Sarah Hamilton: To be an effective public service leader, you will need to be an innovative realist, rather than solely an idealist.

Social Impact will require you to have first-hand encounters with the world, challenging you to seek solutions, in essence, of how to remove darkness. The truth is, darkness can’t simply be removed. Just like the dawn, light must be brought in until the darkness fades. To be an effective public service leader, you will need […]

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Social Impact will require you to have first-hand encounters with the world, challenging you to seek solutions, in essence, of how to remove darkness. The truth is, darkness can’t simply be removed. Just like the dawn, light must be brought in until the darkness fades. To be an effective public service leader, you will need to be an innovative realist, rather than solely an idealist.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Hamilton. Sarah has led changemakers from the public, private, nonprofit and government sectors to strategic social impact solutions with mission-driven results for 20 years. Her work as a Social Impact and Public Service Consultant has included The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate-led nonprofit, PeaceJam. For her commitment to public service and volunteerism, Sarah was awarded the “President’s Call to Service Award” from President Barack Obama and the U.S. President’s Council on Service & Civic Participation.

Sarah was selected by the U.S. Department of State as a Fulbright Specialist to represent the United States on critical social impact priorities with international institutions and U.S. Embassies.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Sarah! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was raised in a small midwestern town, a community who at one time, had more fields of corn than it did people. My great-great-grandmother Anna and her five younger siblings immigrated from The Kingdom of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in the 1800s, to our small agricultural community after they became orphans. Anna’s younger siblings were adopted and she became a maid, before later starting a family of her own. I became the fifth generation to be raised in our small town. I learned that although small, little towns are mighty and have the ability to create significant impact, just the way they did for our family of orphans. I often wonder if there isn’t a more powerful way to make a difference, than starting with the life of a child?

You may have heard the advice Fred Rogers once gave children, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’.” This advice is exactly how my community first demonstrated social impact to me, by helping our own neighbors.

When I was 6 years old, a storm wreaked havoc in our town. Thunderstorms are a common occurrence in the Midwest. They are notorious for producing dangerous lightning and tornadoes. If you haven’t lived through one, you’ve probably witnessed their destructive power through the news or film. It’s one of the reasons Iowa played a key role in the filming of the movie ‘Twister’, starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton. This particular storm struck our neighbor’s home with lightning. It ignited a fire causing a single father and his three young girls to lose everything but each other.

Our family had modest means but after the storm, my mother asked me to select 3 stuffed animals from my toys (one for each of the girls), as she packed up clothing and food to bring to our neighbors. My mother was teaching me that you can look for helpers AND you can also join them. Neighbors helped each other rebuild from the storm’s destruction. It was from that moment, I wanted to join the helpers. In college, I interned at nonprofits and completed my master’s degree in Public Administration and Public Policy. From the day of the storm and throughout my public service career, one thing I am certain of is that no matter who you are, everyone has the ability to make a difference.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The common thread among changemakers is that everyone has a story. There is always a compelling reason why you feel called to make a difference and what you learn throughout the process of creating impact. Stories become agents of personal change and organizational transformation. They give us diverse perspectives, ignite conversations and therefore we gain a greater understanding of humanity. Producing TEDx has allowed a platform for the stories of individuals to foster learning, unleash new ideas, and provoke conversations that matter.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Before becoming a TEDx producer, I had years of experience in social impact event management but was naïve in the aspects of studio production technology. On the morning of our TEDx event, we experienced technical problems. One of our speakers was knowledgeable with equipment and he stepped behind the production booth to lend his expertise. The last thing a speaker should be doing before their Tedx Talk is undertaking the role of the technician! We had a great team and thankfully the issue was solved. No one can control what may unexpectedly happen, but it is our responsibility to learn from it. After that, I enrolled in a hands-on studio production class and committed to having a technology specialist at future events. At age 87 Michelangelo said, “I’m still learning.” I believe if we can be open to that type of growth mindset, and use setbacks as springboards for growth, we will set ourselves up for future success.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

As a social impact and public service consultant, I’ve had the privilege to work with changemakers from all walks of life. From TEDx, Fortune 500 companies, police officers, US Olympic instructors, actors, athletes, Emmy & Peabody Winners, and small local nonprofits, we’ve collaborated together for the greater good. You don’t have to look far to find the most inspiring people who are using their time and talents to solve some of the toughest challenges facing their neighborhoods and our world.

Advocacy is important for achieving social change and it can be very effective through film, publications, and policy. Most recently I authored The Dalai Lama-Scientist: A Guide of Study and Discussion, for the award-winning documentary by The Nobel Legacy Film Series. I drafted the proclamations for “Nonprofit Awareness Month’ for the state of Colorado and the ‘National Arts and Humanities Month” for the state of North Carolina. Both became Official State Proclamations resulting in state-wide awareness and initiatives.

Although the social impact in my career, volunteering has always been a part of my life. It is important that we contribute to our communities. I was honored to be the recipient of the United States’ “Presidential Call to Service Award” by The U.S. President’s Council on Service & Civic Participation for volunteering over 4,000 hours. This award honors individuals whose service positively impacts communities and hopefully inspires others to volunteer.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  • Be Inclusive. When collaborating for social impact solutions, learn not only from researchers and experts but from groups or individuals who have experienced the problem you are trying to solve. For example, when I was an Executive Director of a nonprofit homeless shelter, I invited two formerly homeless individuals to join our Board of Directors. Their insight was immensely valuable and as a result, we gained cultural sensitivity about a very marginalized population and enhanced our programs to more effectively serve our clients. Be curious about new perspectives. A curious mind seeks to learn, rather than to prove. Read, watch and investigate issues by engaging with those who might offer a viewpoint than your own.
  • Look for Common Ground. It has been said that if citizens cannot find the common good, then democracy becomes at best, dysfunctional and at worst, cannot survive. I would argue the same could be said if we cannot find common ground. For example, you may not vote for the same political candidate as your colleagues or in-laws, but the common ground is that you hold a shared belief system in elections, free speech, and the democratic process. By finding common ground, we can begin to have a dialogue rather than debate.
  • Volunteer. Volunteering hit record highs last year with over 77 million adults, according to The Corporation for National & Community Service. Why? Maybe it’s because we’ve learned that when you do good, you feel good. Did you know that on 9/11, over 30 million Americans volunteer in their community to honor our heroes? It is the largest day of charitable activity in U.S. history. The best-kept secrets of volunteering are that it can help increase social connections, create friendships, reduce loneliness, alleviate depression, enhance your skill set, advance your career, combat stress, promote longevity, and provide a sense of purpose.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe that the type of best leadership empowers others. Bill Gates said, “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” When leaders cultivate an empowered environment of open communication, trust, innovation, transparency, diplomacy, and respect, they set everyone up for success. Although leaders may ultimately have the final call in decisions, teams that feel empowered in their projects have been proven to be innovative and highly effective.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Social Impact will require you to have first-hand encounters with the world, challenging you to seek solutions, in essence, of how to remove darkness. The truth is, darkness can’t simply be removed. Just like the dawn, light must be brought in until the darkness fades. To be an effective public service leader, you will need to be an innovative realist, rather than solely an idealist.
  2. Working in the social impact field is a dichotomy. You will witness both the worst and the best of humanity; endless compassion and unimaginable cruelty. It is imperative for individuals and leaders in social impact organizations to become educated and proactive about Secondary Trauma Exposure (STS) and job-related PTSD. Protecting the mental health of those who are committed to helping others ensures that when circumstances are dark, their internal light won’t dim. To help heal our world, we must also heal ourselves.
  3. Projects, plans, and even the most fiscally stable organizations are reborn over the course of time. Funding sources, policy, and humanitarian conditions can quickly change affecting social impact priorities. View this not as a destruction, but as rebirth. We know that for a star to be born, there is one thing that must happen; a gaseous nebula must collapse. Collapses in projects and organizations will happen and so will rebirth. Transformations are a natural part of the growth cycle.
  4. Regardless of our differences, humans share the same needs to be heard, understood, respected and valued. If you interact with this outlook, it will create the potential and opportunity for perspective, communication, and connection with anyone you meet.
  5. You cannot change the world without changing yourself. Allow yourself to continually seek knowledge, acquire new skills, expand your empathy, evaluate your shortcomings, and listen to diverse perspectives in order to evolve. Our own evolution is part of our revolution for the greater good. There is wisdom in Rumi’s quote, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The full quote from one of Dr. King’s last speeches is If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agrees to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

You don’t need to be a public figure with a stage to make a difference. The truth is, no matter who you are, or where you live, your platform to serve is exactly where you are and it is waiting for you. Small actions make a difference. And as the Dalai Lama says, ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, then try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.”

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