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From Who Me? To Yes Me! | Deborah Levine


From Who Me? To Yes Me! | Deborah Levine | 535

Examining the concepts of owned ideas and recruiting help.

An interview with Deborah Levine about the various mediums used in her thought leadership.

Thought leaders know that a sharp eye is the best tool for keeping a sharp mind. In fact, others see abilities in us long before we see them in ourselves and can support us as we blossom into a new role or skill.

Our guest today has found herself asking “Who me?” and “Why me?” at almost every step of her incredible career. Deborah Levine is the Founder and Editor of the American Diversity Report, whose mission is to boost the effort to repair the world and inspire fellow diversity, equity, and inclusion change makers with the resources they need.

Deborah shares how her history weaves together seemingly unrelated skills and experiences that take her from being the only Jewish girl in her community the Bermuda, to unexpectedly being put in charge of inter religious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and eventually becoming an award-winning screen writer and producer!

One of the threads that is common through most of her experience is others offering aid to move her career and thought leadership forward, eventually allowing Deborah to learn and step up to the task on her own. Deborah shares real life experiences of getting help and learning to grow into new roles that she might have thought were impossible for her to accomplish.

This episode is full of stories and antidotes that are sure to inspire anyone who has been asked to step up to the plate and thought “Why me?”

Three Key Takeaways

  • When asked to do something, take the opportunity that is presented. Don’t say no because you aren’t sure how to do it. Take the time to learn and grow.
  • Part of being a thought leader is encouraging and creating spaces for conversations that will have meaning and value.
  • Being a thought leader means being in a constant state of evolution of who you are.

If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.



Bill Sherman Many thought leadership practitioners take the first step in shock when they get asked to take on a project, maybe writing an article, giving a talk, or championing an idea. An organization may even come to the individual and give a slight nudge. But the individual’s response is often a surprised. Who, me? Today I speak with Deborah Levine. She’s the founder and editor of the American Diversity Report. And as you’ll hear, her journey began and even continued with several who. Ms.. I’m eager to talk with Deborah about how she’s found her voice, how she’s adapted to using new forms of media, and how she consistently and effectively recruits help for her projects. I’m Bill Sherman, and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Deborah.

Deborah Levine Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Bill Sherman You and I have had some lovely conversations that I want to invite the audience to join in. And where I want to start is with the story that you have shared before around this. Who, me and why me? And because of that, I think a lot of people, when they are thinking about thought leadership, they wind up asking that question, Who, me? So I would love for you to frame the who we are. Who, me and why me from your story.

Deborah Levine Goodness. Well, you’re talking to somebody who grew up in the 24mi² of Bermuda as the only Jewish little girl there. I didn’t know that was unusual. Had no idea it was my life. Right. And as things went forward and we moved back to Long Island, New York. So many things were asked of me and I would say, why me? For example, here we are, an elementary school. We’re going to be doing a play and it has the Herald there from the court going here. He hear ye and the teacher says to me. Ms.. Levine, you’re it. And I’m saying, what? Why me? And he says, Because you can do this in your sleep. He thinks that I’ve been brought up British. But to me, what I am just me reading. And that it was pretty much the tone of the rest of my life.

Bill Sherman So if we jump from grade school to your time in Chicago, perhaps, and the request that was made of you and you raised an eyebrow and said, Who, me? Let’s explore there.

Deborah Levine So I had finished my master’s degree in urban planning and I wanted to go get a job. And I went to the American Jewish Committee hoping they would hire me for something. And it was going to be something about covering politics. That’s what I wanted to do as a reporter. And they said, no, we would prefer if you would be in charge of interreligious affairs. And my first thought was what? Well, clearly.

Bill Sherman That’s what you’d trained for in school, right?

Deborah Levine Well, no, I mean, at Harvard, I went, It’s true. And I know that they knew it. I did go to divinity school.

Bill Sherman But earlier you had trained as. A dancer, right?

Deborah Levine Yeah, I was a dancer. I had a dance company. It was. I was in the arts. This was all new to me.

Bill Sherman Mm hmm.

Deborah Levine But when I said, Why me? They pointed out that I had gone to Harvard Divinity School and actually took some courses. And I said, Well, that was a long time ago. I know. Some courses. Big deal. Then they pointed out that I had grown up in Bermuda as the only Jewish girl I knew how to quote, represent, and I suppose even longer ago. What are you thinking? Then they said, and nobody else in the office wants to touch it with a ten foot pole. Please take the job. Well, I’m undecided. You know, when people beg and carry on like that to say, Oh, okay. But I had no idea what I was getting into. And I sat in my office for the first day looking out the window. It’s a nice office. And a gentleman came to the door. He was like six foot four dressed in priest clothes. And he says to me, You’re going to need me. And I said, I have no idea who you are, but I’m sure you’re right. And it was like. Angels were sent to me in this gentleman, Dr. John Pawlikowski, the Reverend Doctor. I was actually one of the founding fathers of the U.S. Holocaust Commission. Mm hmm. He was also a writer of interreligious books. And we’ve maintained our friendship ever since.

Bill Sherman So let’s move a little bit forward in terms of your work in thought leadership. Right. And you’ve mentioned the American Diversity report and. So let’s stay on the diversity report for a moment. How did that come to be?

Deborah Levine Well, I was kind of minding my own business in a meeting. Where? It was a lot of folks from Chattanooga, where I am now. And a gentleman came up to me after the meeting and said, I understand you have a newsletter. I said, I do a little newsletter. And he said, I’ve seen it and it deserves to go online and be read around the world. And I heard. Who, me? Mm hmm. He says, Yes, you. I said, I do that. He says, I will teach you. Oh, okay. And so we founded 16 years ago the American Diversity Report, so that it would be online. And it has ever since.

Bill Sherman And you just alluded to something which has been a theme that I really want to explore is this concept of I don’t know how to do that. And I think in thought leadership, that can be a barrier for a lot of people where you look at a new modality and new way of getting ideas out, whether it’s taking it from a newsletter to an online publication or going to scale in a new format. And you say, how do I do this? You have alluded to three words. I will help. You’ve had a lot of help across your career. Yes. In getting ideas to scale. And I want to ask you, in terms of. Building out scripts. You’ve now done television scripts and pilots and you’ve won awards at film festivals. How have you gotten there? And talk about that journey? Because I don’t think you ever saw yourself writing in scriptwriting, let alone producing.

Deborah Levine Oh, you are so right. So I am. I was giving a presentation on my memoir, The Liberators Daughter with my Father’s World War. Two letters in it at.

Bill Sherman And let’s pause on what your father did for a moment so that the audience has context.

Deborah Levine Okay. So my father, Aaron Levine, he graduated Harvard where he married my mom, Radcliff. And it was 1941. And he entered the Army. I was trained at a secret military intelligence camp called Fort Richey and became a military intelligence officer in Europe during the war. Towards the end especially. And he since he was a literary gentleman, I wrote all these letters that I had no idea he kept and had finally given them to me after I took the job of media director and community Relations director at the Jewish Federation in Tulsa. Shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing. And he was a little unnerved that I was being trained by the FBI to deal with neo-Nazis. And he came to make sure his baby was being well taken care of. So gradually, I started to put together those letters in a memoir, The Liberator his daughter made while he was still alive. I showed it to him and he said, Well, it’s coming along. Which means it’s still crap. My dad was it? There are definite standards from a military intelligence officer. Thank you very much. It would be another 20 years before I wrote that book. And he had passed. And when I wrote it and published it, that’s when I started to speak about it. And I spoke about it at this church after the presentation. The gentleman in the audience came up to me and said, I just did a film called Wrestling in Jerusalem, and it’s going to show here locally at a small theater. And I was wondering if you would go on stage with me and answer any questions that the audience has about Judaism, because I’m not Jewish. I think you really need to be there. So I told him I’d think about it. One of my friends told me I was an idiot and that I probably would say that even to Michelle Obama if she asked me to speak. So it turns out this guy’s actually a Hollywood actor. Producer. Mm hmm. And I said, okay. So we went on stage together, and it was great fun. It was only years later when I called him up and I said, Dylan, do you think you could find someone to. Right. This is a script and get it produced. And he said, no, we don’t have enough women in Hollywood doing this. You do it. And I said, Why me? I don’t know anything about writing scripts. He said, Learn. Okay. So I tried a couple of times and I sent it to a friend who used to teach this kind of stuff. He’s retired. Who told me. Well, you getting better. Which means, of course, it’s crap. So finally, I still enforcement coach me, which he did. And I had no idea of what it was like to enter this new arena of production. Scriptwriting. Having it read out loud, having it again, unbelievably corrected again and again. It finally might. I passed muster. As they say in the military and I was able to get the local university. To put it on as a radio play. Wonderful. And then my cousin Jan in Madison, who is been in theater forever, said, you know, it’s easier to get. Done as a radio play then, actually. Produced. Try entering into film festivals to get known. Well, now the script is won in 31 film festivals. Right.

Bill Sherman Right.

Deborah Levine But that was just the beginning. Right. And it because I wanted it to be out there and I had the audio. I sent it to something called Jewish Life TV, and they said it needs the visuals. Oh, I don’t know how to do that. You said, Well, we will help. And they did. Every single second of those audios had to be precise and perfect. Yeah. So I just said thank you and did, as I was told, learned and kept going. And now that documentary has won and many film festivals. And I recently did a presentation about it at a university in New Jersey. And I expect to be doing more. It’s amazing, you know, how technology changes and we must change with it. So let me tell you a little story about that, if I may.

Bill Sherman Please.

Deborah Levine I was 16. I was in high school in Great Neck, New York, and Matrix algebra, which was the basis for computer programing, was offered for the first time. That’s nice. My mother said you will take this class. I said, No, I’m going to be a poet. A philosopher. I need this for. And she said, This is not a suggestion, dear. This is the future. Take the damn class. Yes, ma’am. My mother was very soft voice and sweet. But you did not mess with her. Uh huh. So I did it. And it was fascinating in some ways, matrix algebra, but I kind of put it aside. And until. I was getting my master’s degree in urban planning and had to use a computer. It was hysterical. Computer back in those days took up a whole building.

Bill Sherman Mm hmm.

Deborah Levine All right. I got through it. I went on. I finished the Masters in Chicago. All right. University of Illinois at Chicago. And I’m sitting there in the beginners computer class, you know, looking forward to learning because so much had changed. And a professor comes to the door and says, Levine, get the hell out of here. You’re coming with me into the advanced computer class. And you know what my response was? What you want We do. And you just. Oh, shut up. Come with me already. Oh, hey. And so I went on with the technology, not expecting to do anything with it until I got to that job at American Jewish Committee, where I was running the 1990 National Workshop on Christian Jewish Relations. And the boss comes to me and he says, okay, we’re making you not only office manager, but IT manager. Not that it manager was a term back then. Mm hmm. Why? And he said, because you’re the only person in the entire office that has even touched a computer. And so it kept going. And that meant that when my friend from the newspaper helped me create the American Diversity report. All right. It was he was the webmaster that was turned back then. It was on his platform. I got a. A message, a death threat. That apparently was echoed through every one of his clients. It was death to the Zionist. Mm hmm. Yeah. And he invited me to go off on my own and leave him alone. I said but. But. But. But I don’t know anything. I can’t do it myself. He said, you’re smart. Yes, you can. And I have done it myself ever since. I’ve had people help me. But yes.

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Bill Sherman And so there’s an evolution there and the threat of that story from what who me to having people who say I will help. To recruiting support and finding the support that you need. I want to explore that a little bit through your work of owning the idea and the work that you do. And so I think over the arc of your career and I would love to hear your thought, although you’ve gone into new modalities and said to me, I’m going to do this, you very much found the lane for your work and your calling. And I’d love for you to talk about that.

Deborah Levine Well. I was the executive director of the Jewish Federation here in Chattanooga. I very much wanted to be an executive in charge and it was a long journey to get there. For better or worse. However, in that role, I was sent off to Israel via Uzbekistan. And the mission with adoration other federation exacts and I became very ill the spec Pakistan. I did not think I would survive and I could not continue my work. Mm hmm. And I didn’t know how much time I had left on this planet. I was so sick. Whatever parasite I picked up, it had gone into my central nervous system. And I couldn’t think. Can’t remember how to get home when I went to the grocery store. I wasn’t allowed to cook anymore because I forget to turn off the range. But gradually. Somehow I was able to heal. I wasn’t the same person as I had been. I couldn’t do the same kind of work. I couldn’t have the kind of energy to do that pretty much 24 seven that I had always done. And so I started to write. What was I going to write? And I was lonely. I had no office. So I founded something called the Women’s Council on Diversity, called my friends together to meet. And I thought, Oh, I won’t be alone in this world, but not really alone. And here’s where. Life happened. It was 911. When we pulled together the first public meeting the next day was I had been in the process for the whole summer, pulled together that meeting. And the responsibility that I. All right, all of a sudden had to pull together the community, the women in it to do something after 911. It was just like an exploded. Hey. And I did not have great time to bemoan my fate. Heck with that. Mm hmm. So I would put together, you know, some panels to talk so that some of the people who had never met each other, the diverse groups would get to know them so they could tell their stories. What I didn’t realize is so many times women had been in the background. They had not been speaking. They didn’t know how to tell their stories. Well, I knew how to do that. So I put together little worksheets about telling your story so that they would have something to follow and it would be okay. They wouldn’t panic up there doing a public. Public speech. When I realized that all the worksheets disappeared at the end of the day and they had taken them home with me, with them, I realized, hmm, maybe this is the beginning of something. And so that’s when I created using all my background from my folklore and mythology work and in Harvard to my urban planning work in Chicago. To my intuitive sense of emotional intelligence and created invented the matrix model management system. And that was in, what was it, 2001? Hey. And I’ve used it as the basis for all that I do ever since. And interestingly enough, I will be giving a presentation on it. Tomorrow at the Berlin Science Conference. Virtually because. I was ahead of my time and all of a sudden people need that because we live in chaotic times. And that was what it was built for, how to have neuro communication effective and be able to reach people. That’s what the Matrix is about. And I named it, of course, from Matrix algebra, which of course goes back to my mom, to everything I’ve ever learned. And keep in mind that the matrix algebra was multi dimensional. And that’s who I am. And that’s what I bring people into. That’s the thought leadership.

Bill Sherman And encouraging conversations and creating a space for conversations in different contexts and different ages. So I want to touch on a couple of different. Pieces of work that you’ve done. And I know we are sort of touching different elements of your career from film and script writing, but you’ve written. For children. And conversations of how do you have deeper conversations and age appropriate conversations? We want to talk about that for a little bit.

Deborah Levine Love to. So the same gentleman who convinced me to make the American diversity report. Virtual instead of a PDF. Apparently getting to know me said you’ve got great stories to tell for kids. Let’s record them. Who, me? I said write them down. I have now. You’ve been telling them forever. Write them down. So I did. And I sent them to the same. Gentlemen, I sent the script two years later and his response back in email was Stop writing. Now. What’s I what am I supposed to do? He said, I tell you what. Take your favorite teddy bear. Put it up there and tell the teddy bear your stories. It will come out for the audience that you want. Young. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. So I did. And I wrote them down. I felt better about it. I went to the recording studio with my friend.

Bill Sherman And you took another friend with you to the recording studio, right?

Deborah Levine I took. I took the teddy bear.

Bill Sherman Exactly.

Deborah Levine But even better known as Bunny Bear because Daddy called all the women in his family bunny. So it’s Bunny Bear and me in the recording studio. And we did this incredible collection of stories. And they put some music to it. They helped with that. And we created a CD. So you how old? Well, it turns out that on Facebook I connected with. Someone, a Hollywood actress, who is interested in doing children’s stories. And I wrote her saying, Would you. Would you listen to mine and give me your feedback? And a testimonial. She said. Okay. So I did. I sent it to her. And she made me correct a few things. She said some of it is a bit too graphic in the bullying and it will scare our kids. So we can’t do that. If you’re willing to modify it just a little bit, I’m willing to give you a testimonial. I think you got it. You got it. And so this actress named Kim Wayans. Mm hmm. You know the Wayans family? Mm hmm. And she sent me this testimonial. These entertaining and instructive stories help facilitate dialog about difficult subjects like bullying, race, identity and discrimination. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. So I was sorry. As time went on and the CD became sort of an ancient prehistoric animal.

Bill Sherman And how did you find the CD player these days? Right.

Deborah Levine You go and a friend of mine says, nobody wants to just listen. They want to see it. So having done that documentary, I learned how to apply artificial intelligence to an audio and create the stories on video with me by imagery. That was kind of fun, actually. So I went a step further and used an AI to create with those images a coloring book and a teacher’s guide. So that there would be everything you need. You know, for the classroom.

Bill Sherman So there’s several themes that we’ve explored today. The concept of opening an idea and recruiting, how the willingness to go from feedback that says, Yeah, it’s not ready, subtext, it’s crap right now to, Hey, this is an award winning piece. I want to ask you a question, Deborah. And this is looking back on the journey. I know you certainly couldn’t have predicted the journey.

Deborah Levine No.

Bill Sherman What advice would you give your younger self in terms of being ready to tell this story, to carry this message forward around diversity and understanding? What advice would you give from a thought leadership perspective? What have you learned now that you wish you knew then?

Deborah Levine I would have told myself. That the inner creativity. He was always going to be there and not give up. Plus. All the times I got in trouble telling people the truth when it was apparently not requested and I took the heat for it, was just the opening salvo of what a thought leader would be.

Bill Sherman That’s delightful. You used to phrase. In a previous conversation I want to circle back to. Which is from who? Me? To. Yes. Me. And that acceptance of your place as the thought leader, the ability to carry the idea and know, yes, this is my lane, this is what I work on. And I accept it. Have you reached the point of Yes, me? Or is it still something you’re working with every day?

Deborah Levine It is still a work in progress because. I seem to be able to create. More and more as I get older. It’s one thing to think, Oh, I’m the thought leader because I created this 20 years ago and still famous. That’s not who I am. No, it is a constant evolution. Of who I am. And sometimes I think, what am I going to look like next year? I give out. I can’t imagine it because it’s just it bubbles up and there’s some scenes in some sci fi movies where someone sees on. Invisible blackboard. All kinds of things that they pulled together in different ways and switch around to create something new. That’s me. So in doing something like that, creating endlessly, right? Always means you make the path by walking it. You don’t follow in anyone’s path. That means that often you end up in the middle of the forest not knowing where you are. I have learned to tolerate that. They sleep on it. The brain, the creativity, whatever it is inside is working day and night in the sleep as well as awake. And I’m frequently a three hour hammer. We’d get out of bed onto the computer to make the notes of what is. Emerging.

Bill Sherman And that’s one of the signals to me of someone who really has the fire and the commitment to do thought leadership is when the idea strikes that it comes and it flows. And it’s almost like responding to a muse, Right. And that the ideas have to come out. They have to be expressed.

Deborah Levine That’s very true. I keep a notebook and pen by my bedside. But if that’s not enough, I dash into the next room, turn on the computer and start writing. I may not finish it. I never send something at three in the morning. Especially when I used to and people freaked out. So. I do need to relook at it in the morning. And the funny thing is, you get a little more sleep and in the morning you look at it. And it’s time to edit and it just comes refining it. But at least you had something to work with.

Bill Sherman And when you’re writing at that three in the morning or whenever it comes, you’re typically in a flow state where the words are just coming out or however you’re creating. Whether you see it or you write it and you record it, whatever format you use. That’s not the time for editing and self-censoring. Just let it flow. And then, like you said, you can go back in the morning and do the polish.

Deborah Levine Yes, and I’ve gotten used to that because I am somewhat of a perfectionist. Mm hmm. At 3 a.m. in the morning. That’s not the rule you need.

Bill Sherman I totally agree. So final question, Deborah. Yeah. And this relates to thought leadership in your area as you choose to define it. Whose work do you wish more people were reading and aware of?

Deborah Levine How? Well, there was an anthropologist called Claude Levi-Strauss. He was the originator of what we really know of as cultural anthropology. He’s not easy to read. So what is it that somebody who really you really need to have some knowledge of? There are many others. And I’d like to bring up a poet if I may.

Bill Sherman Yes, absolutely.

Deborah Levine My father gave me this book when I was still in high school. He said, this one is for you. The poet’s name was Rabindranath Tagore. A mystic. From India, whose poetry so inspired me even to today. But that mysticism that the sort of unknown. That comes into the creative soul. We should appreciate and acknowledge. It has some link to the divine, but we don’t know quite what it is. But we know that we’ve been given a gift. And we should use it. And the music of that poetry, the tempo of it. Helps it spring up and blossom. And that’s what poetry is for.

Bill Sherman I think that’s a lovely place to end because for me, having studied theater in my undergraduate and having a passion for it, you having studied dance. We talk about poetry, we talk about music. Those are in many ways, other ways of making the invisible visible and sharing the rich complexity of human experience in a way that others can perceive and understand. And I think that touches deeply the soul of thought leadership.

Deborah Levine Indeed it does, indeed.

Bill Sherman Deborah, thank you for joining me in this conversation. It’s been a delight.

Deborah Levine Thank you. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you. And I look forward to staying in touch.

Bill Sherman Thank you. If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website. and choose “Join our newsletter.” I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.

Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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