Ecologist and human rights advocate honored with Phillips Award

Sasha Kramer ’94 receives the Academy’s highest alumni prize, visits classes.

Sarah Pruitt '95
October 21, 2022
Sasha Kramer '94 sits at Harkness table with student

Sasha Kramer '94 visits with Kaylee Bennett '23 and other students in REL450: Social Ethics on Thursday, October 20. 

“I think that what I learned most from Exeter was how to learn,” Sasha Kramer ’94 told a group of students sitting around the Harkness table in Thomas Simpson’s REL450: Social Ethics class. “I think that once you learn how to learn something, you can do anything.”

Kramer’s passion for learning, as well as a lifelong drive toward activism, has fueled a nearly 20-year-long career living and working in Haiti as the co-founder and executive director of Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), a research and development organization that provides sustainable and cost-effective solutions to the sanitation crisis in Haiti. She returned to campus this week to receive the John and Elizabeth Phillips Award, which recognizes an Exonian who has contributed significantly to the welfare of community, country or humanity.

“As an ecologist, human rights advocate and champion of dignified and safe sanitation, you have channeled your passionate devotion to ecological research into the pursuit of basic human rights for people in Haiti and around the world,” said Trustee and General Alumni Association President Betsy Fleming ’86. She delivered Kramer's award citation in the Assembly Hall on the Friday of Exeter's Family Weekend and the fall meeting of the Trustees.  

Addressing a packed hall of students, faculty and visiting family members, Kramer spoke of initially feeling out of place at Exeter when she arrived as a prep from rural upstate New York. “Through the daily practice of sitting at a table with my classmates, from a wide diversity of backgrounds, my confidence grew,” she recounted. “[I]n a way that has allowed me to sit with the discomfort of difference; in a way that has reminded me that accepting our own flawed humanity can be a powerful tool for cultivating empathy.”  

Lifelong drive toward activism

Kramer dedicated many of her remarks to Haiti, the island nation that she called “my greatest teacher, my harshest critic, my deepest joy, my most acute heartache, and through it all, my most powerful inspiration.” From reading the novels of Edwidge Danticat and studying the world’s first successful slave rebellion and its impact on the course of global history, she described becoming fascinated by Haiti when she was a teenager. In 2004, while pursuing her Ph.D. in ecology at Stanford University, she traveled to the island nation for the first time as a human rights observer.

“I learned that despite all of the acute human rights abuses happening at the time, the most pervasive human rights abuse in Haiti and globally is poverty,” Kramer said. “While I witnessed terrible suffering, I also witnessed true courage.”  

She would return to Haiti six times over her last two years at Stanford. Determined to use her ecological research to confront the real-world problems of food insecurity and lack of access to sanitation, she moved to northern Haiti and co-founded SOIL in 2006. Through a system called container-based sanitation, the organization works to transform human waste into a resource for fighting climate change and restoring ecosystems, all while helping to reduce the spread of disease and providing employment for Haitian citizens.  

In the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake, SOIL provided emergency public toilets used by some 20,000 people in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and built its first large-scale composting site. Now it is one of Haiti’s largest waste treatment operations, and focuses on developing social business models to provide safe household sanitation in the country’s most vulnerable urban communities.

“Empathy, perspective and perseverance”

Kramer shared with the Assembly audience the greatest lessons Haiti has taught her, saying she hoped they would be relevant to students’ lives as they grow into global citizens. “Much of my academic training focused on objective observation,” she said. “But Haiti quickly taught me that emotional intelligence — the ability to empathize with others, no matter how painful — was the most valuable tool for building the relationships that are pivotal for making change.”

Haiti also taught her perspective, Kramer said, as she set aside personal challenges in the face of “the everyday heroism of my team, who literally would walk through burning roadblocks to ensure sanitation to families cut off by insecurity.” Finally, she learned perseverance. “Undoing centuries of inequality is a lifetime commitment,” Kramer said. “It requires a dedication that takes strength in small victories and the tenacity to persist in the face of immeasurable setbacks.”

A message of gratitude

Kramer closed by thanking her fellow members of the class of 1994, who she said collectively raised more than $6,000 as a show of solidarity for the SOIL team’s work in Haiti. She also thanked the current Exonians in the classes and clubs she met with during her visit, including Simpson’s religion class; Social Innovation, an integrated studies class taught by Director of Service Learning Liz Reyes; and several ESSO groups.

“As I stand before you today, millions of Haitian children face an uncertain educational future as schools across the country close due to insecurity,” Kramer said in her closing remarks. “In a world where education should be a right but remains a privilege, I want to remind you that while this privilege does come with profound responsibility, it also brings with it an incredible opportunity — the opportunity to use your privilege and education to make a difference in the lives of others.”

After Kramer concluded her speech, a gratified Assembly Hall crowd rewarded her with another honor: a standing ovation.