Profile with Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman (Texas & Trinity 2005) works with young people, older people, families, designers, social scientists and policymakers to co-design, prototype, and transition to new kinds of health and social services. She’s currently starting-up her fourth social enterprise, In With Forward, to collect and spread stories & tactics to enable good lives and good systems. She holds a DPhil in Social Policy from Oxford University, and both an MA in Education and a BA in Human Biology from Stanford University.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Sarah Schulman: At the moment, I am based in Amsterdam and I have been here for about six months as a Visiting Scholar with a think/do-tank called Kennisland. I love it. Before that, I was based in Adelaide, Australia.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?

Sarah Schulman: I am currently re-reading two books that cross both professional and pleasure boundaries: Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, and Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society. Both of them grapple with questions of radical versus incremental social change – and how to reform versus dismantle systems that do not work. Illich starts inside of formal systems – like schools. Alinsky starts outside of formal systems – within community organizations. They are a nice complement to one another. Both are bold and provocative – and surprisingly contemporary.

Rhodes Project: If you weren’t in your current field of work, what do you think you would be doing instead?

Sarah Schulman: I was always on track to be a doctor. As a kid, I wanted to be the surgeon general. I thought there was nothing more exciting than wearing a uniform and being a Dr. Koop like figure, with authority and a national pulpit. I have a different perspective now on what I am good at, and how change happens. I believe we need to redesign our public services from the bottom-up: from the perspective of the people who use those services, rather than always from the perspective of the professionals who run those services.  10-15 years ago, I didn’t even know there could be a different way of crafting policy and practice. That you could combine product and service design with social policy, social psychology, community organizing, and philosophy and develop alternative health & social services.

Rhodes Project: Do you find that your BA in Human Biology is still useful in your job?

Sarah Schulman: Hugely. The most useful thing about that degree is that it prepared me for the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that is the crux of what I am doing now. It blends theories from traditional natural sciences as well as social sciences. It helps in understanding human behaviour, in what makes people tick. I can’t be confined to any single discipline to answer questions about why people do, say, think, and feel the things they do.

Rhodes Project: What is the most enjoyable part of your job?

Sarah Schulman: Hanging out with people. The root of our work is deep in ethnography, with people who are not well-served by existing policies or services. A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days with a woman named Mama Mae. She’s seventy years old and lives in Texas. She has had an incredibly tough life and interfaces with a lot of different services from Medicare to Medicaid to Section 8 housing. She manages to do all of this with such gumption and grit - and without knowing how to read. Not only are her interactions with services much harder than they need to be, they also are insufficient for her to get by, let alone to live well. It’s such a privilege to be embedded in peoples’ lives for a few days at a time – seeing it, smelling it, hearing it – and using the stories to generate a whole series of ideas for what could be different

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part?

Sarah Schulman: Probing the disconnects between peoples’ lives and the big, bulky systems that were set-up to try and help them. Rather than simply critique these systems, though, we have to try and understand why they work as they do and what are some of the different tactics, strategies and approaches for shifting that. I think the hardest part of my job is finding ways to change what civil servants and professionals do every day. If you want to address social challenges and change systems, be it child protection or aged-care, you have to change behaviours at multiple levels - from the people on the ground to the people who deliver services to the people who make policies. You have to identify what makes all these different people tick. Only then can you design solutions around that. It’s very much a game of identifying what combination of interventions you can put in place to tip the balance towards change. Towards enabling people like Mama Mae to live well. 

Rhodes Project: What is your opinion on ObamaCare?

Sarah Schulman: I think it is incredibly important that the United States have some sort of system that covers everybody. Philosophically, I don’t believe in an individual mandate. I believe health care is a collective good. That said, I think the individual mandate  fits with the United States’ conception of the state, and in that sense was a really good political compromise.  I would have loved to see something bolder and more fundamental in terms of our thinking of why health care is a right. At the moment, I would like to see us design all of the new machinery and insurance products from the perspective of end users – not companies, and not just doctors. With all the state health insurance markets being set-up, there could be a real opportunity to reshape how bureaucracy functions. 

Rhodes Project: Who inspires you?

Sarah Schulman: The people that inspire me most are the every day people that I get to spend time with. I call them the “unusual suspects”, because I tend to meet them in grocery stores, by door-knocking or by hanging out in hospital waiting rooms. They are not generally people that come from Oxford or Stanford - they come from a very different background and reference point than me. It’s such an honor to learn from them. They absolutely inspire me.

Rhodes Project: If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

Sarah Schulman: I am not great with uncertainty. I have a bad habit of reading the last chapter of a novel first. It would be nifty to have some sort of predictive power. I wouldn’t want to know the entire outcome, but it would be great to see peoples’ reactions to a decision or an event beforehand. That way, I could try and pre-empt it with something smarter.

Rhodes Project: What would readers be surprised to hear about you?

Sarah Schulman: I have a secret desire to quit everything and become a ballet dancer, or a pastry chef even if it’s highly unlikely, given my skill level. I love the idea of spending my days choreographing or making something beautiful – crafting products that can garner instant feedback.

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do to relax?

Sarah Schulman: Dancing is certainly one of them. I enjoy ballet, pilates and tap. I find music and movement key to relaxing. If I am having a crappy day, I put on music really loud and dance around my living room. I like to cook and to bake; that’s a good stress reliever. I like reading non-fiction and finding myself in obscure topics and books. And I like random experiences. I try and get lost wherever I’m living at least once a week – and stumble upon a new coffee place, a new bookshop, a new park, a new something.

Rhodes Project: What brings you joy in life?

Sarah Schulman: I get a lot of joy from conversation and the shared experience of connecting with somebody, be it a friend or a stranger. It’s fun to lose yourself in someone else’s story for a bit and then to find something that you share, something surprising. I definitely enjoy seeing change happen, even if it’s small. Seeing an older woman in one of our aged-care projects decide to contact an estranged son again, or someone willing to have a tough conversation about dying. Things that are personal and bold, and are what pave the way to a different experience in life. That includes myself as well. For me, trying out new things or rebounding from challenges I thought I couldn’t brings a lot of satisfaction. That’s one reason I move around the world so much!

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