Who The Folk?! Zoe Stern

Zoe Stern has the designation of being TC Jewfolk’s first-ever Who The Folk honoree. Since that day two-and-a-half years ago, she’s become the director of WE in Minnesota, which is celebrating its fourth year in Minnesota with a massive, annual WE Day event tomorrow afternoon at the Xcel Energy Center full of celebrities. Zoe talks about what it takes for junior high and high school students to attend this event as we catch up again in this week’s Who The Folk?!

What have you been up to since we last talked?

Well, I left JFCS and I came to work for WE. WE is a movement that empowers people and gives them the tools to change the world. I started as the associate director and now I’m the director. Really, I’m working to inspire Minnesota’s kids to get involved. I also work around the United States to onboard new markets and bring on partners all over the U.S. We have 10,000 schools across the U.S., Canada and the U.K. that are involved in our programs, and we do international development work in eight developing countries.

How do you work with the schools to help earn their way in to WE Day?

We set them up with our program WE Schools. We enroll schools and it’s completely free for schools to participate. They have to commit that their schools will do one local and one global act of service of the course of the year. They can choose what it is. As a charity, we don’t support any other charities. All we do is support youth figuring out what causes they’re passionate about, and give them the tools to take action. By taking those actions, they can earn a ticket to WE Day.

What are some of the projects that are popular for kids to take part in?

WE Scare Hunger is one of our campaigns. We have 10 campaigns that the kids can opt in or out of. They can do whatever they want, but they can use one of our campaigns. WE Scare Hunger is all about collecting food and helping eradicate food insecurities. We encourage kids to trick or treat for non-perishable, canned goods, as well as candy, and then donate them to local food shelving. In the three years we’ve been doing the programming, we’ve students have collected and donated more than a half-million pounds of food.

Does WE Day kick off the year?

We have two tours. Minnesota is on the fall tour. So here we are really thanking and honoring kids for the work they did last year, and inspiring them to do future actions for the rest of this year. They’ve made this commitment to service and philanthropy.

How many of the area schools are involved?

We have 650 schools here in Minnesota (HMJDS among them), and they are a pretty even breakdown of what the Minnesota Department of Education says the state breakdown is. The same percentage of public vs. private, metro vs. outstate. About 60 percent are metro area kids, the rest are outstate; but we have kids coming six, eight hours away to participate from all across the state. It’s really awesome.

Is this a big departure from JFCS?

Tzedakah, philanthropy and service is so engrained in the Jewish culture. So while I went to the “mainstream” sector, the lessons and values engrained in me as a Jew really transfer into this profession as far encouraging students to give back and help community and build up the community. Our students in Minnesota have donated more than $2 million in the last three years to local and global causes, and volunteered more than 1 million hours. It really does fit in line with the things I’ve done at JFCS and Herzl and all of my Jewish upbringing.

Are you sleeping?

I’m running on Starbucks. And adrenaline. WE Day for the past three years has pretty much been the best day of my entire year. It’s so exciting. You see all your hard work come to fruition.

At what point does the adrenaline run out and you crash?

I’ll try to take a little bit of time off the day after, I usually can’t speak so there’s not much I can do. Everyone thinks the work ends right after WE Day and really doesn’t. That’s when it gets busy because I have to engage and follow up with everyone motivated and inspired by that day. I work to make sure we can secure the funding to keep this free for students.

What’s the biggest challenge you find?

We’re so lucky here in Minnesota. They are so amiable and easy. They’re happy and they like us. The biggest challenge is sustaining our funding, like any other organization, and then to deepen our programming. WE have 60 percent of the schools in Minnesota, which according to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) is a really high rate to be integrated. We’re looking to deepen those partnerships and to really expand by adding schools and adding students per school so that it’s more deeply engrained in the curriculum.

Do you go to the schools to get involved or do they come to you?

It happens both ways. It’s very grassroots. In the beginning, we were literally driving all over the state, going to schools, and asking them to get involved. Now it happens a little more seamlessly, but we do calls. We have outreach speaker, spending all her time going out to the schools. Once it starts it spreads like wildfire.

You’ve had great celebrities in the past.

We’re so lucky that they donate all their time to us to get the kids motivated. Paula Abdul will speak but isn’t singing. Omi, who sings the song “Cheerleader,” and Jordan Smith who won “The Voice,” last year; Lilly Singh is a huge YouTuber and the kids are all excited. Lots of Disney stars, Buzz Aldrin, George Takai. It’s for everyone. Every seat will be taken. The energy is pretty amazing.

How many volunteers does it take to pull this off?

It takes about 800 volunteers, from 14-years-old on up. We have corporate volunteers; we have full groups. We get a lot of schools who say they need more tickets. We can’t do that, but if they want to bring them, chaperones and do it as a field trip, we take them.

Is it just for junior high and high school kids?

Our programming is from K-12. WE Day itself is junior high or high school. We encourage our kids who aren’t coming or the schools that are too young to do a celebration. It’s a really important part of being a WE school and doing the work and doing a celebration. We livestream it. We have schools that do pizza parties or assemblies.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

High holidays. The 11:30 creative service at Temple Israel I’ve never missed in my life. It is my favorite thing. I absolutely love it. It’s like my happy place. I love seeing the TIPTY kids. It’s so warm. I love it.

Favorite Jewish food?

Potato knishes. My grandfather was the only man in the Adath knish making club, so we always had them in the freezer and they were so good.

Click here to nominate your favorite TC Jew to be featured on our weekly Who the Folk?! series!