Inspire: Sharye Skinner Affecting Social Change with Faith and Fearlessness

By Kate Hanzalik

“Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord.”

Michal 6:8

When Sharye Skinner was a child, she woke up every Christmas to see a tree that had very few presents beneath it. For many children, this would be disappointing. But to Skinner, the daughter of a successful textile executive, it has been a blessing, a lesson in understanding her privileged life and deciding what to do with it. So what did the girl who never wanted for anything do with her privilege? She has made it her life’s work to support those in need.

Now, at 72, the Cazenovia resident has either volunteered or worked for numerous organizations and affected change on some of the issues that matter most to her–anti-war, inclusion, women’s empowerment, the arts, child welfare, and voting rights. Her Protestant faith has guided her down this path of serving others. “It’s been part of my life my whole life,” she said. “So I’ve never known what it’s like not to have a relationship with Christ, and not to live in fear, and to know that He’s with me.”

In the 1960s, she fearlessly took a carload of people to Washington D.C. to protest the Vietnam War. She got arrested and thrown into a patty wagon with all men, but she considers this one of her proudest moments. In 1976, she joined The Junior League, an organization that helped her to hone her skills with leadership, civic engagement, and community service. By the 1980s, she was attending the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University and working at the YWCA as a grant writer to obtain funding for school-aged childcare. Meanwhile, she hosted a talk show about women’s issues on cable TV called “Perspectives.” Over the years, Skinner has supported Planned Parenthood and other women’s empowerment organizations. She is a longtime member of Portfolio Club, one of the oldest Women’s Study groups in the United States founded in 1875. Skinner’s first research paper for Portfolio was on the Oneida Land Claim.

With all of her skills, knowledge, and experience, she is committed to advocating for the rights of marginalized people and tries to make everyone feel welcome. In 2014, she and other members of the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse brought forth a motion to redefine the definition of marriage to be between two persons who love each other. A few years ago, she discovered Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees through her church, First Presbyterian, and wanted to contribute. She helped find housing in the Village of Cazenovia for families from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Now the family from Iraq has permanent housing, and they can apply for citizenship,” she said.

One of the initiatives that has been especially rewarding for her is working with Cazenovia Counterpoint, a month long celebration of the art and music in Caz, a program of Society for New Music.

One program is called Young Composers Workshop, where kids attend a week-long music workshop, create their compositions, and then perform at Lakeland Park. Another is called Rising Stars, where teenagers perform classical and new music. Many times the Rising Stars play their own compositions. Many times they perform a premier performance work with the composer in the audience. “It is so special to see the face of the composer filled with such joy”.

Over the years, she has met a lot of people that inspire her, including Rachael whom she met through Caz Counterpoint’s Young Composer class. “Rachel is 100 percent blind and has perfect pitch,” she said. “She is such a positive person. She always has a smile on her face, instead of saying, ‘Why, Lord, did you make me blind?” Skinner is also inspired by artist and philanthropist Dorothy Riester who founded Stone Quarry Art Park. Riester had a reputation for her generosity, for pushing boundaries, and rethinking the possibilities for art. “What a wonderful vision she had to set that land aside,” she said. “[Stone Quarry Art Park] is such an important part of our community.”

Today, one of Skinner’s priorities is to encourage young people in the area to vote. She is currently the Chair of Voter Services for the League of Women Voters in Cazenovia, and she’s leading an initiative to get young people more involved in democracy through voting.

For those who are interested in volunteering but do not know where to start, she said, “Find an organization that can inspire you.” For those who are in need of inspiration to volunteer, “break out of your shell,” she said. “What is our purpose here?,” she encourages us to ask. “It’s not just to sit with our friends. There is nothing wrong with having beautiful things, but if that’s all that you’re doing with your money, there’s a lot more you can do. When you give money to a good cause, you know you are helping somebody and making the world better,” she said. “Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it can go a long way to make people’s lives better.”

Reflecting on life in 2022 America, Skinner said she is troubled by mounting social problems and the widening divides in our country, particularly the growth of movements that weaponize faith as a political instrument. “This movement has taken the word Christian but is not doing what Christ asked us to do: ‘Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with the Lord.’”

In the face of these social divides, Skinner has courageously and graciously found small steps to take that have made a huge difference in the lives of many people. She is grateful for her life and her ability to affect change. “I wake up with the beautiful sun coming up and the peace and quiet. I thank the Lord that I live in this community and in this country,” she said.