Hello Everyone! We are proud to bring you our very first installment of “Watch Her Hustle,” a series of interviews with women entrepreneurs shaking things up. Our first guest is Sara Johnson-Steffey, founder of the advocacy organization Do Justice, and fun fact: sister of our founder Rebekah Adams! Do Justice is a start-up advocacy program that focuses on training those on both a local and global level through programs and policy to produce legislative change. They also work through workshops, schools and mentorships to help empower world changers. When she’s not heading up Do Justice, Sara writes about island life on Kona, where she lives with her husband and their four children. She enjoys writing, reading, gardening, adventuring with her kids, and drinking strong coffee.
Poppyseed: Thanks for talking with us Sara! First off, can you give our readers a little bit of history? Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into this area of justice and advocacy?
Sara Johnson-Steffey: Well, I started traveling at a really young age. I was 13 when I first went outside the U.S.A on a teen volunteer missions trip to Hungary and the Soviet Union, and it WAS the Soviet Union then. And I think seeing things like bread lines out your hotel window at that age really impacts a person. It did me. I did trips like this all through my high school years and then traveled with Youth With A Mission to South East Asia and then Brazil after high school. It was really my time in Brazil that got me asking these big "WHY" questions. I was at a missions base in the Amazon and spent time in the tribal group villages. I watched as they went hungry at night because of poachers and were treated terribly by government officials and it just didn't seem fair. And rather than glossing over it, shrugging and saying "that's just how it is" I couldn't look away from that question of why. So, I decided to study it. College and then grad school pointed me towards advocating for change in law and public policy by helping people at the grassroots to engage in lawmaking. It's about empowerment really.
PS: What is Do Justice? How long has this been in the works?
SJS: So, Do Justice is really the culmination of 20 years of different experiences for me: Traveling and enjoying other cultures; working with United Nations and State Department types and giant international NGOs and small grassroots organizations; working as a nonprofit consultant, learning the ins and outs of that world. I wanted to do the work of supporting advocates and justice projects but stay out of the bureaucracy of large DC beltway aid organizations. Our vision is that we "recognize the call toward justice, the heart for the poor, the cry of the oppressed and then to equip anyone with this call - from grassroots advocates to lawmakers - through consultations, mentorships, trainings, and bringing together change makers to confront injustice with love and action."
The other two individuals involved so far - our other offices in Mexico and in Spain - have years of work as well. We realized coming together to do our work and advise others really was more empowering for all of us. The camaraderie and support is SO important in justice work, when you are tackling huge issues like trafficking of children or child labor or the sex industry or refugees. It's overwhelming. Coming together, we are stronger, and we want to offer that kind of support and encouragement and advice to others as well through our projects, trainings, workshops, consultations, and internships. We also have plans for more direct work with government and those running for office, but we are building up to that.
PS: What has been your biggest motivator in helping people both locally and globally?
SJS: I think just this strong sense of justice. But also, knowing, remembering, believing that one person can make a difference. I don't think I am the ONE PERSON, mind you, for all these issues. Do Justice is about helping out that one person, starting in on an advocacy campaign, working at a project to make change, to get at the roots of the issue. I know the struggle that one person feels. On the ground. Seeing all the injustice, right in the thick of things. That is what we are about, wanting to be there for them, support them, help them to achieve justice for the people and communities they love.
PS: So, what would you say to women looking to enter this field? Advice to help them prepare?
SJS: I think it's important to have a sense of who you are, you know? Take some time to figure yourself out. Even if it takes ten years. Don't rush into a field because the work seems so pressing. But yes, stay passionate about the cause you are called to, the cause God has chosen for your life. Look around and see the injustices on your doorstep. A lot of time we become blind to it. You don't have to travel to a dozen countries. You have to walk down the block. Get comfortable with planning things and walking out that plan. Advocacy can be long and tedious. Two steps forward, one step back. It's not all "rah rah" waving signs at rallies. It's buckling down, building a movement, finding allies, one small victory at a time. Be brave. It is so important to remember that justice work isn't your own story. It's not about you. Rely on other people's strength, other organizations. Learn to work together, with anyone you can. Learn to talk to people impacted by the issue, but also to listen. And try to listen more. What else? Definitely, to learn to keep your head down and do the work. Don't drown in the work though. Hang out with friends and family. Drink good coffee. Enjoy life. Be content to do your part. You might not see change for ten years. Be okay with that. That is what it takes sometimes. Most importantly, learn to see the light. There is a whole lot of bad in the world. But there is a whole lot of good too. Look for it. Treasure it. Bring more to others.
PS: Switching subjects a little bit, what’s your favorite book these days?
SJS: Ummmm... I love reading. I'm not good at this question. It depends on my mood. Am I supposed to say the Bible? I've been into Swedish mystery novels lately. But I also love a good YA book. Probably the book that I have savored the most might be "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie and "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or "The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert or "The Red Tent" or a couple books by Barbara Kingsolver. I love beautiful language when I read. But also a good story. I loved "The DaVinci Code" and the early Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton books. Lee Child books. Um, but I am also a huge Jane Austen fan. She's got story and beautiful language! A book I could pick up any day and read would be "Little Women." I seriously love that book. It just makes me happy.”
PS: One more, here at Poppyseed we’re pretty obsessed with empowering women. Hence the “Watch Her Hustle” series. Who would you say is your role model? Who has empowered you?
SJS: Oh man. Another tough one. My mom? She's amazing. I truly admire people who stand up for what they believe and live the life God has called them to live. I have a friend from childhood who is living this kind of life in the backwoods of Maine. And she's a Cali girl. But she's creating this amazing community around food and farming and raising cool kids. I love that. Or another Cali friend who writes books and works as a mentor to teens. I admire ordinary people who do their ordinary lives with integrity and love and joy. You know? And then when they step out to do the extraordinary, well, that's amazing too. My siblings are pretty kick ass. Every one of them. I've got a few former co-workers who have been working international conflict zones, supporting good governance programs, for so many years, and gosh, such an amazing testament to the belief in people's rights to have a say in their government! I am also in awe of some women I have come to know recently working the front lines with refugees coming out of Syria and Mosul. I wish I could be there with them! I've got a dear friend from my days in Brazil who has led an amazing life advocating for the marginalized of Brazil and now she getting her PhD at Yale. Another friend here teaches midwifery skills to women who are going to work in places like Uganda and Nepal. And then a couple I knew from Brazil who I had the honor of working with on a piece of legislation to protect the right to life of indigenous children. They have given their lives to the voices of the unheard, adopting a daughter from the tribal groups who had been left to die in the jungle. Amazing people.
Women are amazing aren't they??
PS: We couldn't agree more!! Thanks for kicking off this series Sara! Keep it up. (fist bump)