Be kind to everyone. It’s the right thing to do. And not only does it make other people feel good, it makes you feel good.

For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders and leaders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non-Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie Forbes.

Jamie is the CEO of Learning Courage, a nonprofit he founded to help school leaders reduce and respond to sexual abuse in K-12 schools. His own experience of being abused by a male teacher when he was in 9th grade and subsequently returning to his school nearly 35 years later inspires his work. While preventing abuse is his primary goal, Jamie and his team also help school leaders understand that responding in ways that keep survivors at the center is not just the right thing for the survivor: it’s also in the best interest of the school.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

Being sexually abused at age 13 wasn’t something that I wanted or would wish on anyone, but it definitely shaped the course of my life. I have spent the majority of my life since that experience trying to erase the shame and reverse other emotional and life impacts. Instead of trying to run away from my experience of abuse, starting Learning Courage has been another key event in my life. This work has allowed me to help others, and at the same time, it has also helped me heal in profound ways.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

Authenticity, integrity and listening. People crave authenticity because it gives them permission to be real. It breaks down barriers between us and helps others see themselves and often inspires them to share things that don’t always feel safe in our culture. In my work, I have the opportunity to share in an authentic and careful way that I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. It’s not a topic that most people want to talk about, but it’s a topic that I know will educate people about prevention and will also help those who have been harmed.

Integrity builds trust. My work requires I understand and respect confidentiality, whether it is highly sensitive information that a school leader tells me about underage kids or something that an adult survivor isn’t ready to share. Being able to hold these confidences is critical. Trust is the currency in my work. If people don’t trust me, I can’t do my job.

Being a good listener is so important and can be really difficult. It’s particularly challenging when conversations are emotionally charged as they often are with survivors of sexual assault. Being a good listener also helps me build trust at work. One of the things we work hard to do is to meet schools where they are. Doing this requires speaking with lots of people; it requires curiosity and asking questions; it requires listening to the answers and then finding ways to help that matches both what they need and what they’re ready for. When you’re a good listener, people know you care about them.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

The list is long and grows every day, but perhaps the most interesting discovery that comes to mind right now is that it is frequently the adults who get in the way of giving kids the information they need to have healthy relationships. It’s easy to blame kids for hurting each other, but if adults don’t help them acquire the tools and skills, whose fault is that?

Healthy relationships aren’t always about intimacy. Kids need to learn about how to respect each other and to learn from one another. There are age-appropriate building blocks that kids don’t get on their own. They need information, and they need to be able to ask questions and be in conversation with people they trust to solidify their learning. Here’s a startling statistic: do you know the average age that kids are exposed to porn in the US? It’s as young as 8 years old! If porn is what kids grow up thinking represents healthy relationships, we have to help them understand that’s not true.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

Our goal is to reduce sexual violence in schools. We do that by working with school leaders to educate adults about the importance of building and maintaining healthy boundaries with students. And we do that by helping schools put training in place that gives students the information they need to keep themselves and other students safe from harm.

We also recognize that sexual violence will happen. We work to reduce it, and we also work with schools to create systems that students can trust so when there is harm, they understand how to report it and trust that they will be cared for. Unfortunately, for someone who has been sexually victimized, not reporting harm is far easier today than reporting it. At Learning Courage, we’re trying to change that.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

It comes down to harm and healing for me. I know the harm that sexual abuse causes because I have lived with it. Even more, I hear stories from survivors every day. These are gut-wrenching stories about how people’s lives have been permanently altered. Sexual violence impacts people’s mental health, their professional outcomes, and how they walk through the world. The long-term impacts commonly associated with sexual abuse include PTSD, substance misuse, suicide and many others. I want to do whatever I can to make sure kids don’t have to live with the impact of abuse.

At the same time, I know the power of healing because I’ve also experienced that. People can heal from the trauma of sexual violence with the right interventions. The potential to help others heal is what inspires me every day.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

I have a story about a group of people actually. Recently we worked with a school that had a group of alumni who were very angry with the school about how it handled findings from an investigation. The investigation uncovered a history of adults sexually abusing students and school leaders covering it up.

The alumni didn’t trust the school because of the betrayal and the trauma caused to many former students. Because of this lack of trust, the school felt unable to effectively communicate with the alumni. The alumni came up with the idea of creating a garden that acknowledged the historic sexual abuse on the school’s campus. The school agreed to build it, and we then facilitated the planning with the school and alumni group as they created the garden and organized its dedication. This effort established a healing space on campus that brought survivors back to the school, and at the garden’s dedication, survivors heard the Head of School apologize for the school’s failures.

As a signal of the trust that we built with both groups, the alumni and school asked my colleague to be the MC at the dedication ceremony for the garden. This was an incredibly meaningful experience for me and my team because the event and the garden provided a very powerful opportunity for survivors to heal while also leaving a daily reminder for the school to keep its students safe.

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

  1. Recognize that sexual violence is much more about power than it is about sex.
  2. Help kids understand what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like.
  3. Make sure kids know that sexual abuse is never their fault, and ensure that they have an adult in their life they can trust.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?”

  1. Start with something you’re passionate about. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, or it’s not going to be sustainable. Your passion is infectious: people can feel it. When I was considering shifting from the previous work I was doing to creating Learning Courage, I really resisted it at first because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be steeped in something related to my own trauma. I was worried it might not be healthy for me. Friends reflected to me that when I spoke about the work I was currently doing and compared that to the way I talked about Learning Courage, they sensed a huge, positive shift in my energy and passion. I decided to listen to that and commit to Learning Courage.
  2. Identify how you’re different. It’s really hard to build anything from scratch. One thing that was clear to me was that starting an organization that was led by survivors and helped schools was a paradigm shift since schools are often at odds with survivors. Instead, we partner with schools. Being survivors gives us credibility that is unique.
  3. Surround yourself with amazing people. I am incredibly fortunate to work with people I admire, who I trust, and who challenge and inspire me. And we have fun! My staff and my Board help make me better.
  4. Be willing to change. The pandemic was a huge reminder that we need to be creative and adapt. While our business model hasn’t changed, we are constantly asking the question: “just because we’ve always done things this way, are there better or more efficient ways we should consider?” Your core mission probably won’t change, but you should always think about different ways to bring it to life.
  5. Be kind to everyone. It’s the right thing to do. And not only does it make other people feel good, it makes you feel good.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

It hasn’t really. The pandemic definitely changed and challenged me — all of us — in many ways, but I don’t think it’s changed my definition of success.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

As I mentioned earlier, I have amazing colleagues and Board members. They help me recalibrate after setbacks. Usually, it’s the survivor stories that pick me up the fastest. They help me remember why this work is worth doing even when it’s really difficult.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Brene Brown has done incredible work on the issue of shame. She’s opened up people’s eyes about the power of shame and how debilitating it can be, and she does it in a very approachable way. I’d love her to know about this article and my work.

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

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Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.