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Past Lessons for Present Change: Sarah Weiss

The Holocaust and Genocide Memorial and Education Commission has a new member: Public Allies Cincinnati 2005 alum Sarah Weiss.

Having served as CEO of Cincinnati’s Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center since 2007, Sarah uses lessons of the past to make change in the present and future. Her work centers around education about the Holocaust and genocide, and challenging hate and intolerance.

In her new role, Sarah will support the Commission’s goal is to ensure that elected officials and the general public across Ohio are meaningfully informed about both the history of the Holocaust and the present-day threats of genocide, and that educators have the resources they need to teach these topics. 

“I want to be able to say that this is history, and this is not so relevant… that would be a measure of success,” Sarah says.

While she acknowledges that preserving history is definitely important, Public Allies helped Sarah find her passion for learning from history and not making the same mistakes today that were made in the past. “It’s very much connected to the foundation that I gained all those years ago in Public Allies,” she says.

Growing up in an Ohio family that was engaged in their community, Sarah was immersed in social justice. Rather than following in her family’s footsteps, however, she hoped to make a difference by entering corporate America, going on to study business and Spanish at the University of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati was confronting many racial justice issues at that time, with challenges surfacing particularly between police and the community. “In 2001, there was a Black man shot by the police that was kind of like the tipping point,” says Sarah. “And so, there were—depending on who frames it—riots, civil unrest in the city. And that was kind of defining my undergraduate experience.”

Additionally, Sarah studied abroad in Spain for a year and found that “no matter where you are, there are issues to tackle, there’s ways you can make a difference, there’s ways you can bring your strengths.” Despite her intention to fight the system from the inside, these defining experiences drove her to pursue a career in social justice after college.

Recognizing that she was only going to be happy if she was engaged and involved, Sarah decided to remain in Cincinnati, where she felt challenged by the charged environment. She was attracted to the opportunities, challenges, and growth offered to her by Public Allies Cincinnati, and was ultimately placed at the Holocaust and Humanity Center (HHC), which had been formed in 2000.

When she reflects on that time and the organizers who influenced her, Sarah says, “The [Public Allies Cincinnati] staff were people who had been in the trenches of nonprofits and social justice movements in really powerful ways… I also think about some of the people that were part of our learning and our training together.” These community leaders not only had a tremendous impact on Sarah as she immersed herself in the beginning of her career; she continues to reach out to those connections—and friends—to this day.

Sarah completed a second Ally year with HHC, and was offered a full-time programming role there after graduating in 2005. When the founding Director left the organization, Sarah became the interim CEO; in 2007, she became the permanent CEO.

“I actually said no… I just didn’t think I could be the face [of HHC],” Sarah explains. Finding the confidence to lead—and be called a leader—was a challenge, and she relied on her Public Allies relationships to further her journey to establish her own definition of leadership. Sarah says that eventually, “I went from a place of… wanting to do the work without the recognition, to actually immersing myself in that leadership role.”

Today, Sarah recognizes that she has spent her 20s and most of her 30s totally devoted to her career; while she doesn’t regret that “incredibly fulfilling” experience, she says, “the more you immerse yourself, the more questions you have.” Having a young child, and another baby on the way, has caused Sarah to consider difficult questions and seek radical answers.

“What does it mean to be a leader with more balance, who actually has a life?” Sarah asks, explaining that figuring out how to step away and empower others is an ongoing challenge. She also recognizes that it can’t be just about her; in her Public Allies-driven focus on equity, Sarah is working towards ensuring everyone can achieve work-life harmony.

Sarah hopes that her work with HHC and Ohio’s new commission will ultimately teach young people that we can all learn from history and change our behavior in the future. She also plans to continue building a community of upstanders who understand that any of us can make a difference in any moment, as long as we recognize our potential to act in small ways and are willing to speak up against injustice.