We are excited to welcome Abby Strunk Saloma to the Schusterman philanthropic family as a program officer in our national office! Abby will be helping us develop a suite of experiences supporting young Jews involved in secular service work as they explore and become creators of Jewish life, with a particular focus on expanding our work with Teach For America.
Abby honed her professional chops at BBYO before moving on to Street Sense and The Center for Mind-Body Medicine. Herewith, we talk to Abby about her return “home” to the Jewish professional world, her philosophy on coaching young leaders and where she draws her grounding in tikkun olam.
1. Tell us what excites you most about your new position with the Foundation.
I am most excited about playing a lead role with the Teach for America partnership. I come from an entire family of teachers. Both of my parents were teachers for 35 years. My sister and husband are teachers as well.
I had a rather unique educational experience growing up; my parents used my grandmother’s address to send me to an inner-city public school (at a time when many parents were taking their children out of the school). My high school had more than 3,000 students, predominantly African American and Hispanic and a high-poverty rate. I received a solid education because I had teachers who loved their job and believed in the ability of their students—all of their students—to succeed. Perhaps more important than the education I got from my teachers was the education I got from my peers. The experience shaped who I am today; it opened my eyes to the issues of race and poverty and fueled my passion for educational equality.
I also worked for GW’s Graduate School of Education earlier in my career when the No Child Left Behind legislation came out. We spent a lot of time looking at the law and how it might help or hurt the education of our young people. I think many of the world’s problems can be addressed by focusing on education. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with young leaders who have decided to teach children in communities who need them most. I know I will learn a great deal from them, and I am looking forward to providing them with innovative opportunities to help them grow as leaders.
2. What inspired you to return to the Jewish professional world?
My five years working in the Jewish community (at BBYO) were the most professionally fulfilling of my career. My path was somewhat unconventional. I had spent several years reveling in the creative energy of marketing firms and advertising agencies and never considered a job in the Jewish professional world. In fact, I never even really knew the vast world of Jewish organizations and professionals existed!
Around the time when I was finishing up with my graduate degree at GW, I met Matthew Grossman, who had just taken on the Executive Director role at BBYO. He was charged with reshaping the organization to make it relevant to today’s teens, and he was looking for someone to lead the organization’s marketing and communications efforts. Despite my hesitations that the Jewish world might not give me the high energy, creative environment that I was looking for, I took the job. My perceptions were quickly shattered.
I embarked on a five-year journey where I was given the opportunity to build BBYO’s marketing operation, take risks, propose new ideas and run with them, and perhaps most important, work alongside some of the most strategic, creative, passionate people I’ve ever met—people who care deeply about making the world a better place.
I’m thrilled to be returning.
3. Drawing on your experience at BBYO, what do you think is key to developing young leaders?
I think it’s critical to create a space for young leaders to be both challenged and supported. When working with young professionals, I like to give two types of projects—very specific projects where I know the professional is going to succeed and “open canvas” projects where the outcomes are not so clear. The former helps build confidence; the latter helps build strategic thinking skills. Throughout this process, I try to support the young professional by “coaching” instead of “managing.” In other words, rather than telling them where to go with a project or giving them the answers, I prefer to ask questions so they can come to their own conclusions about what’s working and what’s not. I think young professionals really appreciate and feel empowered by this approach.
4. At both Street Sense and The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, you worked to heal and empower struggling and traumatized populations. Share with us what you took away from those experiences.
The main lesson I took away is that each human being—even when faced with the most horrific of circumstances—has an innate and almost infinite capacity within to heal oneself.
I saw this over and over again at Street Sense. Street Sense is a newspaper covering issues of homelessness and poverty, which is written and sold by homeless individuals who make a personal investment of 35 cents in each paper. When homeless men and women would come in to our office looking to get started as a vendor, their heads were often hanging and their voices were almost inaudible. Some were homeless because they’d been born into a cycle of poverty and violence; others were there because they got caught up with drugs and alcohol or because they had an untreated mental illness. Regardless of the reason for their predicament, they felt sad and lonely and, in many cases, helpless.
After a few weeks, they would come back with their heads held a little higher and voices a little louder. They realized that despite the hundreds of people who ignored them on the street corner every day, there were others who would look them in the eye, smile, buy a paper and even stop to have a conversation. Soon, they’d start writing for the paper and proudly tell their customers that their story or poem was featured inside its pages. Eventually, many of them secured a job and housing.
Likewise, at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, when we worked with traumatized populations, such as in Haiti for example, folks would come to our programs with pain and desperation written all over their faces. We would teach them simple mind-body techniques such as meditation, dance and self-expression, to help alleviate their stress and trauma. After practicing these techniques, they would start to feel human again. Many of them would cry, talk about relatives they’d lost, sleep through the night, or smile and even laugh for the very first time since the earthquake.
In both cases, people who had been traumatized—by poverty, war or natural disaster—were empowered to tap into their own capacity to heal themselves. Without the non-profit organization designed to serve them, their fates may have been very different.
This is what makes me so excited about working with young leaders; they are the future of organizations like this.
5. From where do you draw your grounding in the concepts of tikkun olam, tzdekek and chesed?
From my mother. She was a kindergarten teacher in an inner-city school in Reading, Pennsylvania, for 35 years. Her school was a Title I school meaning that it had a significant low-income population. I remember not being able to go anywhere with my mom—sporting events, the grocery school, etc.— without students coming up to her, hugging her and saying that she was the most influential teacher they had ever had. She had students whose parents wouldn’t show up for parent/teacher conferences. She had students whose parents were in jail or on drugs. She had students who never met their parents. My mom believed in every child and made them believe in themselves. My mom passed away in 2004 from ovarian cancer. The best way for me to honor her is to stay grounded in the same values which guided her life.