Advocacy

When you hit your breaking point, how will you respond? With women’s advocate Brooke Lopez

Have you ever had a moment where you said enough!?  Brooke Lopez wanted to be a dentist and now she is in Law School.  Why?  Well, life happens. Plans can change.  When tragedy struck she didn’t just sit back.  She said enough is enough! She got involved and took action.  Now she is fighting for women and femmes in Texas.

Show Notes

Brooke Lopez is a force.  Many call her a woman to watch.  Why?  Because she is taking action!  We discuss everything from women in advocacy to menstrual equity.  Something, I admit, I have not thought enough about.

In this episode Brooke shares:

What it was like running for office as a young Latina woman

The importance of advocacy and how to get involved (hint: it isn’t all political)

The significance of women being in elected office ON BOTH SIDES OF THE ISLE

The value of Menstrual Equity

 

Links

Brooke Lopez (website)

Lone Star Parity Project

Ignite National

Texas Women’s Foundation

Lone Star Parity Project Article featuring Aylin Segura and Menstrual Equity

Lone Star Parity Project Article featuring Susan Long

https://runningstart.org/our-work/

Orange is the New Black (book)

Lone Star Parity Project – Facebook

Lone Star Parity Project – Instagram

Lone Star Parity Project – Twitter

 

Transcript:

Intro: Welcome to “How She Got Here – Conversations with Everyday Extraordinary Women.” It is my belief that every woman has something inside her only she can do. The more we share the stories of other women, who have already discovered their thing, the more it inspires, encourages, and empowers other women to do the same.

Susan: Hey, Pod Sisters. Today I want to introduce you to the amazing Brooke Lopez. Brooke’s passion stems from tragedy, and so the first few minutes of the interview might not be a great fit for younger audiences. It was this tragedy that prompted Brooke to begin reaching out to her local representatives to seek change as a way to serve her community. She learned early on that change happens through policy, so at the age of 18, Brooke gathered her passion for civic duty and ran for Wylie City Council Place 4. As the youngest candidate in the history of the town. Though she lost the race, she learned many invaluable lessons. Brooke has gone on to be an active member of Ignite, a bipartisan nonprofit that encourages young women to actively engage in the political process. She has also founded the Lone Star Parody Project, a nonpartisan online publication dedicated to sharing the stories of women and femmes involved in Texas politics with hopes of bringing gender parody across all levels of public office.

Full disclosure, she interviewed me recently and you can catch that interview on our website in the show notes or on our social media pages. We talk about everything from the importance of women being more involved in the political process to the importance of running no matter your side of the aisle. What does being involved look like? We covered that too. Then towards the end, we spent a fair amount of time talking about menstrual equity, something I realized I needed to consider more often. I really can’t wait to hear your feedback on this particular topic. I’m excited. I hope you’re excited. So without further ado, here’s Brooke.

Susan: Hey Brooke, I really, really appreciate you joining us this morning and I kind of already gave a little bit of the highlights from your back story in the intro, but why don’t you go ahead and tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in the work you are in.

Brooke Lopez: Thanks, Susan. I’m really happy to be joining you this morning. Like many people who end up becoming involved in politics, it wasn’t really a choice so much as something thrown in my face that I couldn’t ignore anymore. I was 15 years old, I was a sophomore in high school, and my good friend was murdered by two other students. And as the trial went on, as our town was dealing with, it’s only second a notorious murder that had happened in our community, we had to figure out how to rebuild, but also recognize what had happened. I started becoming really passionate about different gun control measures, common sense prevention of gun violence since my friend had been murdered with a weapon that a young minor is able to get his hands on. So I really started to work on that. But quickly I realized that in my community I had grown up in sort of what I consider a bubble. I was sheltered from the fact that people who disagree with you might disagree with you to a very severe extent to where they discredit you, they want to completely go against how you feel, what you say, regardless of your story. And I had to really learn and understand what it’s like to come from different perspective on something that I felt so passionate on. I had to take a step back and remove my heart from the politics and continue to work on trying to make amends with everyone. So after that I became really interested in local politics. I wanted to really gain the perspective of my community and feel what they wanted to see on a local level since I had been working on the state level. So at age 18 I decided to file to run for city council in Wylie, Texas, which is northeast of Dallas. And I ran as the youngest and the only Latina to run at that time.

So I was able to really gain a perspective that was different than the community that I was coming from. Wylie is a conservative community and I identify with very democratic ideologies and policies, so that was going to be something that was kind of an uphill battle. And in addition, I was very young and a Latina, which is also different than the community in which I came. So I eventually lost my campaign, but from that I was able to gain a lot of insight to help other women who are just as interested in becoming involved in politics, whether they run or not, to really make a difference, especially here in Texas. So that’s kind of where my journey brought me to, even though to be completely honest, I originally wanted to be a dentist when I was a kid. So that is an example of how people can really jump into politics with any sort of passion.

Susan: Well, I love that and I appreciate you sharing how you got involved in politics. Share with us a little bit about what you were doing as far as the state level politics go and what you got involved with, the legislation and such.

Brooke Lopez: So when I was 15, the state politics that I originally focused on was gun control, and I came across that interest completely because of the experiences that I had gone through. Neither of my parents were very outwardly political. They were very hard and fast patriotic voters. They made sure to complete this civic duty, but we never really talked about the different policies behind it because that was something that—it wasn’t taboo in my household, it just wasn’t focused on. I think we were also very young and so my parents weren’t sure and they didn’t want to mold or create an image for us of what they felt we needed to believe in. So I was able to come to my own decisions on different state issues like gun control. I was originally working with my local Texas representative to bring a measure that would not allow juveniles who had committed a murder to be given a sentence under the juvenile code, they would be given a sentence under an adult standard of code, which may seem like a very mandated or strict policy, but right now if you are a juvenile and you’re charged with murder here in the state of Texas under the juvenile standards as opposed to the adult standard, you’re able to be released from prison as early as 18 years old and it’s not notated at any point on your record. So I didn’t want to mandate a sentence. I didn’t want to go against what I believe she’d be a rehabilitative justice system, but I really wanted to work on making sure that guns don’t end up in the hands of the wrong people. And when you’re able to seal your record, especially if you’ve committed a murder with a weapon, your record will be sealed, and no one will ever know that you have committed a murder.

Susan: Oh!

Brooke Lopez: So wanted to make sure, yeah, that other juvenile offenders who had committed something as heinous as a murder and were charged with murder, but charged under the juvenile standard of punishment were still not able to get access to guns in order to prevent murders lLike this from happening again. And it seems really complicated, and it’s kind of difficult to talk to people about because most of the time I started talking about guns, immediately I’m labeled under gun control or I start talking about changing the record sealing policies and immediately people assume that it’s eliminating the rehabilitative portion of the justice system, but I wanted to bring the two together that way murderers weren’t able to enter our community again at 18 and have the same rights or access to guns, which would be a privilege in our community, you know, as people who hadn’t committed murder,

Susan: I didn’t realize the whole…This is really ignorant of me to say, but I never even thought about the fact that records—because I haven’t been in this situation in Texas and I’m not originally from here so it didn’t even occur to me with the sealed records situation and what that would entail. Oh my gosh! So where did that legislation ended up going?

Brooke Lopez: So this is a really incredible story and I always, anytime I talk about this, I want to make sure that whoever did in fact put the work in behind this has their fair credit and one day will reach out to me. But I started working on it in 2015 and at that time there was nothing in the penal code that mentioned if you committed a murder, there was an exception to sealing your record. Now, looking back on it about a year ago, I ended up looking back at that same penal code to continue my research and reaching out to legislators. And I don’t know how, but it is now a part of the amendment where if you commit capital murder, you can’t have your punishment under the juvenile standard, which would allow you to seal your records. It was incredible and I have no idea how it happened or where it happened. I’ve always tried to figure out what session and occurred or wonder which legislator. I have no idea, but it is so amazing that somehow this was able to change and I wasn’t the only one trying to do it. And we had no idea. We never connected with whoever did it. I’m just so honored and thankful to have been on that same journey with them. Just, you know, probably a completely across the board.

Susan: That’s a really cool story. I guess I think it’s really cool because you never connected and yet the two of you…Obviously, that goes to the point that if you’re thinking about something, there’s at least one other person out there thinking the same thing, which makes me feel like I’m not alone. And that always makes me feel at least a little bit better about any situation I’m in.

Brooke Lopez: There you go. Yeah. I was completely shocked and unfortunately, I hope that the situation that I had to go through didn’t happen exactly to, you know, in the same way that it happened to this person, whoever had worked on it or whatever legislator had to hear that story and I accept that when they were making this consideration, but it’s crazy to me to think that other people were also suffering from that same issue and at some point also decided that there needed to be the exact same change in the state of Texas. So yeah, it made me feel sad because I know that other people are having to deal with this but so happy that now we have a legislative solution that is put in place for people to hopefully recover some justice and a little bit of sense of peace with this change.

Susan: Yeah. So going back a little bit, you mentioned that you had been working and trying to do to work on state legislation and obviously, we’re talking a little bit about politics this morning and being advocates for yourselves and getting involved and now you’re working on the local level a little bit. Tell us or share with us your thoughts on women’s involvement in politics because I feel like oftentimes women want to see change, but by trying to create change they get involved in volunteerism and different organizations that they’re in the triage area if you will, of making change versus and they’re willing to get in there and get dirty and get in the mud and make the change on that level, and micro impacts your great. Talk to us about the importance of being involved in the actual political process and the advocacy piece of that.

Brooke Lopez: So, I always want to start off with numbers because I feel, and if there’s any other people who listened that feel like they really need some numbers to convince them that something’s actually happening, that’s the best way to start. Women hold across the United States 51 percent the population. We make up 51 percent of the people who consider themselves American. Out of the elected office on a national level, we hold 20 percent. And that rings true here in Texas too. In 1992, that was considered the year of the woman when Hillary Clinton was our first lady, when there was a spike and a dramatic increase in all of the states across all the levels of women wanting to run for office, and since then the percentage of women who have held office has remained 20 or lower in various states. New Hampshire, I think, actually has the strongest amount of parody or equality among women to men in office and they still aren’t even at 50, so that is the issue that we’re facing.

There’s not enough women in elected office, but to make that jump from not really being involved in politics or maybe, you know, you broke, but you’re not really outspoken about the things that you’re passionate about or the different policies that you support to wanting to run for office, that is a huge leap and it’s really hard for people to make it, especially women. I think the statistic is women on are asked seven times to run for office before they actually make the decision to run. So there’s a huge disparity between not only women who are choosing to run, they’re not winning at an increased rate with this year as an exception, and women who aren’t really involved in politics at all trying to make the leap into politics, it’s a little hard and it can feel weird and sometimes you don’t realize what all is actually affected by policy.

Sometimes politics is even seen as like a dirty word. People feel really uncomfortable when you start talking about politics. So what I always try to advocate to women who are on the fence about getting involved is that involvement can range from, like you mentioned, the micro level in a proactive manner as well as grand as working on the federal level also in a proactive manner. In politics, women tend to work more proactively in different policy perspective than men do and men tend to work more proactively. So men are getting to have a seat at the table in terms of decision making, but women are tending to clean up the mess more often have policies that either go haywire or situations where policies are not in effect that should be to have mitigated the entire issue from occurring. So women have a duty to share our experiences that are exclusive to us because we all have our own intersectional identities that display different experiences in different ways, and it’s important for us to share those messages. So on the micro level, women can get involved with something as small range as working with your school board or working with your neighborhood commission or HOA to be able to put something in effect that will effect something that is daily in their lives.

Another common misconception that women face when they’re deciding whether or not to enter into politics is that you can only advocate for what society has deemed women’s issues. Women have an incredible perspective on a lot of different topics that aren’t limited to, let’s say education and reproductive rights. Women have an incredible perspective on the world of stem economics issues effecting women like the gender pay gap that aren’t limited to social issues. These are things that we are able to make an impact on and have our intersectional identities represented actively that are not solely limited to what we always considered to be a woman’s place in terms of legal perspective.

So the best advice I can give for women who are interested in taking that first step; one, support other women in politics, that’s the easiest way to get involved, as well as help another woman who’s already made that leap into running for office, have the support of women behind them and two, to begin working with your representative, whether it’s the school level, so local level, the state level, your legislators or the federal level, your senators or the different agencies that we work under to be able to advocate for the policies that you want to see put in place. Those are the best first few steps that a woman who is interested in politics can make in order to make an impact when they’re just maybe not ready to run, but they really want to make a change.

Susan: I liked that you mentioned how as women we’re—I mean I even do it. I think we all do—we’re bad about pigeonholing ourselves into just women’s issues and politics. And I like how you make the point that obviously, I mean it sounds—it’s like a “Duh,” but obviously we can contribute to other conversations in the political arena as well. It’s not just women’s issues. I don’t know, just the way you said that, I was like, “Well yeah, of course,” but sometimes I even do that to myself, so thank you for bringing that up, bringing that to our attention. I appreciate it. Yeah, so we are located in Texas. Not all of my listeners are in Texas; probably a majority of them might be. What avenues are available to women who are interested in advocacy, who are interested in…You know, I think I have a lot of small business owners and that’s always really important to be involved, especially on the local level with small businesses and such. Talk to us a little bit about organizations that already exist that we could potentially plug into as women that are already supporting other women.

Brooke Lopez:Yeah, my number one pet peeve that people tend to do when they’re sharing advice, they’ll give you this great big picture advice and say, “Oh, we talked to other organizations that support women, but where are the names? I need to be connected.” So I will go ahead and give you exact names of organizations that I personally have worked with that women I have also worked with, including myself, have found great success getting involved in politics. So some of the first ones that are really prominent in Texas include Ignite and that’s more for college-aged women and high school women. It’s a nonprofit that tries to build political ambition and young women, but getting involved with it from the perspective of being a community leader, being someone who considers themselves an adult or someone who has passed their schooling years, that can really give opportunity for mentorship programs. There’s opportunity for different conferences or events or mixers where you can meet with other politically engaged women of all ages and start to talk about issues that are important.

There have been a lot of projects that have come out of Ignite, including the Dallas ISD Menstrual Equity program, the different menstrual equity programs on the college campuses nearby. I know those sounds the same, but then this all came out of Ignite. Some other organizations include the Texas Women’s Foundation, formerly the Dallas Women’s Foundation. They have been an incredible source of networking and overall support both monetarily and emotionally for different nonprofits in the area as well as women who are interested in getting involved in politics, they’re really, really supportive of nonpartisan women as well as women who represent bipartisan issues across the spectrum to be able to get involved in politics. It’s a great source for working with other community leaders in the state of Texas. And then finally, one that I would recommend would be Running Start. It’s a nonprofit that helps women of all ages, particularly women under 40, but they help women of all ages to become engaged in the political process, whether it’s running for office, connecting with fellow candidates or working with women on a nonpartisan platform to be able to complete different policies and projects. Yeah, those have been the best resources that I’ve been able to come in contact with here in Texas that have really helped build networks of women who were interested in similar or different policies, but be able to come together with a common perspective that women need to be more involved in civic leadership, civic engagement and overall just leadership positions across the table.

Susan: Well, thank you for sharing that. I am always tooting the Texas Women’s—formerly Dallas Women’s Foundation, now Texas Women’s Foundation horn because I am involved with that organization and I love every bit about that. That was, it sounds odd, but it was such a blessing that showed up in my life in 2016. I had never heard of it and I have lived in Dallas since 2007 and I was having lunch with a friend and I said, “Okay, I want to be involved, I want to be giving back, you know, to the community and whatever, but I don’t have the time to volunteer. I need to be able to come and go as I please.”

And one thing that I really like about the Texas Women’s Foundation is it’s a foundation that it’s a giving foundation so you can be as involved more not involved as you want to be, depending on like what your timing allows. You can volunteer through there or went through them with their organization, the organizations they support or you can just give money. So depending on what your stages in life, it’s, you know, it’s a great match no matter what stage you are in. So I have really appreciated being involved in that, coming from other organizations that require not only a monetary gift but you know, volunteering hours as well. So it’s nice to be able to move that spectrum a little bit. So, and I’m really glad you mentioned them. So share with us if there is anything in 2019 as women that we need to be focusing on that maybe we haven’t focused on as much in the past or do you see anything coming down the pipe that we need to be aware of right now?

Brooke Lopez: I think what we need to really take notice of and ride this beautiful, awesome wave. It’s going to be the wave of women candidates both from the Democratic Party and the Republican Party who were elected in this most recent midterm election. There are incredible numbers that show that this is one of the first years where women were running at an increased rate from what they were previously, and we’re actually winning at an increased rate. We have a lot of first across the country, but particularly here in Texas, we had our first Latino ever elected to Congress, which is incredible given the Latina/Latino population here in the state of Texas. So that was a huge feat that was able to be overcome. We’ve had a really beautiful mix of what I consider purple. There have been a mixture of Republican and Democratic candidates who are now in office, particularly women in and femmes that are now making changes from a democratic standpoint in terms of there’s now a democracy.

It’s going to be equal voice, equal power. And to me, I think that’s when the best policy is made so all perspectives are taken into consideration. I think we really need to keep an eye on the women who had not only one, but the women who are currently, like you mentioned, in a pipeline in order to win. We really have to keep boosting women. If we’re going to ever put Texas into a position of political progress, we really have to boost our game and use the power that we have right now. Currently, Texas is ranked 49th in terms of contacting elected officials and we’re ranked 44th in terms of voting, previous to the midterm elections. That information is not out yet, but we are one of the lowest in terms of voter turnout and we have to make sure that we not only turn out, but we’re supporting especially women candidates and candidates from other marginalized communities too. That’s gonna be the thing that we really need to keep an eye on for 2019.

Susan: Well, on that note, I want to interject something that I was talking about with some friends the other day. It came up that—I was on a committee for something and one of the best ways to get women involved with this particular thing that we’re trying to do, we did something really old school. We called people on the phone, you know, like actually talk to people on the phone, not a text, but talk to people on the phone and invited them to participate in something. And it worked like we more than tripled our numbers on this particular project as far as getting people involved because somebody called and invited them and it was one of those things. It was like, “Oh, they really want me at the party.” And it wasn’t a party, it was some benefit or something.

But I think sometimes we forget those of us who are really, really involved understand why it’s important sometimes translating that or there’s a fear of, “Oh, they’re going to think on political or they don’t want to talk to me about this because we’ve never talked about it before. I don’t know that that’s the case. I feel like as women we try to be more polite, tried to stay away from taboo subjects and I just wonder if we had more women doing like old school house meetings or something like that. Like the way you and I met, we met at an Ignite event in someone’s home where they had, they invited the Ignite folks to come in and talk with us and share a little bit about what they were doing. And I just wonder if there was, if we thought about, like if you’re a woman and you love hosting people in your home, that maybe that’s a way you get involved.That’s a micro impact and a way to get people to the polls and to get people involved in your local community. So I wonder if we start… I realized that’s kind of, that’s a micro impact, but we saw in this last election just what micro impacts did and how that got people involved and how that did get people out. So I wonder if we really, if a woman is trying to figure out a first step, like maybe that’s it. Maybe having a coffee at your house or something like that as simple as that is a way to move forward. What are you seeing out there? What are organizations like Ignite or other organizations that are trying to get women more involved? What’s working and what’s not?

Brooke Lopez: Currently, I work as the executive director of the Lone Star Parody Project, not on profit, nonpartisan publication that shares the stories of women and research involved in Texas politics. So we are reaching out to women across all the corners of Texas and there are more than four, where we are, where we are asking women who are elected officials, who are student activists, who are regular and consistent voters were asking them different questions about how they entered into their political power. So we are working with women to really figure out the qualitative data that help voters understand as well as elected officials what’s important to each community. So you mentioned the micro impact, and I think that is a critical piece to any conversation when we’re talking about politic.

Texas is the second largest state in terms of space and I want to say the third largest in terms of population. So we have a lot of people and we have a lot of space to cover when it comes to elections, especially those are statewide. When women run for office, we don’t have the localized research that we need. Sure, there are nonprofits, different training programs that help us understand the ins and outs of the actual campaign itself. But where are those resources that will help us understand how we can connect better with our voters and our registered voting population? Where is that research where we can figure out who is not registered to vote and how can we approach that? We have noticed the Lone Star Parody Project that there is a complete deficit and an aggregation of data that tells us what are different specific tactics that women can use in different parts of the state of Texas particularly in order to get involved.

As you mentioned, women sometimes or people as a whole in fact tend to respond better to different forms of outreach and contact. So the people from my millennial generation might do a little bit better with tech or social media. People from the brand new Gen Z generation definitely do a lot better with social media than they do texting and people who are from the Gen X and older do better with phone calls and in person flyers. So we don’t want our women who are running for office to essentially waste their time and outreach methods that maybe aren’t working for that type of person. Aside from age, we also have different gaps such as education, such as ethnicity, there are language barriers. There are different things that are creating a dissonance between having access to people who are not registered as well as people who are registered and actually getting into the polls, knowing what they’re voting on, whether it’s for that specific candidate or not. So this distinct disconnect between getting those people out to the poll comes from our outreach methods and micro level impacts are the greatest way to reach out to all types of people, especially within Texas.

So we always talk, especially with Lone Star Parody Project about the difference between someone who is going to be a voter in El Paso and someone who’s a voter in Dallas. For example, in Dallas, we have a very important fixation on our local education system, our school districts. We also are very critical on our different water transportation issues, which I know sounds weird. We have a critical importance on transportation around the city since we have so many people. In El Paso, the issues that are most important for those folks are going to be vastly different. They’re going to be immigration policies, they’re going to be policies about border security, whether it’s for or against, they’re going to be things that are much different from the population in Dallas that we’re from the same state. So it’d be the approach we need to start taking, it’s going to be localized and it needs to be specific to the party that you’re going to be outreaching to. You need to be cognizant of who are going to be your voters and who were your non voters, and how can you get everyone together on election day in there making the decisions heard.

Susan: That’s such a good point.and I never…I mean I’ve thought about that, but the thinking about what people need in El Paso and what people need in Dallas and what people need in Austin and what people need and McAllen, I can’t even imagine like coming up with sound byte type, because you need that right, to grow, to grow a following. I can’t even imagine like where… No wonder it’s so hard. Oh my gosh! Texas is so huge and it’s like you’re absolutely right. What they need down on the border of, you know, like on the border towns, McAllen is not what you need up in the Panhandle and is certainly not what you need in Dallas. Oh my goodness! That is such a good point. I can’t even imagine like trying to serve all those constituents. It seems like there might be a better way to do that, but then that evolved involves all kinds of amendments and such.

Just to make sure everybody is served well. Gosh, I’m so glad that’s not my job to figure out. I’m serious. That would be…I don’t know if I could do that. I want to go back just a second because you mentioned something a little bit ago, and this is something that never—and I read about it on your webpage—and it’s something that never even occurred to me when I was younger because it was just the way it was and I never thought it should be any different. Talk to us about this menstrual equity thing.

Brooke Lopez: Well, menstrual equity is the ability to have menstrual hygiene products provided to you in a same equitable fashion that you would toilet paper or that you would expect soap in a bathroom. Think about how upset you are, male or female, when you walk into a restroom and there is no toilet paper in the stall that you’ve just selected. You are frustrated because now you feel like you can’t function and you are now missing out on products that are essential to your hygiene. There are risks associated with not having products, such as toilet paper and continuing on with your day. And it’s something that our community has taken it in great strides to make sure that it is constantly available to anyone who uses the restroom here in the United States. Menstrual equity is the same concept. We want to make sure that menstrual hygiene products are provided accessibly for free.

There are some major barriers that people in the state of Texas as well as across the United States face in terms of accessing these menstrual hygiene products. The first one is in most public agencies, so government buildings, institutions that are public, both higher education and school districts across the country, they tend to not have products that are readily accessible in the restrooms where people need them. 86 percent of menstruaters, who base their menstrual cycle while they are in a place where they do not have products, are too embarrassed to ask somebody else for products, 86 percent of people. That means if there are 100 women in a room, 86 of them are not willing to ask somebody who’s right next to them for a product and most of the time tend to leave or will try to macgyver products which essentially making them make product which presents its own health issues in itself.

There are also different aspects of not having products that our society does not accept. So for example, pre-bleeding, going without products. It’s not something that our society accepts or is capable of handling at this time. So these products are an essential need that menstruaters do not have access to. And so the Menstrual Equity Movement is a movement to try and bring those products to restrooms for free. That way people who would say don’t have a quarter, who don’t have products with them unknowingly started their menstrual cycle or who just plain weren’t able to afford them at that time, are able to get access to this product in a fashion that is close to them. It’s going to be provided for free so they do not have to put any extra into having something and it will be provided in the same fashion that any other product would be provided.

That is essential for our health. So the Menstrual Equity Movement here in Texas has been taking place on a lot of college campuses, especially public institutions as well as different school districts have enacted menstrual equity policies. So for example, Dallas ISD, which is the second largest school district in the state of Texas, is currently installing the sensors in the most high trafficked bathroom across the school district. So that should be over 200 schools that’ll be getting free products for their students in order to prevent different health issues in order to prevent in accessibility for students and essentially, to prevent discrimination against women or offend menstruaters while they are attending school. So those are some of the cool policies that have been in place because of menstrual equity that are taking heat across the state of Texas.

Susan: Has this been introduced into the prison system?

Brooke Lopez: I’m so glad you asked that. So right now it hasn’t been introduced yet because they consider that to be a funding issue in the prison system, but there has been discussion about the nonhygienal practice of macgyvering products with tends to be much more common in prisons than they do in other situations where women don’t have access to it. And it’s not necessarily in prisons the fact that women can’t access them readily. It’s the fact that they’re not there as a whole. And to not have those products, that’s a huge health risk for all of the inmates who are menstruaters here in the state of Texas. So that is something that I think is a great opportunity for anyone listening to start working on because right now prisons are currently underserved and there’s no menstrual equity policy in place that would provide these products to women on a consistent basis and for free.

Susan: Yeah. That’s just one thing. Actually, this is funny, I never knew about this until I read the book, Orange is the New Black, back in the day when that first came out. She mentioned in her memoir, not—I mean the TV show is great, but in her memoir she mentioned that and I did not know that. And I was just shocked that that would be something that would not be, not just not provided, but not really even readily available. I think there’s like a—and it may depend on the state—I think they get so many a month, but there’s no way it would cover like a whole cycle. And I just was blown away by that. I was like, “How could you even…? Yuck.” I mean, not just like the personal perspective, but like from a health code type situation. When you’re talking about bodily fluid and blood, I mean hello, you can’t just have that. No. Ew. Gross.

Brooke Lopez:Yeah, and there are definitely a lot more obstacles outside of the obvious, you know, the health perspective, the contamination and bodily fluid perspective. There’s also the perspective that some schools or different institutions put in place that you can go to a nurse’s office to be able to get those products and that again, puts more data onto a table that says we are less likely as menstruaters to walk down a hallway to a nurse’s office to get that product. Now it’s an issue of accessibility, there’s also issues of whether or not there are enough products readily available even if you do pay for them. There’s another issue where, kind of like you mentioned, the regular amount of products that women are recommended or menstruaters are recommended to use, is far greater than what’s provided for every person in that institution, whether it’s an agency or the school or the store. To be able to have those things there is another barrier that you have to face as a menstruater and essentially, it takes away from whatever you’re doing. If you’re an employee and you work and there’s no product available for you, that’s more time away from the chair or more time away from your project that you are now going to have to sacrifice because of something that you can’t control if you’re a student that’s way more time out of the classroom and possibly leading the school because students, menstruaters who are under the age of 18 are more likely to lead if they don’t have the product than to ask a fellow person in the restroom or to go to the nurse’s office. That is essentially putting up barriers to anyone who menstruate in any capacity that are the non-visible barriers that we don’t see from the obvious of it’s a health risk and it overall not inconvenient to be a free bleeder.

Susan: Man, I just had a flashback to high school. I am not kidding. I remember doing that. I remember either not having something, you know with me at the time or oh my gosh, now I have to go home and change clothes because I was not thinking this would even happen today. Like we don’t have to get all personal, but I remember, oh man, I remember leaving school and it’s not like you’re going to go back to school and be like, “Why did you change clothes?” No, that’s not happening. That’s embarrassing as a 15, 16 year old. That’s embarrassing. Yeah. Oh wow! Flashbacks, flashbacks, flashbacks. Too funny. I want to be respectful of your time, but before we close I kind of want to talk about…So you’re in law school, you are doing the Lone Star Parody project, which we didn’t mention this earlier, but you actually interviewed me for, so I was really honored and thrilled to do that. You’re involved with Ignite, I believe. What else are you going to add to your plate?

Brooke Lopez:I don’t know.

Susan: When are you going to run? Because we need that to happen soon too.

Brooke Lopez: So I get asked that a lot and I actually, I’m not sure what run is in my feature, although I do know that I love to call Dallas home. So if you do see me on a ballot, hopefully it’ll be close to Dallas here in the Great Lone Star state. But right now, other than focusing on trying to get a law degree, just finished my first semester and also working with the Lone Star parody project, I just really tried to dedicate my time back to the communities we’re working with organizations like Ignite Communities Foundation of Texas, the Texas Women’s Foundation. I just want to keep giving back and trying to work on different policies wherever I can advocate for. I never had any idea that starting with a tragedy and a policy of gun control would lead me to where I am today where I run for office and now I have my hand in so many different pots trying to change so many different policies. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing the most, but it’s good to know that I never limited and I’m always supported by the people just like you and other women who want to see other women succeed. It’s really inspiring and it keeps me going, so pretty much anywhere where I can keep helping make positive, progressive change in my community, you’ll see me there.

Susan: That is awesome. Well thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your story and talking about some of the issues that we’re dealing with in Texas. I kind of feel like we talked a lot and yet I feel like there is so much more to cover so I’m sure we will have you bet, especially as election season approaches and we can maybe even talk about some of the issues that will especially be effecting women. I would love to have you back.

Brooke Lopez: Absolutely. Thank you, Susan.

Susan: All right, well thank you, and I know you have a few more exams left and I know you need to probably go study.

Brooke Lopez: Yeah, I do.

Susan: All right. We will talk again soon my friend. Good luck.

Outro: Okay. Seriously, what did you think about today’s episode? I hope it left you inspired and curious. I know it did me. I have linked everything I can think to link in our show notes over on our website, howshegothere.com. If you have more questions or would like clarity, please do not hesitate to reach out and ask. You can email me@susanathowshegothere.com. You can also reach out via social media. Please don’t forget, we have a private facebook group, the How She Got Here community page, and would love to have you join us there to continue the conversation on today’s episode. I’m pretty sure this episode will spark some good discussion. If you’re enjoying this podcast, share it with your friends and don’t forget to head over to iTunes and hit subscribe. If you feel so inclined, I’d also appreciate it if you would rate and review it. Thanks so much for listening today. I’ll see you soon.

She lost her mother; now she mentors motherless daughters, with Michele Feyen

Michele Feyen is a woman on mission.  At the tender age of 16, she and her younger siblings lost their mother to a battle with cancer.  She not only took on the role of caregiver for her siblings, but she continued to work hard in school, earning a full ride to college.

After 30+ years as a physical therapist, Michele retired and, along with her siblings, founded the Bettie D. Gonzalez Foundation of Hope.  Named for their mother, the mission of the foundation is empowering motherless daughters.  The foundation enables these young women to tap into a much needed network.  They are connected with a mentor and scholarship money to college.  They learn that they can find courage through struggle and great loss and that with hard work and perseverance they can be successful.

 

Transcript:

Episode Links: 

Bettie D. Gonzalez Foundation of Hope Website

Bettie D. Gonzalez Foundation of Hope Facebook Page

 

Intro: Welcome to “How She Got Here – Conversations with Everyday Extraordinary Women.” It is my belief that every woman has something inside her only she can do. The more we share the stories of other women, who have already discovered their thing, the more it inspires, encourages, and empowers other women to do the same.

Susan: Hey, Pod Sisters, my guest today is Michele Feyen. Michele is the founder of the Bettie D. Gonzales Foundation of Hope. At the tender age of 16, Michele and her siblings lost their mom to a five-year battle with cancer. Being the oldest, Michele took on the responsibility of helping raise her siblings. Along with this new responsibility, she was determined to go to college. She not only did that – but she earned a free ride. Her first career was being a physical therapist, but after 30 plus years, she wanted to make a change, and that change was the foundation named after her mother with the goal of empowering, serving, and mentoring motherless daughters. So without further ado, here’s Michele.

Good morning, Michele! How are you?

Michele Feyen: Hi! I am great, thank you.

Susan: Good. I am so glad to have you on with us today and to share a little bit of your story.

Michele Feyen: I am happy to be here.

Susan: I am just so excited for you to be here. It’s been so nice getting to know you through the Dallas Women’s Foundation, and I’m just excited to have you on and share a little bit of your story today with us. We’re going to get going on your new role in just a moment but first, would you share a little bit about yourself with us and what brought you to this moment where you found yourself.

Michele Feyen: Sure. It was a long time coming getting to this point in my life, quite honestly. It was many years of hard work, many experiences of good bad and some traumatic, and many relationships. But I feel all the good and bad together have got me to this point in my life that I will call very blessed. I feel that life doesn’t always go in the direction we think it should. At age 16, my mother passed away after a five-year battle with cancer, and she left behind six children—and being the oldest, I was responsible for caring for them during my junior and senior year of high school, but I was determined to go to college. Financially, my father could not afford to help me with college so I had to work very hard to get some scholarships.

I ended up choosing my college based on the one that gave me a full ride four year scholarship. But I also received a smaller scholarship that paid for all my books, and that one was awarded to me not just because of my grades but because they believed I had a great chance for success. And I mention it just because it was the first time that anyone ever honored me or told me that they believed in me and my dream, and I’ve never forgotten it and how it made me feel. And I feel that it gave me the courage to do something that no one I personally knew had ever done before.

I ended up going to college and becoming a physical therapist. And long story short, I’ve been married for 36 years, and I have had an over 30-year career in physical therapy. Just a few years ago I started my second career as the founder of a nonprofit organization, and I feel that this is what I’m called to do in this season of my life.

Susan: That is just such a beautiful story. I didn’t realize that you had gotten a full ride and then on top of that your books have been paid for; that’s not — you’re really smart. You’ve got to be really smart if somebody is giving you a full ride to college – or not giving, you earned a full ride to college. That’s really, really cool.

Michele Feyen: Well, thank you. I did work very hard. And in addition to making dinners and getting kids ready for school in the morning and doing everything a mom would do for five younger kids, I really don’t know how I did it but it’s by the grace of God.

Susan: Yes, ma’am, I really can’t fathom them. I just can’t. You’re a true hero. I mean that story alone, just that story; forget everything else, that alone is just phenomenal to me – a true inspiration.

Michele Feyen: Thank you.

Susan: So I would love to hear a little bit about your mom and the foundation that you’ve named after her. What do you want people to know about your mom?

Michele Feyen: Well, my mom was a beautiful person – beautiful inside. She was so loving, and she had a heart of gold. Even with having six children she volunteered and she always was helping others. The neighbors and the neighbor kids just loved my mom and they loved coming to our house to play. So, we always had a lot of kids around. And even though we only had our mother for a short period, relatively speaking, we all knew, all six of us knew without a doubt unconditional love. She taught us compassion and what a servant’s heart looked like. And that’s why it is so appropriate and we are so proud to name the foundation after her, Bettie D. Gonzales.

Susan: What a tribute? What a tribute?

Michele Feyen: Thank you.

Susan: I love it that you say your mom was always helping others and gave you the “servant’s heart” because that’s exactly what you’re doing now; you’re moving forward in a second career and with this foundation you’re really doing that, and that’s just so inspirational. Tell us a little bit about the foundation itself, its mission, where it is now and it’s vision for the future.

Michele Feyen: Okay. Our mission is quite simple “it’s to mentor, serve and empower motherless daughters” and whether they’ve lost their mother due to death or whether their mothers are just physically absent, we don’t make a distinction. And what we do is we offer scholarships to high school seniors who are motherless. We have an application process and a whole process to be able to get the scholarship. And we also mentor girl ages 14 through college, all the way through college. So our first year, which was just last year – we’re very new in the nonprofit sector – our first year, being last year, we gave six scholarships and we are currently mentoring those girl who are now going off to their sophomore years in college. And this year, our second year in business, we were able to give 12 scholarships. We’ve expanded our mentors and we are mentoring all 12 of those girls as they go off to their freshman year in college. So we are just trying to expand. We’re growing in the mentoring program and have mentors increase financially so that we can add some more programs. Next year we’re hoping to give 18 scholarships and mentor those girls. My vision – well I have a lot of things in my vision but basically, our vision is that all motherhood girls will have a way to tap into our resources and have a mentor if needed. We also would like to see every motherless daughter have a nurturing advocate in her life to set goals, teach life and leadership skills and reaffirm her ability to reach her God-given potential. And that’s basically our vision.

Susan: I love that. It matches up so well with my vision for this podcast, of women truly figuring out what it is that they’re supposed to do. And I’m so thankful to have you here today because sharing your story is really empowering, inspiring, and encouraging.

Michele Feyen: Well, thank you.

Susan: Tell me how you find these fabulous girls?

Michele Feyen: Well, since last year was our last year, that was a very good question, how do I find these girls? And so we are currently in the greater Dallas area and we are in the greater Detroit area in Michigan, since I have three sisters who are there, and there are two…Well, I have one sister and myself here in the Dallas area and what I did is I went into all the high schools in Denton, Collin and the far north Dallas counties and I told the counselors about myself, about our foundation, I sent them all applications for the motherless girls and basically, they reached out to any girl that they knew that were motherless and they filled out the application and then return them to me. They’re able to do it online; we have it through our website. And then after that…And we did the same thing in Michigan in the greater Detroit area in Wayne County. So that’s kind of how we’ve been finding them is through the high schools, and I just keep expanding every year into more schools. Well, I’m always looking for ways also. I’ve been volunteering in different areas and so I’m always, you know, word of mouth. And I’ve had some girls that have sent applications from different states but we’re just not there yet but we’ll just keep on expanding the best that I can.

Susan: I really appreciate the grassroots effort behind this. It’s such a see a fascinating story.

Michele Feyen: Thank you.

Susan:I mean you seriously have to have some serious tenacity to just go up to a school and say “I have something I want to do and I want to help,” and I just wonder if more of us were willing to maybe go outside our comfort zone a little bit what we could make this world look like. It’s so inspiring. And I’m so glad to have gotten to know you. Tell us a little bit about how you motivate yourself, because you must have so much on your plate right now. I’m a person who would get really overwhelmed with some of these things, I think pretty quickly. Tell us how you motivate yourself and how you maybe deal sometimes with struggle when things aren’t going exactly how you had planned.

Michele Feyen: Oh, that’s a good question because when you start with such a grassroots effort and you hear a lot of negativity, some days it is difficult to get up and say “No, this is my vision; I’m  going to work every single day on what I believe is right and the vision that I have.” So that is a great question. One of the things that I do – and I do it every morning – is I try to make positive declarations over myself. And I do that usually before I even get out of bed. I say things that I believe to be true: “I am a beautiful child of God. I am a daughter of the most high. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and on and on. And that’s before I even get out of bed. Some other things I do; I try to be around positive people. I call them energy producers versus energy drainers. I’ve learned at this stage in my life that it is not helpful to me to be around toxic people or negative people. And sometimes I have to and I will try to stay positive but I can’t be around that for any length of time. And some other things that I do I love to read and learn new things. So if I’m not learning something new reading, listening to a podcast….I have quite a few emails and daily emails from motivational speakers that just feeds me, that just gives me motivation. I love listening to motivational pastors, motivational speakers, whether it’s in person or on the internet, and that just motivates me. I love setting goals and working towards them. And I just have to go back to, as far as motivating, I write down all my goal and sometimes I have to go back and look a “Okay, well, what were my goals?” And I don’t just do goals on January first, I try to reassess every three to four months, and I just love seeing the goals that I set three or four months ago and it just motivate me to “Okay, I’m kind of on track. I’m going to keep on going” or “You know what? This isn’t working for me; I’m going to do something else.” I guess those are probably the main things that I do to keep me motivated.

Susan: That’s really cool. I want to go back to what you said a second ago “energy producers versus energy drainers” I never have thought about that term before, but those are two very distinct kinds of people in this world, aren’t they?

Michele Feyen: Yes, they are. And I think I learned that through my 30 years of physical therapy. Just working with people that are in pain; it’s no fault of their own but it drained me. I was putting everything I had into them. And that was my job and I did it beautifully but then I had to go home at the end of the day and recharge or I would not be good the next day for my patient. But then after I left that career I realized I don’t need to be around that anymore, I’m not a physical therapist anymore. So that’s kind of, I guess how I label – I don’t really label but that’s how I feel about certain people but, you know, some people just give me energy and then there are others who nothing is ever right.

Susan: Well said. Tell us a little bit – I don’t know if you have to do this so much anymore because it sounds like you’re really in a place where the Foundation gives you energy on a regular basis, but one thing we talk about a lot on this podcast is women finding themselves in a position where they haven’t taken very good care of themselves mentally, physically, you know, just the art of self care itself. And I know from you being a physical therapist, you may have seen this more than anybody else at least that I’ve talked to yet. How did you go about yourself? How did you go about recharging your batteries? How do you do that now? How has that changed from one career to another?

Michele Feyen: That is very good because I’ve been there where my battery needed recharging. And I guess as I’ve gotten older and maybe just a little bit wiser, I’ve felt if I was out of balance in any one area then I was just out of balance and then I did not feel good, I wasn’t my best self. And so what I try to set goals in and the areas I try to keep balance in are: physical, spiritual, relational, and emotional. And if any of those things are out of balance, I tend to just not be my best and so I have to look at all of those areas to recharge myself.

Physically, you know, I try to get exercise three to four days a week. I do Yoga. I recently just started back playing tennis at age 60. Relationally, if things aren’t going well between my husband and I or my kids or my grandkids, you know, that has to be in balance. Or if I haven’t even seen them in several weeks—if I haven’t seen those grandkids in a couple weeks, I need to see them…Yeah, I feel out of balance. Spiritually, you know, how I have to feed myself. I read my Bible every morning but I love hearing pastors and also I get several things via email and that kind of recharges me. And if I’m not being filled spiritually, I will feel out of balance. Emotionally, we can become very stressed, and stress management is a very important thing. So if I’m doing think something that I feel is really somebody else wants me to do it and it’s not really who I am or what I need to be doing, I will feel stressed. And so a lot of it is just self-awareness and knowing that I’m being true to myself on the emotional part.

I’ve always try to teach balance to my patients, and I always said one of my life rule is to develop your core. And I think it’s important to develop your core value, develop your physical core, and core stability, which can be both physical and all these other things that I mentioned before. But your core stability physically would be just to have a strong core; it will help you walk better, it’ll help you move better, you’ll have less stress on all your joints, and that will keep you in balance. But then, also being in balance core stability with the physical, relational, and emotional area I think it’s so important. So I believe it’s just having a good balance. And sometimes you just have to go back to step one and kind of reassess and ask yourself that question “Where am I out of balance?” if you’re feeling stressed.

Susan: I love that you had this first career in physical therapy because it sounds like you weren’t just a physical therapist but you kind of helped people there with the mental aspects of things too, and I would guess that would translate very well into what you’re doing now.

Michele Feyen: Yes, I think it does because I tend to use a lot of physical therapy terms with what I’m doing now and with the girls that I mentor, and even in helping other mentors. So yeah, I think it has because I really think in life in what ever you do you have to balance everything. And like you said from that first question, everything that I’ve – all my experiences from way back when I have all made me who I am today. So, I think you’re right, you know, that has been a large part of it. And I’ve dealt with people with their physical but after 30 years you realize that I’m not just treating the physical; I’m treating the emotional and their whole emotional well being, and it’s very much many injuries and overcoming injuries. It’s very much a mental thing. And that’s something I use with the girls today, it’s we don’t define our path by what we’ve been through but we like to look to the future. And so, yes, I think you’re right, I tend to use a lot of physical therapy terms but it works.

Susan: That was beautiful; that last statement you made I won’t bungle it but I’m going to go back and highlight that for sure. I want to leave us with one last question, and that is…Normally, I like to end with an action step of asking you how you think other women can change their lives and all that, but I really want to just change things up a little bit this time and ask how people can get involved in your new foundation. I know it’s new and I know it has a lot of startup going on and it sounds like you are well on your way to 18 girls next year which is phenomenal. Because the first year you start off with what? Six, right?

Michele Feyen: Yes, six.

Susan: So you’re prepping for year three and you’re talking 18 girls this school year, is that correct?

Michele Feyen: That’s correct. We did 12 this year and so I’m prepping for 18 for next year.

Susan: Tell us how we can get involved with your foundation, either locally, even if we’re not local, how can we give? Where can we find you online? Give us all of that information because I really think this is something that my listeners will want to get involved with.

Michele Feyen: Well, the easiest way is just go to our website, and that ‘s www.bdghope.org. And that gives all the information, you can donate online, you can send me an email, you can call me and get more information but I think that’s probably the best place to go is www.bdghope.org. We also have a Facebook page, and that is under Bettie D. Gonzales Facebook. So those are the probably the two main ways that you can get it. I could give out my cell phone number and you could call me.

Susan: No, that’s okay. We won’t make you do that. But I will make sure all of that is linked on our transcript page. At the end of this podcast, people can go there and check if they didn’t have a chance to write that down. I really appreciate you taking time out of your schedule today to share your story with us and a little bit about your foundation. I really look forward to seeing where this goes. I really see this taking off. I cannot imagine a better person for the job.

Michele Feyen: Well, thank you so much. It was my pleasure speaking with you and talking to you.

Susan: All right, I will see you soon.

Michele Feyen: Okay, thank you. Bye-bye.

Susan: Bye-Bye.

Outro: Hey, sisters, thanks so much for joining me today. I will have links to the foundation and their Facebook page over on our transcript page on the website. I hope Michele’s story and the other stories you have heard so far on the podcast have inspired, encouraged, and empowered you. If they have, please share it with a friend or two or three or four or ten. I’d also appreciate it if you would head over to iTunes to rate and review it, as that makes it easier for other women to find. Y’all, I am so looking forward to everything coming up through the end of the year and even into next year. Yes, I’m already planning. It’s going to be so much fun. Thank you all so much for your support and for listening. I’ll see you soon!

Akola founder Brittany Underwood shares her journey from undergrad to Top 10 CEO

Brittany Merrill Underwood is the Founder and CEO of the Akola Project. In 2006, Brittany, a Southern Methodist University sophomore, spent the Summer on a trip to Uganda with a few friends.   After meeting a Ugandan woman named Sarah, who was caring for orphans in her home, Brittany was inspired to roll up her sleeves and help.  It started with a proper home for the children and quickly grew into creating a sustainable work opportunity (The Akola Project) for other women like Sarah so that they could provide for themselves, their families and these children.  Today, Akola provides training, dependable living-wage work opportunities and holistic education programs to over 500 women in Uganda and Dallas, TX, who care for approximately 4,000 dependents.

 

Transcript:

Intro: Welcome to “How She Got Here – Conversations With Everyday Extraordinary Women.” It is my belief that every woman has something inside her only she can do. The more we share the stories of other women who have already discovered their thing, the more it inspires, encourages, and empowers other women to do the same.

Susan: Hey, friends, I am more than excited to share my guest with you today. Brittany Merrill Underwood is the founder and CEO of the Akola Project. Akola is a full impact brand which means they reinvest 100% of their profits to support work opportunities, training, social programs, and the construction of training centers and water wells in impoverished communities throughout the globe. Akola has a social impact throughout its entire supply chain and offers women opportunity through the creation of their raw materials, assembly of their product, and their distribution center that acts as a second chance job program. Akola has created a new high impact model for social business that is paving the way for high impact millennial run businesses that seek to have an impact on the world. In 2017, Brittany was named among the top “The World’s Top Ten CEO’s” in Inc. Magazine, the best person in the world by Yahoo in 2014, and was honored by clothing manufacturer, Levi, as one of 50 women around the globe who have changed the political, cultural, and spiritual shape of the future. She was awarded the Emerging Leader Award from SMU in 2013, the Young Leader Award from the Dallas Women’s Foundation in 2014, and was awarded a Silver Medal from the Business and Inner Faith Peace Award given by the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation in Rio.

Brittany has been featured on the Katie Couric Show, CNN’s Young People Who Rock, Fox Business, and Modern Luxury. In 2014, she was asked to join a mentoring class for the Laura Bush Women’s Initiative, and joined the Faculty of Southern Methodist University as an adjunct professor in 2015 where she teaches a new course on social innovation. Brittany continues to devote her life to creating a brand that empowers women through economic and holistic development as CEO of the Akola Project. According to Inc. magazine, “Underwood is a clear example of a servant leader practicing conscious capitalism to transform the lives of impoverished women and families.” So without further ado, here’s Brittany.

Susan:  Well good morning, Brittany. Thank you so much for joining us today. How are you?

Brittany: I’m fine, thank you.

Susan:  Well, it is so good to have you here. I know I shared in the opening with my listeners kind of a little bit about Akola and your story and what you did, but I would love to hear from your mouth a little bit about yourself and where you’re from and how you got to where you are now.

Brittany: Sure. I am Brittany Merrill Underwood. I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and went to SMU, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas for college, and spent most of my 20’s back and forth from Uganda, which I’ll talk about that a little bit more later on in the podcast. And then I married my husband – he’s a Dallas native – in 2012, and moved back to Dallas, have two little boys, a three-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old and so balanced that with my work as founder and CEO of Akola Jewelry. And we are a full impact brand that’s devoted to empowering women to become agents of transformation in their families and communities and grow a business. And so it’s a busy life, it’s exciting, but a lot there. In addition to that, I teach a course every spring at SMU now on social innovation and do that as well.

 

Susan: I did read you have started that; you just keep adding to the empowering and inspiring of women and I absolutely – that just warms my heart. You go girl! So tell us a little bit about how you got to Uganda to begin with. Tell us a little bit about that story.

Brittany: Sure. So I was a sophomore at SMU and I was not involved in any community service activities and  didn’t grow up in a culture of philanthropy in Atlanta; that just wasn’t part of – yeah, wasn’t part of our lifestyle so I had really not done anything for others, which is true. And, you know, was 19 years old and had promised two of my friends in college we would have a summer adventure and I thought we would teach somewhere in Europe and I kind of tuned out of the conversation for a second and they picked the boarding school in Uganda. I didn’t know where Uganda was at a time on the map, and I just had no desire to be in East Africa or had never been to a developing country and sort of got dragged there by two of my friends.

So two weeks into being in Uganda, we were working with a group that was taking us to different villages to help us understand the culture, meet Ugandans, understand more about their lives, and I just – I was sick, I was tired, I was completely disengaged. And a local pastor that we were working with kind of noticed my discomfort and he said, “I want you to meet a local woman in our village who I think will inspire you.” So I said, “Okay,” and I followed him up this dirt road to a shack outside of Uganda’s capital city Kampala, and I met a Ugandan woman named Sarah. And it’s funny, there is not a lot of stories like this, I can trace this entire journey back to that single moment and it was that powerful. And I met Sarah and sort of didn’t know what to say and she had these sort of bamboo mats rolled up in a corner so I casually asked her what they were for and she said, “Children, children sleep on these mats,” and I thought, “Children on these mats on the floor. I mean, it was the size of my closet.” And 24 children slept on her floor every night and they didn’t have anywhere to sleep; they were street children, and she had shelter so she’d roll out these mats and they would come and sleep.

The problem was they didn’t have food, they didn’t have school fees and medical care, they didn’t have any of those things. And Sarah couldn’t afford to give them many of those, she was in poverty herself. So I saw this woman who sacrificed everything she had. I mean she would go hungry to feed these kids so others could live. And here I was, a selfish college student who had never done anything for others and it just shook me out of my complacency. So, that sort of began this what has been a 15-year journey for us. I kept up with Sarah after that summer and just kind of started sending her money for food or school fees for the kids and just wanted to help and it turned into a project to build a home for the children who slept on her floor. That was the beginning of the Akola journey.

Susan: So, the orphanage that you were building, that is where Akola started, was there?

Brittany: It was. I mean, it was just a one-off project; it wasn’t anything that I was trying to start for the long haul, I just wanted the kids to have a place to sleep. Beds and a bigger room. So this initial idea was just to build a small building for Sarah and her kids so they would have a place to sleep. And around the same time I met Sarah, another woman did and  started  a sponsorship program for the kids who slept on her floor. So six months after I met her, the kids were eating, they were in school so what they really needed was this building. So it started out as this tiny $10,000 project, started raising money for it. I was a journalism major so I figured if someone could just see the story and see what I saw, surely they would want to help in the same way that I wanted to help. So I filmed a promotional video and edited it in the halls of SMU and started these grass roots fundraisers to raise $10,000 for the small home, and we ended up raising over the next several years a million dollars which is just incredible. It developed a three-story orphanage for every kid.

Susan: That’s awesome!

Brittany: Oh yeah, that’s just being young and idealistic you’re 20 and you’re like, “Why wouldn’t we just build a building for everyone?”

Susan: Absolutely!

Brittany: Next thing we knew it was this massive project. And I graduated from SMU in 2006 and thought, “I’ve got to move over to Uganda to make sure this project actually happens,” you know, a lot of people just entrusted us with their money and I need to personally oversee this. And that’s what led me to Uganda. And during the construction of this building, my three friends who kind of we all thought we’d be there for 6 months to oversee the orphanage project and go on with our lives, and it took about three years longer than we expected, and we were just making construction payments but we had so much time to just listen and get to know the community and to learn. And we knew we were so young that we just didn’t know anything so we didn’t come in with any assumed knowledge. So, again, I think we listened in a way that was really special and learned in a way that was very special, and what we kept on hearing as we met more and more women  like Sarah is that what they actually wanted was not an orphanage, they wanted the ability to care for orphaned and disadvantaged kids in their own home. They had the heart and the vision; they just didn’t have the resources.

So it was pretty humbling as we were building this monstrous orphanage that in the end you know it’s better than a kid sleeping on the street but it’s not what they needed or really even wanted. And so I started Akola in 2007. Akola means “she works,” and as we were building the orphanage, I wanted to create a model to where we wouldn’t have to continue to build orphanages that supported women headed households to care for up to 10 kids in their home. And so we needed a way for the women to generate an income, and that’s when we started the jewelry business because we thought if we could create a product, sell it in the US, all the money would go back to the women, then they would be able to support their kids. So Neiman’s Marcus laughed, cause our jewelry is in Neiman’s now,  and when we tell them how little thought went into our initial product, it was easy to ship, I had some friends who owned boutiques and voila we had a jewelry business. And what’s funny is, you know, this is before Tom’s and before FEED, this was 2007, the social business movement didn’t exist. There really wasn’t a playbook for this, we just thought it was a better way to meet the needs of disadvantaged children, and so that’s how Akola began.

Susan: You were a woman with a mission and vision.

Brittany: That’s definitely true.

Susan: So tell us about these women; they’re taking these orphaned children – some of them are probably their own but others – orphaned children into their own homes, how did you identify who would be a fit for Akola? Was it every woman in the village? Tell us a little about that.

Brittany: Yeah, we have a pretty rigorous process where we figure out women who have the most dependents and the least support. So initially, our goal was how do we kind of fund women who are starting these home orphanages, like, how do we have those women in our program? And then we quickly realized that there were other women who had just as many dependents that were related to them as the women who were taking in street kids. So we sort of created a model where if women had an average of 9 or 10 dependents and they didn’t have much support from their husband or didn’t have one, then they would qualify for our program and the support.

So we would go through an interview process with their local leaders to kind of identify these women headed households and social mapping, we worked through a church, I mean everything you can imagine to really identify the women who needed this program. And that’s how we build out our Akola woman space, and we worked with an average 4 to 500 women every year in Uganda in seven different communities now. We started with 15 women under a mango tree in front of their church and now it’s a pretty full of blown operation. And we realized in 2010  as our business began to grow and we went from 15 women to 200 women making jewelry, that we wanted the women to have a dignified place to work and they didn’t really have that in their villages. These were remote agrarian villages in Northern Uganda and Eastern Uganda along the Nile River and they didn’t really have an infrastructure so we started building these manufacturing facilities and training centers; we call them hope centers in Uganda where the women could go and work and create these products, and also realized pretty quickly that what we were doing was not effective unless we created educational programs around the women’s ability to generate income.

In 2010 we had one year I think it was I mean close to five women die in childbirth in our program in their homes, and we thought how in the world was this happening? They’re earning a living wage, why aren’t they going to the clinic? And we realized when we did a little digging that they either had superstitions around going to the clinic or they didn’t even know that there was one five miles down the road. So there was an education gap, and it was sort of this aha moment that it didn’t matter if they’re earning four times the wage in their village if they don’t know how to use it to create meaningful change in their lives to address their maternal health, to address the needs of their children, to strengthen their families, to combat domestic violence, to save and loan and start small businesses, it didn’t really create long-term change. And so that’s when we created Akola Academy which is our suite of holistic services that kind of wrap around our work opportunities at Akola. And that’s really set us apart. I mean that’s something we do. I don’t think there’s any other social brand that puts as much into that kind of programming as us. And it’s allowed our women to really find a pathway out of poverty versus just receiving, you know, living wage work opportunities, which is great, but it’s not enough to pull their families out of poverty.

So built that, went to grad school to kind of understand what model to build and how to build it in 2010/2012, and launched Akola Academy with our chief impact officer, Erica Hall, who is the sort of architect of our development programming and that really took off. And what’s interesting is that people assumed that it was our jewelry business that took off first and it was actually our development model and social services that sort of gained notoriety and through that we were presented these amazing opportunities to create product lines for very special retailers and began to grow the retail brand. So that happened in 2016, and that’s when we expanded to Dallas – which I can talk about in a second – and launched through Neiman Marcus which is really when the brand really took off.

Susan: And that’s when I heard about it. I actually heard about it in 2016 through the Dallas Women’s Foundation, and we can talk about that at some point as well and your involvement there, but I always feel like I’m never, like, on the front end of fashion or hearing about fashion and when I heard your story as it was then, I was inspired and empowered and I said I have to go buy everything that they have. Hearing what you have had added and understanding the Akola Academy and what all that new how you have transitioned even into that, how did you – you said you went back to grad school, how did you surround yourself with the right team, with the right people, like, how did you find the people in order to create this?

Brittany: A lot of it was blind luck and just grace, just God’s grace. I mean we had the right people at the right time who just kind of fell in our lap, and also a lot of it is just learning. I mean I think I just – throughout this entire process, I mean at each point in our development there is something new that we have to learn and develop and I’m a creative, and I like to do that. So when we knew we needed to develop our social service models, I knew I didn’t have the tools to do that, I didn’t have the expertise. I had the experience in Uganda but not the learning to make this  sort best in class, which we strive for at everything we do at Akola.

So I studied under some of the top development practitioners in the country, the vice president of programming for World Vision, who is one of my mentors and professors [inaudible 12:11] and worked with him to develop this very unique model for our women. So a lot went into it. And then had just the luck honestly of having our chief impact officer apply to work at Akola, and she had worked for Jane Goodall for a while and sort of  established her women’s empowerment program. And she was looking for something new, she stumbled across Akola, reached out to us and came on in 2012 and she’s still with us today and she was able to really build out on the ground what I helped sort of create the lines for in grad school. So it just was a great partnership, and it’s something that we’re so proud of today just everything we built in Uganda and what that model looks like. And what’s fun is when we had a chance to bring it to Dallas.

So that happened in 2016 actually through a partnership with the Dallas Women’s Foundation. Roslyn Dawson Thompson, the president, I was lucky enough to meet her through some work we were doing at the Bush women’s initiative at the George and Laura Bush Presidential Center, and we met and she learned about our model and said, “Why in the world is this not in Dallas?” You know and I said, “Well, because this is an agrarian community in Uganda, I don’t know if this is something that can work,” and she said, “Well, we’ve got women in Dallas who are falling through the cracks, you know prostitution, poverty, incarceration sort of women who are in crisis and they come out of those situations and they’re growing through these non-profit programs where they’re being rehabilitate but they can’t get a job because they’re not stable enough yet to even go through a Workforce Development Program. So the door is kind of swinging in their face and then they end up going back to what they know and go back to prostitution, poverty, jail, you name it.

And there really wasn’t anything in Dallas that offered women like that, women in crisis a living wage flexible work opportunity, and she knew that our model could probably do that. So she said, “Why don’t we figure this out?” So we began to kind of do some diligence and try to build what a model would look like here. And what we realized is if we were going to do manufacturing for our jewelry, we needed a more elevated product line to pay women an average of $15 an hour which is our goal. We really stand for a living wage. And so we pitched this product line – or I pitched it to the CEO of Neiman Marcus kind of through a series of events, got a connection to her, she gave me a 10-minute meeting at Neiman’s, and I just as quickly as possible just told her what we were doing, what we had done and that we really wanted to help women in poverty in our own community and we needed a partnership with a major retailer like Neiman’s to sell an elevated jewelry line to ensure we could offer these women work. And she was amazing I mean, she said, “This is intriguing, design a product line at that price point, come back in a couple of months and we’ll see what we can do.” And so, you know, we didn’t have any retail infrastructure at that point, we were selling to boutiques around the country, we had no one on our entire team with any design expertise or any retail backgrounds, and I was six or seven months pregnant at the time and had friends come over who were jewelry designers to help me put together  this line for Neiman Marcus and had beads all over my house and had a one-year-old who was stepping around in a diaper and it was just total chaos, and came back and presented this line to Karen and her team at Neiman’s, and she was so impressed, she said, “We’re going to launch you in every single store nationwide and in our catalog and online and by the way, you’re our fantasy gift. Oh my gosh, we have a national roll out from Neiman Marcus and no retail  infrastructure to support it. And we had not really started a program in Dallas.

We’d run a pilot with about 15 different women but we hadn’t really built the program yet. So in a span of – I will never forget this time – it was in 2016, the summer of 2016 and in span of two months we produced a product line for every single store nationwide over, you know, a million dollars worth of product, we gave over a hundred women in Dallas work opportunity and partnership with, like, 13 different nonprofits who referred women to us in their program who went through a hard time and couldn’t get a job. We popped up in the Dallas Housing Authority for production, we popped up in Buckner Salvation Army, their domestic violence unit sent us women to work in the back of our store.

Susan: That’s awesome.

Brittany: Full out community effort to get these women work opportunities and make sure we could deliver this product in time, and we did. Even the financing end of it, we had Northern Trust, one of the most wonderful banks in the world take a huge risk on us and financed our entire product line and pour money into the infrastructure of our business with just incredible terms, and without them taking risk on us we wouldn’t have had the money to pull this off. I mean the banks came together and the community came together and nonprofits and it sort of took a village to work, but we launched our product line in Neiman’s and in our first season became a top 10 jewelry brand at Neiman Marcus.

Susan:  Wow, that’s the craziest story I think I’ve ever heard.

Brittany: It sounds crazy [inaudible 22:48] I mean at the time we had five people on staff in Dallas, we had 30 in Uganda, but I mean Dallas was just the support office for the work that we did in Uganda. We didn’t do manufacturing here, we didn’t do anything until suddenly we went from five people on our team to having to build out a retail infrastructure that could support our brand that was three months later competing against Oscar De la Renta. I mean our earrings sit right next to Oscar De La Renta’s in every Neiman Marcus store, and we had to do that in a span of about three months. I mean we kind of emerged from the fog, the spring of 2017. And what’s so funny too to add to the craziness of that story is I was pregnant with my second son. I had a one-year-old and I was pregnant again and I was due at the end of October and we launched through Neiman’s at the end of September. So I was literally I mean going to – up until I had my second son, going to these launch events in different cities. I had him and two weeks later I was flying for day trips to kind of launch Akola Jewelry at Neiman’s in Palm Beach and in Atlanta, you know, pumping on the plane under my sweater, like, saving the milk for my child in a little storage case that I bring on the plane. I mean the whole thing couldn’t have been crazier, and it just aligned with the birth of my second child who was only 16 months apart from my first so it just was like complete chaos .

But yeah, so we emerged from sort of the fog of it all in the spring of 2017. And that’s when we decided we had to get real serious and build a real team around this product line at Neiman Marcus and an infrastructure to support it. So we had incredible banks like Triumph Bank in Dallas, through their Community Reinvestment Act, and the money they could deploy from that as an impact investment along with Northern Trust who continue to invest in Akola in partnership with the Dallas Development Fund through their emerging tax credit program was able to get us the financing we need to build this infrastructure to compete. And so we did that in the spring and just staffed up our team and sort of just wanted to take it to the next level so we could ensure that we actually stayed in Neiman Marcus. Because it’s one thing to, you know, to be a top brand in your first season but you’ve got to put in a lot of work in to stay in the game and competing and just wanted to be around for the long haul.

So we did that, and at the same time we were still growing our social services and having donors fund those activities, and so it was just like another crazy season of building. And what we wanted to do was to build enough of an infrastructure where we could grow through other accounts as well, because once you set up a business that support an every store account at Neiman Marcus, that same business infrastructure can take on at least five times that business with the same team which is pretty expensive to build but we’ve got to grow really fast. And so that’s really fun to tell you over the past year what we’ve done to do that.

Susan: Wow, you were birthing a child and a part of a business at the same time.

Brittany: I know. It’s so funny. I don’t remember anything, like, there’s no [laughs] don’t remember what happened during that time but I [laughs]

Susan: Yeah, you would block out, I mean there’s no way you could remember all of that.

Brittany: Yeah, and actually just to add to that, my husband and I moved twice that year. We bought a house and then his grandfather passed away and he wanted to buy that house so we also moved twice during that year as well. You know it’s one of those things where you’re just going so fast and your life is just so out of control and so crazy that you don’t even know how crazy it is until you come out of that and then you look back and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, how did I do that. I don’t know.” So, I mean it was insane. I’m still apologizing to friends because I just didn’t return text messages for a year, I didn’t return calls, I missed my families birthday parties, like, I just couldn’t, I had no margin. And you can’t go like that forever but I think there are seasons that kind of require your full focus and that was one of those where it was just crazy.

Susan: Oh, absolutely, there are seasons that require your full focus but you had full focus plus.

Brittany: Oh yeah, I mean I got pulled in all different directions absolutely, yeah, I mean it was nuts.

Susan: So there had to have been – and maybe this is just me – but there had to have been a moment in that season where you were like I can’t do this, like, totally lacking self-confidence.

Brittany: Oh, I mean I was so burnt out that I literally, I mean I think there was a point I was just laying on my floor sobbing, I was so hormonal breastfeeding, you know, just coming off of the hormones of having two kids in a row, I mean I got pregnant when my first son was only 7 months old and so I don’t even think the hormones from that pregnancy had left my body, and I just was out of my mind and I had no time, I wasn’t sleeping because I had a newborn and with launching that I knew how much succeeding in Neiman Marcus, I knew how that would build our business in the future and I knew that it was imperative that that happened because that would set us up to grow the way we wanted to grow to make or mission come alive in a way that it hadn’t before, and so I knew how significant it was and we were moving and it just…

Yeah, I was so burned out, and I think I had – again, my friends gave me and my family gave me so much grace during that season but I didn’t have margin, I couldn’t work out, I couldn’t see friends – all the things that make you a person besides having children and building a business, like, I just didn’t have the bandwidth for, and so I just…Yeah, I remember laying on my bathroom floor and had a couple of key relationships as well within Akola that just got so burned during that time because I just didn’t have the bandwidth to give them what they needed during that time. And so there were consequences to growth as well, and it all hit at the same time really late in the Spring in 2017. And again, I was laying on my bathroom floor sobbing and my husband came in and he was like, “What is going on? What’s wrong? Like, are you okay?” And I just was like, “I can’t do this anymore, like, I’m dying, like, I literally… I can’t do this anymore,” and I just hit a wall, and I needed to hit that wall because my life was so out of control. But from that point, probably to this point where we are now in 2018 that next year was okay, how do I do this but also figure out a pace that’s manageable where I can have a full life and also grow this business and be there for my kids and my friends and my family. And so that was sort of the past year trying to figuring out how do we grow because we knew we had to grow really fast it just because again it was so expensive to build what it took to even pull off Neiman Marcus that we knew we had to grow. So I had to figure out how to grow Akola as fast as possible to keep up with our spend as well as kind of dial back and create balance in my life so that’s kind of in the past year. I’m excited to share with you how I’ve done some of that. I’m still kind of in the middle of it but we’re in a really good spot.

Susan: Sure. So, how are you doing that?

Brittany: Yeah, so I hit the wall, I’m on the floor crying realizing, like, this is not sustainable and I can’t, you know, I’ve got to slow down but also Akola has to speed up so how do I do that? And so what it was was just having a great team and getting the right talent. So at that point, I knew, you know, I’ve got to get some people in our business that can start taking stuff off my plate. And you know I’m a huge visionary, I’m a very big picture person, I’m very right brained. So the good news about that is I’ve never put myself in a position where I’m managing more than two people or I’m in our finances figuring out and crunching the numbers or I’m doing our manufacturing, like, that’s just not my skill set, and anytime I’ve ever been in that position, I’ve messed everything up.

So the good news is I’m really gifted and in one area and really not in other areas so it’s pretty easy for me to figure out, “Okay I need to not be spending my time in these three buckets, but I need to be spending all of my time in this one bucket because that’s where I create the most of value.” I read this book called Present Over Perfect.

Susan: Shauna Niequist.

Brittany:  Yeah, she’s amazing and there was certain antidote in the book where there was a pastor and he had this church that was growing so fast and he was in a conversation and he was like, “I’m so overwhelmed, it’s crazy.” He’s like, “The growth is out of control.” And someone said like, “You have control over that,” and he’s like, “No, I don’t, “and they’re like, “Well you’re putting up the chairs,” and he’s like, “Shoot, I do have the control.” So in our case, it’s a little bit different because we knew if we didn’t grow we weren’t going to make it. We built this business that needed to grow to survive and we had this window where we were a top brand at Neiman’s and we needed to grow the retail business. And so we didn’t have the luxury to not put up chairs because we probably wouldn’t have been around a year later, so we had to grow. But the question was how do I do that while taking care of myself and my family? And something else in that book that was so helpful, saying yes to something is a no to something else, like, it’s not just a lot of yeses. Like anytime you say yes to anything you’re saying no to something else; you only have amount of time and bandwidth and resources, like, that’s just the deal.

And so I started realizing anything I was saying yes to at Akola was a no my kids, my two baby infant children. And my husband runs a company so it’s not like he is able to fill in the gaps, so just to make it even more complicated. So I started getting laser focused and said I’m only going to say yes to things that that brings value to Akola and I’m going to delegate everything else. So I just got really good at that and had an incredible luck and just God’s grace and having some exceptional team members fall in our lap during that time. Brennan Lowery who is our COO now, she sort of built Kate Spade’s On Purpose program in Rwanda. She has been working for Kate Spade and they wanted to set up some sort of manufacturing facility for bags in Rwanda, and they’re one of the only groups like ours that actually built those facilities and built sort of this vertical operation. And they don’t own that, did it under another entity but they really built it. And they sent Brennan who had been working for Kate Spade, they send her over there and basically said figure it out. So she built that over two years and had just kind of come back from Rwanda and met with one of our board members who said, “Wait a minute, this is exactly what we need.”

So we’ve had these positions, and it’s so funny how just like the world works and God works in this way, but we’ve had incredible recruiters like to find the perfect talent for Akola and we’ve gotten it wrong. And then we’ve had someone just meet with a board member, kind of fall out the sky and they’re exactly who we needed, and that’s fine. So Brennan came on in January and what she needed to do and what we needed to do really quickly was to take sort of all of our production processes and calendars and manufacturing processes. That we sort of just organically built, like. We basically made them up. We just created them. They were not best in class. But it didn’t matter, we just retailed to  boutiques, like, we were on our own time schedule and it didn’t need to be best in class. But suddenly, you know, we’re retailing in one of the most prominent retailers in the country where we have to, you know, we needed an upgrade in our system the process that we just didn’t know how to do it. So she came in and because she had built this On Purpose program for Kate Spade in Rwanda, she built what we built but with a major company backing her with all the best processes and procedures kind of behind her. So she came in in January and started kind of transitioning us from sort of our mom and pop we figure it out on our own operation to actually building a supply chain that could support growth. So she came in and did that.

Around the same time we knew, like I told you we’ve got to grow fast, right? Because we’ve just spent all this money building a retail infrastructure to support Neiman’s Marcus but it’s really expensive and we’ve got to have, you know, probably 3 or 4 more account at least over the next year to make that spend make sense. And so we started looking for new business and to make everything more complicated, we had a verbal exclusive with Neiman Marcus through the end of this year so we couldn’t go into any other retailer at that price point and really any other retailers through the Akola brand at that level. We could do boutique but not other big stores, so we thought how in the world are we going to grow if we can’t compete with Neiman’s? But we wanted to honor that because they really built our business. What was so cool about Neiman’s too you know, their whole team came around us, their CEO, Karen Katz, their GM, their department manager, they all helped us figure out how to build this which is so cool. I mean they basically created our brand for us in partnership with us.

Susan: That’s really neat.

Brittany: Which was really cool and Neiman’s never gets the credit for that and people don’t understand kind of all they put into any of their brands, but especially one like ours that give back so they were helping us build it, but we wanted to honor that verbal exclusive with them but we needed to build the business so we created this idea of sort of a sub brand called One Bead One Hope. And our thought process was we could kind of create inexpensive jewelry at a low price point that anyone could afford that has our same impact made in Uganda but sell it through a different brand. And so we created this One Bead One Hope brand and they have these beautiful cards that have a picture of one of our women on it and you write down your hope for someone that you care about and you get to give them the product and kind of think about it as you where it and support a hope for women in Uganda through our program. And it was really successful and so we started testing these products and we thought, “Gosh, I mean we’ve got to get this quickly into some volume retailers,” so I met the CEO of Walmart through the National Retail Federation – we won one of their awards as one of 25 groups kind of reshaping the future of retail and Walmart was a part of that and met Doug McMillon and went up to him and said,”Hey, we’ve got this great product line and we’re in Neman’s with our Akola brand and we really want to create volume product at a lower price point that anyone can afford but through another brand to support our women and he did the same thing that Karen did at that meeting and he said, “Okay, shoot me an email and explain a little bit more,” and I did, and the next thing I know his entire team is coming to Dallas to learn about and what we do at Akola. And we’re test launching through Walmart this holiday which is really exciting so we’ll start in 30 stores and see how they do and 30 road shows and go from there. So that happened and then we secured another account with a volume retailer that I can’t reveal because it’s coming out in two months, and then another one with a major department store which also comes out in a couple of months.

So we’re able to build the business that we needed through this sub brand without having to compete with Neiman’s and we’ve done that, and that’s all launching this Fall which is really exciting and now we’re talking to some other retailers about the Akola brand as well. So it’s been an exciting season of figuring out with no playbook ever how to do this and how to be successful, knowing that what’s on the line it’s or women’s lives and their livelihoods and their ability to provide for their kids which gives anyone on our team the momentum to figure out whatever we need to to make this work. So it has been an exciting time and we’re looking at a lot of different structures that would allow us to grow like we want to grow in the future to support more women so we’re going through a lot of corporate planning and structural planning to even understand how we can do this kind of moving in the future. So yeah, busy, crazy season but I think I’ve learned in the past year to allow it to be busy but not to take over my entire life. And so that’s something that’s been fun is realizing you know I can make my family a priority and rely on other amazing members of our team to pick up some slack and we can still grow but grow in a way that’s sustainable for my life as well.

Susan: Brittany, I am so excited for you. One of my questions was going to be like where are you guys headed next and you’re on this whole crazy train to all these other different amazing places and I am so excited to hear what is to come, I am so excited what you guys are doing for these woman and for the brand in general and just for awareness, you know, what women are going through around the world and providing jobs. To me, that is something that if you can provide a job for a woman, you can change a whole family, and I think that’s one thing you even talked about before. I could ask you a million more questions, we could be here all day, I am not kidding, but I want to respect your time and I really appreciate you coming on.

I do have one question that I like to ask every guest before they leave, and that’s this, your story to me is just so amazing overwhelming, ambitious, and I really am a person who believes that there is something inside every woman that she is supposed to do before she leaves this planet, and I think you were really lucky and you found it at a really early age and you went from zero to like 900 miles an hour and I don’t even know if that’s possible but you seem to have made it possible. Tell us, if you could give a woman listening today just the one actions step – she’s had this thing in the back of her brain, maybe even since college that she knows that she needs to do one day before she leaves this planet, what is one action step that you can leave her with to take today so that she can take another step down the road?

Brittany: I think the advice would be take the step because here’s the thing, I think we all, you know, I totally agree with you, I think every person and this is something we believe at Akola and is fundamental in or mission, you know, every woman is created, any person, for so much more than they can imagine or dream, and unlocking that is the whole point, like, what is that? Why are we here, and what can we do with the one kind of precious life that we have? And our goal is the kind unlock that for our women and we have been able to do that, but what’s funny is through the journey I’ve unlocked that in myself. I mean I’m so much more than I ever thought. I never thought I could do any of this, like, I wasn’t a great student, I wasn’t involved in community service, like, there was nothing about me that was above average in any way, and it started out with one step of faith, you know, taking the next step and staying yes to something which at the time was very small, it was this little tiny home for these kids and then I took another step and another step. And I think sometimes people get so overwhelmed when they hear stories like this because especially if they do want to know the whole story because they’re like, “Well I could never do that,” and that’s not true at all, like, no one starts out, I think very few people, thinking they’re going to do these big great things, it just starts with one step of faithfulness and you continue to take those steps and fight against the disillusionment and failure and the fear and you keep on going and keep on taking those steps and you don’t give up and something amazing happens. So my advice is take that first step, and if you’ve already taken that first step, don’t give up, keep on taking those steps because eventually it will end up being what it’s supposed to be and you’ll end up being who you were created to be which is even more of the point, I think.

Susan: Well, Brittany, that was the perfect answer. That was flawless, I really appreciate that. There were a few times I kind of teared up a little bit myself. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your story. Thank you for sharing the Akola story. And I just really, really wish you luck. We’re coming up on the holidays quickly and I know that you are getting stuff in there because I’m sure September, October is really when you guys are really pushing that stuff out so good luck with that and thank you so much for sharing the story with us today and keep us posted on who you’re launching with through the holidays because I’m excited, I want to share that on our website and on our Facebook page.

Brittany: We’d love that. Yeah, we’re so excited about the One Bead One Hope line. And again, for anyone here who wants to buy more elevated jewelry they could do that through our Neiman Marcus account and we have a mass market line at akolaproject.org so that price point is really under $100 but the One Bead One Hope line that is launching in the three retailers this Fall, products will start at $7.99 so it will be a special brand, an incredibly affordable product where you can have an impact at a very low price point and be able to give great gifts through that. So maybe you go and buy the Neiman Marcus necklace for yourself and maybe for a very special friend or for a teacher’s gift or stocking stuffers you could buy from our One Hope line at these retailers. So I will definitely pass that information along when we’re launching and hope that everyone comes to see what we have in store.

Susan: Yes, and I will make sure to link all of this on our show notes and the Facebook and the Twitter and the Instagram and all of it so nobody fear that they’ve missed anything, it will all be there in the show notes. Thank you again, I really, really appreciate it, and I will talk to you soon.

Brittany: Thank you so much.

Susan: Bye-bye.

Susan: Isn’t she great. I just love Brittany and how she took an opportunity and literally ran with it. Through Akola, she is changing the lives of women around the world. I am a huge fan of Akola, the brand and the mission. Thanks so much for joining me today. I will have all the links Brittany and I discussed over on the transcript page on our website. So check that out for a link to their website as well as links to their Neiman Marcus line. As more retailers come online, I will try to remember to link them there as well. Thanks again for listening and for sharing this podcast with your friends. This show is truly a great love of mine and I appreciate the opportunity to bring it to you. Thank you for your feedback. Thank you for subscribing and thank you for rating and reviewing it.Y’all are my people and y’all are just the best. I’ll see you soon.

A local advocate creates change for refugees and immigrants, with Meghan Blanton Smith

In this episode, Susan talks with Meghan Blanton Smith about her advocacy work with immigrants and refugees.  They talk about her approach from a faith perspective and how that motivates her to keep going.  They discuss finding your passion, getting involved and how getting involved on a local level just might be the most impactful way to create change.  This is a great and timely episode you won’t want to miss.

Transcript:

Susan: Hey friends I am so excited to share the conversation I had with Meghan Blanton Smith with you today. We had a fantastic conversation centered around her work advocating for refugees and immigrants both documented and undocumented. We also discussed what moving the needle in a favorable direction looks like both from a policy standpoint and a personal standpoint I’d like to also note that this interview took place the Friday of just hours before we learned what was happening with families being separated at our borders which is why it was not discussed. So without further ado here’s Meghan.

Susan: Good morning friends. I am with my friend Meghan this morning and Meghan and I grew up together in the same town. The only difference is is that we when we both moved away she moved back and I have yet to do that. It might happen one day but not anytime in the near future.

Meghan: I like that word yet.

Susan: Yeah you just you never know.

Meghan: You never know.

Susan: You don’t. Anyway so she is huge in her involvement with refugees and immigration advocacy and that’s what we’re here to talk about this morning is her work in that. So good morning Meghan and thank you for joining us.

Meghan: Yeah. Thanks so much Susan for having me. This is fun.

Susan: It will be. We will get through it with or without our coffee intact. So share with us what inspired you to get involved with refugees and immigration advocacy.

Meghan: Yeah. So I actually grew up overseas in Ecuador spent almost 11 years there and then moved to South Carolina when I was 15. And so I spent you know the majority of my childhood around Hispanic people and their culture and the Spanish language and just always loved you know loved Ecuadorians and then moving to the states. I kind of had an experience similar to what I think a lot of immigrants experience when coming to the United States. You know that culture shock. That feeling of being misunderstood under appreciated all of those kind of things. So part of my own story seemed to jive with a lot of experiences that immigrants go through. Obviously very different because I am an American and a native English speaker and all those kind of things. So not trying to draw too close of a comparison there. But then also you know my my faith is is largely what compels me. You know I feel like God commands us over and over again in scripture to welcome the stranger to love the foreigner among you and all of those kind of verses that tell us to show hospitality and that you know our citizenship is in heaven that we’re called to love one another all of those kind of compelling things but then really the main impetus to getting involved with this was when my husband and I went to seminary in Massachusetts and then we moved back. Like you said move back to South Carolina. And we were going to plant a multi-ethnic church. The people in our congregation were everyone from you know people Americans who have served overseas before and are now coming back to international college students to undocumented families. And as we got to know each other and live life together and help carry one another’s burdens. That issue of immigration kept coming up over and over and over again whether it was people trying to get their citizenship or an undocumented single mom who was afraid to you know drive her family to Wal-Mart. And so it almost became a we can’t help but speak up on this issue because people that we love and care about deeply are impacted by this. So how can we with the privilege really that we have as Americans how can we use that in this arena to help bring about change.

Susan: Well that’s a big undertaking for sure. I mean that’s such a cool calling I guess. But that’s that had to be difficult. And I say difficult because I’m guessing it hasn’t always been easy. Doing what you’re doing in the town we grew up in. I know I was back recently and I was excited to see that you have found your people that those people exist our people that those people exist but I’m guessing you had to do some digging to find them. Would that be a fair statement?

Meghan: Yeah yeah I think it would. And you know you’re right. South Carolina and especially the upstate in the congressional district that we’re in we are a very conservative Republican area and just the times that we’re living in immigration reform and all of the stories and you know things that go with that is not necessarily one that is embraced by a majority of the people that live here but it has been difficult in some ways but it’s been really encouraging in others that we’ve been able to see people who’ve never really thought of this issue before or considered it critically or considered it from a personal standpoint. You know we’ve we’ve seen people move along the spectrum and go from either apathetic to caring or even hostile to maybe apathetic and then hopefully we can move them to the caring or involved. But you know this is a deeply religious area. And so when people are open to considering this issue from their faith lens you know and hear the scriptures and hear God’s heart for the vulnerable and the immigrant etc etc. Then people can kind of have that aha moment of oh this isn’t necessarily a political issue this is a faith issue for me and I engage them. But but you’re right I have found some people here. And I’ve been surprised you know how many of us there are that see these issues the way that we do and it’s been really encouraging.

Susan: And I only bring that up just to say that if you’re somebody who is out there and you’re in a smaller town or you feel like you’re in a bubble that is not your own. Your people are there you can find them. You just may have to look a little harder than in other places. And that’s the only reason I brought that up. So you talk a lot about your work with both refugees and immigrants. So can you kind of explain to us for people who out there who aren’t who aren’t in this world who don’t you just hear the words on the news. Can you kind of just explain the difference between a refugee and an immigrant and how that status. What that looks like.

Meghan: Sure. That’s a really good point because there are terms that are just kind of thrown around that are really misunderstood. So an immigrant would be a larger term to describe anyone from another country who has you know moved to the United States. A refugee is a very specific class of person that has been who has undergone you know close to 15 different steps to be approved as a refugee who could resettle in the United States. A refugee is someone who has fled their home country with a reasonable fear of persecution or death because of a variety of different things your ethnicity your race your religion your sexuality all of those kind of things. And it’s a classification under the U.N. to be considered a refugee and so when someone comes to the United States as a refugee they are invited by the U.S. government they have undergone biometric tests medical tests background tests all to verify their story to prove that yes this person has a well-founded fear. And we believe that their story is legitimate and we’re going to give them a new home in the United States. So under under what we were talking about illegal immigrants which is quite a derogatory term so I’m going to use the term undocumented. No one is illegal. Like my existence isn’t illegal. I just don’t have the right papers. So when we’re talking about immigration there’s a whole bunch of different statuses that someone can have. So it’s it’s really a much more nuanced issue than I think people often realize they want to just paint everyone into one category and not understand all the different levels that are at play there.

Susan: And I think, remind me, tell me if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure in our hometown we probably have a good mixture of both refugee, undocumented, documented. We pretty much run the gamut the spectrum on this, yes?

Meghan: Yes that’s true. So in 2015 Spartanburg became a World Relief Refugee Resettlement Site. So starting in 2015 we had refugees coming to this area to Spartanburg and to Greenville and now World Relief has their office in Greenville. But you know since the beginning of the year we haven’t really been admitting many refugees at all. And I don’t know the exact number now. I think last year we had about 60 65 refugees resettle here in this area. And you know they’re coming from countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ukraine, Myanmar. There were two Syrians who resettled in South Carolina not through World Relief. We haven’t had many many Syrians. There was a man from from Iraq. So we’ve been able to meet many of them and the first refugee who came actually lived with our family for a few weeks while his apartment was getting ready. They were going to they were going to put him kind of out in the country in a trailer by themselves. That’s probably not the best welcome to America. So why don’t you stay with us. And so it was an interesting experience that turned out to be such a blessing for our family we didn’t know what we were getting into. He was from the Congo and thankfully he spoke a little bit of English and my husband speaks a little bit of French and he speaks French as well and so he kind of became an uncle to the kids and we love him very much and still see him now. And this has become you know this has become his new new home. But you’re right. And with all of the colleges that we have here we have hundreds of international college students coming every year with all of our international businesses. We have other professional immigrants are coming and working in the businesses here. And we also have a large undocumented population and the fear you know is very real for a lot of them right now. I work with my my paying job, this is my not paying passion job. But my paying job (SC Test Prep) that I’m also passionate about is I work with high school students who are low income are going to be first generation college students and their families kind of preparing them for the the college admissions process. So one of my students earlier this year was telling me about how her parents she’s American she was born here with her parents are undocumented and how her parents had to sign custody over to an uncle so that if something happened to the parents you know her kids would would be able to remain here with a guardian and she was telling that to me with her mom right there and they were both just in tears. You know both of us are moms and you’re talking to moms every week and like the thought of giving up my child so that they can remain here in this country continue their studies and their you know their dreams just the sacrifices that that demands that I cannot even imagine.

Susan: I cannot either. But you’re paying job sounds pretty darn amazing. That is such a cool opportunity. And I know you guys started that and I just think that’s phenomenal. So tell us more about your what your day to day work looks like. With immigration and advocacy and the refugees you’re working with that what does boots on the ground look like right now for you.

Meghan: Yeah that’s a good question. Every day every day is different. You know I’m involved with the Hispanic Alliance here in town and I’m on the steering team for that. And so we have different projects throughout the year that we work on whether that kind of offering some underground legal clinics or monthly meetings to help foster communication and collaboration among those who are working with Hispanics here in town or gosh. I mean there’s really no consistency. But like last week I went down to Georgia with a group of people from Clemson to visit the Stewart Immigration Detention Center. So this is the largest detention center in the U.S. It has almost 2000 men that are detained there and they are either awaiting deportation or they are appealing a court case or they’re waiting for their asylum to be determined. And so like last week I took the whole day and drove down there. And then since coming back I’ve been talking to people about it and I’m going to try to write something up some kind of little article (see May 20th entry) or something to talk about the experience. So it’s a lot of like trying to experience things first hand talking to people who are either you know either a refugee or undocumented themselves and then trying to take their story to either another group or another person who can help move the needle on the issue. So sometimes that’s just staying on top of the quickly changing landscape in Washington and you know emailing other people in town who have questions about it or trying to rally people to call our congressmen and ask them to sign on to something. So every day every day is different and that is not even every day. It’s very responsive to what is happening and what needs to be what needs to be done. But one of the things I was most proud of that we were able to achieve was I believe it was earlier this year our Spartanburg City Council we were able to push them to issue a resolution that just said we support the Dreamers that live here in Spartanburg and we urge Congress to fix this problem. And there was no you know teeth to it but it was a very public and symbolic statement that our city government recognizes that we have Dreamers which is another term that’s thrown around a lot and what that means is a younger person who was brought here to the United States by their parents they’re undocumented but they received DACA status so Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. So with that it meant that they could go to college because in South Carolina you cannot go to a public college if you’re undocumented but with your DACA status you can or you were able to get a work permit or a driver’s license. And so I was very proud when when our city council passed that because we’re still the first the only in the state to do that. So for that come out of here was a proud moment for a lot of us. I had a Dreamer who was involved. She’s actually from your alma mater Converse College and she when they passed that she said to me she’s like you know for one of the first times I’m proud of Spartanburg because they see me and they recognize the value that I contribute to this place. So that was really special.

Susan: See me and recognize my value. That makes my heart melt yes.

Meghan: And isn’t that what we all want?

Susan: Yes. That just that just melted my heart. All right take a moment there. So what has surprised you most in your work do you think, good or bad?

Meghan: Different things. Yeah. So I was I was genuinely surprised at that city council resolution at how open and easy it was. There wasn’t really much pushback. So I was surprised at how willing our city leaders were to to make that message. But then I’ve been really surprised by in a bad way by others who either have the same faith background as me or who know other undocumented immigrants personally yet still not compassionate not understanding of their plight and the need for some kind of reform. That that’s been discouraging as well or surprising for some people but you know in this in any kind of advocacy work you have to remain focused on the individual stories and relationships or else it’s just too overwhelming and there have been times several times sometimes it feels like more often than not that it’s like what is the point. What are we even doing like for each step forward that it feels like we might take in the advocacy community. It feels like three or four steps back you know on a national scale. And so, just remembering to you know really invest in people and and here locally is what keeps me keeps me going.

Susan: Well I’ll share a little bit real quick and I can’t talk much about it. I don’t even know a lot of the specifics but I have seen firsthand how lives have been changed through this advocacy work. And this wasn’t your work specifically. But Stephen my husband is an attorney and immigration court is not his thing. He does not do immigration work. He is a very fun tax attorney very fun job very exciting work in tax law. He does do some pro bono work. And I remember when everything happened. Everybody was going to the airports last year and like protesting and stuff. I remember seeing attorneys getting involved in that. And first I was shocked. I was like I never thought the lawyers would be the heroes. And second Stephen saw that happening and he saw people advocating for others and so he used some of his pro bono hour work this year and has actually done some immigration work and been in immigration court. So don’t think that just because. And there is a young person who he has actually helped get out of a pretty bad situation. I think it’s pretty much cleared up back can’t talk too much about it but just know that people are watching and people lives are being changed because of the work that you’re doing because of the work that the advocates are out there doing. Other people are seeing it and things are happening behind the scenes. And you’re right it may not make CNN or MSNBC or Fox News or any of those other stations or any of those other news channels but lives are changing and it’s because of the type of work that you’re doing behind the scenes. So just know that I know there are discouraging days but know that people are looking to you and the type of work that you’re doing and things the needle is moving albeit slowly but the needle the needles moving.

Meghan: Yeah it’s my that’s my hope for sure.

Susan: I know it’s tough right now. I know it’s tough right now. So I guess that’s a little bit about success is there any way you I guess in your advocacy work do you have any goals that you set. Or is there any what does success look like to you. Is it a day by day thing. Can you talk a little bit about that with us.

Meghan: Yeah that’s, that’s another good question. Gosh Susan, you’re full of great questions.

Susan: Sorry I know this is hard right now because we’re talking about this today. I don’t know when this will air yet but today’s May 25th or 26 and see I don’t even know the day. And I know there’s a lot happening as we speak. So it’s hard.

Meghan: Yeah yeah. I mean there’s there’s a variety of levels of success to me like the ultimate goal is a total culture shift you know and that really hard work. A culture shift where immigrants and people from other countries as speakers of other languages are welcomed and seen as people who have traits and stories and passions and dreams that better to contribute here and know that dividing line between us and them is erased. I mean that would be like a major success. Right now you know in Washington is like legislative policy successes that we haven’t quite experienced yet. So seeing some sort of congressional permanent solution for Dreamers. That would be a success. And you know what does that look like and what is left off the table and you know there’s a spectrum of people in the advocacy world some who are you know who want more and others who would be happier with less. That’s probably unfair to say but then personally like you know a success would be having a family here in Spartanburg know that there’s a community of people who have their back. You know that’s like a microcosm of what a success would be. So it’s there’s a bunch of different things and thankfully you know nationally there’s a bunch of different people working on all sorts of those issues. One thing we tried last this past year that happened in South Carolina was passing a new law called the South Carolina Dreamers Act that would give instate tuition professional licenses and access to state scholarships for Dreamers. That did not pass in this past legislative session. But you know what. In the Fall we’re going to start back up. So it’s a lot of you know kind of learning from, not your mistakes because I don’t think we made mistakes, but learning from the past figuring out how you can tweak your message. Who are some other people that you need to sway. And then you know dusting yourself off and starting back again.

Susan: Yeah. Wow. It’s hard work. It’s hard work, huh?

Meghan: Yeah it is.

Susan: So that kinda segues into another question that was going to ask you at some point that even the strongest of us have moments where we lack self-confidence. And you guys experienced a bit of a setback. So how do you deal with that in your work and how do you how do you deal with that personally.

Meghan: Yeah for sure. And I think you know as women in whatever area we’re working in we encounter that. I Don’t know maybe men do too but they don’t. I don’t know. I know women better than I know men. Yeah that lack of confidence that second guessing myself that desire to be a people pleaser is all very right under the surface for me. And you know thankfully I have a supportive group of friends and family who encourage me along the way or who help provide perspective if I’m losing it. So I think I think that’s really important is to surround yourself with people that you trust and people who love you and people who are willing to kind of speak that encouragement and confidence in you when you don’t have it yourself. But then also sometimes I just try to give myself perspective. Like if it were you know say try to write different things you know whether that like I don’t know an article for a blog or op ed for our newspaper that kind of stuff but writing does not come natural to me at all. You know it’s like a labor to get something out and just sound intelligent to hearing everything. But like when I’m you know getting frustrated with that I think OK I’ve already done already done this like a couple of handful of times and I can do it again. One thing that we say to our kids is you can do it. You already did it. Yes you can. You know I don’t know. Find your shoes in the morning. Because goodness. Isn’t that what. Because you already did it. You did it yesterday. You know you did it last week. You’ve already done it. You already have proven it to yourself. Do it again.

Susan: I love that. That’s really self motivating too.

Meghan: Yeah, we have a little song that I’ll spare you of. But you know that helps with the kids and really like one thing I’ve had to learn in just life is the importance of self care. You know and so today I’m going to go get a massage and it’s going to be nice and it’s going to be 50 minutes of relaxation. And I think another tendency that a lot of women that I know have is to just keep giving. Keep pouring out, keep investing until we have nothing left to give. And so I like to think of it as like a water pitcher. You know if water isn’t being poured into our pitcher and we’re pouring out then you’re dry and you can’t do anything for other people. And so taking that time whatever that is. Whether that is going on a run or eating ice cream or taking a massage or having a girls night out whatever it is for you that’s going to breathe that life back into you. Really crucial in order for you to keep breathing life out on to others.

Susan: Well I love that you added that.

Meghan: And I’ve learned that the hard way.

Susan: Oh Sure.

Meghan: Yeah we always learn these lessons the hard way. I’m trying to be more cognizant of that. Now in my life.

Susan: Yes. I identify with that. I love that. I love that you answered the next question that I was getting ready to ask you and I love how you segued into that. I’m getting ready to do a whole episode on self care because I have been really bad about that in these last two years really bad about it and my body finally said enough and told me so so I’ll save that for that episode. Thank you for bringing that up. I appreciate that. I have one more question.

Meghan: Yeah well thanks for talking about it.

Susan: Well I think we to start talking about these things as women we have to start. You’re absolutely right we have to start taking better care of ourselves because it’s like the mask that drops from the plane and they always tell you you know put yours on first before the other person’s next to you. You do have to take care yourself. Anyway one last question for you. I know a woman listening today has heard your story and is inspired to find her own way to get involved maybe it’s a refugee or immigration advocacy group or maybe it’s another group that’s standing up with the marginalized. And don’t we have a lot of that today. But you know I think a lot of us are finally saying enough but we’re trying to figure out how to get involved. So what action step would you recommend she take? Do you have one?

Meghan: Yeah that’s a great question. And I think all of our passions are different. And you know sometimes, I heard somebody else say this once that like whatever kind of wakes you up in the night or when you wake up in the night and you think about it that that’s kind of what your passion could be. So I mean I think there’s a lot of people who like you like you said have said enough. But where do I start. How do I get involved. And so I think first you have to identify what that issue is for you you know is that are you a mom and you have kids in your school and you’ve seen other kids maybe who don’t have lunch you know maybe that’s working on food issues and sustainable help and all that kind of stuff. Or maybe I don’t know there’s a whole variety of different things. And so I would say you know look at your local community. How can you invest locally. I think it’s locally that we can have the most impact. I think it’s where you know the most collaboration can happen where we can be the least divisive because it’s you know a friend of mine likes to say it’s neighbors helping neighbors. So look and see what’s going on in your own community. Are there initiatives already that you can get involved with. Does your community have a United Way or another kind of community foundation or organization that’s already working on some big issues. You know go there go their website, e-mail they’re volunteer coordinator. Just see what opportunities are there for you. And then like you said at the beginning find your people and that’s not always a quick process. Sometimes it takes showing up over and over and over again and putting yourself out there in a way that might be uncomfortable for you. And I kind of went through that myself of showing up in like literally saying Here I am. What can you use me for. And it’s awkward. And I’ve kind of had to just swallow some of my introvertedness with some of that. So so you know do your research show up make contacts with people. You know we live in an age of information and you know access to that information is really quick and easy and so educate yourself on the issue whether it’s a federal policy thing or state issue. Do your research become expert at it and then also kind of recognize that we’re women we’re moms we’re wives we’re sisters we’re friends we’re busy people but also realizing that if you take on something new that might mean that you have to let something else go. And so being okay with that and doing ending something else in your life well I think it’s really important. You know when I started on this issue I stopped being involved in a moms group that I was a part of for several years and loved it. You know I had to kind of put that down and walk away from that in order to pick this up but it was important to me that I left those relationships intact and that people understood what I was going to and as I started working full time just didn’t have the time for all of that. But recognizing that adding on also means letting go and that might mean a grieving process or making sure that you have someone else to fill your shoes for something else before you move into another area of involvement. So yeah that would kind of be kind of be my advice to someone listening.

Susan: Well I thought that was great advice and I really liked that adding on sometimes means letting go. That’s that’s hard to do. Thank you for sharing.

Meghan: Really hard. Yeah. And you know that’s a lesson I’ve also learned the hard way like I can try to do everything, but I can’t do everything well. And everybody suffered along the way including myself and so I where I’m at now is I would rather do a few things really well and feel proud of my work and feel like I’m giving it all that I can. And that means both letting go and saying no to new opportunities as they arise and that that can be hard.

Susan: Well speaking of opportunities I know you have massage to get to but I’m going to ask you before I let you go. You say you do a lot of writing on this topic and I presume on other topics that are similar to advocacy and all that. Is there a place where we can find you where we can find your articles. Do you post them to your Facebook page or Twitter or anywhere like that and somebody might be able to follow you publicly if they’re interested.

Meghan: Yeah I don’t write a lot. I speak a lot about writing and then I usually write. Let me clarify that. Yeah my twitter. I do all my Twitter basically all dedicated to this kind of work. And so I am at @megitasmith and then my Facebook I also post some stuff there as well. Meghan Blanton Smith and Meghan with an H, The H is in there and that matters.

Susan: Well, we will link that. Yes we will link that over on the website. So make sure to head on over there and check that out folks and you’ll be able to find all the links we talked about and I may add some fun stuff that we talked about that we didn’t talk about linking but Meghan I really really appreciate you taking the time to do this today. You squeezed me and and I just really really appreciate it. I appreciate you talking about this issue. I appreciate all the work that you’re doing so thank you so much for joining us today.

Meghan: Yeah thank you, Susan. I’m proud of you and the empowering work that you’re doing for women both where you live and you know podcasts you can listen anywhere. So I think it’s awesome how you are helping tell stories. Bravo.

Susan: Well thank you very much and I will talk to you soon.

Meghan: All right. Bye.

Susan: Thanks so much for joining us today. I hope you took away as much from that conversation as I did. I also hope it encouraged you to think about things in a way that maybe you haven’t thought of before. And something somewhat related and yet very related is I am slowly learning just how black and white I can see the world sometimes. I think I’m finally realizing there’s a lot more gray out there than I thought and sometimes it just really helps to hear things from the perspective of others. So if I could I’d like to humbly encourage you to have a conversation this week a safe conversation to be sure but a conversation nonetheless with someone who has differing views than you. You just might learn something from each other. And maybe perhaps move each others needle just a little. Thanks again friends. I’ll see you soon.

An adoptive mother with questions became a nonprofit founder with answers, with Anna Caudill

Susan interviews the founder and executive director of Post Adoption Learning Services (PALS), Anna Caudill.  Anna shares that forming PALS was not something she wanted to do, but felt had to be done in order to help other families dealing with international adoption.  Anna and Susan discuss the importance of surrounding yourself with a talented circle and team of support and that you don’t have to do it alone.  You are not going to want to miss this episode.  

Transcript:

Susan Long:                        Friends, I’m so excited to share the conversation I had with today’s guest.  Y’all are just going to love her, not only his aunt and my cousin, she is the founder and executive director of Post Adoption Learning Services or PALS. She is a true warrior for families with internationally adopted children and specifically for those with disabilities. We talk about everything from adoption to motherhood, to starting a non-profit. She has an incredibly amazing and empowering story. So without further ado, here’s.

Susan Long:                        Hey Anna. Good morning. How are you?

Anna Caudill:                      I’m good. How are you?

Susan Long:                        I’m doing well. I am so excited to have you on our podcast this morning. Friends, this is my cousin, Anna and she is the founder of Post Adoption Learning Services and I’m just going to let you take it from here and I want to know all about it. Um, tell us a little bit about the organization and how it came, how its mission came about.

Anna Caudill:                      OK, thanks. And thank you so much, Susan, for, for asking me to be a part of this. I’m really excited about this and I think what you’re doing is incredible.

Susan Long:                        Aw thanks!

Anna Caudill:                      Post Adoption Learning Services or PALS, I put it together to support the unique learning, and behavioral needs, um, that children who have been adopted internationally have. And so we do that by providing resources and training, and sometimes even direct advocacy services for families of children who have been adopted internationally and then for the professional community that supports them, whether that’s um, special education advocates and attorneys, social workers, adoption professionals, um, church-based ministry groups that support adoption and other peripheral adoption related groups. Um, PALS kind of grew out of my family’s experience, um, with my children and public education. And I know that as hard as it was when I was going through that and as lonely as that felt, I knew I couldn’t be the only parent who was facing the challenge of helping my child learn at school. And I figured if I was going to have to fight for education for him, um, as uncomfortable as that made me. And as much as that interfered with my ability to have a career or doing anything else, that I was going to help as many people as I could along the way.

Susan Long:                        I absolutely love that. That is a hard thing to do, to give up everything. I mean obviously you were going to do any mother would give up anything in the world for their child, but to take everybody else under your wing, Anna, that’s. That’s a lot.

Anna Caudill:                      Well, it kind of like when you get up from the table and you look around and you think, gosh, does anybody else needs something else to drink? Right, and maybe there’s an overdeveloped sense of motherhood there, but it was so much work and it was such an uphill battle to decide to take the next step at each step along the way from finding an advocate when my child needed one, to finding a special education attorney to any of those steps that I thought, Gosh, how many people don’t do this just because the mountain’s too hard to climb? If I’m going to have to climb up the mountain by cracky, we’re going to go to whoever’s office and bug whoever we can.  In addition. So that nobody else has to do this.

Susan Long:                        That is just phenomenal to have the foresight to do that. I just would not have even known where to start. How did you do that? Like you knew there was an issue, you saw a problem. How did you, how did you, how did you know what next steps to take? How did you, I mean, at the end of this you had a whole non-profit created, so take us back a little bit. Like what did that, what did that look like in the formulating of all of this? Had you ever done anything like this before?

Anna Caudill:                      The funny thing is I didn’t want to start a non-profit at all. To me that felt really presumptuous. It did. I thought, Gosh, who do I think I am?  I’m not starting a non-profit. And the funny thing was I, in working from home as, as we switched our plans, realizing that we were going to need to homeschool my older son, Fu for at least a season. I was trying to look at writing for magazines or writing for a publication and everything that you see or all the advice that you hear is write about what you know, your niche area and so as an artist I was working on identifying my niche areas in teaching. And then, um, then when this happened and I had to focus on this, I realized, you know, there’s, there’s this area and I have this expertise because I’ve had to learn about special education and I’ve had to really dig into law, which I didn’t anything about in order to learn how that whole conversation works when you’re trying to, um, defend your position and defend why you’re trying to ask for basic services that the paperwork that the school gives you says your child was supposed to have. So, um, you know, I started talking on social media. I post every now and then on Facebook without naming teachers without naming the school on what we were facing. And then my sister in law was reading it and she works for a human rights organization in Russia and she and my brother started saying you really need to start a non-profit and I would laugh at them every single time.  Yeah. And it got to where Craig was telling me every day just about if I got anything from him on Facebook, it was, hey, you need to start a non-profit. How’s that coming along? I have some people you could talk to. And so I just kinda shut him down, but then I started getting all of these messages by email and through social media from parents who were in the same boat. And it wasn’t just people in Tennessee, it wasn’t just people who go to church with me or who I see at um, my younger son, YoYo’s school it was people in Oklahoma and Minnesota and Massachusetts, California, South Carolina, Missouri. People that I had never met who found me because of a friend of a friend. And they would say, oh my gosh, this is exactly what we’re going through. What are you doing and what’s working. We thought we were the only ones.

Susan Long:                        So once you started sharing your story, you realized you weren’t alone.

Anna Caudill:                      I did. And um, it was really profound in that I drew actually a lot of energy from that in a way. In terms of moving forward and the point at which I thought, oh my gosh, I really am going to have to start an NGO was when I found a piece of obscure writing that was attached to the 2004 congressional reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. The IDEA. And that’s the structure that organizes special education in public schools and that’s what creates the IEP, the Individualized Education Plan that, um, lots of parents know about, um, and how meetings and things are set up. But this piece of writing talked about special considerations for kids adopted internationally and it was the kind of thing that showed legislative intent, like when Congress crafted these special education supports here’s, some of what was in their head while they were thinking about students adopted internationally and some of the things that people had brought before them. Um, they had that in mind in some of the changes. But that population didn’t make it into it, into the statutes. Right? So none of that actually became law. It was just, hey, here’s why we wrote the law this way.  And when you saw their explanation it kinda changed everything. And so I, you know, I thought, oh my gosh, this is a really important piece of information and this makes all the difference in the world. And, and by that time I was spending about twelve hours a week answering questions from parents, cause I couldn’t not answer an email from somebody who, you know, who might say, my kid is in 10th grade, and now he is reading on a 2nd grade level, and now he started to act out aggressively because he can’t communicate, his needs aren’t being met and we don’t know what to do.

Susan Long:                        And so at that point, no, no, go ahead, sorry.

Anna Caudill:                      Yeah. Oh No, you’re good. Or I have six children and I have no idea where to start. There’s no way I can homeschool all of them.

Susan Long:                        Yeah. So at that point, was it just your personal email that you were still replying from or had the, had you kind of started the non-profit wave yet?

Anna Caudill:                      At that point I was replying from my personal email and from my personal Facebook account, and this is where my husband gets all the credit because he’s such an incredible partner. He kept saying, you know, let me know what I can do, what I’m going to, what I can do. And I couldn’t identify what he could do cause I had no idea where to start.

Susan Long:                        Sure.

Anna Caudill:                      So he said you keep working on the thing that you’re doing well and I’ll find out what I can about this. And so, um, he started making calls and he learned how to start a nonprofit in Tennessee and the steps that needed to be taken for that. And so he’d come home from work and I would be buried on the computer or I would be at a class. And so he got dinner together for the kids so I could study and once they got into bed, we’d sort of wrangle the organizational pieces of putting a non-profit together and starting PALS. And we brainstormed a list of board members and he did the asking and the reaching out to them and just spent so much time on the administrative start up needs, so that I could focus on sort of the professional development that I needed to formalize what I was already doing, what I was already spending so much time doing and what I already knew about. And um, and that allowed me to to complete special education advocacy training  at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, and with the Council for Parent Attorneys and Advocates and the specialized seminars on the behavioral needs of children from trauma backgrounds, children who are adopted domestically or internationally or who had been in foster care. Um, and because it was that sort of partnership we were able to, a year ago, get our 501C3 approval from the IRS. And back in 2015 when I first thought, oh my gosh, this is what I’m going to have to do. I can’t fight this anymore. That idea of getting non-profit status seemed like such an impossible hill to climb. It seemed like this impossible mountain. And now that it’s been a year since we got that, I feel like, oh my gosh, we really are just starting. Sometimes its good when you can’t see around the bend in the road because you’d go there is just no way! I think I had to learn to be a little bit forgiving with myself and not have everything laid out in a five year plan when I first started. I mean, I know that, you know, banks or funders or grant makers, they’ll ask you to do those things. Where do you see yourself in five years and you know, you go ahead and you give your best stab at it, but really you don’t really know.  It’s all performance theater.

Susan Long:                        Sure.  Because you don’t know what you don’t know

Anna Caudill:                      You don’t. And because of that, I didn’t anticipate really. I didn’t know how to anticipate our momentum or how that would build or, or what success might look like. And we haven’t been an overnight success because the irony is, and I think this happens, you know, as I’ve seen this, I think this happens with other non-profits too or with other projects that people launch.  The irony is that once I decided to go for it, once I decided to do the thing that I thought needed to be done and to go forward with this vision, um, that was slowly taking place. The ironic thing was that the people that I had been responding to who had been asking me for help they stop emailing me and I was, it was because I kind of disappeared from social media there for a bit communication and from those communication places because I’m so immersed in training and so immersed in research and learning everything I could and even in some policy advocacy and learning how to do that. Learning how to approach legislators and having conversations, um, you know, on the political end of things to learn about policy and where barriers to policy can affect people. Um, and I didn’t expect that and there was a season where I thought that I had killed the thing that I had dreamed of doing, you know, by actually taking the steps to do it. But part of our momentum since then has come that didn’t expect has come from what my friend and writer David Dark calls messy coalitions. And I learned that I’m learning that pitching into a project that maybe seems peripheral to the larger goal of PALS ends up building alliances and relationships that you wouldn’t expect that can really inform your work later down the road or support your work. Because when you’re talking to say somebody in the legislature about paddling in public schools and you hear their position on it and they happen to tell you, oh yeah, we have, you know, my sister was adopted from Ghana, or you know, my, my wife has a disability, or you go into the legislator’s office and you realize oh my goodness, he’s a paraplegic. Then you have a different set of conversations and you know who you can go to, you know, to ask about issues and you can say, hey, how, how, how do you imagine we could more effectively support this community? And um, and along the way, the peer organization, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) I’ve learned so much because they do training sessions and breakout sessions. But then you have people who are attorneys who have argued before the supreme court saying, here’s why special education law is written this way and here’s how we explained this and here’s what worked. And so it helps you develop a cohesive structure to be able to support the families you want to support. And so now I’m finally coming back into the place where I’m actually getting three or four calls a week from folks and I have other organizations referring people to me because now at this point on this side of it, when you’re on, um, apparently the reputation of PALS is starting to spread to other organizations and I have to add that we wouldn’t have made it if it hadn’t been for board members being invested in adoption and civil rights and finding those people was really critical. And having my husband as a partner go, hey, I’m going to carry this part that is not your strong suit. And it really, yeah, people already knew because there were a lot of women in my community and you know, when you’re a teacher, you know, students who had gone through your school before, students who are going to your school now,  you know, their families. We all have wider circles of friends than we realize. And I looked to women who had done some things that I admired. And um, people who I just felt like I learned a lot from. And so I kind of looked at those folks with fresh eyes and thought, well, you know, Gosh, this woman did this and I wonder if she’d be interested in this. I wonder if that would feel like a good place for her to step into, to form and add her voice to, to this work. And one board member was adopted from Korea and originally when I approached her I was thinking about her experience in the non-profit world and with adoption related an adoption related agency that she had worked with and her incredible media skills because that I just a weak area for me and I thought if she could just explain some things to me that would be good. And then, um, as I thought about her, as I got ready to ask her, you know, cause she was a person that I asked everyone else Shane asked, as I got ready to ask her, I thought, gosh, that would be so helpful to have the voice of an adult who had been adopted as a child internationally inform this and bring me back from my mama mission perspective because it’s not wrong to have an agenda. It’s not wrong to have this thing that you need to do, but you’ve got to have some other people from perspectives along the way that might be adversely impacted if you just come barreling through without trying to understand multiple perspectives as you go. And um, another member had helped organize a symposium on AIDS in Africa back in 2003. Um, she worked for a publishing group in Nashville and uh, she and a friend had collected some assays and then that led to this symposium on AIDS in Africa. And then that became part of the back story of Bono’s ONE Campaign back then and AIDS in Africa and the Gates getting involved and international adoption is a part of her family’s path. Another board member  works for an adoption support organization now and another works in housing equity. So there’s, there’s all those people with all that experience who were in, in my circle and they’re not folks that I was necessarily talking to every day and they’re not folks that I am talking to every day now or even running into every day. But they are those people who I knew who had those skills and those visions, that really meant a lot to me personally.

Susan Long:                        Well yeah, and I mean you had, you knew the people to reach out to and you surrounded yourself with this amazing team and one of the things that I love about it is that you were one of those people too and you didn’t know it yet. So how did you. I mean even the strongest of us have moments where we lack self confidence, but you were going into something so new, so I’ve never done this before. So how did you deal with that? How did you deal with the balance of sometimes I’m sure it was fake it til you make it, but on the inside, how did you really set yourself up with self confidence?

Anna Caudill:                      One of the things that I’ve always bristled against, I guess to some extent when I read any kind of how to do this or how to do that explanations sort of thing or or guide is this idea that it’s all about your goals and it’s all about your vision and it’s all about your mission and then you battle down through that. And I know my limits. I’ve probably made some of those clear already, but by looking to what other people were doing that, I saw, that, that I found helpful to any larger community and by looking to the people that I admired, then there was more of a sense of I knowing that I couldn’t do this by myself and knowing that there needed to be a team that could approach this together. And that I had this idea and I saw this piece of it, and who can I find that fit the other pieces of this and help me get my head around this? And, and so there was much more of a sense of an us approach and I think taking myself out of the equation as much as possible has helped because then, there are the day that I still need the self confidence boost, but it doesn’t all depend on me and if I have some dark days it’s not going to drag the whole organization down. But, by in large, I try not to take myself too seriously I try to laugh at myself a lot. And um, and you know how it is in our family, you’ve seen it since growing up. If we can laugh at something we do, so I’ve tried to make use of that. But um, my husband has always my biggest cheerleader and my voice.  I carry two things with me that are very important because they ground me and remind me, you know, that I’m not alone. That I don’t need to be afraid and that others have walked this road, and will walk this road.  And one of the things, and this is going to sound really odd, but one of the things is my grandmothers obituary and the other thing is a UVO card that belonged to my oldest son, Fuxia when he lived in China and my dad’s mother was such a strong woman. And on some level I know, I feel like I carry her story with me internally, everywhere. And I feel like sometimes there’s internal conversation that goes on between me and her and I go you just wouldn’t believe but, I guess the obituary is just an outward token of that, because it’s not like I open up my wallet and look at it. I guess it’s part of that I have that little token in my wallet. I reminded. She is with me wherever I go because she’s spoken into my life so meaningfully that she’s part of that. And it’s part of who I am.  And the UVO card, of all things, that was a gift from Fu. And he and YoYo were living in this, um, a medical foster home in Beijing and we went in 2008 to adopt YoYo and YoYo was 3 at the time and Fuxia was 7. And we didn’t know Fuxia at the time, hadn’t met him, didn’t know him before we went to China. And then when we went there we went to this foster home to sort of learn how to care for YoYo from a, from a medical perspective, because he had some pretty severe needs and this little guy kept following us around everywhere and he wanted attention all the time and he was so sweet and he was so adorable and that was Fuxia, and he was so bright.  And as we got ready to go, um, on the last day we were there, at this medical foster home, we prepared to go and we’re packing some of our things and we’re packing YoYo’s things. And he pulls us aside and he wanted us to go up to his room. And at the time he used a wheelchair for mobility, but his bedroom was on the second floor. So he pulled himself up the stairs by his elbows and took us to his room, and he pulled a little plastic bag out of his pillowcase and inside this bag were these five UVO cards and he handed us one. At first he handed us each one, and we said, how about we share one? So he wanted to give us that. And those were five things that are so precious to him that he hid them in his pillowcase, so that none of his other friends or none of the other children in the foster home could get those.  Those were his treasures.  That is all that he had that belonged to him as a human being.  And he shared that with us and how remarkable is that? That this little boy, would have that largeness of spirit. And so as we took that and we looked at that, he said, I love you but you do not come from me.  and we were crushed? So crushed? Because we did not. I mean we assumed we would never see him again. Because it’s not often that you can find a path back to a child in another country and so we were heartbroken as we went away with YoYo and for the next two years, I just carried that in my wallet and I looked at it every chance I got and I wondered what, what is he doing today? And at the end of two years when, at the end of the year, we started the adoption process and at the end of two years when we finally returned to China and when went to get him so much had happened in his little life and he was nine and he didn’t recognize that card anymore and he found it in my purse. We were at this hotel, um, on the day that we went to the consulate to find our, finalize our adoption. And, um, he said, what is this? and I explained the story to him and I told him about how I thought about him every day and he said, and then you picked me. And his face was like sunshine and those two lives are a part of mine. And I can’t lack self confidence when I remember and carry with me those reminders that I’m part of the journey that started long before my grandmother and it’s going to continue long after my son and so this is not all about me and this little moment.

Susan Long:                        Oh, Anna. Tears are in my eyes. Like that is just the most precious story. And who knew that it would take you down this road? I mean, there’s no way you knew back then. This is where this would lead you. And I just, Oh, the whole story is just fascinating and I love every bit of it. Um, I want to, um I want to switch gears just a little bit as I dry my eyes and every listener who finds this dries their eyes.

Anna Caudill:                      Everybody take a moment. Take a sip of your tea.

Susan Long:                        Right? So tell us, um, as we come to the end of our time together and I, we are going to have to have you back because this is just, I want to know, you know, I want to know how this is going. I want to keep up with this, but tell us, tell us how you recharge your batteries, because I know you’re going, going, going with this all the time. How do you, especially when it’s your children, how do you put it down?

Anna Caudill:                      Well, you know, it’s really hard to draw some boundaries and Shane has been really supportive in that too. Going hey, make sure you get some sleep tonight. But you know, there’s so many moms, right? Who, who do the business of “momming”  whatever that looks like for them.

Susan Long:                        Well this is “momming” on steroids.

Anna Caudill:                      Right. And then, at night, there’s the chance to learn when things have quieted when you have space there’s that chance to learn. For my mom, night was when she said sewed. And so to bring extra income into the house was sewing projects at night. But um, you know, so because of that I, I’m, I sleep late when I can and I allow myself that indulgence that I think a lot of folks probably don’t because they think there’s always going to be more stuff to do. So if I find a day when I can sleep a couple hours late I do it. I putter with gardening, I like keeping chickens, like raising chickens, that sounded weird for a second.

Susan Long:                        No, all us Paw Patrol moms just presumed you had a purse chicken and you probably don’t get that joke.

Anna Caudill:                      That’s a hilarious concept actually. But we also have some friends in Charleston that we met through adoption and they’ve got kiddos the same age as our kiddos and we get together with them every June for a week or sometimes more. That is so grounding and so refreshing and it kind of reminds us of being human. Cause, sometimes you have to have those reminders like that, right? And I’ve also found a surprising source of restoration going with my mom on quilting retreats.

Susan Long:                        I love that.

Anna Caudill:                      I know that sounds so weird. And I would’ve thought, I would’ve laughed 10 years ago cause I would have thought oh my gosh that’s the fudydudiest thing. But, I go with her on these quilting retreats and we sew for like three or four days straight. All we do is sew and gossip and eat chocolate.

Susan Long:                        That sounds like heaven.

Anna Caudill:                      Fabulous. It’s great. And there’s all these women there, and sometimes, the more I listen, the more outrageous stuff I hear. And it’s great.

Susan Long:                        I love that. I love every little bit about that. OK. One last question before we end. And that’s, you know, I know there are women who are listening to this who have something in the back of their mind, either they’ve always wanted to do and they haven’t jumped out there and done it or they’re finally like whatever about this podcast or something else that happened to them today. They’re, and after listening to you, they’re like, OK, this is my time and I need to do this, whatever this is. Um, I like action, you know, we have all these great ideas, but we don’t, nothing happens unless we take that action step. So if you could nudge somebody, if you could give that woman out there today who heard you an action step, what would that be?

Anna Caudill:                      The biggest thing that I can tell you, and I know that I’m spoiled to have a husband who is so supportive and empowering, but I really believe, that if you get quiet and you look around and you, at least for a season, get quiet that so many of us have what we need around us and in us and we just haven’t woken up to it yet. And so if I, you know, when I got overwhelmed at the beginning, that seemed so presumptuous to start a non-profit, I would sometimes climb into the van in the driveway cause it was the only quiet space.  I would sit there with my hot tea, you know, sheltered from the world and I would go. OK, all right. We can do this? So if you know that getting quiet and that, looking within that space to find what was already there in my life, other things that I already knew that I might otherwise overlook, that was so invaluable because that’s how we found board members. That’s how we became open to the idea of, you know, stepping into some other projects that otherwise wouldn’t have fit with a three year plan. Look to the people in your life that you want to learn from or those who have done something you admire and purpose to sit down with them for lunch or for coffee and seek their wisdom. And if you can’t go back to school full time, because I couldn’t. I had to choose between financing motherhood and financing Grad School. And I financed motherhood. And so now I have neither the time or money to go back to grad school. But, I can find ways to finance a one day seminar or I can apply for a scholarship to this professional organizations conference. So those little places and those creative ways of tackling those give you the tools that you need in smaller bites. And there’s times when you’ve got to break it down like that. In fact, when, when I went to the one-day seminar, um, that seemed like the biggest, it seemed like a baby step. It seemed insignificant. It was this one day seminar. It was six hours. It was with a special education attorney named Pete Wright, who had defended or successfully represented a student with special needs before the Supreme Court about 10, 15 years ago. Um, I hung around afterwards, you know, the way that um, people hang around after concerts. I hung around afterwards like a  geek at this attorney thing. And I asked him about that little piece of obscure writing that I mentioned earlier from, The IDEA, that referred to international adoptees. And he said, where did you find this? And I said, Oh, it was in this document. And it was actually in a larger document that he used in his court case. And um, he said that’s a great piece of research and I’ve held onto that like it was Easter candy cause it was so affirming.. That’s really helped me through some hard things. So find your Easter candy look around, look within, and find your Easter candy. You know, look at your own life and find the things that in retrospect, even if it was just one thing that prepared you for this moment, what was, who was there and what was that moment and for me it was when we didn’t expect that somebody had spoken to somebody else about us, and we got this call from Washington saying that we had been honored as Angels in Adoption and would we come up to this week long celebration. And at first I thought it was a prank because I was in the hospital with YoYo he was recovering from surgery and I thought, oh my gosh, who is teasing me and trying to get me to laugh while I’m in the hospital. And it turned out no, it was a very legitimate thing and an incredible organization that has a tremendous impact on adoption. And so we went up and we took part in this in, in Washington DC and when it was all over later, as I took that piece of, you know, congressional writing and I decided, which, you know, I took a risk and I thought, I’m traveling to DC and I’m going to ask some policy makers about this little piece of obscure writing. I’m going to find out from the source what’s behind this. Then, I was able to call some, I thought, well, why don’t I call some friends that I made during that week, of Angels in Adoption and maybe they can help me get my head around this and they taught me so much and they hosted me in their homes and they were women who had walked this road before and when I at the risk of asking that question and saying, Hey, I think this needs to happen is that if I think this is important and they had been helped by other women and they were so ready to share their, their gifts and their knowledge and any support that they could, you know, to help me take the next step. And that helped me be a lot bolder than I would otherwise because otherwise I’m the kid who would rather stay home and spin wool and read books and hold up in my own little shell.

Susan Long:                        Yes, and times are a changing sister friend and I don’t think we can. We can do that to recharge, but we can’t do that anymore. Can we?

Anna Caudill:                      Right. Yeah. I think living that way, I don’t know that it’s. I think at one point in my life I would’ve bought that as a luxury, I don’t know that I think of it as a luxury anymore because we don’t realize how much we minimize ourselves and allow ourselves to sort of fade into the wallpaper when we do that. And there might be seasons when you’re need to do that. And there might be. It might not be that you are the person who needs to start a nonprofit, but you might be really, really helpful on a board. I’ve had one former student call up and say, you know, I’m really great at organizational stuff. Could I help you start up a filing system to manage your stuff?

Susan Long:                        Shut the front door.

Anna Caudill:                      And I hadn’t even expressed that as a need. Not Anywhere

Susan Long:                        They can come to my house. Any day.

Anna Caudill:                      Right?! OK. So I have this organizational filing need in my coat closet. But no, I mean that there, there’s opportunities that are there and there’s people who want to be involved and it’s important to find yourself, you know, where can you be involved and where can you help?.

Susan Long:                        Yeah, absolutely. I’m sure there is so much more we could cover and I’m not kidding. You’re going to have to come back. Um, but tell us where we can find you on social media, how can we get involved in PALS if that is something we feel led to do?

Anna Caudill:                      Right now, we are online at www.postadoptionlearning.org We’re on Facebook at Post Adoption Learning Services and on Twitter we’re at, @postadoptlearn and um, right now I have more work that shows up on Facebook because that’s really accessible for me. We’re building the website and trying to built content. You know, thats one of those things that always takes time to formally write down the research that I’m doing but um, those are the three places.

Susan Long:                        Excellent, and we’ll link all of that on our website, um, once we publish this puppy so that, so that we can link back to you. So friends if you’re listening to this and you didn’t have a chance to write that down. Don’t feel bad, don’t feel like you have to go back and relisten. It will be on our website. Anna, thank you so much. So, so much for all you are doing for our kids. Um, we didn’t even get into it, but this just doesn’t, this what you’re doing does not just affect, um, international adoption or children with disabilities or international adoption, children with disabilities. On some level, this affects all our children and at the end of the day as a mom, I think that’s what a lot of us out there going to be fighting for is our kids. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. I really appreciate it. Um, yeah, it’s been a lot of fun. All right, well thanks so much and we will talk to you next time.

Susan Long:                        All right. Thank you.

Susan Long:                        I wasn’t kidding, was I? Isn’t she just great? I find her story so inspiring and empowering. She continuously spurs me to action and I hope our conversation did just that for you. If you liked this episode, I know you will be excited about our future guests, so go on over to itunes or our website and hit subscribe. I would love it if you would also leave a review as I’m excited to hear what you think. Also on our website, you’ll be able to find the links to the things we mentioned in the show as well as PALS website and social media info. Thanks again friends. I’ll see ya soon.

 

Premier Episode

In the premier episode of How She Got Here, Conversations with Everyday Extraordinary Women, Susan, the creator and host of the podcast, shares the tipping point in her life that drove her to action.  She was tired of being made to feel inadequate by messages she had heard and internalized since she was a young girl.  She also discusses how sharing her story with other women lead to her hearing similar stories from others.  The result of all of this has lead to the creation of this podcast. The goal of which is to share the stories of Everyday Extraordinary Women! 

Transcript:

Susan:                  Hey friends, welcome to the first episode of How She Got Here, Conversations With Everyday Extraordinary Women. I’m Susan. Your host and creator of this podcast and I’m grateful to have you join me. Ladies, we are on the cusp. We are living in a time of great opportunity and possibility. Women are rising together all over our country, all over the world. This space highlights everyday women doing extraordinary things. Why? Mother Teresa once said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” These everyday women’s stories we hear are the stones, stones, to inspire us, to create the ripples, calling us to be ourselves, to push our dreams, to reach a little higher than we thought we could. My goal each week is to bring you a guest with her own awesome and inspiring story. So consider this my invitation to you to accompany me on this journey. Come with me and let’s explore the fascinating and inspiring stories of the women around us. I hope we will laugh together. I hope we will cry together. I hope together we will learn more about ourselves. I confess, I don’t know where this journey will take us, but as Tina fey once said, “You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the water slide over thinking it. You have to go down the shoot.”

So to me, one of the greatest part of going on a long trip with someone is that you get to learn so much about them and your relationship with them is never the same. So today I’m going to share a little about me.

A few years ago there were some huge changes in my life. My husband and I overcame a struggle with infertility and we finally had the baby of our dreams. That will be a whole separate episode that I’ll save for later date because that’s a hard subject. One evening after a particularly hard day, I put the baby to bed and finally had a moment to myself. I was watching television and what I saw on the screen sent the message loud and clear that as a woman I wasn’t enough.

And whether it was the straw that broke the camel’s back that night or the huge lack of sleep, I burst into tears and yet no matter what I did, I couldn’t shake that feeling in the pit of my stomach and it’s that feeling we all have sometimes. It’s that voice in the back of the head, my head and your head, and the anxiety that no matter what I did, I was never gonna be enough. This feeling consumed me and the fear of failure paralyzed me. These are messages I had heard either directly or indirectly all my life. Most recently it was a message I heard when I was talking with someone who was very close to me, and this is not a political podcast. This is just my truth and this is just a part of the story. It was the night that the Access Hollywood tape was released and I was on the phone with this person and I said, what if this man had been talking about me? And all this person could say to me at that moment was “he represents my values” and I was shocked.

But you know, like I said, I’ve heard this directly or indirectly all my life. I heard them in the church I grew up in where to this day in 2018, women are still not allowed to preach. I heard them in school when I was told I couldn’t wear shorts to school because they weren’t fingertip length. And like many of you, I’m sure I heard them from strange men, adults who cat called me when I was around, you know, 14, 15, 16. And the adults that I trusted said, oh, just ignore them and take it as a compliment that you look cute.

That’s the message we want to send to our young girls. That’s the message that I was supposed to get from that. That not only that I’m cute, but I’m supposed to take a cat call as a compliment. No!  No more. But I realized that these are messages that have been internalized and ingrained in myself, and I’m guessing some of them are probably in you too. And what’s worse is I kind of believed them. We’ve all gotten these messages on some level, haven’t we? And it seemed this night, this night that this breakdown happened with me, it seemed like it was a night that was years in the making, but I wasn’t just devastated anymore. I was angry and I was mad and I was tired of the BS. I cried myself to sleep that night.

I woke up the following morning and I was exhausted. I knew I hadn’t slept well, but I also woke up determined with a new sense of purpose. I reached out to a few friends who I consider to be sisters and I was reminded that I was at my best when I was surrounded by these women. They’re friends from college and I was fortunate to have graduated from a small single gender liberal arts college. It was an amazing bubble. It was safe and it was empowering for me and it was like no other place on earth. And I have not had that same experience since. I also reached out to my former professor for women’s history, Dr Melissa Walker for a list of books on our foremothers. I felt like a refresher would help on our history, so I read about Ida B. Wells, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B, Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, the early days, how it was started, why it started. I read about the Seneca Falls Convention, who was and wasn’t included and the privilege associated with that. I re-read the story of how long it took us to get the vote and in case you didn’t know, it took us 70 years to get the vote. Susan B, Anthony did not live to see the nineteenth amendment ratified. She died in 1906 and the nineteenth didn’t happen until 1920.

Y’all change takes a long time and sometimes it won’t come in our lifetime. I read about Catherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, and they had a really cool movie come out about those women, but the book was 100 times better. I read about Grace Hopper, Coretta Scott King, Sally Ride, Sandra Day O’Connor, and these are just a few, a few of my favorites.  Y’all, there are so many incredible women. Women we didn’t learn about in standard history classes and these are women that changed history that for sure will be a future podcast episode

During this time I also found it helpful to talk things through with a therapist and I know therapy is still sometimes a taboo subject, but just being able to talk this stuff out is really helpful and if you’re going through something, I would seriously encouraged you to do that. I also journal during this time and I started some serious spiritual meditation. I tried being still and I tried centering myself and eventually started to pay off. I started to notice things that I had not noticed before and hear things that I would have otherwise missed. I began to truly value these authentic moments, not just with myself but with those around me. I found that it was these moments that renewed my spirit. As I worked through all of this and started sharing my story. Other women confirmed similar situations and similar feelings. Apparently a ton of us are walking around looking pretty darn amazing on the outside, but on the inside we constantly feel like we aren’t enough, and I have had enough of that.

Have you? Y’all I want this space to be a place of peace. I want to create a place where we can celebrate. I want this to be a place of inspiration. I want us to be able to share our hopes and our dreams, but more importantly, maybe most importantly, I want us to be able to speak our truths and I want us to grow together. So that’s just in a nutshell my story and we’ll learn more about each other as this goes along. The next time we meet, I want to begin our journey together in earnest. In the meantime, I would love for you to reach out and say hello. Tell me about yourself. What are your hopes and your dreams? What do you think of our first couple of episodes? I would appreciate your feedback after all. This journey and this space is not just mine, but I want it to be ours. And I’m ready and I’m so excited for it to begin.

I’ll see you soon.