Ellen Lambert uses one word to describe her drive to give back to the community.
"Without empathy you can't search for what's true for others, or for yourself, in a realistic way," said Lambert on the verge of being honored by Newark Arts for a lifetime of work first raising, then donating corporate funds to help Newark and communities all around New Jersey.
"Art enables you to empathize. It inspires emotion," Lambert said. "It develops part of your depth of character. Art makes you whole."
Lambert, 66, has spent almost the whole of her professional life finding a way to further empathy by finding and funneling the funds to make a difference.
A single mother with two daughters, she got a law degree from Seton Hall while working to support them. After supporting the fundraising efforts of several local hospitals, including Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, she rose up the ranks of some of New Jersey's most notable non-profit and corporate community responsibility foundations.
Among these Garden State heavyweights were the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, Roche and Merck. Before retiring in February, Lambert was president of the PSEG Foundation, director of corporate citizenship and responsibility, and the chief diversity officer for one of Newark's anchor corporate citizens.
In these various roles for PSEG, Lambert oversaw the development and implementation of social investment strategies and overseeing employee engagement, corporate contributions, volunteering, sponsorships and employee giving programs.
The funders for all of these companies and organizations have the best of intentions. But Lambert notes that to provide the right answers to problems, you have to ask the right questions.
"To solve problems, you have to know what's in the way. You have to ask people what they need. Life isn't all about numbers and metrics," Lambert said. "If you're going to spend money that's not yours to solve problems, you better understand as close to 360 degrees of the issue that there is, or you're not going to address the issue."
A sculptor herself, Lambert addressed how helping the arts is a critical part of shaping communities and promoting diversity.
"Arts are a basis to build any community, not just Newark. Arts is a way for people to come together. it moves walls through osmosis," said Lambert, whose work for PSEG included supporting the Newark Museum, the Newark-based New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and Newark Arts.
"Art is not just drawings, paintings, sculpture, music, and dance," she said. "It's the beauty around you as opposed to the daily grind, whether you're in the cities or in the suburbs. We experience something more together through art."
Lambert admits that she has a special affinity for Newark: one of her grandfathers owned Weisbrod's Pharmacy on South Orange Avenue in the city's Vailsburg section.
In retirement, Lambert plans to keep on doing charitable work for Mother's Monument, an international organization whose goal is to decrease maternal mortality worldwide.
Lambert's work has had both a local and global focus. But soon the focus is going to be exclusively on her: Lambert will be honored on April 11 Newark Arts' annual "Flashes of Genius" gala, to be held inside the recently refurbished Rutgers-Newark building at 15 Washington Street in Newark's revitalizing downtown.
Lambert says she is embarrassed by all of this attention. But at the same time, she offered advice to anyone who looks to follow the same path of public service.
"Without the giving spirit, and I don't mean just money, where does change happen? It doesn't," Lambert said. "Work with people one-on-one, make the difference, walk away, then do it again."
"If you believe you only have one life, let it be vibrant. And how do you do that? Through decent human contact, art, and empathy," Lambert said as she planned to make more sculptures soon. "I've never had a moment when I didn't care. and I'm proud of that."
For more info about the 2018 "Flashes of Genius" gala honoring Ellen Lambert, visit newarkarts.org/flashesofgenius. All proceeds to benefit Newark Arts.