Public policy professional Sara El-Yafi first grabbed our attention when we heard about her radical plan to solve the Lebanese trash crisis by turning said trash into fuel. In the midst of our Anti-Fast Fashion Shop launch, we hustled to score an interview with her–because if there’s anything we love more than a strong, successful woman, it’s a strong, successful woman who shares our passion for saving the environment.
If the name “Sara El-Yafi” sounds familiar to you, it might be because she’s sort of Facebook-famous. In 2012, Sara took on Harvard Business School (her alma mater) in a scathing (yet surprisingly humorous) Facebook post, calling out the cafeteria’s “Israeli Mezze Station” for it’s not-actually-Israeli food options and dubbing it the “ultimate multicultural, multireligious ‘f*** you’ in the face of ALL Arabs.” Clearly, Sara is not a woman afraid of confrontation–a quality that helped her parlay a long-winded Facebook post into a side career as a political writer, tackling the most serious of subjects with a smirk.
So how did this Beirut-born woman become one of the most vocal, opinionated, and innovative policy makers in the Middle East? According to her, it’s part “delusion” and part determination.
FAME: How did you get your start in public policy?
Sara: I got my master’s degree in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, which they call HKS–it used to be called KSG, but people were upset that there was no “Harvard” in KSG. I’m serious, that’s why they changed it! I graduated in 2008.
FAME: How would you describe your job and your day-to-day duties to someone who’s unfamiliar with what you do?
Sara: So my background is in politics, my interest is very political, and my educational background is in government–the issues that matter to me tend to be big social problems. A public policy professional is trained to write out a policy to resolve [an issue], if you will. They usually are hired by governments or NGOs, they can work with political or international organizations. Basically, whatever public issue you have, you probably have someone who works in public policy putting together a resolution for it. Very often they’re working in the background, but sometimes they become the people that the public sees–on a lucky day–because they usually know what they’re talking about. It always has to do with the public good. The policy can be Do we build a bridge or not?, How do we end global warming?, or How do we make sure women are treated right? All these issues have always been extremely close to my heart.
Ever since I was a child, I asked myself the question of, “How do we make this better?”
My country was at war for 15 years between 1975 and 1990 and I remember when I would visit–I grew up in Saudi Arabia–when I’d go back to Lebanon, I would see a lot of destruction, I would see garbage on the streets, I would see no greenery, and I would fantasize. That was my fantasy as a child: That everybody would go to sleep and I would walk in the streets and sprinkle stuff so that flowers and trees can grow, and then everybody in the morning wakes up and goes, “Wow!”–but nobody knows it was me. I would watch the superhero movies and I would say, “My gosh, I wish I had the superpower to make sure there are no children begging on the street and that everybody could have flowers in front of their house.” This is the 8 year old mind! Eventually, I understood the way to do this is public policy. Public policy was a way to have a voice in the political world, to try to make things happen on that front…which is how my writing took off as well.
FAME: Your writing has really taken off on social media. Can you talk a bit about that experience–any tips on “going viral”?
Sara: I wrote a piece and I never expected it to be read by a specific number of people, but it just caught on and it went viral and I gained a nice followership. I still struggle with understanding what that is, because I know for sure that when you’re honest–and by that I mean you’re not planning to do something with your writing, there is no manipulative end game–if you truly speak from a place of utmost truth, it cannot not resonate with people, even if people disagree with the premise. It cannot not resonate, the keyword here being resonate.
The biggest compliment I can get today is one of two things: “Sara, you said something that I not only agree with, but I could never find the words to say myself.” The second thing is, “I never thought about it that way, but that makes sense.”
FAME: What have been your best career moments so far?
Sara: I have a few. I think for sure, there are two things.
I once wrote a piece saying that we should elect our own president in Lebanon–because we don’t have direct democracy in Lebanon, it’s a parliamentary system. The people elect the members of Parliament, who go on to elect the Prime mMinister and the President, which is sort of unheard of. So I wrote an article saying that that should change. I put it out there, and I put a poll on my website and I got a really high level of participation. That ended up resonating a lot in the country, and a lot of TV channels started doing their own polls! Here’s what happened: The plan that I was proposing, a very specific plan, was almost copy/pasted by one of the main political leaders–who is now the president of our country! And the BBC contacted me and asked, “How do you feel that so-and-so has copy/pasted your article?” And I was like, “Are you kidding me? I hope everybody copy/pastes it!” There is zero plagiarism on democracy.
Another example…this one is a little more sensitive because it has to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately, my country is at war with Israel, and I am one of the biggest proponents, actively in public, for peace. That sits badly with a lot of people because they’re like, There’s no peace if there’s occupation. There’s no peace if there’s aggression. There’s no peace if there’s hostility. There’s no peace if there’s apartheid–so we don’t even talk about peace if these conditions are are not meant. It’s a super hostile conflict. So Harvard put out something that sort of undermined the conflict, and it upset a lot of people of Arab descent. I wrote a piece about it and that, by far, is my most shared article to date. It’s very sensitive, but it made the rounds to Fox news and CNN–“Conflict at Harvard!”–because of something I had written. Harvard ended up apologizing. The main takeaway from this particular piece is that if you treat something with humor even if you are angry–humor and, to a certain degree, respect–people will respond that way. So instead of people being angry and insulting, people were responding with a lot of wit and humor which was my favorite part of this entire thing. If I can contribute to a difficult dialogue with a little bit of wit and a little bit of humor, that is great.
FAME: Your work does have a humorous edge, which is pretty rare in political writing. How did you develop that voice, and how to do you balance talking about serious issues with letting your own style peek through?
Sara: In my family, we are a humorous bunch. My dad has very dark humor, and my mom is like, “I still don’t understand your dad’s humor!” My three brothers are equally as humorous, so the drama wasn’t there growing up, which I think makes a huge difference. If you dramatize something, then you take things personally, you feel attacked, and you feel compelled to do the same because you’re hurt. You want to fight back, hurt back. The environment in my home wasn’t dramatized. I wasn’t aware of the Arab-Israeli conflict until I picked up a book and read about it–and my family is political, my grandfather was Prime Minister! This is almost unprecedented in a Middle Eastern family, that the drama was never ever there.
So as I wrote these pieces, these funny ideas would pop up in my head and I was like, “Oh, that’s funny!”–but it was not because I intended to do this. It’s just my way of thinking.
That doesn’t mean that it should be made fun of–I find mockery and making fun hurts the message entirely. I try to remind myself that if I don’t have anything constructive to say that makes people feel better, I’m not going to say it. As a writer, you will be tugged back and forth no matter how strong you think you are, but it’s knowing when to be silent that’s very important. If you speak in a moment of non-truth–when you’re angry, or frustrated, or sad–I always find that these voices are not your true voice.
If I read something that really makes me angry, I immediately start responding–it’s like the adrenaline is pumping and you want to take your fists and punch! But my instinct, luckily, has always been to step away from the computer, do something else, and then come back, and automatically I find more humor to it.
FAME: We recently launched our Anti-Fast Fashion shop, where we are dedicated to creating anti-waste, anti-pollution clothing and reducing fashion’s impact on the environment. Our founder and CEO found out about your work in turning trash-to-energy and thought you’d be a perfect fit with what we do. How did you get involved in that? Can you tell us more about that project?
Sara: Before the trash crisis in Lebanon happened, I had been looking into the waste problem in general. You’d be shocked how quickly garbage piles up, it piles up within 24 hours. It had piled up [in Lebanon] for weeks–and in 2015, that was the official start of the trash crisis.
I started my work in 2013–it’s almost like I was ready [for the crisis]. I started saying, “There’s a solution–we could do this the right way.” And people were like, Yes, of course, just like women can gain equality! Just like poverty can be eradicated! It almost sounded like it was fantasy. To me, in my head, I knew it made sense. But [politicians] don’t function on sense, these people function on their pockets and their personal interests and their political interests. Luckily, the solution is very profitable. It also saves the environment. It also solves a crisis that’s spreading like wildfire. People can’t be picky these days. The alternatives all suck. It’s been quite the uphill battle, but I am very happy to say that it rang true with the right people, including the Prime Minister of our country who said, “Yes, we should do that.” The wheels are in motion.
Again, I really think it comes down to the strength of personal ethics and common sense and keeping on–I mean, the numbers of meetings I’ve had where people nod and say, “That’s very interesting” and then I never hear back from them…if that was my benchmark, then I would join the clan that says, “Nothing ever gets done!”
I think you do need a little bit of fantasy, you do need a little bit of delusion–which, by the way, is not delusion to me, but it’s what other people call delusion. That grit that other people see as delusion, I see as a must.
FAME: What’s it like to be a woman in such a male-dominated field? Have you experienced sexism in the workplace, and do you have any advice on dealing with that?
Sara: I know what you’re saying, but if I were to rely on my own experiences, I really believe that what you believe about yourself will manifest. If you really believe that, as a woman, you’re not going to get equal treatment, that’s going to [manifest]. If I were to look from that point of view, for sure I could point to a few instances where maybe they said stuff to me because I was a woman. But that doesn’t resonate with me.
By the way, we don’t remember the times people will say stuff to men because they’re men because nobody has labeled it as a problem. But if that man feels vulnerable about his masculinity, then he’s gonna be like, “Oh, just because I’m a man.” It doesn’t mean it’s not true–it’s totally out there–but I really think if you decide things at the onset that are stronger than the preset, then you will feel that way for sure.
If it does happen, understand that this is not an issue that needs to shake your foundation. It’s all about how you interpret it for yourself and what it means. If you take that experience with you home and are like, “This is an unfair world!” then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And as I said, I grew up with 3 brothers so I had a lot of that going around all my life! My brothers know the word “misogynistic” because of how much I’ve used it around the house. The first time I used it, my brother went online to the dictionary and was like, “Hatred of women?! ME?!”
FAME: You split your time between Lebanon and Los Angeles to pursue political filmmaking–has that always been a goal of yours? How are you making the transition from diplomat to filmmaker?
Sara: It’s something I definitely want to do. It’s probably my oldest, concrete dream. It feeds into the first thing I said, “How do I make this better?” I always thought that if you told better stories, you’d help people find things that resonate more with their truth.
I make the distinction between two types of truth: there is Truth with a capital T, and truth with a small t. And the “small t truths” are the things that we can argue about. For example, This is a pretty dress vs. This is not a pretty dress. Whatever that is, it’s a small t. Small t can also be, You insulted me. Yes, it’s the truth. But the problem with small t truth is that it doesn’t advance you to any form of betterment. You stall with the small t truth. If you’re constantly fighting for the small t truth, you’re not going to find fulfillment. Because even if I say, “You’re right,” you’re going to feel empty. The small t truth is different for most people.
But nobody disagrees on the “big T Truth”–no matter who you are, where you’re from, what your belief is, what culture you belong to, what education level you have…the big T Truth will hit you at your core. You will not walk away feeling empty–you will feel fulfilled and more loving, more alive. I am always preoccupied with wanting to advance the big T Truth.
Almost 99% of what the internet is about is small t truth. All your feelings, all your emotions have to do with small t truth. It doesn’t mean they’re not important, but don’t forget the big T Truth. With my political films, I am hoping to get into the big T Truth.
FAME: How do you stay informed?
Sara: I’d have to say Google. No, that’s boring! I really find myself going towards social media to see what’s resonating with people–that is the world I’m plugged in to. For example, I see that everyone seems to be infuriated by one thing or inspired by another thing or feeling frustrated by something else. I try as much as I can to tap into the mood of the world, if there is such a thing.
FAME: Do you have a power outfit or go-to look that helps you feel confident before a big meeting?
Sara: Yes, getting my hair done is always a boost!
FAME: Best business advice?
Sara: I’ve said this before and I’ll say this again: I think we all spend so much of our lives trying to learn the right lessons. Many people try to tell you, “Oh you had a bad experience? It’s a lesson! Hopefully you learned.” People associate that with value: If you know, you should be successful. If you learn how to look good, if you learn how to wear your hair, you’ll get what you want. I say the opposite: What you need is not to learn the right lessons, but to unlearn all the wrong lessons. That’s probably a journey for your entire life.