Mere moments into our conversation, I am ready to jump up and embrace Sara-Louise Henry. There’s a comforting kinship, an unmistakable sisterhood connection as she smiles wide, gently tossing back the box braids framing her face, and begins to share her story. A social worker, advocate, mother, wife and leader, Sara-Louise is all heart and remarkable grace. The walls of her bright, cozy office are dotted with vibrant images of women of color and inspiring justice heroines like Rosa Parks, Frida Kahlo and Amanda Gorman. It is a place to exhale and be empowered, which is precisely what Sara-Louise wants the youth and families she works with to feel. For years, she has made empowerment a life mission for not only herself but for youth and families of color in the Rochester community.
The only one
Growing up in Rochester, Sara-Louise remembers well the deep alienation she felt at school and in the community. “My brother and I were often the only kids of color in our school and anywhere we went,” she says. Raised in a bicultural Black household, with a Liberian mother and African American father with roots in Chicago, she developed a driving passion for learning about others and celebrating diversity wherever she found it.
Now, as equity coordinator for Rochester Public Schools (RPS), Sara-Louise is determined to ensure students can truly celebrate and embrace who they are and how they show up in the world. This critical work involves close collaboration with different departments within RPS that are working to foster more access, equity and engagement for students and their families. “There is so much to celebrate about different aspects of diversity that no one should ever feel ashamed when they are learning more about who they are and who their ancestors and their people are,” she says.
The opportunity to center the student experience means that when she connects with BIPOC students, they get to see someone who looks like them working to advocate and foster change alongside them every day. Disparities in educational outcomes and persistent lack of access to resources disproportionately impact BIPOC and low-income youth, as well as youth with disabilities and LGBTQ+ students. Yet, across the nation and in Rochester itself, addressing issues of equity, inclusion and justice in education is increasingly fraught and even polarizing. For Sara-Louise, this is why encouraging herself and others to step into their own truth and power in service has never been more important.
Serving with heart
Sara-Louise credits her parents, Cheryl Collins and James Scott, for a firm foundation of support and guidance. Her father encouraged her to pursue social work while she was in college at Winona State University. Social work allowed her to engage her passion for learning about and serving others in a way that could make a lasting difference. After her first social work class she realized, “I need to be in these homes. I need to be serving these families who are underserved. And they need to see me. They need to see people who look like them and don’t have to explain why they may feel or face microaggressions when they go to different places like the hospital or school. Social work really became my all-encompassing passion.”
Through her involvement with Hope Fuse, Sara-Louise also discovered how powerful mentorship could be, as she learned the impact meaningful connection could have in the lives of youth facing generational poverty. During her time as an ecosystem navigator at Collider, she had the opportunity to guide women of color who were starting small businesses or who already had small businesses and were seeking resources. She deepened her understanding of what was available in the community, as well as barriers to accessing those resources for groups who have been historically marginalized. “Even as I was helping these women, I, myself, was learning so much,” she shares.
Sara-Louise is an eager lifelong learner. That same passion for learning about others that energized her as a child continues to make her open to new opportunities to serve and lift others. Every step of the way, she continues to leverage her justice-centered perspective and her own experiences and lessons learned—allowing them to inspire and propel her courage and action.
Throughout her career and in her own personal journey, walking into the unknown and finding strength and resilience along the way has been the hallmark of Sara-Louise’s success. Yet, that path is not one traveled alone. Authentic connection, supportive community and dedicated mentorship are essential. Many of her professional roles and educational pursuits were supported by other women, particularly Black women who connected with and mentored her along the way. According to Sara-Louise, collaborating and building community with other women is critical. “When we as women get together, we are powerful,” she says. “We turn from a finger to a fist. Leaning into and celebrating other women and collaborating with other women is going to help us all and make us all powerful.”
On saying “no” and finding joy
Sara-Louise is busy making moves and changing lives, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Yet, women of color are often asked to hold up their communities and families while also working toward professional achievement and overall excellence. “Working twice as hard” is an adage many women of color like Sara-Louise are familiar with. As a mother, leader and professional, Sara-Louise has had to learn how to prioritize her own self-care and find joy no matter what challenges come her way. She candidly admits that it is a work in progress. She models for her children what it means to show up for others as well as for herself. She makes it a practice of speaking openly with her children, Ashanti, Leontes and Alyvia, about her commitments and the impact she is working toward making in the community and in the lives of other children who may not have the same opportunities they do.
It is not always easy. She notes, “Right now it is a trying season. I want to serve our community and give so much and help build a beautiful community for my kids to live in. Sometimes that means I am not there or always present with them, and I have really learned to give myself grace for that. What it is showing them is that I am more than just your mom. I am also a woman. I am also a person who serves in the community. I want to make sure all kids are experiencing the beautiful things our community has to offer and all kids know that they can rise and be amazing and know they have that power inside of them.”
Lately, Sara-Louise has also been embracing the power of saying “no” and fighting the urge to explain why, as she establishes healthy boundaries around her work and service in the community. This wisdom is valuable and a central philosophy to Sara-Louise’s work-life-community integration. She acknowledges that it is far from glamorous and that sometimes doing it all as a working mother means some things fall short. When that happens, she practices grace and forgiveness. She is also committed to avoiding burnout and finding joy daily. She does not wait until the weekend to rest and be fully present for herself and her family. Regular long showers and solo dance parties at home bring her back to herself and her joy.
Daring to be powerful
The steady thread that weaves together Sara-Louise’s rich experiences and service to others in the community was first threaded through her early years growing up in the community. Yet, finding the strength to step into her own power has taken a lifetime. If she could talk to her younger self decades ago she would say: “You are not alone. You feel alone right now, and you feel like you are the only one. But there are so many strong and powerful, intelligent and impactful people that paved the way and came before you and will come after you. So hold your head high because there is a lot of strength and power behind you and inside of you. You don’t know the power that you have within you. And when you fully realize it, child, you are going to kick the door open, and you are going to change the world.”
Her words echo through the years she’s lived and many paths she’s taken and paved. They are with her in the schools when she greets a young girl in the hallway and feels that unmistakable spark of Black girl magic pass between them. They are with her as she raises her children in the same city she remembers feeling so alone in, knowing that she is working to build a community where they will not face that same alienation. Ultimately, Sara-Louise’s service and leadership openly invites all of us to know our own strength and the power we already have within us to be bold and brave. ::