A princess at PPPL: author and activist Sarah Culberson discusses diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility and her personal story

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
April 28, 2023

Sarah Culberson, an author and speaker whose family is royalty in the Republic of Sierra Leone in West Africa, told the dramatic story of how she discovered her West African roots to an in-person and online crowd of more than 500 PPPL staff members in an April 21 talk dedicated to diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA).

Steve Cowley, PPPL director, emphasized the importance of DEIA in his opening remarks, noting that a welcoming and inclusive workplace is central to PPPL’s mission. “The work we do is hard, so we need to find talented people who feel included and are truly part of the mission,” he said.

Barbara Harrison, DEIA manager, said Culberson’s story provided a great kickoff for PPPL’s DEIA strategy, which includes working with a DEIA Council and employee resource groups, a strategic recruitment plan, collaborations with historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions, and educational opportunities for staff. “Her message was powerful. I believe when you share through storytelling, people can relate,” she said. “The big takeaway I think is to give each other grace and be open to our differences.”

Dancing down the aisle

Culberson came dancing down the aisle at the start of her talk. She told the packed crowd in the Melvin B. Gottlieb Auditorium that she was impressed by PPPL’s fusion energy research. “I’m inspired by what you all are doing so I want to say thank you for what you’re doing in the world,”  she said.

Culberson is the author with Tracy Trivas of “A Princess Found: An American Family, an African Chiefdom, and the Daughter Who Connected Them All,” the co-founder of the nonprofit organization Sierra Leone Rising, and a professional speaker.

Culberson told the audience her story spans from Morgantown, West Virginia, to West Africa. She was adopted when she was just a few months old by a white couple with two biological daughters. She grew up as one of just a handful of Black people in Morgantown, Culberson said. She described herself as an “overachiever” who played on the varsity basketball team and ran track, was the homecoming queen and the president of her class. “It was very clear that I was a brown girl in a white world,” she said.

She moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in television and film, and it wasn’t until later that she decided to hire a private detective to trace her birth parents. The detective found an aunt and uncle in Maryland who told her about her mother, who loved to sing and dance and who died when Culberson was still a baby. 

Culberson met her biological family members in Maryland and received a call from her birth father in Sierra Leone. In 2004, just six months after the call, she was on a plane to West Africa to meet her father and relatives. She said she arrived in Freetown in Sierra Leone and traveled a wild, bumpy road to her relatives’ village in the Bumpe Chiefdom, an area in the Moyamba District in the Southern Province of the country that includes 208 villages.

Culberson paused for a moment to note that learning about DEIA, like that road, can often be scary and difficult. “Sometimes just showing up is enough,” she said.

A royal family

When Culberson arrived, she learned she was born to a ruling Mende family in Sierra Leone. Since she is a “mahaloi” or child of a paramount chief, she is considered a princess and was told she could become a chief herself.  

As a member of this prominent family, Culberson was treated like royalty in the village and surrounded by hundreds of people. But she quickly learned the town was still reeling from the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone that ended in 2002 and left the country devastated. Many people had lost family members, and schools and homes were destroyed.

Culberson said she began asking people what she could do to help and just listened. Listening, she said, is perhaps the greatest skill needed in DEIA work. She quoted author Roy T. Bennett, who said, that “When you listen with curiosity, you don’t listen with the intent to reply. You listen for what’s behind the words.”

Culberson said she had to confront her own privilege and her own assumptions as she heard about the villagers’ needs. “We all have different kinds of privilege,” she said. “I saw my privilege growing up.”

When Culberson met with the chiefs of the village to ask them about what she could do to help the area rebuild, she learned that kerosene lamps, which were used for light instead of electricity, were causing fires. “I know you’re working on this for the world, and it’s so needed,” she told the audience.

Finding herself among an all-male group of chiefs, Culberson said she also sought out the women of the village. She learned that women were walking miles a day to get clean water and that the village needed wells. She also found out that young women were having to drop out of school when they were menstruating because there were no menstruation products available.

The lesson from her experiences working with people in Sierra Leone is that by including everyone in the conversation, workplaces get a broader perspective that helps them avoid mistakes. She gave the example of developers of self-driving cars who learned that the cars were programmed to avoid white pedestrians but not pedestrians of color. “When we talk about this work, it’s so important to understand who’s at the table and who’s making the decisions,” she said.

A nonprofit to aid Sierra Leone

Culberson co-founded a nonprofit organization, Sierra Leone Rising, with her brother Hindo Kposowa, a lawyer in Freetown, to address some of those issues. Among other projects, the organization has built wells, rebuilt and stocked the Bumpe High School library, provided bicycles for high school students and cloth sanitary pads for girls and women.

Culberson urged the audience to consider ways that they can help others who don’t have a voice and promote diversity in their own spheres. “How can you lift the voices of others and have them be heard?” she asked. “What are some ways you can step out of your comfort zone this year? How can you make yourself more approachable in the workplace?”

When asked by a staff member how to start the DEIA conversation at a workplace like PPPL, Culberson acknowledged that it is not an easy task. She said PPPL’s diversity plan is a good place to start. She urged staff members to be patient with each other in this journey. “I’m the jumping off point,” she said. “Give each other space to make mistakes. That’s part of science is making mistakes and learning from them. Get to know each other, go out and have coffee. Take action!”

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