Sarah Hemminger is the CEO and co-founder of Thread. Founded in 2004, Thread connects a family of volunteer and community collaborators with high school students who need support outside of the classroom. An overwhelming majority (92%) of 5-year Thread students have graduated high school, with nearly as many accepted into college and 80% graduating from a 4- or 2-year degree or certificate program. By linking members of Baltimore’s community, compelling academic success, and fostering social change, Thread seeks to curtail the cycle of poverty, crime, and lack of education for the benefit of all students.
Q. What is it about Baltimore that made you decide to focus the organization here?
SARAH HEMMINGER: Thread is about finding a way to tip Baltimore City. If you think about our city and what’s happened throughout the Civil Rights Movement, there was a huge effort to bring about a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable city here in Baltimore. And the challenge is that a lot of those efforts focus on the locus of the movement, and so there was legislation passed as schools became integrated. The challenge is that even though our schools became integrated, they’re actually more segregated now than ever before. They’re segregated by race, but also by class, because what you have is middle-class flight out of the city, along with middle-class black flight out of the city. So, we now have a school system in Baltimore, if you take Dunbar High School, where Thread is—it’s one of our three schools—you have a majority African-American student body, and a majority of the student body on free and reduced lunch.
So, for us the fundamental question is how do you bring people together across lines of race and class to truly get to know one another? So that people make choices to send their kids to school together, people make choices to live in neighborhoods together. We want to influence the decision-making of how people are living their lives, and we think the best way to do that is the four meaningful relationships that transcend these lines.
Q. How do you mobilize your vast network of volunteers?
A. The way we mobilize a couple of thousand people is by focusing everyone in on a common goal, one that we think is palatable to just about anyone: young people. So, we enroll the most academically underperforming high school freshmen. To give you a sense of what I mean, the average GPA of our first cohort at Douglas High School, which was a school at the epicenter of the unrest, was 0.15—not 1.5 but 0.15, on a 4.0 scale. Our students are exemplary individuals but they are facing extraordinary challenges outside of school, from homelessness to having a parent who is deceased or incarcerated.
Once they’re enrolled in Thread they stay with us for a decade. We joke that it’s longer than the average American marriage. Once they’re in—you can think of it like a gang or a sorority—they can’t get out. Once we’re family, we’re family.
And so that common goal of rallying around the most academically underperforming students, students who have tremendous potential but haven’t fully reached that potential, is something that allows us to mobilize people.
Then, within that model, everyone has a clear role. Each student is given up to five volunteers, and those five volunteers do everything—pack their lunch, give them a ride to school, provide tutoring, help them keep the electricity on in their home—anything you could envision doing for your own child is basically what we do for our children. The roles that people play in the Thread family differ. You might have one volunteer of the five who picks a student up for school, and another volunteer who does after school tutoring, and another volunteer who works with their parent to help them get their GED, or find a job, or enroll in college. Everyone’s role is different but it’s clearly defined.
The other two things that compliment having the clear role and clear goal is that we create a sense of urgency, since many of the things that our students are experiencing can’t wait. When someone’s hungry, that can’t wait. When they don’t have clean clothes to go to school, that can’t wait. That sense of urgency, combined with the fact that we measure success in real time—those four things: goal, role, urgency, and a way to measure success in real-time—that’s how we mobilize everyone. In doing so, without even really thinking about it, as you’re mobilizing people to act together towards this common goal, you end up creating these relationships and those relationships transcend these lines of race and class. As people get to know one another it influences their behavior in both conscious and subconscious ways.