Welcoming Ashoka Fellow Sarah Hemminger - Stories from our Trend-Spotters
This week, we welcome five new Ashoka Fellows to our network of more than 3,000 social entrepreneurs and every Thursday for the next five weeks, we will be featuring each of these Fellows on our blog hosted by Forbes.com.
Q & A WITH ASHOKA TREND-SPOTTER LENNON FLOWERS
Lennon serves as the Community Director for Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative, where she leads our efforts to find the next wave of “Empathy Fellows,” and to distill and share the key principles and practices that underpin their work with educators looking to follow their lead. She is the co-founder of The Dinner Party, a collective of men and women out to change the way we approach life after loss, through candid conversation and the art of breaking bread.
What social issue motivates you most?
I can’t say there’s a single issue. If anything, it’s our tendency to conflate circumstance with a lack of potential: to condescend or outright dismiss people because we believe them less than capable, when the reality is we’ve simply failed to create systems through which anyone, at any age, can thrive. So it’s efforts to unlock agency that inspire me most.
When did you start engaging with Ashoka?
I first joined Ashoka in the Fall of 2007, having graduated from college that May. At the time, it was the only place I knew of that could capture a vision as grand as “everyone a changemaker,” while simultaneously taking a very hard look at what real impact actually looks like, and the need to invest both money and trust not just in academics and policy wonks, but in the people who very often lived the problems they sought to address.
Where did you meet the Fellow you spotted?
Our friends at Echoing Green gave me the first tip-off: Sarah became an Echoing Green Fellow in 2009, just after formally launching IMP. I spend much of my time scouring the US in search of what we call “Empathy Fellows”: systems-changing social entrepreneurs who’ve uncovered a powerful means of cultivating empathy, or creating the kinds of conditions in which empathy can thrive. That’s not something you can easily Google, so we tend to find those Fellows the same way we find all Fellows: by relying on our network to surface game-changing ideas in a variety of fields, and then unpacking how they do what they do. I’d worked with Johns Hopkins during the early days of Ashoka U’s Changemaker Campus Initiative, and a few conversations with alumni and faculty still there confirmed our suspicions: Sarah was on to something big.
What struck you most about her work?
It was so simple: Sarah proved that turning around the lives of the kids who’d been virtually written off since birth didn’t require a clinical degree, or the creation of an entirely new school system. What makes IMP work — the commitment to do whatever it takes, to never give up, to, quite simply, love more — are principles that anyone can put into practice. The last cohort of students had an average GPA of .8 upon entering IMP. To date, every single kid has gone on to college, and among the oldest cohort, 66% are due to graduate from college this year. You simply don’t find those kinds of statistics elsewhere. What Sarah’s done is to create a model for how to mobilize an entire community behind a shared challenge: a model for transforming not only the lives of the students they serve, but of every volunteer, and the very communities in which they live.