Friday Fellow of the Month: Sarah Brown
Friday, May 11, 2018
Sarah Brown’s license plate reads “SpkUp,” and those who know her know this is an ideal she strives to live by. She feels obligated to speak up herself and creates environments where others feel safe to do so. A colleague recounts, “I’ve seen Sarah name societal prejudices, biases, privileges (including her own) and oppression. She has boldly and tenderly encouraged people to look beyond narrow stereotypes as she strives to give them the space to be present and real.”
Sarah's critical thinking skills stem from her liberal arts undergraduate experience at Le Moyne College where she received an Integral Honors Degree and BA in English. Soon after, she received her Masters in Marketing from Emerson College. While her peers began their careers as corporate professionals; she chose to work as a tour guide in Boston and Alaska. During those two years, while regaling tourists with tales of haunted graveyards and the Alaskan Sasquatch, Sarah learned how to make small moments between humans into meaningful encounters leaving impressions that hold for years to come.
After her first professional job with an affordable homeownership non-profit, Sarah began working at OnTrack WNC Financial Education & Counseling as the Director of Development and Communications. Over the next several years, she assumed leadership of all front line staff and programs.
Eleven years later, as the Associate Executive Director, Sarah currently leads an exceptional team of non-profit professionals who help over 7,500 low-to-moderate income people annually, supporting clients as they stave off crisis, stabilize their cash flow, begin saving, build credit, and buy homes. Our clients learn that that they have the power and ability to take control of their money and move towards the life they hope for.
Sarah has transformed the organization by leading a massive change in team culture, programming, and strategic funding structure.
• She created an environment where authentic dialogue and teamwork became the standard of engagement; staff who previously worked in silos joined as one team to collaborate to build something amazing.
• Under Sarah’s leadership, disconnected services were redesigned into cohesive programs with the aim to make permanent change in people’s lives. Although staff still transfers a lot of knowledge, they now operate with the assumption that the client is the most important expert in the room and that their job is to bring that wisdom to the fore.
• As funding for the nonprofit sector continued to disappear and similar agencies closed as a result, she spearheaded an effort to charge a market-based fee for services to employers, government agencies, and other social service providers. This enabled the agency to continue providing free programming to the public while retaining high quality staff.
These steps broke the mold of a thirty-year-old industry model and positioned the agency as an innovator in the financial capabilities field.
When asked what drives Sarah in her work at OnTrack WNC, she says: “I get great fulfillment in supporting, challenging, and empowering the people – the team at OnTrack - who do the actual work of changing people’s lives. I want my staff to know their work is making a meaningful impact on the evolution of the agency and the people we serve and that one day when they leave the team, they do so having stretched themselves personally and professionally.”
Sarah proudly serves as the Chair of Mountain Housing Opportunities’ Board of Directors, an agency that serves over 1,000 NC households annually by building and leasing affordable apartments, creating homeownership opportunities for low-income people, and repairing homes – all with the goal of helping people to live in safe housing that they can afford near their jobs, and be able to remain there when they retire or become disabled.
Sarah very happily lives in Asheville, NC with her husband - partnered for 13 years - and her amazingly adorable (and sassy) two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Sarah knows that she is privileged to be loved by a mom and dad always by her side and attributes her skills in leadership, finance, and training as well as her commitment to family to their dedicated rearing and love. Thankfully, they remain close around her, volunteering at her work, helping raise her daughter, and sharing family dinners weekly. The bonus - her sister and brother are only short drives away.
She enjoys slowly (really slowly) cultivating her yard into a garden, telling and hearing funny stories, and daydreaming about retiring in 25 years as a tour guide once again in Alaska.
Sarah honestly questions how it is that she was invited to share in the Friday Fellows experience with the current cohort as she sits with some of NC’s finest people: public educators, social justice leaders, and wildly successful entrepreneurs to name a few. By developing real relationships with her Fellows and experiencing the leadership curriculum together, she intends to stretch herself to uncomfortable places.
She said, “I am here as a Fellow to understand more clearly the nuanced mechanics of race and class both systemically and on individual levels, especially within myself. By learning from others different than me, I hope to gain insights from their lived-experiences, share common ground, and build trust. It is in these authentic spaces I think we can heal as a society.”
Each month a new Friday Fellow from the 2017-2019 class is featured. This is the eighth feature in the series. Find previous monthly features in our news archives here.