Logo: Inform & Connect. Sara Minkara smiling with her arms confidently crossed in front of her.

Melody's guest on this episode of Inform & Connect is Sara Minkara, founder and board member of Empowerment Through Integration and Discovery in the Dark series creator.

Leveraging all aspects of her identity—as a blind, Muslim, Arab-American woman—Sara uses blindfolds as a tool to encourage guests to embrace their own and others’ multiple identities, ultimately leading to true empowerment and inclusion. Sara has received multiple awards for her passionate advocacy, including Forbes’ 30 Under 30, the Echoing Green Fellowship, and the Clinton Global Initiative Outstanding Commitment Award.

“Sarah’s Discovery in the Dark series is innovative and unique and contains teachable, empathetic moments to anyone with an open mind,” Melody Goodspeed, AFB Major Gifts Specialist.


Melody: ... excited for us to have a really fun conversation with my new good friend, Sara Minkara, and she can speak multiple languages. I had to learn how to say her name three different ways last time. So I stuck with the first one. Her name's Sara. It's so nice to have you here today.

Sara: Thank you so much, Melody. It's wonderful, an honor to be with you and with Susan and everyone else. Yeah, sorry for complicating my last name.

Melody: No. No, not a bit. I was having a great time. What I love about Sara is she has such a fun way how she introduced herself. So I'm going to let her do that.

Sara: Yes. So I'm going to introduce myself in an interesting way, and then we can take it from there. I'm a daughter. I'm a sister. I am a friend. I'm a colleague, a neighbor, a troublemaker. I love chicken. I love math. I love to ride horses. I love nature. I'm an introvert. I love audio books. I am a woman. I am Muslim. I am blind, and I'm very proud of it. So that is who I am.

Melody: I love it, Sara, so much. I think sometimes we all forget we are multiple things, and I love how we're going to dive more into that with your conversation with you today. I like how you did that, and I also like chicken.

Sara: Just to clarify, I like to eat chicken. Is that why you like chicken?

Melody: Yes, yes, yes.

Sara: [Crosstalk] ...chicken. I forgot to put in that verb. I love to eat chicken. I was actually thinking when I said I liked chicken, then I was going to say, "I like horses," but then I was like, "Wait. I need to spread them out, because I like to ride horses."

Melody: Well, that is awesome. So you just have done so much in your life. Let's talk about your first adventure, your nonprofit. I really would love the audience to talk about ... Take us on that ride.

Sara: So yes, so I actually founded my first organization, my non-profit organization called Empowerment Through Integration when I was in college. It stems from my own personal experience as someone who is blind. I lost my vision when I was seven years old, but because I was empowered and supported and integrated into my community because of my parents, my mom, who really did not allow the narrative around disability, the pity, or the burden or the lack of expectation narrative to enter our home. Because she pushed ... and when I say she pushed us, because my sister is also visually impaired, to live our fullest life, to really have ambitions, to see that we are individuals with potential and with value and pursue those, and that source of empowerment and narrative really impacted my own future.

I was able to continue going through the mainstream schooling, public schools in my town. I was able to go to Wellesley and study math and economics and Harvard. So I lived a very much full life, but we used to visit Lebanon during the summers, growing up, because my parents are originally from Lebanon. That's where I was exposed to the common narrative surrounding disability, which exists not just in Lebanon, but globally and even here in the US, and this narrative of, "Oh, you're blind" or "You're disabled. There's something wrong with you, something to be fixed. I feel bad for you." That narrative really gets to you.

Melody: Yes.

Sara: It really disempowers you, right?

Melody: Right.

Sara: It makes you feel less than, and you feel like you're pushed to the side or you're not part of the society and the system. Recognizing that most kids with disabilities are living that narrative and they're marginalized and their value is lost and society is losing out on that value, that's where ETI was born, out of that need of how can we start disrupting the narrative surrounding disability? How can we move from a charity lens to a value-based lens? So not just human rights lens, but value-based lens. How can we get society to believe that the inclusion of people with disability is a value for everyone? It's not just the right thing to do, but everyone benefits. So that's where my first nonprofit ... This is where the story began.

Melody: That is incredible, and the way you just popped it, I know that had to be a lot of work. How did you get that started, and how is it still thriving today?

Sara: So yeah, so to be honest, when you're young, you take more risks, right?

Melody: Right.

Sara: [Crosstalk.] Again, when you're not aware of the risks, you're able to jump much higher.

Melody: Ignorance is bliss [crosstalk].

Sara: Exactly. Ignorance was definitely bliss back then. To be honest, it was not easy, but it was amazing. I never thought I would start a nonprofit. I actually had a plan of doing a PhD after my undergrad, but then I got a grant from the Clinton Foundation that allowed me to run my first inclusive summer camp in Tripoli, Lebanon, bringing together kids with and without disabilities.

Melody: Wow.

Sara: That camp was so impactful for the kids, for the parents, the community, and even myself. It came at this concept of inclusion from more of a value-based lens, and I saw how powerful it is. So my thesis advisor was like, "Sara, why are you applying to these PhD programs? Go pursue that. That's when your eyes sparkle. Go pursue that dream of yours." So I remember going home like, "Mom, Dad, no more a PhD. I'm starting a nonprofit organization." They're like, "What?"

But because I had that support from my family, my friends who really believed in this and joined me in the adventure, in the venture, and I ended up going to grad school specifically to learn about how do I develop programs that really address the issue of disability inclusion, and how can I run an organization? What does it take and all that kind of stuff. So grad school was a place for me to learn and apply. But my mission of ETI evolved especially through my time in grad school, because from a personal lens, I learned what it meant, what inclusion meant. Originally, I was really thinking about it from a very technical lens, but then I had an experience in grad school where I was in a classroom, and there was 100 students. Each one had a name card so people knew who was speaking. I remember telling the class, "Hey, guys, can you please say your name when you speak, because I want to be able to access the class better so I can contribute?" The professor was like, "That's the wrong way to say it." I'm like, "What do you mean? You want me to ask [inaudible]?" He's like, "No, you should ask, but you should" ... Well, he's like, "You shouldn't even ask. You should phrase it in a way that by them saying their name, by them making the classroom accessible for you, they're actually benefiting from that, because you're able to contribute and they are benefiting from your contribution. You need to see that you being included in that classroom is of value for them." That's where my mind and my approach towards disability inclusion evolved over time. I was like, "Wow, that is very powerful. It's not just the right thing to do, but it's a value-based aspect." So anyway, so ETI evolved over time. We grew. We have programs in countries like Lebanon. Right now, this past year was actually the year where I transitioned into just becoming a board member and I trained my new executive director. So that was always my plan, to make sure that ETI lived beyond me, and that's a really huge sign of, for me, a huge milestone [crosstalk].

Melody: Oh, Sara, yes. I mean, that's incredible. What you're doing, I love it that you're talking about inclusion as value-based and that ... I think there are many moments in our lives we have this aha moment, but you ran with it, and that's amazing. Now, when you were at Harvard and receiving your public policy degree, is that when this happened, when you-

Sara: Yes.

Melody: Okay. That is awesome. Thank you. I love that. Now let's talk about what you're doing now, because now you're on the board of ... This is incredible. I could talk all day about this, but we might have to have parts three and four with you. Let's move into what you're doing now.

Sara: Yeah. So I decided I wanted to really start my second venture, so a new company that focuses on this concept of authentic inclusion, and this means a lot to me because as a blind Muslim woman, I am dealing with a lot of different labels and assumptions. That's why I introduced myself in that way in the beginning. There's so much to each of us as humans, and at times we don't see the value that each of us bring forward, because we might not be comfortable bringing ourselves forward or we are also seeing others through certain narratives. So this whole concept of authentic inclusion is how do you create spaces where each and every single person can bring their true, authentic self forward?

We talk about let's have people have a seat at the table, right? Every single person should have a seat at the table. Great. But it shouldn't stop there, because the question that we need to ask then, is every single person comfortable bringing all parts of who they are, expressing their true voice and opinions? Are they afraid of judgment? All of these different questions, and a lot of the times, yes. So how do we create spaces where every single person is comfortable expressing their true voice and true perspective and true opinion? When we get to that point, it goes back to this whole concept of value for all. This is where we apply this aspect of curiosity through a lens of compassion. How can we be curious about ourselves through a compassionate lens? Am I bringing myself forward? If not, why not? What am I afraid of? What am I embracing? What negative -ism am I embracing? On the other hand, what is a narrative I'm creating for others? That constant reflection and curiosity and compassion lead us to, really, this concept of authentic inclusion. So that's what I'm focusing on with my team, and our team is also global. My VP is in London. My other staff is Colorado and Florida, so spread across, and that's what we're focusing on.

Melody: I love it. Sara's in Boston, everyone.

Sara: Oh, yeah, that's true.

Melody: So Sara, I love this. Can you talk about this approach that you teach? Because you do this approach with executives, but can you kind of walk us through ... When you say coming to the seat, when you first explained this to me, it was incredible. Can you talk about what you do when you're starting your program? So if we were all coming into your office, how would you do that?

Sara: Yes. So we do this through a few different kinds of formats, but we use this tool called Discovery in the Dark Workshop, for instance, and side note, it's not simulation of blindness. That's not what we're doing. I'm not a fan of the simulation of blindness, just putting it out there. It's more about when you remove the lens of sight, you're moving 85% of what humans usually take in, which means you're removing most of the labels and assumptions that we create, right?

Melody: Right.

Sara: There's power to that. That unknown and uncertainty and that limitation, not seeing leads to more vision, because what you then interact with one another is on a deeper and more authentic level. You tend to then see that person in front of you through the authentic lens, because you're not able to make a lot of those assumptions. Then what you bring forward is more of yourself because you know you're not being judged or seen in certain lenses. There's power in that. So use that concept through our Discovery in the Dark Workshop, through adding other limitations. We tell people, "You cannot say your name and other things. You cannot say this and that and that," and people are like, "Oh, then what do I talk about?" Well, there's more to us as humans. There's more to us as individuals. There's so much more beauty and more value that we can bring forward.

So we take all these limitations, and we turn them into actually value and vulnerability and strength and openness and authenticity. We walk them through the series of workshops, whether we take it to companies for employees, retreats, whether it's team building, whether it's actually getting people to put together their 2021 annual strategy, whether it's an adaptive challenge they're dealing with. Whatever it is, when you create a space where people can be more open and vulnerable, that leads to more value.

Melody: Yes. I love it. You're talking about vulnerability being a value. Most of us don't think that. We think weakness, and I love how you've put that out there, because there is an extraordinary amount of strength in vulnerability. Now, what kind of outcomes have you seen with people being in that spot that have helped? Can you give us some examples?

Sara: Let me give you one specific ... and I'll give a few others. I'll give you a few specific examples. I remember we were doing this once at an international agency, and the head of the department is a woman. She was doing this, and during the sessions, she said, "I feel more comfortable to speak my mind in this setting than in a setting where people can see." There's power to that point in terms of, "Wow. How do we actually then create spaces where even ... If we're talking about the leaders of the department saying that specific thing, right, how can we start really creating spaces where everyone can actually be their true self?" We have people coming out and saying, "I'm not comfortable talking about the fact that I have mental health disability, because I don't want to be judged and I don't want to be seen through that lens, because I know there's stigma associated." So we have so many people coming out with that perspective, and your colleagues hearing those voices and the perspective is very powerful.

Now, the question towards the end of the workshops that we always do is how do we translate that into everyday? Because we're not asking people to be blind. That's not the goal. Our goal is how do we apply this concept of let's delay our assumptions and let's approach each person was one assumption, that this person has something beautiful to contribute? Let's, on the other hand, embark on this journey of, "Am I bringing myself forward? If not, why not?" and asking yourself and asking yourself and asking yourself, because the more that I'm able to bring forward, the more that I'm able to bring more value, and just recognizing that. So it's not a switch of a button. It's a journey that every person needs to intentionally take.

Melody: I agree. One place I can definitely see this being of value is I'm sure that you have a lot of people that come to you and say, "Well, I'm just afraid of conflict." I mean, that's one thing that comes. How do you handle that one?

Sara: I mean, so there's one of the trainings we do is these adaptive leaderships in the darks. It's a long series of training workshops, and the whole concept of this, you need to create disequilibrium to move towards change. Conflict is actually good.

Melody: It is.

Sara: People are scared of it, but you know what? Conflict, but with a trusting environment is good. You need to be able to actually create an environment, a space where people ... It's a trusting environment. You're able to have trust and a safe space, but you're also able to push and create a level of disequilibrium so there's change and there's growth. So you need to have both to move forward. You need to be able to be vulnerable, but I'm not going to be vulnerable if I don't feel like I'm in a safe space.

Melody: Right.

Sara: I'm not going to have conflict or push my ideas if I feel like it's going to hurt me in the long run. So there's a lot of different variables we need to apply. Yeah.

Melody: No, I really love how you say that, because I think in both our personal and professional lives, to me, that's a lot of things that do hold us back. We're afraid to step on toes or a lot of these things that we're automatically thinking by the things that we can see or we assume about ourselves. Then the curiosity lens is so important, because I truly feel it takes away a little bit of that emotional element in order for you to clearly understand what you were seeing and what you're perceiving.

Sara: I think for the curiosity, not just on yourself and others, and it's so important to always ask yourself, "How am I seeing others?" Be compassionate. I mean, I think people need ... Don't be harsh on yourself. Be compassionate with yourself. But ask, because we're all part of creating these narratives in society. Let's be real, right? We're humans, and we are a part of creating these narratives. How am I contributing to this narrative? So yeah.

Melody: No, I love that. It's a very good takeaway, because when you're in a situation, that can really help control what you're doing and how you can almost be a leader, step up and be a leader in that space.

Sara: Exactly.

Melody: Yes. So how long have you been doing this, for a year?

Sara: So yeah, this year is when I started this new company. I've been doing the Discovering the Dark Workshops, actually, off and on since my time at Harvard. I actually started this workshop when I was at Harvard, because I was really frustrated with certain things. So that's where the idea came from. Then I continued just building out the workshops over time. Now it's what we're doing kind of full-time through this new company.

Melody: That is incredible, and where do you see your company going?

Sara: So my dream is to really take this company across all regions in the world, so very much a global kind of presence, and addressing it ... I mean, we work with the corporate, non-profit, government, and academic sector, so really building that out and building out more of these Discovery in the Dark Workshops in so many different realms. Right now, we have Inclusion in the Dark, Improv in the Dark, STEM in the Dark, Storytelling in the Dark, all of these different types of In the Darks that have a specific element to it, whether it's problem solving, whether it's creativity, all these different things. So building more of that out and then ultimately training more facilitators and taking it to different regions in the world and with different cultures and languages and really ... because ultimately, this can apply to so many different current events, right?

Melody: Right.

Sara: Whether in the US here with Black Lives Matter and the issues we're dealing with racism, whether it's with how do we make the post-COVID pandemic kind of situation more inclusive for everyone? It just applies everywhere.

Melody: No, it really does, and I'm glad you brought that up, because there are so many facets to our lives. When we think about inclusion, it's usually about the workplace, but it's everywhere. It's even in entertainment, like you said. I love how you said improv, but it is. It's everywhere, because we are so many different things, and we need to nurture all those things. Well, Sara, I can't believe this, because that felt like it was 30 seconds, but we are at our question and answer time. I'm sure people have many questions, which I'm sad, because I have to let you go.

Sara: That did go by quickly.

Melody: I know. I know. I told you it was going to. But while we get that queued up, I need to hear about the swimming with sharks.

Sara: Yes. So I love to do crazy stuff when I travel. So swimming with the shark happened when I was with my friend and we were in Belize. One of the days, we decided to go out snorkeling with a group of [inaudible]. So we learned that Susan did also this tour. So we went out to the coast off of Belize to do snorkeling, and I was with the guide, Marvin. Then he's like, "Oh, there's sharks around here." I was like, "Okay, great." Then he's like, "Give me your hand." Then he takes my hand, and as the shark was swimming, I mean, they're not really. To be honest, they're minding their own business. He takes my hand, and he swipes my hand across the back of the shark. He's like, "Yeah, you just touched a shark." I was like, "Great. Cool." So that was my touching and swimming with sharks experience off the coast of Belize. Yeah.

Melody: Yes.

Sara: People asked me, my friends there, they were like, "Oh, does it feel?" I was like, "It feels like an elephant. I don't know." That was my answer. I have touched an elephant, but I don't know if it really feels like an elephant.

Melody: I love it. Thank you so much. If I ever touch an elephant or a shark, I'll make sure I do a comparison.

Sara: Yes, please do so. Let me know. Let me know if it's accurate.

Melody: I will. Susan, do we have some questions for Sara?

Susan: We do have some questions. Sara, you should add that to your intro with the chicken and the horse.

Melody: Yes, that you're an adventurer. Yes.

Sara: That's true. I've, yeah, swam with sharks.

Susan: So our first question today is from Roy. He said, "You're helping evolve inclusion in many spaces. In addition to curiosity, what are some additional specific steps that sighted allies can do or shouldn't do?"

Sara: Ah, that's a good question.

Melody: [Crosstalk.] It is.

Sara: I think that there's a few things, right? I like the word allyship. I think we can all be allies with one another. The first thing I would say is that ... and curiosity is actually a thing that I would weave across every single aspect that we do. But the first question is, "Is every single voice represented in the room?" If not, let's make sure they are. Number two, "Is the space we are in a space that people can be more open and they feel safe to be vulnerable. Am I initiating dialogue?" I always say, "Ask questions. Ask and ask and ask, but ask questions without assumptions and ask questions through a lens of compassion."

People are always like, "How do we ask?" There's no harm in asking. I think when you initiate a dialogue, you start taking down walls and barriers, and you start really bringing together the different kind of narratives together. So for me, I would always be asking, "Who's not in the room? Why not? How do we make this space better? Let me ask, what do you need? What is the voice not represented?", all these different questions. Allyship is so powerful because when I know someone is my corner and I know that someone sees me with a lens of value, that empowers me to bring more of myself forward. Yeah.

Melody: That is beautiful.

Susan: Roy said, "Thank you. Brilliant answer."

Sara: Thank you.

Susan: Next question. "We have so many hurdles as blind individuals. What advice would you give for starting to advocate for change?"

Sara: Ah, that's a good question. I mean, to be honest, yeah, I feel like we have to advocate for change, I feel like on all levels at times. I have two things, two lenses to look at. One is each of us can advocate for change both in a personal way, in your own personal kind of community way, but then second, in your professional way, right? I think whether you're a teacher, whether you're an employer, whether you are a whatever it is, a manager, each of us recognizing that we have the power to make change, and I think advocating on that level for yourself and for others is really important. But on the other hand, I think it's okay and I think we need to sometimes recognize this could be emotionally tiring, right, and draining.

Melody: Right.

Sara: I remember when I was in grad school, not everything was accessible, actually. I felt I had to advocate for so many different things. I had to choose my battles. I felt like I had to be very strategic where my time was being spent, because I also want to live my life. I want to be able to enjoy my life in my grad school years. So I think choosing which battles to tackle and take on, what things to advocate for, and we don't all need to take on everything. I think take on a space where you can advocate, where you feel like you have strength and a huge skillset in, and focus on that. That's where I would say ... Never compare to someone else. I feel like, "Oh my God. This person is doing so much more advocacy than I am," no. Focus on what you think you can do well, but then also take care of yourself on the other hand.

Melody: Sara, that is such beautiful advice, because I think we do tend to burn out quickly when we feel like we have to advocate for everything. Enjoying your life is so important. There has to be that balance.

Sara: Yes, because yes, I am blind, and I am a person with a disability, but there's more to me. There's a lot of more to me, and I want to be able to live other parts of myself, too, but not forgetting the fact that I am blind. So I think it's a balance, a balance that I'm trying to figure out, too.

Melody: I think we all are. Life is a balance.

Sara: It is. Yeah.

Susan: We have another question, Melody.

Sara: Okay.

Melody: Okay.

Susan: From Audrianna. She says, "Hi, Sara. First off, thank you so much. So much good advice on how to create a better, more inclusive world. I love your comment on the fact that conflict is a good thing, assuming you're in a safe space. Any advice on how to establish that safe space by setting the tone for conversations where people feel okay being vulnerable?"

Sara: I mean, that's a good question. I mean, creating a safe space needs to come from everyone, right? It doesn't need to be top-down, where the leaders embody that as a value, right? Embody that and bring that forward. We allow for vulnerability. We want people to feel space. That top-down approach is really important, but then also bottom-up. I think the fact that if each of our colleagues, say, approach this aspect of allyship and "I'm here for you" and "I'm going to help you create a safe space," I think that's also powerful. Both things can lead towards really creating a safe space.

Susan: Wonderful. Oh, one more question.

Sara: Yes.

Susan: What other adventures do you want to explore?

Sara: Ah, okay. Well, I have a few things on my list, though, because I've done ... Melody and I were talking about we've both done paragliding.

Melody: Yes.

Sara: I've hiked and slid down a volcano in Nicaragua. I've done biking through a jungle in Bali. I want to do skydiving. That's definitely on my list. I do definitely want to do mountain climbing and rock climbing somewhere like Mount Kilimanjaro or something like that. I do want to do mountain biking, too. I just need to find tandem mountain biking. So yeah, so there's a few things on the list.

Melody: I can just feel you checking them all off right now, Sara. I love it. [Crosstalk] tandem mountain biking, count me in. I'm on that one with you.

Sara: Okay. Are we both on the bike?

Melody: No, only if it's a three-seater.

Sara: Exactly. Well, I mean, have you ever done snowmobiling? I've done snowmobiling, which was really fun.

Melody: No, I have not, but I would love that, too.

Sara: Yes.

Melody: I have done jet skiing. Yes.

Sara: Oh my God. Jet skiing is really fun, too. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. We have a list. I like that. We should compare our lists [crosstalk].

Melody: We should.

Sara: We can do it together.

Melody: I agree wholeheartedly. Well, Sara, I just want to thank you so much for sharing so much with us and being vulnerable, also teaching us all so many lessons today, because I really got a lot from this. I so appreciate it. I'm just feeling a lot of trust and vulnerability and giving people safe spaces. I hope that we can all do that. So thank you so much. If people wanted to get in touch with you, how could they do so?

Sara: Yes. So there's both my emails, sara@saraminkara.com, or you can also do info@saraminkara.com, our general email. Then there's also our social media handle, saraminkara_. So there's those three options.

Melody: Are you on Instagram?

Sara: Yes, I am on Instagram. Yeah. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook all are the same handle, saraminkara_, and then website, saraminkara.com. Yeah, and then my email is very simple, sara@saraminkara.com.

Melody: Thank you so much, Sara. Another thing I really love that you hit on with the American Foundation for the Blind, and our mission is to create a life with no limits for people that are blind and vision-impaired. We talk about tearing down barriers all the time, and you've just shed a whole new light on how we can do that in a safe way. So I just want to say on behalf of AFB and everyone, thank you so much, and as we were moving into our centennial year next year, everybody, if you want to check out the programs that we're doing, look us up on afb.org. Also, visit our town halls that are coming up. That would be awesome, too. You can find those on afb.org, where we did our Flatten Inaccessibility, which speaks to a lot of things that we've kind of touched on here today with Sara. So thank you so much, Sara, for being with us.

Sara: Thank you. It was really fun.

Melody: It really was, and I'm giving everybody homework, including myself. I say we write down all the things that we are and share [inaudible].

Sara: Ooh, I like that.

Melody: Yes. Thank you for inspiring me to do it.

Sara: I like that a lot. Well, thank you so much for everything. Thank you guys.

Melody: Thank you guys. Have a wonderful rest of your week. Bye.

Sara: Bye.