me, the way that people measured whether or not I was happy was simply by looking at my facial expression.
But not everybody is like that. And so it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when my partner Matt and I went with our then 1 year old son, out of the Lower East Side where we were living, no water, no electricity – and by the way, for the first evening it was really fun, we pretended we were John and Abigail Adams but after a while it became really not so fun – and so we take our child and in a 180 dollar cab ride up to the Upper West Side, and we stay with our friends Sue and Tim and their two children. Now let me set picture a little bit for you, Tim is literally a descendant of the Mayflower boat. And Sua I describe as a Korean former attorney who is now a fashion designer and who is the most morose person I have ever met in my entire life. She is the exact opposite of who I am. And so one night while staying there, a few days after Sandy, we’re sitting just the four of us, Matt and Sua and Tim and myself. And we’re sitting – and the kids are in bed – and Sua looks right at us and says, Alan, where are you on your happiness quotient? And I sort of gave the same look that some of you just gave right now, I was sort of perplexed and she said no seriously where are you in this moment, on a scale 1-10? And I thought to myself, I have a glass of wine in my hand, there’s nice music playing in this beautifully-decorated apartment, my kids are safe and they’re sleeping. And I thought, in that moment I’m a nine and Matt was an eight and Tim is always a solid seven and Sua – morose, Korean former-lawyer-turned–fashion-designer – was a three and a half which, I have learnt, is pretty much her centre.

And when we left their apartment and were able to move back into ours, I took two things with me, I took one the knowledge that we had great friends, who were willing to host us in difficult times, but I also took the tool of asking people where you are on happiness quotient and it became part of our family culture. Matt and I now, with two children, will often just look at each other and say where are you? What number are you? And we’ll say I’m an eight and rising if we are heading to the beach, and it looks like it’s going to be a great day and all the kids seem happy and content, or sometimes, we’ll say I’m a four and falling. But essentially the numbers tell us, I’m either doing great, I’m doing pretty well or, I need help. And I believe that sometimes it’s important to ask the people we’re closest with what their number is, without having to ask them all the time how to unpack how they got to that number, that sometimes it’s good just to do a touch-base, and it’s not how you are in life it’s how you are in that very moment.

The question is why talk about happiness in a leadership talk? Why even think about this as an issue for a leader? Because I have spent my life working for LGBT rights, labour rights, for social and economic justice. And I believe when you’re doing the unsexy work of organising, when you’re doing the unsexy work of building coalitions, and bringing people together, of fighting poverty, or fighting for economic justice or against racism, these are hard things, and more often than not there are going to be more defeats than there are victories and doing that work takes a certain type of person: you have to be strategic, you have to have a strong work ethic, you have to be good at relationships and relationship building, but I also think it takes something else, a secret sauce, I think it takes happiness and joy. I think people who have joy and happiness is their work are more better equipped to suffer the defeats when fighting for social justice that inevitably will come along and I can tell you, after nearly two decades of working in the social justice movement, that the organisations that spend an amount of time investing in joy and happiness of the people who are doing that work have a better chance of succeeding long term.

And so how do we make people feel happy? How do we make people feel joyful in the work experience? Well what do we want in our work experience? What makes us joyful at work? We like to feel valued and listened to as employees, and we also like to feel connected to something larger than ourselves.

And so when I was 27 years old, I was given the enormous responsibility, opportunity, I think a blessing, to lead New York’s LGBT civil rights organisation and become one of the early architects on the marriage equality campaign. And I’m 27 years old and I haven’t led anything in my entire life of any major substance, and I walk into this office of people and I ask them, what can I do to make you happy? And I think it was the first time that the executive director of an agency that they have worked for ever asked them, what can I do to make you happy? And the staff very clearly said to me, we’re tired of schlepping liquor. And I looked at them and I said schlepping liquor, I don’t understand, what does that mean schlepping liquor? And they were very clear, they said, look, Alan, we do seven fundraising events a year, and we have a liquor sponsor and at the beginning of the year, the liquor sponsor comes and drops the liquor off at our office. And we take it off their truck and unload it into our basement. Then an event comes and we rent a van, and we take the liquor from the basement and place it into the van and then we drive the van to the venue and then the staff – all staff – take the liquor off the van, they bring it into the venue, and then at the end of night when we’re exhausted we are expected to take the liquor that’s been unopened, put it back into boxes, take it back into a van and drive it back to the office. And the next morning, when the sun rises, there we are again, out in front of the truck, taking the liquor from the truck down into the basement and then returning the van. And this happens several times a year. And I’m a social worker, I’m a CFO, I’m an attorney, I’m a lobbyist, I don’t want to schlep liquor anymore. And I said, great, you don’t have to, and they were joyful. Because it was so simple and no-one had bothered to ask them what would make you happy. And I said, why didn’t you say this before? And their response was, well no-one asked.

What do I do now at the Educational Alliance – besides asking people where they are on their happiness quotient – what I do at the Educational Alliance is, every day, I call people on their birthday. We have north of 500 employees at the Educational Alliance, each one of them gets a call from me on their birthday. I believe it’s important for them to hear from the leader of the organisation a birthday wish, a check in, and someone to thank them for the work they do and also to wish them a good year ahead. Every Friday in my office, or now on our rooftop because the weather has been beautiful, we have 65 people come for a L’chaim, to toast the end of a week, and to celebrate the victories large or small that we accomplished and to make everybody feel connected to those victories. And we serve alcohol and wine and juice and for 45 minutes, it’s an opportunity for people to be with each other in a space that they normally wouldn’t be in with one another and for us to welcome in Shabbat as an organisation doing good work. And many mornings I stand in front of our buildings and I greet our staff as they come into the buildings and say good morning and hold the door for them because I want them to know that I appreciate that they come to work every day and do sometimes very difficult work, I make them feel valued and listened to because I think it’s important and because that’s what I would want.

And then how else do people feel good and joyful in their works? We feel joy when we feel connected to something larger than ourselves. Jonathan Haidt a very world-renowned doctor, professor, teaches at NYU Stern School of Business, he teaches social and cultural psychology and Haidt has written extensively on the happiness hypothesis and he discusses the fact that he believes we are like bees, and that as bees we do much better in life when we are closely connected to a hive, when we feel most closely connected to something greater than ourselves. And in our modern time, many of us feel that we don’t work in hives, many of us see only the jobs we do and we don’t see how they’re connected to other people, or to other jobs or to a larger mission. Our job as leaders of organisations is not just to create exceptional organisations, but to create hives that people want to be a part of.

There are going to be the nay-sayers, and I’ve heard these people before. They say to me, why are you talking about happiness? Why are you talking about joy? There is real suffering going on in this world, there is hunger and poverty in this world. Why are you focussing on joy and happiness. These are serious problems. They’ll even look at me and they’ll say Alan, you live on the Lower East Side of New York, in your neighbourhood 50% of the people who shop in my supermarket are on snap, 40% of the seniors who live in my neighbourhood live below the poverty line, and only 37% of public school students graduate high school and less than a block from where Matthew and I are raising our two children a child was shot less than a year ago and killed over a jacket. These are serious problems and they require serious people doing very difficult work and it sounds great to have joy and it sounds great to have happiness, but that’s not what we need to be, we need to be angry about these problems, we need to be so angry that we work harder to solve these problems.

And I don’t believe I own the truth on anything, but I do believe they are wrong and don’t take my word for it. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidic movement of Judaism teaches us that to serve God we must do so with reverence and joy – reverence AND joy. That the two are inextricably linked together, they are bonded, that to have reverence without joy is to live an absolutely gloomy existence. And I would take it a step further. I would say we have a moral obligation to create happy and joyful work environments. Happy people make a happy world, unhappy people do not, joyful people are more equipped to suffer the defeats when we are doing the hard work around social justice, unhappy people have a harder time accepting those defeats and moving on. Our obligation is to create the happiest environments, the most joyful environments, the environments where people can feel connected, where people can feel listened to, where they feel like they are part of something greater than what they are. So I believe as a Jewish community, we need to spend time and effort in investing in joy and happiness. But I don’t want you to believe that the reason to invest in joy and happiness is because we want to recruit and retain the best qualified staff, although I do think that will be a by-product of it, I believe that we should invest in joy and happiness because we are commanded to do so, because it is part of our Jewish tradition, as the Baal Shem Tov taught us, to serve with both reverence and joy, because it is the fuel that sustains us, because I believe joy, joy is the secret sauce and I believe it’s kosher. Thank you.

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