Emerging Global Leader Award.

“I NEVER THOUGHT IN A MILLION YEARS that I would start an organization,” says Sara Minkara MPP 2014. “I was planning on doing a PhD in economic development.” Today, she leads Empowerment Through Integration (ETI), an organization with a lofty goal: to achieve an inclusive society by recognizing and eliminating the stigma around disability.

Minkara, who is blind, experienced the difference between an inclusive society and one where pity was the dominant narrative. Minkara was raised in the seaside town of Hingham, Massachusetts. “I went to public schools, and had very supportive teachers and a very supportive community,” she says. “There were of course obstacles to inclusion—there is no perfect place—but at least the United States had laws and infrastructure in place to allow me to get what I needed.”

HKS alum Sara Minkara sits in a large circle of other women seated together in a large group outside.

“We want society to include people with disabilities because if you don’t, you lose out on their value.”

Sara Minkara

This was not what she observed during her annual summer trips to her parents’ homeland of Lebanon. “I was exposed to a very different narrative of how disability was seen,” she says. “It is a common narrative of pity, charity, burden, ‘you’re different, you’re an add-on.’”

While studying mathematics at Wellesley College, she and a friend were awarded a grant to form a summer camp in Tripoli, Lebanon, that brought together blind and sighted children. “The purpose wasn’t for sighted kids to pity the blind kids, but to see how they could come together to learn that everyone has something to contribute,” Minkara says. The camp was a powerful experience—but she thought it was a one-time thing. “I went back to Wellesley and continued my math studies,” she says. It was her thesis advisor who noted, “Why are you applying to PhD programs? Your eyes light up when you talk about the camp.” So she switched gears and applied to Harvard Kennedy School to get the skills to start the organization that became Empowerment Through Integration.

HKS alum Sara Minkara leads a discussion about disability a dinner reception where other attendees listen while wearing blindfolds.

Her vision for ETI evolved during her time at the Kennedy School.

“Originally, I was looking at the inclusion mission in a very surface-level way—that we’re going to teach kids in summer camps,” she says. “My time at HKS made me realize that the issues of disability and inclusion are deeper. Because systemic ableism is embedded across society, you can’t just empower youth with disabilities—they’re out in a non-inclusive world, one that doesn’t value them. We want society to include people with disabilities because if you don’t, you lose out on their value.”

Minkara seeks to instill the perspective that inclusion leads to value for all people. Through customizable content and activities, ETI helps clients achieve diversity and inclusion goals. In addition, ETI advances a value- and inclusion-based narrative to help children with visual impairments gain the skills and confidence to thrive, while helping their peers and caregivers better understand and value youth with disabilities.

“To lead, you have to be able to inspire and mobilize others to be leaders in their own way,” says Minkara. For empowering more than 5,500 people through her nonprofit, Minkara is the recipient of the 2020 HKS Emerging Global Leader Award.

Photos courtesy of Sara Minkara