Dafna Michaelson Jenet
It’s Never Too Late to Work for a Solution
“What should we do if we win?”
Michael, Dafna’s then-boyfriend, now-husband, asked as he held out the lottery ticket he had bought on impulse to break a twenty dollar bill, totally unaware of the emotional response he had just triggered.
Dafna was thrust back to her childhood, watching her mother and stepfather hopefully scratch off an endless series of lottery tickets, asking each member of the family what they would do if it was a winner. Every ticket held the promise of a different life. Every scratch ended in disappointment and, for Dafna, the harsh reality of life’s unfairness. Her parents, hard workers who had immigrated to the United States from Israel when she was just a baby in search of a better life, were good people. They deserved to win, but they never did.
Shaking off those unpleasant memories, Dafna responded to Michael as if she had been preparing her answer for years: If they won, she would travel to all 50 states, seeking out community problem solvers and learning from them how they had achieved their goals.
It was the next logical step in a journey she had been on since her early teen years, a time in her life when she was grappling with her Orthodox Jewish religious identity and trying to make sense of the world around her in a different way. Every week at the Sabbath table, she heard the adults discussing problems of homelessness and poverty in their Cincinnati community. What Dafna was not hearing was solutions, and she was tired of hearing people talk about problems without following up with an attempt to do something about them.
Dafna vowed that from that point on, she would never complain about anything unless she was prepared to work for a solution. That vow became the guiding principle of a lifelong commitment to activism and leadership. She began volunteering in her community, and continued that engagement through college and a move with her first husband to Colorado, where she took on the role of Director of the Holocaust Awareness Institute at the University of Denver. It was in that position where Dafna found yet another problem in need of a solution: There was a lot of heart in the nonprofit community, but there was not a lot of strategic acumen to go with it. To address that gap, Dafna got an MBA, returning to the nonprofit sector with an enhanced skill set and a determination to create the change she wanted to see.
It was in 2008 and the economy had just begun its plunge into recession when Dafna had that conversation about winning the lottery. The ticket, like those she remembered all too well from childhood, wasn’t a winner. It didn’t matter; she had already decided to do the trip anyway.
On her visits with government and community leaders across the nation over the course of the next year, Dafna was continuously struck by one thing: Real change was possible only when people were able to recognize their shared problems and step up to solve them not only for themselves, but for one another. It was something she had long understood on an intuitive level, but seeing it in action, over and over again, was much more powerful.
She put those lessons to work both by writing about them in her book, It Takes a Little Crazy to Make a Difference, and by running for and winning a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives. It was in that role that she took on an issue with both societal and personal resonance. Dafna, who is the biological mother of two children and stepmother to another, had long fought to get help for one of her children, a boy who struggled for years with executive function and mental health challenges. She was keenly aware of how vital it was to find support for young people like her son and, as students were thrust back into “normal” school following the mandatory isolation and toxic stress of the pandemic years, it was all too clear to Dafna, particularly following yet another local school shooting, that these fragile young people would need extra support. It was not only a matter of supporting their own sense of well being; it was about keeping them and their school community safe. Her response was the creation of I Matter, a program that provides free therapy to all school age Colorado youth.
Honored by the Anti-Defamation League with its Civil Rights Award for her work, Dafna intends to continue her advocacy with a run for a Colorado State Senate seat upon completing a full 8 years in the House and continuing to give a platform to other community leaders through the nonprofit organization she shares with her husband Michael, the Journey Institute, and the TEDx talks they host.
Throughout her years of advocacy and leadership, Dafna has had to navigate a complicated landscape of divorce and remarriage, more than one round of cancer, the loss of a desperately wanted baby through miscarriage, and the trials that come with raising a struggling child. She might well have sat back and complained – many of us would – but instead she stayed true to the vow she made as a 14 year old girl, never to complain if she wasn’t going to work for a solution. And so that is what she does: instead of buying lottery tickets, she places her bets on herself and continues to put in the hard work required to find a solution to every problem life puts in front of her.
It’s never too late to work for a solution.