We are pleased to introduce Sara Stuart, long-time TOA friend, supporter, and non-profit executive. Sara has had many years of experience with TOA – as Interim Chief of Staff for 18 months, as well as in board and voluntary capacities throughout the history of the organization. Currently, she serves as Vice President of Operations at New York Immigration Coalition. In this profile, Sara tells us more about her personal experiences, including working with low-income women in India to train them to tell their stories, and how this work impacted her.
Q: Stories play a considerable role in changing hearts and minds. What is an example of how a story impacted you or one of the issues that you worked on?
I remember one of my first experiences working in India, with an organization of informal sector workers, I trained women to use video equipment to tell their stories and use them to raise awareness and organize. Now, this work predated cellphone cameras, it was back in the day when we had to use large cameras and equipment that recorded ¾ in. tape. I trained vegetable vendors and their videos shined a light on how local police would harass them and their fellow vendors regularly. Some of these vendors had been doing this work for generations from the same spot of pavement, yet that didn’t stop local police from harassing them. Organizers saw this problem and were trying to work with the vendors to stop it. When organizers saw the videos, they felt empowered to use them as an organizing and advocacy tool. One organizer set up a private meeting with a local elected official as a means of showing the stories and bringing the testimony of the harassment to him. The local elected official was so moved by what he saw that he became an outspoken advocate of licenses for the vendors as a means of stopping harassment by local police. People often talk about the power of moving large numbers of people, but we need to also think about who specifically we are moving and how.
Q: Who is a hero in your life, someone who inspires you?
Ela Bhatt is a great hero of mine. She founded the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in India where informal sector or self-employed workers make up well over 90% of the workforce. SEWA was part of the Textile Labor Association, founded by Gandhi, and it takes a trade labor union approach to organize and advance the rights and well-being of low-income self-employed women. She is one of the most creative and powerful organizers on the planet. She has won an ILO (International Labor Organization) convention on the rights of home-based workers and built an organization from the ground up to a current membership of well over a million across India. She taught me about the great power of combining struggle (e.g. organizing and advocacy) with service (e.g. access to resources, education, healthcare, banking, etc.). She is a great communicator who champions the importance of directly affected people using their voices and speaking their truth to power. I helped to train their video team which has supported their advocacy and service work for nearly 40 years.
Q: What would you say is your superhero power?
My superhero power is listening, it is really listening. Being able to really listen is hugely important to me personally and it is essential for me to be a good manager. As a white chick working in a social justice organization, I know why it is so important to listen carefully. It means being humble and showing respect, that is the way you can build trust and common ground. Being in a rush and wanting to get everything done quickly makes listening more of a challenge. Every day we face distractions, all those little things that we often have to deal with in the hyper-fast world we live in, and those distractions can undermine what we need in order to really listen. This is why it is so important that you sit back and just hear what someone is saying beyond just the words they use. I find that when I really focus on listening, devoting all of my senses to paying attention, I start being able to put myself in someone else's shoes.
Q: When have you encountered a problematic narrative and how did you challenge it?
I've had more than one career, and one of my earlier careers focused on teaching folks to use video to tell powerful stories. One of these projects was based in Upper Egypt and focused on women's rights and health. As you can imagine that project touched on some pretty hot-button issues. The women who participated had a space to develop videos about issues that they care about and are often ignored. Over the course of the project, they produced videos that touched upon a range of issues such as female genital mutilation and the importance of girls having a voice in the decision about who they marry. One of the leaders of the village made it his habit to visit the class almost every day and say “there are no men in this class. Why are there no men in your class?” And every day I responded by trying to shift the narrative by saying “Isn't it wonderful that this time women get to go first? Isn’t it great that once the women in this class have mastered this and had a chance to tell stories that are key to their concerns, then they can have a chance to teach the men! Won't that be nice?” And I'm telling you, I had that conversation with this guy every day. Looking back on this interaction, did I shift a problematic narrative? I honestly don’t know. However, I can point to the fact that the women who participated in the class made wonderful videos and that their work was seen in the community. This project also helped many of the women who participated grow their confidence and, over time, many of them were recognized in the communities as leaders. I guess I can say that we did address the problematic narrative right there. Maybe my response wasn't enough, but actions always speak louder than words.
Q: What is something you would like The Opportunity Agenda community to know about you?
I'm going to spin this one a little bit based on my experience working at The Opportunity Agenda and from my experience in helping tell the organization’s story. There was a time when (TOA Founder) Alan Jenkins asked me to start writing success stories along with other personal stories that he could share with funders, stakeholders, and more broadly with supporters. I recall framing the story about the campaign we participated in to close Rikers. At the time, we embedded with the Close Rikers campaign and, because of how immersed we were in the work, we were then able to share the story of that work and its impact. In many ways, the way we embedded with the Close Rikers campaign was very similar to my past work in India and Egypt. Staying immersed in the work for several weeks and embedding with directly impacted communities is a powerful strategy for building leadership and advancing narrative change. The power of being able to see our messaging advice being adopted every day by the very same folks who we worked closely with in developing that messaging advice is immeasurable. Going further, you could see the ripple of message dissemination to the coalition, the broader public, and decision-makers. You know the process worked when you started to see the messaging everywhere from Judge John Lippman’s report outlining how to Close Rikers all the way to the mayor’s press release where he finally approved the closure of Rikers shortly. Seeing that moment come to fruition was powerful. All of that to say that I really believe that embedding with folks who are engaged in the work is a great strategy. That's what I want you to know about me.