How to Make an Impact on and off the Stage

by Pat Launer August 27, 2015


TheaterSo, what were you doing in high school?

Jacob Gardenswartz was busy starting a theater company and winning a President’s Volunteer Service Award and a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award (one of 15 recipients nationwide). The $36,000 award was applicable to any project, and he spent most of it on Impact, the anti-bullying organization he founded.

At the same time, he was on the surf team, served as managing editor of his school magazine and president of the school chapter of Young Democrats. He had an internship with the San Diego Union-Tribune and published short fiction in San Diego CityBeat. He also won grants from Chelsey’s Light Foundation and Abercrombie & Fitch. And he attended the Anti-Defamation League’s Manhigim Institute, a Jewish leadership program for high school students which teaches how to combat anti-Semitism and fight all forms of bigotry.

“I’m definitely someone who tries to fill up my time,” admits Gardenswartz, now 19. “I’m much more efficient if I have a lot scheduled.”

The talented and articulate powerhouse spent this past summer working full-time on Impact. It all began in middle school, when he was involved with an organization that used theater to educate students about bullying.  When the organization (Teen Connection) lost its funding, Jacob and the founder, Sharla Mandere, pursued the concept with Theatre of Peace; Jacob was its student director throughout his high school years.

“I was content going off to college and letting the shows continue without me. While I was applying for college, I also applied for a bunch of scholarships, and much to my surprise, I won a lot of them. Francis Parker has a great scholarship database,” he adds, ceding credit to his alma mater.

Those scholarships, put him in touch with “people in the nonprofit sphere. They said my project really had potential. I never intended to start a nonprofit, but with all this encouragement, I decided to keep it going.

“With two other incredibly dedicated students, Alexis Newman and Larissa Garcia, we decided to move forward. The week of my high school graduation, we filed for 501(c)3 status, with the help of a lawyer at my father’s firm.”

For Jacob, Impact was “the perfect combination of theater and service, my two main areas of interest.”

Theater + service
Impact’s mission is to promote social change through the use of live theater. The program is by students, for students, and the focus is broad.

“We have about 25 scenarios, from cyber-bullying to issues of discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, athletic capability or disability.”

Jacob describes the in-school programs as “interactive and in-your-face. Students are asked to participate. All the actors are roughly the same age as the students they’re performing for. Students can connect better to a peer and a small-group interactive scenario than to a police officer or psychologist talking about bullying in an auditorium.”
The Chronicle of Philanthropy praised Impact as “Gen Z-ers who are making a difference.”

Here’s how the program works:

The team presents 8-10 four or five-minute scenes, each set in a different location (“We lead students around their campus, no more than 30 students participating at a time”).
“Every performance is different,” Gardenswartz says. Each presentation is tailored to the particular school’s needs.

“A lot of research went into the program,” Gardenswartz, whose mother, a teacher, is Impact’s Director of Educational Programming, asserts. The primary goals are to raise awareness of what constitutes bullying and to make students feel more comfortable and confident in standing up for themselves and others.

“With the mini-attention span of most kids, we knew it had to be kinesthetic education. People are more likely to retain information if they’re moving while learning. So nobody sits down during our performances. They move from scene to scene. If someone’s on a cellphone during a performance, we call them out. We’re forcing them to be in the moment.”

Early in the summer, I attended an educators’ preview event for school principals, counselors and teachers. Impact’s Title I grant is targeted for 20 schools this year. (The school cost ranges from $900 to $1,300, depending on the number of students involved).
Impact collaborated with local videographer Christopher Short to create a video tackling the important issue of cyberbullying that will be shown during all upcoming school programs.

A proprietary curriculum is provided to each school before and after the presentation. The first program component is “purely awareness,” Gardenswartz says. “Sometimes kids say things they don’t even know are offensive.”

The pre-program material specifies, among other things, the appropriate language to use in discussing these issues.

“We prefer the term ‘target’ to ‘victim.’ In cases of bullying, the majority of people are ‘bystanders.’ Our program aims to turn ‘bystanders’ into ‘upstanders.’ There was a big study showing that the majority of students say the best way to combat bullying is for peers to step in and say, ‘That’s not okay.’

“We know we’re not going to eradicate bullying,” he concedes. “But if we make people more likely to stand up, we can reduce bullying a bit. Beyond school, we know that bullies have a high incarceration rate. If someone only hears negative, aggressive communication at home, that’s what he or she will learn.”

The Impact program shortcuts their three-step instructional method using the acronym ICE: Interrupt Bullying. Compliment the Target. Escape.

Pre-and post-program surveys will help determine how much bullying is seen by students and how comfortable they feel stepping in.

“Our end-goal is to create a culture of kindness, compassion and diversity,” Gardenswartz says.

All the scenes are created by the entire Impact company, an ethnically diverse team aged 13-22. They even have one bilingual English/Spanish scene, about “the conflict between Spanish-only speakers and other students.”

Jacob facilitates and leads, and writes the final draft. Then he directs, and often performs.
One of his corporate grantors, Abercrombie & Fitch, strongly encouraged him to take a year off from college to devote himself to Impact full-time.

“For about a week, I considered it,” he says. “My parents and advisors said they would support my decision.”

But, true to multi-tasking form, Jacob plans to devote himself to both pursuits while he and his co-founders are away at school. In the interim, Impact has hired a program manager, Jessica Isaac, to assume some leadership responsibilities.

Back to school
This month, Gardenswartz returns to the University of Pennsylvania for his sophomore year, where he’s majoring in communication and public service. He hopes to be accepted into a dual-degree program, to simultaneously earn a BA and MPA (Master of Public Administration, “the nonprofit equivalent of an MBA”). Most of his peers took four-five classes last year; Gardenswartz took seven.

“Caffeine is my friend,” he says. “Sleep is not.”

His major field, he explains, “is all about communication for governments and nonprofits. I love writing, and I love politics. Last year, while I was working for Tom Wolf’s gubernatorial campaign – one of the few Democrats who won! – I got to meet President Obama, when he was speaking at Temple University. He is an amazing orator. I have his signature on the letter from the President’s Volunteer Service Award I won in high school.”

The 19-year-old also “did a couple of internships in Philadelphia last year,” and he’s hoping to spend some intern time in Washington, D.C. next summer.

He’s still “involved in a million things,” including the Penn Democratic Club and the school’s Lambda Alliance, for which he serves as Vice Chair and Communications Director (he came out in 8th grade, and has found “very supportive communities” at both Parker School and Penn).

He admits to having felt bullied before he came out, but it “never was a huge issue,” he says, and “being on the surf team helped.”

Jacob and Judaism
Jacob is a native San Diegan. His family has a long-time commitment to Congregation Beth El, where he had his Bar Mitzvah. He first attended the Soille Hebrew Day School (his mother was an educator there); then, for grades 6-12, he transferred to Francis Parker.

“We’re Conservative,” he says of his family’s religious orientation. “But I learned with devout, Orthodox people. Because of that, I was able to make informed decisions about how I want to lead my life.”

His family kept kosher, and he says “Kashrut for us is a way to remember, to feel involved with the community.”

At Penn, he’s a member of Hillel, where he attends Shabbat dinners and High Holiday services. As Passover is his favorite holiday, he posted his own “cut-and-paste online haggadah” last year. “A very 21st century seder,” he says. “I told people to bring their iPads if they wanted to participate.”

He even cooked part of the meal; that seder was among his favorite memories of the year. It wasn’t his first seder-leading experience; during 8th grade, he conducted a seder when he was studying in Spain.

“I love Passover because it’s all about imparting your own story,” he says.

High drama
Passover, politics, social change and storytelling aren’t Jacob’s only lifelong passions. He was bitten by the theater bug very early on, appearing in a J*Company production of “Once Upon a Mattress” when he was 5. But dance was his real entrée to the performing arts.

“I was dancing ever since I could walk,” he says. He continues classes in tap and jazz whenever he’s in San Diego. He performed with several youth theater companies, as well as professional theaters such as Moonlight Stage Productions and Scripps Ranch Theatre, and he participated in The Old Globe’s summer conservatory. The summer after 7th grade, he toured the East coast with the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s “Blessings of a Broken Heart,” directed by Todd Salovey.

Last year, at Penn, he had a leading role in Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles.” He also participated in “Mask & Wig,” the oldest all-male musical comedy theater troupe in the country, for which he wrote an original script.

Jacob’s long-range plan is to expand Impact into other cities. But this year, the focus is local, extending to colleges and workplaces.

“We’re at an amazing place right now with Impact,” he says. “The journey has been jumping from rock to rock, and stepping back from wobbly ones before hopping onto another. We just keep on hopping down the river and see what happens.”


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