When Tamara Smiley Hamilton was 13 years old, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where her family lived, erupted in violence.
In August 1965, police pulled over an African American man for a driving offense and the situation spiraled out of control. Long-simmering tensions in the largely black neighborhood came to the surface, and for six days the community was torn by riots, fire, looting, and violence. Thirty-four people died, over 1,000 were injured, and thousands more were arrested. Hamilton can still recall hearing glass shattering and seeing embers flying as buildings burned.
"I remember thinking, 'This can’t be all there is to my life. If I survive this, then I am supposed to do something with my life,'" she says.
Hamilton decided then to devote herself to peace and inclusion. To develop her leadership skills, she participated in a local youth council and in a camp sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, where she met young people from different backgrounds.
"I started learning about building relationships and peacebuilding at an early age," says Hamilton.
As she pursued a career in education and university administration, she promoted diversity: As dean of students at Occidental College in Los Angeles, she was charged with recruiting African American students, and at the National Education Association, she created a career development program for employees who felt stuck in lower-level positions.
After retiring from the NEA in 2012, Hamilton started Audacious Coaching, a consulting firm that helps organizations improve cross-cultural communication and foster inclusive workplaces.
Part of her mission is to make people aware of their prejudices. "Sometimes you’re not aware of your own biases, and you can do things that are stinging to others," she says. She became a Rotarian a year ago after learning about a water purification project that the Herndon club supports in Africa. Being part of Rotary meshes perfectly with her lifelong desire to promote peace and understanding. "When I saw what Rotary was doing with those kinds of service projects, I was hooked."
This story originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.