Spotlight: Dani Bedau
Dani Bedau recently participated in a pilot cohort for our new program, Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out. In this interview, Dani shares her experience.
This interview has been edited and shortened for readability
Hi Dani! Can you tell us about yourself and your work?
I’m Dani Bedau. In my work life, I’m a professor at San Diego State University and head of Youth Theatre. I teach a lot of students who are future classroom teachers how to integrate theatre as a tool in their classrooms and core curriculum. I also teach theatre students; my specialty is Shakespeare. I try to bring social justice identity focus into my work as a teacher and theatre artist.
Tell me about the va’ad/study group you're in currently.
I’m participating in the Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out program along with others from Nefesh and Bend the Arc SoCal. The course has us thinking about middot/soul traits in relation to race in our country right now. In our group, led by Rabbi Robin Podolsky, Yehudah Webster, and Dona Hare Price, we spend the session looking at Mussar practice and a relevant case study. We also have a chavruta/study partner that we meet with in between the sessions. We talk about a racial justice-related commitment as practice.
We’re always looking at the middot in relationship to IOWA’s balance of care framework; care for ourselves, care for fellows, which in this process is Black people, care for our opponents, and care for HaShem. There’s been a ton of learning and growth in this space.
What are you learning or working on right now?
We were working on kavod/honor in the last session. And we focused on an accountability practice and chose an area of care within the balance of care framework I just named.
I decided to focus on Black fellows. I have this huge group of Black students graduating that I’ve been working closely with over the last two years, so I chose that area of care. I initially chose to honor them by writing these individual notes. Through that process, our facilitator Yehudah, provided some feedback and said, “Okay, how can you help make that a daily practice? Maybe you’re just doing a little bit of writing each day so it gets drawn out over the two weeks.” That was really helpful. I was able to think of more people I could honor. I’m learning.
The violence in Buffalo happened in the middle of this note process, so I switched gears and spent one day honoring all of the Black people I work with by reaching out to them and expressing my condolences and sharing my support. I thanked them, especially at my university, for what they do to support the Black students on my campus. I reached out to a lot of my students who I’m closer with and asked if they needed support.
So what kavod has done for me, is foreground honor, foreground seeing and honoring and holding the Black people in my life. One of the biggest things I’ve gotten out of this program is the encouragement and permission to be really consciously kind to Black people. And it’s not like I haven’t always really wanted to be that. But I never felt permission and in fact, the way I grew up with whiteness, I have a lot of guilt and a lot of awareness that a lot of stuff’s none of my business. And so I felt like I always held myself back from being effusive or generous, or even taking up space around Black people. I have a lot of Black people in my neighborhood, and even there, this program gives me permission to greet people, to make them feel seen, and to just really put myself out there without needing anything in response. Kavod accentuated that over the last two weeks.
We’re also preparing for the next middah—bitachon/trust. I really appreciate The IOWA Project and Rabbi David Jaffe’s directly aligning Mussar with social justice work. I’ve been engaging with Mussar for a long time. It’s very deeply embedded in Nefesh’s community process. I’m also involved in a 12-step community. For me, Mussar is like the Jewish 12-steps. It’s very, very concrete action. I really appreciate it and I’m learning about how to put the middot practice into a social justice framework directly.
There’s a lot of overlapping learning. It’s cumulative. To deepen Mussar, to look at it through a social justice lens, and then to have this accountability piece—the regular check-in with a chavruta partner. It’s really comprehensive. It’s also been huge to be asked to integrate something daily. And that’s what I was saying earlier—the permission to be conscious daily about what I’m doing. Not from where I was in the summer of 2020, where I was desperately thinking, “Where can I donate? Where’s the next protest?” It’s a more relaxed, integrated, sustainable, and daily consciousness, just like I do daily morning prayer and 12-step practice. And now daily morning Mussar social justice anti-racist practice. It’s been really huge for me in those ways.
Can you say more about how this has impacted your spiritual practice and spirituality in general?
I came to the process feeling confident in my understanding of Mussar. I’ve read Everyday Holiness by Alan Morrinis. Our high holiday practice at Nefesh is directly related to Mussar. Also, the Nefesh Boost, our version of adult study, has a Sunday practice that I did for a period of time, so I feel pretty comfortable. I choose a middah to focus on every year. So for me, it’s been so powerful to feel that foundation under me and now think of it through a social justice lens. And then to read Rabbi David Jaffe’s book, which is broader than race; he talks about all different kinds of social justice practices. But then when we bring Mussar into our Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out course, and we bring it to our chavruta sessions—we’re talking about it through a lens that’s focused on racism.
I have done identity-based anti-racism work since I was sixteen years old. And it has been fairly integrated into my Jewish practice in the last few years because of what’s going on in the world. But to have a process that asks me to think as a Jew about my commitment to antiracism and then directly aligns with Mussar practice – I’m going to get emotional - it’s hard to describe the level of integration, the level of liberation, and comfort and spiritual connection that this is offering me personally because I’ve always had to think of those things separately, or do that integration myself. Our facilitators have this way of both holding that integration in their own practice; they talk about it and it’s made me realize, oh, I’ve always done this. I just haven’t understood it in that way. We’re committing to integrating this daily.
I happen to have a daily spiritual practice that’s movement, prayer, and meditation based. Depending on what the thing is that you’re choosing for your daily practice, it gets integrated into a practice that someone like me already has. It feels really simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. So it’s been really powerful for me to have that be encouraged, and that I’m accountable for it. It’s practice, to really, really have a practice, which is what a religious practice is, right? It just feels really powerful to have it integrated in a spiritual way.
You touched on the balance of care framework; care for self, care for opponent, care for Black people, care for HaShem. How has this framing and balance of care impacted your work?
Yeah, it’s been huge. I feel like I’ve been given permission to follow new kinds of instincts. Yehudah uses this language, to “be suspicious”. Be suspicious of a first thought or first instinct. For me, I have to also be suspicious when I have an instinct rooted in fear. For example, I may think, “I’m not going to reach out to that particular group of Black people. What I think doesn’t matter. Who cares. I’m just another middle-aged white lady, right?” I’m now suspicious that my instinct might be fear, and I can push through that. And it doesn’t matter if I’m met with anything. It’s my job to show up and be welcoming, supportive, using and engaging in kavod. Or, sometimes, that suspicion has moved me to stay quiet in ways that are appropriate and that are not my instinct as well. Just for me, the overall idea of permission, liberation, to go forward and do the things that are my instincts once I’ve sat with that suspicion for a moment just to see, “ok, where is that motivation coming from”.
The balance of care piece has been huge. Early in the course, I was doing a lot with the connection to HaShem piece. I hadn’t done a ton around the care for opponent piece, but that’s given me the awareness that I can practice that. I’ve mostly done personal meditation and focus phrase repetition around allowing and having compassion or whatever the middot is that we’re working on, for that opponent, even if I’m not yet engaging directly with those opponents. Even the people I love most and am most aligned with can become opponents. People can become opponents when we don’t share the same perspective. That notion of opponent has been really powerful for me.
In regards to antiracism advocacy and the work that you do, how has this impacted or supported you and your work?
It’s strengthening me, giving me more confidence. It’s empowering me and giving me permission and tools. I’m starting to more directly see my teaching work as a place where I can integrate—I’ve always integrated antiracism practices to some extent in my classrooms. But because of the spiritual component of the Dismantling Racism process, I’m starting to see my artistic work and teaching as not just a place to do antiracist practice but also a place where I can have spirituality. Obviously, I’m not pushing my spirituality on the people in that room but I can come at it from a spiritually-centered place that's steeped in Mussar. It’s giving me language and structure for something that’s been instinctive, but I couldn’t articulate or kind of get my hands around it.
I have now more permission to bring more of myself—my spiritual self, and my antiracist practice into my art making and my teaching. So that’s really powerful. I’ve always done that. But something about this training, this practice process has really helped me feel like I’m not alone. There are thousands of years of practice underpinning me, that I can lean into.
As an experienced DEI trainer and facilitator, how has this process been?
This is an incredibly valuable thing for people who have been doing the work for a while, for all the reasons I said earlier about how it helps to integrate. I love how complex it is and how it asks me to think about so many different parts of myself. For people who have been leading this kind of process and that are facilitators that have been doing this work for a long time, I would encourage this. It’s been really powerful for me to move from the role of facilitator to the role of participant and learned a lot from that.
Is there anything else you want to name or share?
It’s really been powerful and I’m really glad to have been a part of it. I look forward to seeing where it goes.
Dani Bedau (she/her/hers) is a theatre artist and educator. She is Associate Professor and Head of Youth Theatre in the School of Theatre, Television, and Film at San Diego State University. Dani has directed many plays and written or devised a few. She has also co-authored several articles that have been published in peer-reviewed journals. For nearly 30 years, Dani has created theatre programs that facilitate conversations across social distance such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and class. These programs include; Will Power to Youth, for Shakespeare Center/Los Angeles, Speak to Me, for the Mark Taper Forum and CompassionPlays for Western Justice Center. Dani is committed to creating brave spaces for learning and art-making, providing leadership opportunities for student artists, and doing her part, imperfectly, to dismantle hierarchies and end white supremacy.