by Rhonda Bishop
In Her Shoes is a series that profiles young women working in YWCAs across the country.
Sara Baker currently serves as the Director of Women’s Advocacy & Written Communications for the YWCA Knoxville in Knoxville, Tennessee. Sara Baker’s previous work includes co-founding women’s groups in rural Appalachia, advocating for women’s health in the U.K., developing girl-empowerment programs in inner-city Philadelphia and writing news summaries on women’s rights in Central Asia. She has worked as a writer and proofreader and taught English composition at the University of Tennessee and English as a Second Language (ESL) in Poland. She holds an M.A. in English from the University of Tennessee and a B.A. in English and Religion from Maryville College.
YWCA: What excites you the most about your job?
SB: It’s different every day. Sure, I write some of the same grants over and over again, but I get to switch back and forth between so many projects so it’s never too tedious. What really drives me is the mission and the chance to make a difference in the lives of women—to really have an impact on how women live. I also love that I get to interact with diverse women from all over the country through my advocacy work. I learn a lot from other advocates and am constantly inspired.
YWCA: What advice would you give someone looking to enter into your career?
SB: My work revolves around communication—both written and spoken—so I’d recommend working on those skills. Read as much as you can to improve your writing and critical thinking and to stay informed. Discuss issues with your friends and let them challenge you. If you write every day, you’ll get used to thinking quickly on paper (or the computer), but you also have to work on articulating your ideas in conversation and thinking on your feet. Also, it’s important to work with clients in some way when you’re starting out or at various points throughout your career so you really understand what you’re doing and why.
YWCA: What challenges/obstacles do you face in your role?
SB: My current position did not exist until our CEO and I put our heads together and came up with it, which means sometimes I’m making it up as I go along. That can be invigorating and exciting, especially for a creative, analytical person, but at times it can be a challenge because I’m building the foundation of advocacy work at my association and, to some extent, in my community, without a road map. I’m in a part of the country that has not typically had a unified voice for women’s empowerment, and I have to figure out the best way to frame arguments on issues that people aren’t used to discussing. To deal with that challenge, I reach out to my ever-growing network of advocates throughout the country and around the world. Also, we recently created an advocacy committee to give us a stronger voice.
YWCA: Tell us about a time when you successfully created or executed a goal, strategy, program or event in your role at your YWCA.
SB: Leaders from the Hispanic community sought our help in responding to domestic violence among Spanish-speakers and immigrants, for whom there were no services. I obtained funding and worked with colleagues to develop services for immigrant and refugee victims of domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and human trafficking. The program has saved hundreds of lives, helped isolated victims learn how to access community resources, and paved the way for other Spanish-language services in the community. Our original goal was simply to serve victims and decrease the rate of domestic violence. Our strategy: be open to new ways of doing things, learn as much as you can, don’t be afraid of trial and error, be flexible and collaborate!
What I learned is that change is never easy, but it’s often necessary. And reaching out is the most critical act. Having these leaders reach out to us taught us that our community is changing and we need to anticipate how that will affect our work, and how we need to turn around and reach out to additional agencies and leaders. Over time, our goal transformed from simply providing direct services to facilitating community change. What you can change alone is nothing compared to what you can do with partners, but somebody has to take the first step.