“If I have been of service to others, it is because this school set me up to do so,” said Sandra Willett Jackson ’61 upon receiving the Joan Shaw Herman Award for Distinguished Service. Many of her classmates, celebrating their 55th reunion, and other fellow alumnae/i gathered in the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel to hear her speak on June 4, 2016. “To be honest, I don’t think of service as anything special,” she said. “I believe that for most of us being of service is simply a way of living and learning through engagement in ways that make the world a better place. I guess my lifelong passion is empowering others to live out their full potential as I saw Joan Shaw Herman doing, despite her formidable challenges — in service to others.”
Jackson was deeply honored to receive this distinction — the sole award Concord Academy conveys — because of her own encounter, as a 13-year-old visiting New Britain Memorial Hospital for the Chronically Ill, with Joan Shaw Herman herself, who was confined there in an iron lung after contracting polio. “Joan’s sparkling eyes confirmed her intelligence, compassion, and commitment to living the full life she lived,” Jackson said, recalling how Herman held implements in her mouth to type and paint. “She empowered others, physically challenged and not, to find joy in serving other people,” Jackson said.
On her own life of service, Jackson didn’t dwell. Instead, she addressed her four decades of intercultural leadership in government, business, and nonprofit sectors — a long career devoted to creating economic and social opportunities for underrepresented populations, particularly for women and children in former Soviet countries and Vietnam — by turning the spotlight instead on “five extraordinary women” with whom she has worked around the world.
First, Jackson introduced Mami Goldstein, her host mother during a summer stay in Switzerland before Jackson’s senior year at Concord. The Jewish family had fled Nazi Germany and, though trained as a lawyer, Goldstein was unable to practice professionally, instead volunteering on behalf of children at a local family court. “She taught me that forgiveness for unspeakable tragedy is possible, and that love and technical skills — in her case, the law — can bring justice,” Jackson said.
That experience of living abroad affirmed her fascination with different cultures, and she went on to work on behalf of the Peace Corps, which she directed in Hungary from 1992 to 1995, and the U.S. Department of State, where she served from 1998 to 2001, among numerous other positions of international leadership. As cofounder and principal of Strategies & Structures International, Jackson now provides pro bono consulting services to women’s organizations, and she remains active on NGO boards and as a mentor to young women around the world.
The second extraordinary woman Jackson presented was Shahla Ismayil, a Shia Muslim from Baku, Azerbaijan. Also a lawyer, she advises threatened NGO leaders and journalists, and has established a maternal health clinic and an organization to train emerging female leaders, many of them displaced from other Middle Eastern countries. Next, Jackson spoke about Amira Al-Sharif, a young photojournalist from Yemen — the first in her Sunni Muslim family to attend university, refuse arranged marriage, and travel and pursue a professional career — who was collaborating to raise awareness of child marriage. “Amira from Yemen and Shahla from Azerbaijan have taught me so much about ways to empower others, about service,” Jackson said.
Next, Oksana Horbunova from Kyiv: A citizen leader of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and of the opposition since then, she has dedicated her life to democracy and women’s rights through her fight against human trafficking with the International Organization for Migration. Jackson met her when Horbunova received an award for political leadership from Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international women’s organization cofounded by Hillary Clinton, over which Jackson presided from 2002 to 2005.
Finally, Jackson spoke of a young woman named Thuy (an alias) in Vietnam, whom she had met through Hope for Children in Vietnam (HCV), an NGO that Jackson codirects with a former refugee, Diana Phuong My Tran. Set up with a second-hand sewing machine and sewing classes through HCV at the age of 17, Thuy through her own perseverance was able to find work as a seamstress, avoiding an arranged marriage and enabling her to start the family of her choice.
“These are relationships of mutual empowerment, by women for women, which for me started years ago at Concord Academy,” Jackson said. “Thank you for meeting these extraordinary women, who live out the Joan Shaw Herman tradition of service. Are they not true inspirations?”
Listen to Jackson’s full speech below.