In Conversation with Sara Lawrence Lightfoot

On April 11, 2013 Jonathan Fanton sat down with acclaimed sociologist Sara Lawrence Lightfoot for a conversation about her career and reflections on learning, culture, and relationships. To view the video, click here.

Sara Lawrence Lightfoot Introduction

Thursday April 11, 2013

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure you welcome you to a very special evening. Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself, hear world leaders like former Prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno Ocampo, or talk presidential politics during our recent conference entitled Ike Reconsidered: Lessons from the Eisenhower Legacy for the 21st Century.

Tonight is different. I have been long wanted to have a series of conversations with the most interesting people I know personally. Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMA President Agnes Gund, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, philanthropist Rita Hauser, and, most recently, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio.


But tonight is a very special to me as I sit down with my friend and colleague, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot. Sara and I made common cause at the MacArthur Foundation when she was Board Chair and I President. She is the best Board Chair I know and I have known a lot. I learned a great deal from her — how to ask probing questions in a nice way, how to listen deeply, how to explain the foundation’s work through stories rather than dry statistics of impact. Sara knows how to build a community based on mutual respect, open but civil discourse, and deep personal relationships. She moves easily among disciplines, geographies, cultures, always eloquent, ever-inspiring. I have seen her in action from the Chicago board room to New York City neighborhoods, from Fiji to Nigeria to India and many places in between.

Sara is the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard where she has been teaching since 1980. She has written 10 books with titles that invite you in: Balm In Gilead: Journey of a Healer, I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation, Respect: An Exploration, Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free, and The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other.

My idea for this series of conversations was inspired by that book and I see each conversation as a learning experience for all of us here.

As you will see, Sara is a modest person, unpretentious, fun to be with. When you meet her, you feel the warmth, the empathy, the interest in hearing what you have to say. And always a desire to help. And yet, here I am facing a winner of the McArthur Prize Fellowship, someone recognized with 28 honorary degrees, a recipient of Harvard’s George Ledlie prize for “research and discovery” that make the “most valuable contribution to science” and “the benefit of mankind.” And that’s just a sample.

She is a devoted and gifted teacher. I know her students come first. And she is a thoughtful and productive scholar who has advanced our understanding of how personal development, family, community and pedagogy come together to create enabling learning environments.

But somehow she finds time for public service, Chair of the MacArthur Board, now Deputy Chair of the Atlantic Philanthropies, member of the boards of WGBH in Boston, the Berklee College of Music, her alma mater Swarthmore, the Coalition of Essential Schools, Bright Horizons Family Solutions and much more.

Let me close with a sample of her work, from her book Respect, which she sees as…

“Symmetric and dynamic.… (It) supports growth and change, encourages communication and authenticity and allows generosity and empathy to flow in two directions…. (It is) visceral, palpable, conveyed through gesture, nuance, tone of voice and figure of speech…. It is more than civility…. It penetrates below the polite surface and reflects a growing sense of connection, empathy and trust. It requires seeing the other as genuinely worthy…. Respect is not just conveyed through talk, it is also conveyed through silence.  I do not mean an empty, distracted silence.  I mean a fully engaged silence that permits us to think, feel, breathe, and take notice – silence that gives the other person permission to let us know what he or she needs.”

After Sara and I talk for a while we will broaden the conversation to include all of you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s