Sarah Hemminger
Ashoka Fellow since 2013   |   United States

Sarah Hemminger

Sarah Hemminger is building non-traditional families in order to radically reconfigure the level of support disenfranchised students have available to them.
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Check out this video of Sarah Hemminger's work

This description of Sarah Hemminger's work was prepared when Sarah Hemminger was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


Sarah Hemminger is building non-traditional families in order to radically reconfigure the level of support disenfranchised students have available to them.

The New Idea

Sarah saw that many of the kids growing up in concentrated poverty needed more than just improved financial resources or higher quality classrooms: they needed the unassailable support and deep interpersonal bonds that we traditionally derive from family. Through Incentive Mentoring Program (IMP), she thus set out to fundamentally change the way we conceive of the word “family.”

Sarah begins by surrounding at-risk students—those in the bottom 25 percent of their class, with a history of truancy and behavioral problems following their 9th grade year—with a group of six to eight volunteers. United by a common commitment to do “whatever it takes,” volunteers connect students and their biological families to community resources, by coordinating clothing, furniture and appliance donations, home renovations, and public assistance enrollment. Like Teach For America, IMP is designed to leave a lasting imprint not only on students, but on the volunteers it serves—one that they will carry with them throughout their careers. By carefully identifying and involving influential members of the community in the family structure, she has managed to transcend racial and socioeconomic boundaries within Baltimore, paving the way for a wide variety of broader systemic shifts.

IMP currently serves 135 students in two local high schools, having more than doubled in the last two years. To date, the organization has worked with more than 900 volunteers in the Baltimore community, and is in talks to expand to other cities with highly engaged college student populations, including New Haven, Philadelphia, St. Louis, New York, and other similarly situated cities. Having entered the program with an average GPA of 1.0, 100 percent of the students have graduated high school and been accepted to college, and of those in the oldest cohort, 66 percent received a college degree at the end of 2013.

The Problem

Paradoxically, one of the unintended consequences of desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s has been a decrease in the social capital available to many of today’s most impoverished families. Sixty years ago, inner-city schools and neighborhoods were racially segregated but socially diverse: families of varying economic means lived within close proximity of one another, and it was not uncommon for a lawyer to live doors down from a teacher or sanitation worker.

As the middle-class left for the suburbs, however, these neighborhoods experienced a dramatic rise in concentrated poverty. In Baltimore, for instance, one-third of children live in single-parent families and one in four residents’ lives in poverty. The drastic decrease in population created roughly 16,000 vacant homes from 1950 to 2000, producing a visible urban blight. The situation there has played out in dozens of cities across the country: over 20 percent of the population in Detroit, New Haven, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis live in concentrated areas of poverty. Despite various efforts to tackle the problem, rates have continued to rise: of the 50 largest cities in the US, 44 experienced increases in child poverty rates between 2005 and 2011. The result has had a profound effect on our education system: many of today’s schools remain almost as racially homogenous as they were before Brown vs. Board of Education, and more so socioeconomically. In Baltimore city schools, 87 percent of students are African American and 84 percent are on free or reduced lunch.

Countless studies have pointed to the effects of concentrated poverty and an absence of positive role models on children’s development, producing dramatically higher rates of depression, juvenile incarceration and criminal activity, teen pregnancy, and poor educational outcomes among kids. Children growing up without the help of a supportive family must worry about meeting their own physiological, safety, and belonging needs instead of focusing on academic achievement, character development, and contributions to society.

These challenges have hardly gone unnoticed: tackling inequality is now one of the driving forces behind today’s education debate. For more than a decade, the education reform movement has been defined by high expectations and a refusal, in the words of many, to “let zip codes define destiny.” However, those efforts have focused largely on what can be done within the confines of a school—extending the school-day, exerting tight disciplinary control, establishing rigorous academic tutoring and data-monitoring—based on the belief that influencing a child’s home-life is outside a teacher or school’s reach.

Yet studies have been equally clear that the key protective factors to ensure a child develops resiliency are whether or not they have a strong bond with a caring adult and connectedness to their school community, indicating that the problem is less one of poor academic standards, than it is a lack of human capital. Missing from the education debate is the basic question of how to restore the same level of social support that once existed within a community, without turning back the clock or undermining the progress of the civil rights era. Even well-known efforts like the Harlem Children’s Zone, and similar attempts to lift up entire neighborhoods, have focused largely on expanding social services and deepening programmatic interventions. When it comes to taking care of at-risk kids, few have attempted to blur, or altogether abandon, the line between the personal and the professional, having no other way to respect the personal boundaries and needs for self-care among staff or volunteers and believing such a choice to be fundamentally at odds with the ability to sustain an organization.

The Strategy

A scientist by training, Sarah realized that the problem for today’s most at-risk kids is one of datasets: kids growing up in extreme poverty are working with a dataset that says they will be dead or in jail by the time they are 30. Success would therefore depend on convincing kids of the full range of options they have available to them—a feat which entails, quite simply, never giving up. At the core of the IMP model is thus a relentless focus on doing “whatever it takes,” and meeting the specific needs of every individual student.

Sarah set out first to establish a set of proof-points: demonstrating that generational poverty could be overcome, with little more than human capital, even under the most trying circumstances. The basic building block of the organization is what is known as the IMP family: a group of 6 to 8 volunteers, mostly undergraduate and graduate students from a nearby university, matched to one student, identified after his or her 9th grade year. To enroll, students in a participating high school must be in the bottom 25 percent of their class—the average GPA among the most recent cohort was 0.7 on a 4.0 scale—and have a history of truancy and disciplinary problems. Students are then enrolled for eight years, carrying them through their final three years of high school and first five years after graduation.

Early on, Sarah realized that her success depended as much on the growth and resilience of her volunteer corps, as it did on the growth and resilience of the students served: in addition to helping kids overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, she had to find a way to retain volunteers, and to equip them with the same level of emotional care, support, and sense of self-efficacy that they provided IMP students. She thus developed a rigorous Volunteer Leadership Program to recruit, train, and retain strong leadership, and to set critical norms in building families.

To that end, every unit within IMP is thus designed to function as a family: families of different cohorts are connected through an IMP House, managed by an experienced volunteer GrandParent (GP), who in turn provides mentoring for the Heads of Household (HOH), and facilitates sharing of both resources and practices among the different family groups. Family members are in constant communication with one another, using a combination of text, phone, email, or instant messaging. Recognizing that effective communication was critical to success, Sarah developed a number of carefully structured feedback loops at every level within the organization, so that issues could be addressed in real-time. Records of all student interactions are diligently tracked, in order that every member of a family can see exactly what is happening in the student’s life, and can continually adapt and grow his/her relationships with the student to best address the student’s needs. Sarah also established a system and training program to facilitate quick decision-making, effective delegation, and clear and adaptable role delineation.

Aware that college students are, by definition, transient, Sarah designed the model so that families could evolve over multiple “generations” within the eight-year enrollment period. As one volunteer transitions out, another transitions in, undergoing a thorough on-boarding process designed to build a deep connection between him/her and the student. From the outset, volunteers are encouraged to break down the artificial divide between “us” and “them,” and “haves and have-nots,” by sharing their failures and the moments in which they, too, have felt alone or insufficient. Building off a foundation of deep trust, volunteers are tasked with everything from driving kids to school in the morning, to checking in on them throughout the day, to helping them secure summer jobs and tap into local community resources. One mentor will check on a student at school; if he isn’t there, another will drive to his home or to another of his favorite hang-outs and bring him to school. Some families arrange daily wake-up calls, others have been known to completely refurbish run-down living rooms, or even house students should they find themselves temporarily homeless.

Sarah realized, however, that while the approach can now be easily replicated within or across cities, thanks to a highly developed structure, robust training program, and extensive documentation, its highly resource-intensive nature meant that it could never serve every student in need. She thus developed a two-part strategy to ensure that IMP’s impact is felt beyond the kids it serves: first, by creating ways for influential members of the community to meaningfully participate, and second, by sharing content and bringing together a number of influential players in education and social services to learn from one another.

Sarah knew that she didn’t need to work with every at-risk student in Baltimore to achieve a citywide impact; she merely needed to change popular attitudes among local decision-makers. She thus established a number of concentric circles around the “house structure,” through which volunteers can collate and access resources that meet common needs, whether related to healthcare, legal counsel, workforce development, or the like. In the process, she developed a number of low-barrier touch-points that can serve as the initial hook for older volunteers: for example, helping kids secure jobs within a particular company or field, or offering pro bono legal resources. The college volunteers serve as liaisons to the community at-large, creating a comfortable point of entry through which wealthy and influential individuals within a city—many of whom who have never set foot in the neighborhoods served—can get involved, and gradually work their way deeper into the organization. Of the 600+ volunteers who serve as “family members” in Baltimore, five are now attorneys in the District Attorney’s office, one is the wife of the Johns Hopkins University President, and another is the Vice President of Baltimore-based CSX Transportation. The strategy has had a dual effect: exerting influence over previously unreachable institutions, and deepening connectivity within the community, so that formerly siloed individuals now see what they are capable of when acting together. Once a year, participates come together to share what they are learning, and--building off IMP’s core principles of “rethinking wealth” and “inclusive decision-making”—explore different ways that they can individually and collectively influence the system as a whole.

Finally, Sarah is beginning to explore different ways to export IMP practices, beyond direct replication. She has been approached by a number of institutions, ranging from major companies to city colleges, eager to apply the IMP family model and leadership development training to their own environments. Aware of the danger of losing focus, she is building an extensive wiki through which any team member or outside organization can identify and share best practices, policies, and examples. In addition, she convened a conference over the summer that included three other organizations involved in somehow creating “non-traditional families”—Friends of the Children, the Montana Academy, and the Princeton Center for Leadership Training—and leaders from across Baltimore, who together shared their experiences on what it takes to help low-income youth succeed.

The impact has been profound. To date, 100 percent of participating students have been retained, graduated from high school or the equivalent, and been accepted into college. IMP has 560 active volunteers and has worked with more than 900 volunteers since its inception, enjoying an 80 percent retention rate from year to year. Having already expanded to a second site in Baltimore, she is emerging from IMP’s early incubation phase, and is poised for take-off: the organization added 32 students to its ranks in January 2013, bringing its group to 127, and Sarah expects the number to grow dramatically from there. As a close advisor of Ron Daniels, President of Johns Hopkins University, she has begun to develop relationships with promising allies of his, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and administrators at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, two sites that have already expressed interest in bringing IMP to their cities.

The Person

Sarah started her first business at the age of seven, selling stationery products door-to-door. By the age of eleven, she was helping her father run his plumbing company. A competitive figure skater, she worked weekends selling expensive custom table pads to pay for skating throughout high school, and continued working with her dad on everything from marketing to finances, to customer relations. She credits her family for giving her that kind of drive: she wasn’t afraid to take risks, because she always knew her family’s support was absolute. While Sarah was in high school, her parents discovered her church pastor abusing church funds, and chose to publicly expose the misuse and to fight for change and reconciliation. Suddenly ostracized by their fellow congregants, her family only grew stronger, and it was their care that propelled her forward.

Her best friend, Ryan, wasn’t so lucky: having grown up in a typical suburban home in Indiana, his mother was in a serious car accident while he was in middle school. She became temporarily paralyzed, and soon lost her job. The family moved into Section Eight housing, where his parents developed an addiction to painkillers and eventually sold drugs to support their addiction. His family in shambles, Ryan regularly missed school and failed most of his classes during his freshman year. A group of teachers, however, band together to offer private tutoring and clothing, food, and money to keep the water and heat running in his home. The teachers became his family unit, and by the end of his senior year, he was making A’s and became a varsity athlete. The two fell in love, and married at the age of 19.

Sarah went on to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, but felt incomplete throughout the early days of her program. As she was driving past Dunbar High School on her way to class one day, she grew suddenly aware of the enormous disparity between the gleaming university buildings and the dilapidated school across the street. She thought about Ryan, and realized other kids there were likely experiencing the same struggles he had, due not to a lack of intelligence, but to a lack of support. She felt a deeper affinity with those kids than she did with her own peers, and sought a way to create the kind of family in Baltimore that had afforded her a sense of belonging and self-efficacy all her life. And so, in 2005, Incentive Mentoring Program was born.

As a graduate student, Sarah watched as her advisor founded what was essentially a new field in neuroscience. Already deeply immersed in IMP, she wondered how the approach that worked within the scientific community might apply to entrepreneurship. Though aware of the profound differences between the two worlds, she sought to apply the scientific method to IMP’s approach: gathering proof-points and external validation in order to showcase its impact on kids and volunteers, rigorously codifying the critical inputs and identifying the corresponding outputs and outcomes, and collaborating with others who had complementary data. It was there that she set out to define a new field among those who had found a way to develop non-traditional families.

Upon graduating in 2010, Sarah elected to forgo a career in neuroscience, and began working with IMP full-time.

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