Newsletter   /   June 2023
Leave No Part of Yourself at the Door: Yolanda Savage-Narva on Community Transformation

Yolanda Savage-Narva has engaged in the Jewish communal ecosystem through many modes: spiritual engagement, DEI leadership, and collaboration with the Jews of Color Initiative. She also serves on the Board for Leading Edge, among other important efforts. Her primary role today is as the Assistant Vice President of Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), where she consults internally and externally with Jewish organizations to help them create communities that are safe and welcoming to Jews with marginalized identities. 

Savage-Narva’s experience working to promote racial equity began before she started working in the Jewish communal ecosystem. For twenty years, Savage-Narva collaborated with Tribal governments to strengthen their public health systems and improve overall health equity in states and territories. About eight years ago, Savage-Narva became the executive director of Operation Understanding DC, a non-profit based in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area that aims to empower young people to eradicate all forms of oppression. “One of the reasons I was so drawn to that role is because I saw an opportunity to bring my intersecting identity into a space where Black kids and Jewish kids came together to learn about each other’s identities, and how those identities affect the world, and how they could address oppression more broadly,” said Savage-Narva. “I think [Operation Understanding] really opened doors to where I am now.” 

Working with marginalized individuals inside and outside the Jewish community was a way for Savage-Narva to feel seen and respected in her own identity as a Black Jew as well. “When people are hearing what I’m saying, and are able to step outside of their experiences for a brief moment to have some understanding of what it’s like to be me, and to see them wrestling and struggling with what that means, it makes me feel like I’m being seen, like I’m being heard, and that I truly belong,” said Savage-Narva. Being heard and respected precisely in that manner has constituted some of the most influential moments in her trajectory as a Jewish leader. She cites her experience speaking at the URJ Biennial in 2019 as one such moment: “Speaking at the 2019 URJ Biennial in Chicago, and having an opportunity to really voice how I felt about the upcoming election, and what was on the line for someone like me, allowed me to, in front of five thousand Jews, dive into the real challenges that the election would have for me, based on my intersecting identities, if it went in a different direction,” Savage-Narva said. “I felt really in my power and in my zone being able to share that with so many people.”

Her firsthand knowledge of the way being heard and received with empathy can impact change has shaped Savage-Narva’s current work with the URJ, where she leads internal and external consulting efforts that promote racially equitable and diverse communities. “One of the things I really try hard to do, is to meet people where they are in their journey, and understand that people are coming from so many different places and bringing their experiences, biases, and baggage,” said Savage-Narva. She spoke of the importance of respecting people’s starting points and modulating to best reach them, instead of “just coming in with my set of talking points.”  

An indispensable step in this process has been to transform the environment within the URJ. “Before we can talk about creating equitable, just, anti-racist communities, we have to start at home,” Savage-Narva explained. “And so a lot of the work is internally focused where we’re in a consulting role with all of the departments in the URJ to help people really build the systems and integrate racial equity, diversity and inclusion into everything that they do.” As for the community engagement aspect  of the job, Savage-Narva described hands-on work she led with congregations, summer camps, and affiliate partners to help them integrate the tools necessary for racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. “This is what I call mirrors and windows,” she said. “You got to do the internal work, you got to hold the mirror up, and then you got to look outwards and do what you can there to affect change.”

The RAC was a grantee of the Jews of Color Initiative when Savage-Narva joined its team. She helped work on a proposal to fund JoC legislative assistance (a program that has since ended). “That was such a phenomenal opportunity for me to think about what is possible,” she said. “Sometimes you just need that impetus to push you and make you think a little bit more broadly, and to get out of that little box. So JoCI has definitely done that.” 

Savage-Narva also attended the JoCI Leadership Convening that was last month in Berkeley, California. “People were coming excited, they were coming with questions. They were coming with hopes and fears and were not sure what to expect. And I think at the end of the Convening, it was really evident that people had developed a strong bond with one another. And I think that’s because they had an opportunity to be in a space with Ilana where they saw that Ilana’s working hard to give JoCs what they need,” said Savage-Narva.

The importance of leaders who are genuinely committed to empowering a new cohort of individuals to become leaders themselves has been central to Savage-Narva’s own trajectory in the Jewish communal ecosystem. “People in leadership positions who are willing to really step back and allow you to thrive are leading from a different vantage point. That has been really powerful for me. I think, additionally, that seeing more and more JoCs land leadership roles in our ecosystem has been very, very inspiring as well.” This has especially been true for a DEI professional like herself, because that sector has been traditionally underfunded, and leaders are expected to impact systemic change on a very lean budget. “I really want to see some real resources put into JoCs. I want to see a consortium of foundations and philanthropic dollars going toward a JoC agenda for the next 10 years. And it can happen. It really can happen,” said Savage-Narva. This funding is crucial for the realization of a Jewish community that feels like a home for Jews of all racial backgrounds, for JoC to “belong and bring their full selves to the Jewish community, leaving no part of themselves at the door.” 

Date Posted

June 2023


Jews of Color Initiative