Sabrina Lewellen’s father was a minister and her mother was an educator. So, it’s no wonder that when she talks about her work in the Arkansas Senate and with NCSL, she shares many lessons from her parents. Lessons on public service to your state and to your profession, lessons on leadership, lessons on gratitude.
It starts every morning when she gets out of her car and takes in the Capitol dome in Little Rock.
“I remind myself of the awesomeness of the legislative ecosystem,” says Lewellen, who is deputy director and assistant secretary of the Arkansas Senate and newly named NCSL staff chair. Lewellen is particularly excited to start her new gig as NCSL plans to commemorate its 50th anniversary. She also is proud to make history as the first African American woman in the role.
“I’ve learned how to simultaneously be institution-focused but people-centered, and I just plan to put all of my experience and my tools to work as staff chair this year.”
—Sabrina Lewellen, NCSL staff chair
Lewellen earned her law degree at Vanderbilt University and took a job in the Arkansas Senate Information Office in 2003. What she thought would last a session turned into a career that feeds her passion for public service.
Lewellen connected with NCSL in 2005 and has been active in the organization ever since.
“NCSL is absolutely unmatched in its rich history, its consistent commitment and proven record of helping to strengthen and improve the effectiveness of state legislatures,” Lewellen says.
State Legislatures News reached out to her to talk leadership, the legislative life and her plans for her new NCSL role.
When did you first see yourself as someone who could be a leader?
My initial awareness of leadership as a role began in the second grade, when I was able to convince some classmates to move a bookcase. I don’t know that it was the right thing to do, but it taught me that I had influence. The foundation, though, of my leadership lessons were solidified in my senior year of high school, when I had my first formal leadership roles. My classmates elected me that year to be president of the largest club, which was Future Business Leaders of America, president of the National Honor Society and president of the club that actually had a budget, Crime Stoppers. My parents had a meeting with me that week after all of the elections. They wanted to ensure that I understood the gravity of what had occurred, the honor that was bestowed upon me by my peers because they identified me as someone that they could trust and follow, and then chose me to serve in each of those presidential roles. My parents really impressed upon me not to take their investment in me for granted or disrespect or mismanage this opportunity, nor any opportunity that I had in the future to lead.
How did you get started working in the Legislature?
I began as a session employee right after law school. I come from parents who taught us to be investors in our community, in ourselves and in whatever it is we choose to commit to. I also come from a family of public servants—two former state representatives and a former state senator. The legislative landscape was something I was familiar with.
And why not run for elected office yourself with that background?
I am already a public servant. I am invested, I would argue even more so, but certainly differently, than those who actually run for public office. And everybody should consider (running) if circumstances align in their life to allow it. That’s just not been my situation. I’m the child of older parents. My parents are deceased now, but when I came back (from law school) it was just a season where things were changing, and so I wanted to make sure I was in a place that I could be and do what I needed to do and be for my family. And I actually get a huge benefit from serving our state through my legislative service and working for over 3 million Arkansans and not running for office. So, I’ll take it.
When did you first connect to NCSL and in what way?
I first connected with NCSL in 2005 at the Legislative Summit. NCSL is absolutely unmatched in its rich history, its consistent commitment and proven record of helping to strengthen and improve the effectiveness of state legislatures, promoting policy, the innovation, the communication amongst the states and the commonwealths and the territories, as well as representing our interests before the federal government. It’s the largest convener of the states and it has been very important to me to be intentional about participating in an organization so concretely dedicated to legislators, legislative staff and the legislative institution. You can’t ask for more than that, and I really cannot do enough or give enough back to NCSL in light of all that it has given me throughout the years.
What have you learned in your leadership role in Arkansas that you might bring to staffers in your role with NCSL?
One of my favorite quotes is, “If serving others is beneath you, then leadership is beyond you.” As the deputy director and assistant secretary of the Senate, I’m charged with the protection, the preservation and the promotion of the Senate as a constitutional office. And my job duties truly have helped me to learn and evolve as a listener, a problem-solver, a creative manager of circumstances. So, I think I’ve learned how to simultaneously be institution-focused but people-centered, and I just plan to put all of my experience and my tools to work as staff chair this year.
What are some key tenets of sustaining yourself and staff through this work and its challenges?
Our legislative institutions have some really specific stressors, and they can weigh on you. Some of it is cyclical, of course, with session interim and different cycles. On top of that are the individual, job-specific stressors. And then we are all still people with private and personal lives. So, when I need motivating or I feel that my sustainability is getting shaky, I schedule time with myself for a personal power hour—I also call it a pep rally. During that time, my goal is to refuel my personal and professional dedication. I do this by working to reframe the circumstances, whatever it is I’m facing. Reframing is such an art and it really can give you important perspective. And then I remind myself of the awesomeness of this legislative ecosystem.
I try hard to maintain that awe. I’m the only person that does what I do, out of a little over 3 million people. How can you not say “wow” to that reality? My power hours have helped me come a long way and to maintain my energy and my encouragement. Now, I will do the same to work to bring that same mindfulness to legislative staff across the nation, especially now, because post-pandemic, there is a very real challenge with staff burnout. We have learned a lot throughout these last 42-plus months, but I think we are pretty exhausted as humans, and the cost of the burnout is very real.
So with my role as staff chair, I also consider that sort of a chief encouragement officer.
What are your priorities for this year as staff chair?
I am focused on the upcoming 50th anniversary of NCSL, working to celebrate and elevate this milestone. And to ensure we are elevating and celebrating legislative staff along the way and creating some muscle memory for all of us to be reminded of the great work that NCSL has been doing and does every single day—and, I have no doubt, will continue to do in the second half of its first century of service to the nation. So, highlighting some of the leaders in the past and hopefully influencing and encouraging what we hope will be leaders in the future. My mom taught me that nothing I do is small in life, but especially in my job. So, I am just going to maximize every transaction, every conversation, every exchange, every email, correspondence, speaking opportunity, and every touch point to celebrate and elevate and champion legislative staff and the importance of the institution—and the thankfulness we should all have for NCSL.
Kelley Griffin hosts NCSL’s “Across the Aisle” podcast. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.