Through the Prism with Sarah Ruger
Sarah Ruger is director of free speech and peace at the Charles Koch Institute and the vice president of free speech and peace at Stand Together, a philanthropic community empowering people dedicated to helping others improve their lives. We invited her to share how human connection and the past year has shaped her life's work.
What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
I grew up in Appalachia, a place where the acute level of despair that’s taken root is well known, but the implications of it can be hard to appreciate. When I was young, these conditions were present but not so well reported. My mother grew up in a difficult, abusive home without a network of support to help her escape that reality, and she fell into similar patterns herself. Our family moved regularly, always trying to stay one step ahead of my father’s transgressions. My mother suffered from severe substance abuse and addiction, which ultimately had an unraveling effect on her life and mine.
When everyone is just barely surviving from day to day, it leaves no capacity to connect with or support others, which creates a destructive, vicious cycle. In this environment, human connection was in really short supply. But I got lucky.
When I was 16, my family fell apart really spectacularly, all at once. My dad left. My mother’s addiction spiraled. One thing led to another, and I found myself in the hospital, almost dead from an opioid overdose.
I remember so clearly the moment of waking up in my hospital bed, realizing how completely alone I was in the world. I was in excruciating physical and emotional pain. With no one there to take care of me and nowhere safe to go home to, I couldn’t fathom what to do next. Just when I was about to reach the next level of despair, one of the nurses came in to tell me there was a woman who had been in the waiting room all night, waiting for me to wake up. It turned out she was the mother of one of the guys I’d dated for a few weeks in high school, and she knew about the circumstances of my family life. She wasn’t family, so she wasn’t allowed into my room. But she just wanted me to know she was there, that someone cared whether or not I survived.
That woman offered me a lifeline. She helped me find the courage to leave home, to get my high school credential, and get into college. Being able to call that one person I knew would be there for me was the difference between moving forward or not.
That experience still leaves me shaken because it shouldn’t come down to chance that someone has the opportunity to live and thrive. When you lack for something important, it teaches you why it matters in the first place. My commitment to human connection came from not having it. Since then, I’ve felt incredibly convicted about using my power in this life to create systems that support people when and where they need it most. I have a responsibility to heal the kind of circumstances I came from.
What values guide your work?
Since that day I woke up alone in the hospital, I have believed in healing. When I first got to college, I wanted to go to medical school — thinking about “healing” in the most literal terms. But one political economy course helped me see the potential for change at a systems level, so I switched my major to political science and economics.
I believe deeply in dignity. In the world I came from, the concept of dignity was foreign. But the idea that every person inherently has worth and is deserving of equal treatment was deeply moving. I loved the fundamental optimism of classical liberalism, and the way in which discovery and diversity of backgrounds and beliefs can improve society. As I came to understand how free and fair democracies and markets benefit people through cooperation rather than power seeking, I also saw how any system that harms and oppresses people through coercion threatens dignity.
I also believe in community. Individuals are meant to be in community with each other. And lifting others up comes from those connections. I saw that in one of my professors. Even though I loved college, I couldn’t afford it. I considered dropping out to save money. One of my econ professors learned about my plans, and he advocated for an emergency financial aid package to cover my food and housing costs to ensure I could complete my degree. His research on policy and classical liberalism was supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, which is how I first heard of this philanthropic community and eventually came to work here.
What are you working on right now?
Over the last several years, it’s become evident how much partisan and ideological dividing lines make good-faith conversations about what will serve America nearly impossible. At the Charles Koch Institute, commitment to honoring difference is baked into each area of our work. It’s fundamental to how we approach immigration, education, criminal justice reform, and every other issue.
The 2017 tragedy in Charlottesville made clear to us, though, that we also needed a dedicated effort to address difference — to understand the roots of intolerance and discover how people can address their differences peacefully and constructively.
Lessons learned from those first few years show up in how New Pluralists has come together. And we’re still learning. Working alongside such a diverse group of funders and field leaders is an opportunity for us to learn together with others and make shared commitments to a more collaborative and diverse culture. It’s more than a benefit, it’s central to making change possible.
The pandemic put that into focus. It’s hard to work on healing divisions when you’re isolated yourself. This work is fundamentally hard to do remotely, so it’s been a real challenge to build trust, connection, and bridges in a time of distance. We’ve taken enormous motivation from our grantees’ clear commitment to continue their work, despite the obstacles.
The past year has laid bare our weaknesses in a way that offers us shared experience and mutual understanding we can build on for the future. That’s true of individuals as much as it is organizations. If we can hold each other through extraordinary difficulty, we can get through anything. It pushes us to focus on what’s most important and build systems that will bolster our resilience in the future. I guess it turns out there’s something good about having to ask for help, so long as someone is there to answer that call.
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
Just before the pandemic, one of my last trips was to Israel and Palestine, accompanying a group of bridge-building organizations who wanted to apply lessons learned from that conflict to the divisions that are so rife in America today.
We visited with Rami and Bassam, two Israeli and Palestinian fathers, who both tragically lost their daughters in the violent conflict between their countries. They came together despite the harm between their tribes, to build common cause toward peace. (Their story was the inspiration for the recent novel Apeirogon by Colum McCann.)
If it’s possible in that context, it has to be possible here. One of our partners deeply involved in that international work said it’s actually harder to build peace and cooperate across our differences in the United States. There the human cost is so clear it motivates people to be willing to hold a conversation. Here it’s harder to see and, therefore, easier to ignore.
Of course, I wish the suffering of the past year could be undone. But I do hope that the extraordinary loss and grief we’ve experienced together can somehow make it possible for more of us to discover our common humanity and the deep way in which we all need each other. I’m hopeful that our recent history of polarized breakage can open a portal to a different, better future where we all have access to emotional connection and the healing support we need to not just survive, but to thrive.
I’d set out to become a healer. Now I’m immersed in a community of social healers. It’s not the way I’d originally imagined. It’s better.
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