Editor’s note: This piece is one of an occasional series on nonprofit leaders in Milwaukee. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Dollhausen founded TRUE Skool, a nonprofit organization that focuses on developing Milwaukee teenagers through urban arts, in 2004. Since then, the nonprofit has gone from Dollhausen’s living room to the basement of the Shops of Grand Avenue downtown. Her passion for hip-hop culture inspired her to start the organization, where young people can express themselves through break dancing, DJing, graffiti art and other art forms.
Q: How did you become a leader of a nonprofit?
A: Well, it wasn’t something I sought out to do. I was actually in the IT field and working as a computer consultant at a couple of different companies, and started volunteering at a community center on the South Side of Milwaukee. Growing up in hip-hop culture – with all of my friends growing up as break dancers, DJs and artists – I began to bring hip-hop to the community center, and that is what I consider my turning point. I realized that young people didn’t necessarily want to sit in a classroom after being in school all day.
Q: How can you get a young person to learn in an after-school setting?
A: Hip-hop and popular culture were both big draws to get them interested in the subjects and technology that we were learning. From there, I really started thinking about creating my own organization and started with throwing a lot of community events and block parties and working with young people who were getting caught for graffiti.
Q: What was your goal when you founded TRUE Skool?
A: Our goal was to provide an opportunity for young people to create solutions for their communities, through community service. When we first started, we did a lot of work with young people who were getting caught for graffiti, so we worked with local judges, people in first-time juvenile offender programs, parents, lawyers, teachers – and we really wanted to give young people an opportunity to give back to their community. We know that young people may do graffiti because they need that outlet. We wanted to teach them that this could be an opportunity to learn skills, to take this into possibly a career, but also to nurture their creativity. So the idea is meeting young people where they’re at, instead of dictating what they should be doing.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as a leader?
A: Handling all of the duties at once. For 12 years, I have been the accountant, the grant writer, the day-to-day operations manager, basically handling everything. This year we’ve hired our third full-time staff member – our creative development director – and so it’s been a journey of doing all of those things at once, but very fulfilling as well, because it’s also knowing every aspect of the organization, and knowing how to manage them all at one time.
Q: What’s one thing you think you could do better as a leader?
A: I can do a lot better job of fundraising and grasping the philanthropy side of nonprofits. I didn’t go to school to be a nonprofit director. I didn’t learn any of this formally, so a lot of it has been learning on the job. We’re still growing, and so just understanding individual donors and fundraising, that’s something I’m dedicated to learning more about.
Q: What advice would you give to someone going into a nonprofit leadership position for the first time?
A: I think it’s all about taking risks. If I wouldn’t have taken a risk 12 years ago to quit my IT job, where I was making good money, to start a nonprofit that has taken years to build, I wouldn’t be here today. I would tell people to take that risk, and if you’re willing and ready to take a leadership role, just do it. Don’t wait for permission, especially ladies. I always tell them, instead of waiting for an opportunity, create your own.
Being a leader can be an authoritative position – but (I think of it like) driving a bus. That’s the analogy I use with my staff. My position here may be top of the food chain, but that doesn’t make anyone below me, and we’re all experts in our own right. For me, it is about having a purpose, and that’s driving TRUE Skool forward — making sure we stick to our morals, our ethics, the culture that we create, both among staff and among our young people.