Grace’s Story – an afternoon that changed my persective on business in Africa

June 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

ImageToday, I would like to share a powerful story with you – a story that changed my life.

I met Grace during my first trip to her village, but it wasn’t until I started Nakate that she and I were able to sit down and talk.

Grace has a round, mud and thatched hut on the edge of Kakooge where she is a mother both to her own children and to her late children’s children – 12, in all, and she cares for them by herself.

I told Grace she must keep busy, and she laughed with me. She poured us milk tea in the afternoon shade of the banana trees around her home, and Grace asked me a pointed question.

“Why did you choose to work with women like me?”

She said that she knew I could have chosen a career as a doctor, a woman in finance, or a female lawyer – that there was much opportunity in the United States for girls like me, both for education and for business. She said she thought I should have taken one of those opportunities, and expressed her concern for me and my career. Why had I come to Uganda to work with impoverished women? Why had I thrown away professional opportunity?

She asked if I had brought shame to my family.

That day was the beginning for me – the start of when I really knew what it was that I was doing with Nakate.

I was creating new stories.

See, the only story Grace had ever been told was one of her poverty and weakness – her need for help. She had been given money by nonprofits. Her children had been handed sponsorships at a local school. But Grace had never been told that her talent and strength as a woman was worth partnering with – that her unique skill set was important to the global market – enough so that a young, enterprising American woman would want to work with her over being a doctor or lawyer.

That day, I was able to tell Grace that working with her was a job that gave me respect at home in the USA, that my parents and grandparents were proud of me, and it was a career choice that I considered just as dignified as working in finance, law or the medical field.

I watched Grace sit a little taller, after that.

“I never knew,” she told me. “I’m glad to be doing business with you.”

That’s the heart of our work, at Nakate – empowering individual women to see their own talent and power through design. We want them to understand that they are businesswomen – enterprising, brilliant females in a global market.

That’s their new story.

Tomorrow, as I take off for Uganda – you can join me through shopping our online store (40% off just through today with code NEWSTOCK). Alternatively, you can join me in creating impact here.

On Turning 24, and Experiencing Life Directly and to the Hilt

January 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Christine Caldwell writes that happiness lies in the ability to experience life directly and, “to the hilt.”

This experience, she explains, comes from accurately knowing ourselves.

“Knowing who we are gives us all sorts of ideas or stories to tell,” she writes. “I am a woman, a mother a teacher a psychotherapist. While these are all accurate labels, do they really encompass me? Like a compass, do they locate me for myself and others? Ideas may or may not be accurate; they are certainly shaped by what we have been told about ourselves and by our needs for approval and attention. Knowing who we are provides a view that can dictate how we see the world and how we act in it. If gives us a box to live in.”

A friend of mine drove a camper across the country this past summer. She wrote that a group of folks outside Alexandria, Virginia had shown surprise at her choice to go it alone – “don’t you get lonely?”

“What a sad thing it must be not to like being alone with yourself,” she wrote later that day.

I printed it out and put it beside my mirror.

That was back when Ben and I were talking every day. I’d just moved to New York, and he was planning to come meet me after he finished his art history degree in San Francisco. I’d cry sometimes about how often I was alone, and how little I liked it.

He’d tell me it was a season. “By the time I come out, you’ll see it all differently. You’ll be on the other side, man.”

It’s been six months since that season, now – and just long enough to forget how it felt, sometimes, but still be relieved its over. We had brunch in East Village on Saturday. He showed me to the apartment he’s applied for, and grabbed me on the street afterward. “You are doing it man! We are doing it man!”

We parted ways off the L at 14th, and I caught the 6 downtown. I thought about my fighting months in New York – all those times I felt so empty and alone I wanted to run home, just for one desperate weekend to see my family.

I thought about the books I read by the Hudson and the bars I went to by myself, the museum exhibits I found – the walks I took from uptown to Lower East when there was no one to call for a cup of coffee and conversation.

There was no man’s land in there for a while – all this empty feeling in not being sure what to put where inside my identity.

I thought about the shift that started taking place when I stopped resisting – about how I slowly let go of how I used to think I liked to date and liked to live and liked to work and liked to interact – the unnatural feeling process of throwing it all off, getting rid of the ideas I’d formed because I thought they were true. I thought about how surprised I was when I started getting to know myself.

The location of self was key in all of this. I remembered that vividly – asking questions of myself, instead of who I’d made myself out to be based on a bottle collection of experiences and opinions.

Imran Garda writes to his daughter Lamees that, “You will find humility will scurry towards and wash over you when circumstances require it. You don’t need to look for it or project it. Seek it, and the menacing trappings that lie beneath it will be your true motive.”

I found I’d collective negative perceptions like trinkets – like something valuable. The menacing trappings below the search for humility looked like inaccuracy, not properly knowing who I was, just knowing how I tended to act when provoked, or sad – or how I felt when I was first alone in a new city.

I remember asking myself if I had good ideas, if I was creative and smart – if I was “difficult,” like some people had said, or perhaps just passionate. Passionate was something I eased into. Difficult was something I slowly left behind.

When my entrepreneur coach and I met in December, it had been five months since I first began to search for myself. We were drinking coffee and talking over Skype, and she told me that the Mayan calendar, read properly, showed the end of 2012 as a cosmic shift into feminine power.

“Imagine!” she laughed. “All the world exclaiming that disaster is upon us when, in fact, it’s just the global uprising of feminine strength.”

Her laugh and my coffee and the Mayan prediction all felt warm around me, that morning. Like the first time I really knew that I was creative, and a talented entrepreneur. This was a moment of definition of self – one of those building blocks for the box I live in.

Maybe she gave me a placebo, that day – the promise of a year of power serving as a self fulfilling prophecy in the belief that followed.  But, on the 6 to Bleeker I realized that all those months spent with the tiniest bit of courage, pushed through to action, were finally showing themselves. All this fearful, apologetic living gone toppling, tumbling down, one day at a time.

I know now that life is built on expectation, instead of dread.

Expectation can be confusing. I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, but I believe the kind that leads to wholeness has much more to do with belief in the life that grows out of time well spent, instead of the fear that leads to self protection. Opportunity, for me, comes with an opening of self to experiences that lead to expansion. At 23, it meant moving to New York by myself. Then, it meant waking up each morning and doing it, over and over and over again despite fear. It meant emailing shops I did not think would accept my line, pitching to fashion weeks I was surprised accepted, and asking for accounts I didn’t know we’d get so quickly. It meant putting money into a future I didn’t always believe in, and talking with strength about something I felt weak about. That was the hard part – all those months after the big leap across the country. That’s where all the blood and sweat and dying occurred.

I learned, in those months, that there’s the temptation to shrink after moves of big boldness. You finish out the biggest obstacle brimming with bravery and belief and then – what? – all this terror comes up, like left over corruption from the old regime you threw over.

But I know, now, that the insistence to take one more step is all that matters – just enough courage to again and again and again choose to live and speak out of who we are, instead of who we thought we might be. This is the secret to expansion, to entrepreneurship that ends up paying the bills – to life lived directly and to the hilt.

Now, if you’ll excuse me – I have a play to go see by myself, and a 24th birthday to prepare for.

It’s funny – I’m headed out with a group of friends I was surprised accepted an invitation so quickly.

Thoughts from a Buddhist Shrine: The Necessity of the Present Task

December 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

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I spent two hours at a Buddhist shrine in Chelsea this weekend, sitting and feeling my legs ache while I tried to find my center.

“You’re going to feel yourself pulled off course,” my instructor said. “That’s ok. Acknowledge it – ‘thought’ – and pull yourself back to the breath.”

There’s nothing that feels immediately natural about meditation. Here you are on a cushion in a room full of other people with your eyes wide open, trying not to get too caught up staring at one single spot while you focus on your breathing.

I’ve rarely spent time in total stillness by the time the gong rings to end the session. But when I’m tempted to get mad at myself for planning my week out instead of finding my center, I remember that I show up at this studio in Chelsea because meditation isn’t about perfection but, rather, about learning to hold your seat – to stay in the moment without changing its discomfort and imperfection.

It’s just this kind of thinking – “gentle thinking” – that brings me back to recognize that this exact moment, with the room full of people and the ache in my knees – is important. And, therein lies the secret to meditation.

The concepts I learn through this practice have proved to be some of the most helpful tools I’ve discovered in my journey as a young female business owner in New York.

The process of building a business without financial backing takes 4-5 years, with at least your first two typically spent in the red. Proof of concept can often take a year in itself, and the mistakes you’ll make after that will take both your money and your time.

What all of that adds up to is a whole lot of imperfect discomfort that I’ve learned you can’t build anything worth holding onto without. No matter what way you slice it, a business is built on thousands of individual moments that need your attention before you can move forward. And, sometimes, it feels like its going to be forever before someone rings the gong and welcomes you into the next phase.

When my heart is tired and my brain hurts and my emotions are all pushing me to give it up, the principles of meditation are teaching me to stay with the right now. Not when I’m making x amount of money, or manage to take on x amount of new accounts. Right now. This moment, with the recent mistakes and the present frustrations.

I’m learning to “hold my seat” – to engage fully with this exact stage of my business,  just like each moment on the cushion.

Here are a few reasons why that is so important:

The future builds off this moment.

I’m often tempted to run ahead to the next thing – to do what’s more exciting or let my thoughts wander out to six months from now, but the truth is that each individual phase of building is vitally important to the next. If I hadn’t spent a year providing my concept, or several months on strategic planning, or made mistakes that showed me what direction not to continue in, our business never would have moved forward to the next phase.

This moment is teaching me something I need to know.

In hindsight, some of the most seemingly “wasteful” moments of my business have taught me absolutely vital skills. I saw this last year, after helping my former guide through a medical emergency in Uganda. I was glad to help – but I struggled, over those weeks. I was there to do business and ended up spending hours in medical clinics and hospitals, arguing with drivers and handling payments.

While all that time felt genuinely wasted due to a corrupt health-care system,  those weeks taught me cultural insights that now prove useful to me every day.

This moment deserves my attention.

In meditation you learn that things you typically ignore, like your breath and the feeling of your stomach filling with air, are actually tools. While seeming insignificant, they can actually be the key to handling your life’s largest stress areas well. And, I’ve found that seemingly mundane or unexciting tasks I’d like to ignore make up the foundation of my business – things like market research, accounting, inventory are each important in their own right, and need to be done well in order for the business as a whole entity to flow smoothly.

This moment will give me strength for the next one.

I was once told that building a business like running a marathon. This means that endurance is required. And, the only way that you can learn to get comfortable with endurance is by starting with where you’re at.  Slowing down and breathing through one moment is what gets me through the next.

So –  Breathe. Stop. Stay.

Give this imperfect, messy moment your very best.

(A version of this post can be found over in my weekly column in the London based women’s lifestyle magazine Your Coffee Break).

What a Year of Failures Taught me About Stripping Away the Inessential

November 11, 2012 § 4 Comments

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default. —J.K. Rowling

There is no confusion in my mind about the reason I started my business. I didn’t start it because I felt bad for African women, and I didn’t start it because I had to. I started it because I was desperate for meaning in my life. My religious background hadn’t provided it. Traveling as it were hadn’t provided it. My failed dating relationships hadn’t provided it. And, so, I was left with people. I began to believe that people provide life with meaning, and I wanted to partner with people in such a way that every second I spent laboring over my career path could be traced back to another person’s life, and its positive effects there.

I wanted to wake up every morning knowing someone else’s life was being bettered for it. I knew that was the only way I was going to feel alive, while I was working.

That was the light of my dream. That was my bottom line.

My company made more money than I expected it to, in year one. Which is fantastic. However, I look back on our budget and the way we spent money, and I wonder who the hell put me in charge.

Oh yeah, I did. And, I didn’t forgive myself for that for a long time.

I put the wrong person in charge of quality control, and she cost me thousands of dollars. I spent money on the wrong fashion shows, and I played around with the wrong branding. I supported myself out of the company account, when I really should have landed a part job so that I wouldn’t suck from our finances. I bought in bulk, when I should have streamlined. I did too many sale events, and I looked to the wrong target market.

I even moved to the wrong town.

By the time I had landed in New York City, started re-working our company, and begun meeting with an entrepreneur coach, I was sure I was the worst project manager in the whole world of social enterprise. I didn’t know where to start. In fact, I didn’t even want to get out bed.

We met three times in that first month. By the end of our first projects together, she sat down and gave me an assignment.

I was to look in the mirror every day, and tell myself that I was a, “brilliant entrepreneur, headed toward success and financial stability.”

I was positive she was full of it. I even found it a little humorous. However, after 40 days of looking in the mirror and telling myself I was brilliant and headed to success, I began to believe it (this whole mirror thing works). A week later, I accepted the fact that that was true because I failed gloriously. Gloriously! I had spent money, time and resources in most of the wrong places, yes, but after I let go of all that dead dross, I found that my baby business was still alive, under all the dead branches I’d buried it under. And, it was ready to grow. I was ready to grow.

Thanks to my failures, I knew what direction I needed to head in. Doors had been slammed shut. Tides had risen around me. And, all I had to do was hang on to the things I had learned I was good at – and chase after those like my life depended on it.

Pema Chodron writes that, “All this messy stuff is your richness, but saying this once is not going to convince you,” and I don’t think that there is a better description of the gift that failure can be, if you are able to put it in proper perspective.

Here’s what I learned about failure, in running-your-own-social-enterprise year number one:

1. It’s going to happen.

Hooray! You’re going to fail! There’s just no way out. You’re going to owe someone money and not be able to pay it. You’re going to pick a shitty product. You’re going to wish you hadn’t done XYZ. You’re doing to feel like you are the biggest schlep ever.

Grab yourself a bottle of tequila, and some Grey’s Anatomy. It’s gonna hit you hard, and you’re going to feel like a worthless, penniless fool who needs to get a real job. When this happens, stay far away from LinkedIn, your friends in finance and – a word to the wise? – don’t date a corporate sales expert.

Just trust me on that one.

2. It’s going to make you better

After you cure your tequila hangover (chilaquiles for the win!), settle back in to your desk and recognize that this made you better. Whatever it is you lost, you’re going to have to think of it as a transaction. You gave up a resource, a dollar amount, a relationship, for a certain amount of knowledge – and its going to stay with you for the rest of your life.

Just a few things I learned through wasted resources and money? How to streamline a production process, the importance of hiring the right people on the ground, what a target audience means and how to find it – and, ruthless focus. If its not in your business plan or branding, it’s a no. A firm no. And, it’s a no again.

3. It’s not you – it’s the process

One of the hardest things for me to get past was that it wasn’t my fault. Yes, it was my job to run this company. But, no, it wasn’t my job to know how to do it perfectly from the get go. Yes, there were artisans partnering with me who could use the money I was sending much quicker than it was coming. But, no. I was not responsible for their livelihoods, and it was not my job to fix their situation – it was my job to build the best company I could, over the long term: one that may not sell their product well this year, but would be doing it well in two, or three – and still doing it well in fifteen, or twenty.

4. Start over

One of the hardest concepts for me to get past was that I could start over, at year two. Because I put so much effort and time into year one, I really felt like I was cheating on my past self to call my year two a year one. But, that’s exactly what it was. I started over with a new business plan, new team members, new management and new designs. And, the only way to do that with a clear mind and a narrow focus was to do it with a clean slate. I began over again with the knowledge I’d gained from my year of failures, and I began again.

5. Celebrate your success

It’s really easy to look back and see all the things you didn’t do – and a little more difficult to celebrate what you are doing well now. But, lo and behold, I am three times the business leader I was last November. And, we are finally reaping the benefits of that change. I see my company growing. I see sales taking off.

I see the changes I made post failure creating a platform off of which I believe we can really do some beautiful things in this world…and I have my failures to thank for that.

Maybe they turned me into a brilliant entrepreneur after all.

At least that’s what I told myself in the mirror this morning.

How Do You Hire on The Ground? My Journey Toward Business Partnerships in Africa

October 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

I often find it necessary to remind myself that the majority of us begin working in Africa because of the ignorant idealism that flows from the infatuation behind a dream.

Maya Angelou writes, “now that I know better, I do better,” and I don’t struggle with ignorant idealism, as such. It’s just that kind of ignorant idealism that drove me to begin a social enterprise, never knowing the money, sweat and tears I was going to lose in the process. By the time it all hit me, I was too in love with my work to turn back.

I struggle with the individuals I meet that have spent years in the field and continue to hang onto old ideals – this kind of christianeze colonialism, that you shouldn’t share your email with the wait staff, or talk in a normal American accent to their children. The first time I spent a summer in Haiti I flew in with a medical team, and the woman in charge yelled at anyone who wandered out to discover nearby Port au Prince on their own. I still remember her wide open mouth yelling at a group of grown medical professionals – “DO I NEED TO SEND YOU HOME?”

And I can safely say that no one learned much of anything about Haitian culture on that trip.

I’ve been criticizing Americans in the international community for hanging on to their cultural paradigms within foreign settings for a while, now. But what I think that many of us from my vantage point have failed to do is say that we are such strong advocates for new ways of being because breaking through a closed paradigm into international partnerships is perhaps the most rewarding change we have ever made.

Change is a two step mental process. First – give up an old paradigm. Two – adopt a new one. In the field of social enterprise, I believe we often struggle with the former because we have no idea where to begin on the latter. You can let go of an old way of being, but no one likes to live in free fall.

After I switched over from a “White Savior” way of thinking, I was, most certainly, in free fall. I didn’t have the first clue about how to find talented locals, who to hire or how to join the community of professionals in a country where I was familiar with only the impoverished and uneducated.

A community of brilliant diaspora, two Ugandan managers and a few key Nigerian fashion partnerships later, I know an entirely different reality. And, I have found my network to be invaluable.

Contrary to popular opinion, you do not have to be on the ground for things to be, “done right.” Nor do you have to carry all the work on your own shoulders, or send an intern into a new culture and expect them to run quality control for you.

Below is a general road map to begin you on the journey of connecting your enterprise or nonprofit to professionals in the African community. I hope that it will transform your business practices the way it has mine.

  • Join the online community

There is a large conversation on twitter led by diaspora and professional leaders in the African community, particularly on twitter. They’re more than willing to provide you with resources, explain growing trends and movements and introduce you to African professionals experienced in the areas you need help with. Engage with their conversations, follow their hashtags. Read their work.

Some accounts to get you started: @Calestous @TMSruge @Semhar @InnovateAfrica @afrolicious @enamara @spectrapeaks @adiatdisu

Introduce yourself! (and tell them my blog sent you – @shanleyknox).

  • Decipher the discussion

Figure out what it is your seeing – who is displaying photographic talent? Who is an authority on business, politics, women’s issues? Who are these people connected to? Who is providing the content that drives the discussion? Who shows the skills of a community manager, blogger, innovator?

I found our most recent Ugandan photographer, Edward, through watching whose photos Ugandans were tweeting during crisis stories or cultural events.

  • Ask for meetings

Virtual networking is just like networking in person (except with less alcohol). I started asking for Skype meetings with just about everyone, and found our most recent manager in Kampala through openly asking for his opinion on my business model. We met several times over Skype for him to explain cultural trends and methods of business within Uganda. After about four sessions, we began to discuss the possibility of us taking him on as an intern, and eventually hiring him as our manager.

  • Engage with the criticism

Opening yourself up to the diaspora and African community means being held accountable – that when you revert back into branding that puts yourself as a “white savior” or misrepresenting the culture you’re working within, you will be criticized for it. I had this happen with Teddy, a Ugandan friend of mine, after I tweeted that I was looking for clothing donations for the artisans I work with. He criticized me quickly, but after I responded with questions, he came to my rescue just as quickly, providing educational materials and alternative ways of thinking.

Don’t fight it. Ask more questions. Get email addresses. Engage in the discussion. Once you swallow your pride and engage with criticism, you might find your loudest critic to be an invaluable resource, not to mention your biggest advocate.

  • Ask to be involved

When I was first planning to move to New York City, I asked to be part of Africa Fashion Week New York. Founder Adiat Disu is a Nigerian socially conscious & culturally-driven PR entrepreneur for Fashion, Home Decor & Art. She not only welcomed me into the week, but introduced me to other valuable connections. Other examples include my requests to be featured in African publications and to join meet ups. The more I ask to be involved, the more the community welcomes me, and explains the ropes.

I suggest you do the same. Not only will you discover a professional network, but, quite possibly, a new group of dear friends.

Two years in to running my enterprise, I source quality control, product photos, promotional material, business development ideas and product development all from partnerships and collaborations with Ugandan professionals.

Follow my business: @nakateproject

What are some of your cross cultural networking and hiring stories?

I’d love for you to share them in the comments!

My Metamorphosis, and M’s West Coast Apartment

August 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

I met M and J three years ago in Grass Valley, CA – 25 minutes from where I grew up off Highway 49, and an hour’s drive on I-80 West from Lake Tahoe, where my brothers and I used to make bets on who could stay in the cold lake the longest. We used to make my mom laugh, running out bright red and gasping from the snow runoff to beg for Juice Squeeze and hoagies.

The girls separated a year later. I lost touch with J, after that, but M and I stayed close. She never talked negatively about her old girlfriend, despite the fact that they’d spent over seven years together, and J had been nasty about the breakup. M has this phrase that explains her philosophy of living – “arms up!” she’ll say. “Eyes closed. Roller coaster.” When she’s down, she’s expecting she’ll be back up. When she’s up, she’s aware she’ll be back down. But she doesn’t negate either place.

“I learned a lot from being with women,” she commented once. “Then again, I learn a lot from being with men. I guess I just love people.”

I’ve always been aware that putting a label on M’s sexuality would be a mistake. It has much more to do with a way of loving out her fellow man than it does anything to do with being pansexual or bisexual or gay or straight, and she never uses any of those things to describe herself. So, neither do I.

I lived out more than one metamorphosis in M’s west coast apartment – Shanley 2.0 and 2.5 and 3.0 all clusterfucked together while I figured it out. I’ve flicked cigarettes off the balcony and taken long, slow hits with my feet tucked up under me on the raffia furniture on the veranda until my head felt lighter and my temples buzzed. I’ve been brought home stumbling from Rohypnol and spent the night puking off the side of M’s bed until I could stand straight enough to get to the bathroom. I’ve spent dizzy hours cleaning up that carpet, and calling home to tell my mom I’m okay, that my friends brought me home, and nothing happened.

I’ve pulled someone close in that same bed, smelling cigarettes and Grey goose and tonic and I’ve felt the world stop turning for a while, in M’s apartment.

I’ve gone back to the balcony and the raffia on the veranda with my heart broken, and woken up with blistering insides on the white, leather couch and I’ve driven home late on the highway, praying out loud with my heater on full blast with my blistering, pulsing, hurting heart pumping up a hurricane inside my chest.

I’ve gone back again whole, and sat sipping cocktails at the counter and talking about new beginnings. M was the person I called the first time I kissed a girl, and knew instinctively that kissing girls wasn’t my thing. I called her the first time I slept with someone I didn’t know. I called her when I couldn’t forgive my body for shutting down, and when I rejoiced over it opening back up. I lost my way, along the way, but M’s path shone like a beacon, always allowing for new experience, but never doubting her direction. That’s where M and I differed. I was always a “what the hell” person. I pulsed through life pissed off and wondering  “What the hell? What the hell? What the hell?” while M danced, pulling in certain things and letting go of others, because M always knew what kind of beat she wanted to jam to.

Once, she told me that she’d gotten to that place of sureness through a lot of trial and error. That was the night I stopped being pissed at myself for asking “What the hell?” and recognized that it was part of my journey.

M is big on intuition and she’s big on trusting oneself. So, she supported me through planning a wedding, and then she supported me when it was time to let my plans go. I moved to Washington DC and Los Angeles and Portland and East Africa, and M closed her eyes and put her hands up for me, each time.

Roller coaster.

M was the person who introduced me to Martha Beck. Beck’s a Harvard graduate and life coach turned author, though perhaps not in that order. A lot of her writing centers on her son, Adam, who was born with Down’s Syndrome.

I still thought I had it figured out when M and I met, you know. I was this 19 year old with an agenda and a clear direction and I was making a lot of judgments on the world.

M didn’t care. That’s the beautiful thing about her.

She’d already learned the more you know the less you know – but she didn’t judge me for not being there yet. Instead, she quietly and kindly handed me Beck’s book “Expecting Adam” the night I first sat in her kitchen watching J flip chocolate chip pancakes at the stove.

All she said was, “read this. You’ll cry and you’ll laugh and it will change your life.”

She was right. I walked away from that book with a new perspective on success – that it was something that centered around the way you loved people and yourself and your work, rather than how much money you made or the title you carried. Or, so I thought. I mean, I guess I stored that information somewhere inside me. But, I must have forgotten it when I simultaneously chose to become a social entrepreneur and at the same time became guilt ridden and depressed because I felt I “should” be working in an office for a salary instead.

When I hired an entrepreneur coach to kick the guilt and the depression and find a clear path, I figured that meant spending the first two weeks of our time focusing hard on my financials – turning me into insta-success – helping me make more cash more quickly. But my coach, in true M-like fashion, wasn’t about to begin there.

Instead of talking about my bank account, she asked me to sit on the floor and start drawing a visual map of what my life looked like in three years.

Jesus. That was hard.

The first night I tried to map out Shanley 5.0 AKA who I’d like to be at 26, I put my hair in a high bun and changed into my yoga pants. I rolled out this big sheet of white paper and I crossed my legs indian styled in front of it – pen poised…

and, nothing.

I left to get a beer.

I left to get chocolate to go with said beer.

I called my mother.

I tried on a new American Apparel dress, for the third time.

I mediated, back in my yoga pants after taking off said dress.

Three days later, with a blank sheet of paper still rolled out on my floor I was perusing Beck’s writing for more information on Downs and I stumbled on a quote that reminded me of everything I’d first thought I knew after reading Expecting Adam.

You’re blocking

That’s all it said.

I spent a week on that one phrase.

Yeah.

It took a full week for me to come to terms with the truth that I probably knew several things about Shanley 5.0 – what she wanted, where I hoped she’d be living and what she’d be doing with her time. But, I was afraid that none of those things would pan out, so I was shutting her down. I mean, who wants to listen to a bright future when all they’ve got in front of them is schpleck?

Yeah, schpleck.

“I will not should on myself,” my coach directed that week.

Right. So, the blocking had to shift – from “I will never have what I want” to blocking out what my coach called the “little girl on your shoulder.” The little girl kept saying I should be in a corporate office, that I shouldn’t be be budgeting in expensive beer and going without good conditioner, that I should be making more money, should have gotten somewhere better sooner and, last but not least, really should be sending out sales pitches instead of doodling on a long, white sheet of paper I’m just going to shove in a drawer when I’m finished with it.

She thought the dumb map was bullshit anyways.

She kept talking the whole time I drew.

Halfway through the first 1/3 of my big, white roll-out sheet I dove in to more Beck. This time, she wrote that,

All this cheesy law of attraction stuff actually works—at least when you do it in a non-cheesy way, which I’ve been trying to learn and teach my whole life.

I imagined myself in an apartment by myself, then. I imagined myself quitting my part time job in a year’s time. I imagined myself writing, and working with my social enterprise and I imagined myself without guilt, sitting in this little studio with my grandfather’s tapa stretched out on the wall behind me.

I imagined M and her son dancing in their kitchen, and the night that she told me she had been crazy scared of having a kid, but that she envisioned herself as a mom – wanted to be a mom – and deciding to do it, despite fear, was the best thing she’d ever done.

Somewhere in between reading about Beck’s piece of forest property she purchased after pray rain journaling about it for months and finishing the second 1/3 of my map, I got a text from M telling me that she’d met someone, and it was going well.

“I’m not sure what the hell I’m doing,” she wrote. “But I’m breathing and I’m dancing in all this chaos and I feel this peace inside, because no matter what happens, I know where I want to be – and I know that I will find my way there.”

“Arms up,” I wrote back. “Eyes closed. Roller coaster.”

She sent a wink.

I finished my three year map a few days later. No where in it was there a corporate office, or anything close to the word “should.” In fact, it looked a lot like the direction I was already headed in – I just hadn’t known what to call it, before. Or, perhaps I should say, “draw” it.

I’m also happy to report that it has not spent a single, solitary moment in a drawer.

And, M?

M’s coming to my coast this year.

She says she wants to come take part in this crazy adventure I’ve embarked on, in New York city.

“I love that you knew what you wanted and you went for it,” she texted.

“Arms up.

Eyes closed.

Roller coaster.”

Nakate – a Journey That Began with My Father

July 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Image

When I was a little girl, my father fascinated me with the stories surrounding items he had from other countries. In his office, there was a hand carved tiger, a Japanese garden stool, a bottle collection, a Tiki man, and above them all, a National Geographic atlas where he used to show me the countries where he had purchased the things I loved to touch and ask about. “Here is Okinawa,” he’d say. “There’s Germany.” Sometimes we talked about Hawaii. Other days we talked about Mexico and Brazil.

As I grew older, my fascination with stories from overseas grew, and my grandfather and father honored my interest with gifts – a bottle here, a set of Japanese farming shoes there. They helped me begin a collection of global pieces that were connected to the stories of my father’s family, and their travels from before I was born. What I loved most about these pieces was the way they reminded me that the world is bigger than my direct experience with it, and I can live in the light of that reality, no matter where I am.

At 18, I began my own journey mapping out stories and spots on the globe – beginning with Haiti, and continuing into Uganda a year later. After spending time in these areas, the items I’d purchased, particularly the wearable ones, were imbued with memories and stories from their particular locations.  By integrating these items into my wardrobe, I felt that I was able to take these places with me in my daily life. My bracelets opened dialogue about global events, stories and experiences. My flip flops created conversations around East Africa. There it was again – that big world. This time, influencing my relationships, and challenging my friends to take its reality with them as well.

At 21, I combined my love of travel and stories into a fashion line. Created in collaboration with celebrity stylist Antonio Esteban and individual artisans in Uganda, our pieces serve as a way for women to open dialogue around global events, stories and experiences – their own, other people’s, or those of the women we partner with at Nakate. My vision was always that these pieces would serve as a reminder that, no matter where you are, the world is much bigger than your direct experience with it – and it is possible to take that reality with you, wherever you go.

Where will you take Africa?

10 Things I Wish They’d Told Me Sooner

June 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

There are all kinds of damaging beliefs we carry – from our childhood, our adulthood, our religious and non religious experiences and our backgrounds. They affect how we think about ourselves as people, as women – as lovers, as partners, as teachers, as career people, as friends. They can make us narrow. They can throw us off course. They can make us unhappy, and misguided.

Here are ten things I wish that someone had told me – much, much sooner.  They pertain to more than just women. These are human things.

1. Don’t be afraid to be different, because what you want is different

Feminism personally has given me the confidence to decipher the difference between what is socially expected of me and what I genuinely want for myself.  And I’m not saying those two things are always clean cut, there are things that my parents may want for me that are social expectations but that I also feel because they genuinely love me, they want me to be happy and all of that stuff.  And so it helps you decipher what is expected of you versus what you do for yourself, or what you want to do for yourself.  And also I think that it gives you the confidence to recognise that your value is not based on what attention you get from men or the success of your relationships with men but it’s based on who you are as a person and the things that you want.  It’s a question of self determination.  Honestly, I always say it’s like this taste of freedom and once you have it you can’t go back.  Like now that I know, I’d never settle for someone who isn’t completely comfortable with who I am.

Negotiating Love: An Interview with Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Emily Manuel

2. Do a lot of things. And make each thing you do reflect the values you want

I think now, people think they should be successful by the time they’re 30, and I just wanted to say to them, you know, have four different professions and many different lovers.  It’s okay. …The whole idea is not to figure out what you should do that will matter, but to make each thing you do reflect the values you want. …Because we don’t know what’s going to matter in the future.

Happy 40th, Ms, Joann Klim 

3. Stretch out. Don’t curl up. Get big. You’re big.

But then there are nights like last night. When just hearing his name in a movie, or smelling a certain whiskey on my husband’s breath, or tasting a certain Chinese dish, brings it up. And to say “brings it up” is not quite right. “Up” implies levity, and action. What I really mean is Shuts it Down. Everything. When I describe this feeling to my therapist, I make a motion with my hand. I slide my open hand over my eyes, like I’m playing peek-a-boo, except I never raise the hand again and smile. My body detaches from me. All that therapy, all that yoga, all those saintly patient boyfriends go to shit. And there he is, above me. And I am on my back. And I can’t feel a thing.

“I’m sorry I’m so weird,” I often tell my husband on nights like last night. I whisper this, and grow small, the front of my body collapsing in on itself. I bring my knees into my chest, and regress to infant mode. “Stretch out,” he says when this happens. “Don’t curl up. Get big. You’re big.” And then, when I don’t: “It’s okay.”

My man. My guy.

How to Tell a True Story

4. Let others walk their own path.

It’s an interesting idea actually: Two strong forces – Love and Control, and how they compete with one another at times.  We only ever try and control the ones we love, but by controlling them, we are not truly loving them.  We stop being true to THEIR journey. Love and control can never exist in the same space.  Unconditional love is letting those you love live and walk their own path; it’s letting them hit rock bottom, as hard as it is to witness, and as difficult as it is to do we have to stay true to what their journey is and simply love them through it.  When we try to control, we make it about ourselves; about our desired outcome; about our advice or voice not being taken or heard.

Father of Mine, Monica Berg

5. Don’t expect disaster.

She can live through it, Miss Taggart, because we do not hold the belief that this earth is a realm of misery where man is doomed to destruction. We do not think that tragedy is our natural fate and we do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it – and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering that we consider unnatural. It is not success, but calamity, that we regard as the abnormal exception of the human life (Ragnar Danneskjold, 696).

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

6. There are no dating rules.

Dear everyone: You understand that if there was a book that taught people how to not be single there would be no more single people, right? (Involuntarily single people, anyway.) People are not monolithic. You cannot trick people into loving you by treating them like math equations waiting to be solved. It’s dehumanizing. If you want to date a human being you have to treat other human beings like human beings. It’s not that complicated.

Here are the only actual “rules”:

1. Be a person with a life.

2. Respect other people and their lives.

3. Be patient.

4. Don’t be desperate.

That’s really all you can do. And there’s still no guarantee that it’ll work. But at least you won’t be trapped in some loveless marriage, bartering passivity for diamonds for the rest of your life. Okay?

Oh Great, ‘The Rules’ Is Back With a Whole New Bunch of Sexist Garbage, Lindy West

7. You have a “psychological immune system.” You can feel happy even when things don’t go as planned.

8. You should ask for what you want. There is no shame in wanting.

For some ridiculous reason we do not express our wants because we become afraid of appearing too blunt, too aggressive or even too demanding.  But why is wanting something considered a bad thing?  It isn’t.  It is the basic human condition, to want, to desire, to dream.  We owe it to ourselves to simply ask.

Most people live their lives in 3 realities:

  1. Caring WAY too much and being afraid of what people think of us.
  2. Alternatively, exploding from the restriction of holding our tongues to the point that we don’t care at all.
  3. Or we form a sea of resentment, and each and every time we negate what it is that we want, or don’t take the time to ask for it, the sea only widens and deepens its bounds.

We should feel no shame in wanting things, and we should have no shame in asking for what we want.  How else will people know what to give us if we don’t?

The Shame of Wanting, Monica Berg

9. Every woman needs a cornfield.

My high school English teacher—I’ll call her Mrs. Jensen—who married at 17, bore her first child at 19, and was a farmwife and mother of four by age 22. When she felt overwhelmed, she’d retreat into a field of tall corn near her house and hide there, listening to her children search for her, until she heard a cry of genuine pain or felt ready to reconnect, whichever came first.

“Martha,” Mrs. Jensen told me, “every woman needs a cornfield. No matter what’s happening in your life, find yourself a cornfield and hide there whenever you need to.”

Logging Off: The Power of Disconnection, Martha Beck

10. You don’t have to be good.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

Pinot, Buddha and the End of a Journey – the Aftermath of 10 Months Spent Writing on Abuse

June 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal-a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.

- Mary Oliver

A friend of mine used to regret the year he lost his religion in college. He told me he once thought that without the guiding light of the church he’d turned cold.

On Friday, I was in bed at 3:04 PM, drinking Pinot Grigio out of the bottle.

I’m not a lush. I mean it.

I took two swigs, and I put it down and stared. I was grumpy as hell, and the Pinot was just to take the edge off.

A piece of my life went missing on Wednesday. By Friday, I was experiencing some kind of post postpartum depression.

I got out of bed at 7:13. I finished a meeting and shipped a wholesale order to the Northwest by 9 AM. I worked non stop until 3:00 pm.

3:04 hit, and I was done.

I guess I needed space to grieve.

I wanted to write when I was a kid. I used to buy all these little notebooks and pens with cash I made from selling eggs to my grandmother’s co-workers at the department of agriculture.

Nobody told me that writing would feel like being pregnant – carrying around a live something inside you that’s coming out, one way or another. And, I’ve been carrying mine around for ten months now.

I finished it Wednesday. Come Friday, I was anti-climaxed the fuck out. I’d bid adieu to this purpose – this relationship with google docs. Ten months it had been me and this thing – me returning again and again to acknowledge a story that needed telling, to send another draft to an editor that kept driving for the epicenter of my being – what is it that needs to come out? He was right, over and over and over, when he told me I hadn’t hit it yet. These were all false labors, the drafts I kept sending over.

I wanted my writing to matter – for women, for men, for me. I wanted it to be a healing vessel for all the women I don’t know that have walked into the place I’d once found myself crouching in – small, hidden, believing that I was somehow still standing straight when I was lying down. I’d ended up on the bottom when I’d wanted to be on the top.

I’d found my solutions in my words. Words were my compass, while I tumbled over them and I figured out exactly what it was I was trying to say about this giant thing I’d lost myself in.

With my words, I discovered that I had been a hypocrite of the worst kind. I had been a woman writing about and seeking to empower women from a place where I had handed over all my power to something else. I had handed my power over – all my power – like a casual spliff outside a dive bar, without thinking.

Suck, pull in, hold.

Cough and release. Cough again. And again.

Your turn.

I had left behind any kind of self awareness.

It didn’t get done to me – not really. That’s the worst and the best of it. It’s the worst because it’s an admission of guilt. It’s the best because its only in the admission of guilt that one can be free.

Four months, draft two – I thought I’d been wronged. Six months, draft three – I’d done the wronging. Month eight, draft five, I was able to recognize that I used to be a boundary-less woman – free for the taking. I didn’t love myself enough to protect myself. I said yes, over and over and over. My methodical, minute by minute pushing out of my right to refusal left me drowning.

By draft eight, month nine, Google docs was on fire. I found solidarity both in owning my part, and in letting go of the parts that belonged to others. And I started coming back alive.

After a good, long 10 months, I finished my literary pregnancy this week. I finished the story and half the Pinot in a go before I sent my story to an editor that let me know I’d finally nailed it. My reality had been released on paper. It was ready to live, to breathe, to take its part in the world at large and to change the lives of the people it came into contact with, like anything does that’s alive in this world.

I felt wonderful.

8 hours later, I woke up panicked and empty. I had reached the end.

Without the guiding light of exploration, I turned cold.

I thought and I thought and I thought, and I ate too little. Then, I ate too much.

At long last, I called an old friend. He answered in the check out line. My voice on the line – for years – and he knows in an instant when something’s awry.

“Let me check out and call you right back,” he said.

I went to hang up and his voice stopped me.

“Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

He said it like a driving force – a great, big pounding reality, set to take over other realities. Love. Wrapped around. Wrapped behind. Love, in my room and in my writing, and in the life around me in the city.

Love – bigger than the monster of control that I don’t want to risk running into again. Love for fellow man, love for pancakes and for mornings and for coffee and for sunshine. Love for summer in New York city. Love for time with a friend six blocks North who tells me to live in the present with him and to drink deeply of this life – and the champagne I’m handed, with a wink. Love for another that greets me with a hug in Soho. Love for a sister that’s learning English. Love even for those who turned out creating toxicity with me, instead of health.

In love – for myself, for my fellow man, for the woman I’ve become instead of the woman I was – I put the piece of writing the chicken girl had only hoped to craft someday into a private document, out of reach, and I walked away.

I let go of my story after that – the writing of it, the publishing of it, the re-living it every time I sit down to visit with the ghosts of my past again.

I thought back on the conversation with my college friend again. It was a month ago, in a bar in East Village.

I remembered that he’d explained, on beer two, that he’d come back alive when he realized that the religious system he’d used as a guiding light had never been such anyways. He told me that it was in caring for others that he found direction again.

“I used to be a selfish bastard,” he said.

He told me that it was only when he lost his fixation with his personal journey, and opened up to the world around him, that he began to feel life in himself again.

When he said that I felt the sudden awareness that – in all the years we’d known each other – this was the first time he’d ever made time to sit and drink a beer with me.

Friday came and went. Pinot. Depression. Grief. I went to bed early to sleep off my funk.

Come Saturday night, I was eating ribs and drinking white wine with a new friend.

As I listened to him laugh and I felt my heart warm up inside, I was quietly aware that, just two days prior, I would have been home diving through my dark past, instead.

“There’s a present,” someone told me recently. “You know, there’s a present, and it matters. Don’t get so caught up in what was for you, that you can’t see what is for you, now.”

It was then that I realized I hadn’t really lost anything when I wrapped up my self exploration through the written word.

I hadn’t turned cold, after all.

In fact, in letting go of my literary obsession with the darkest period in my own past I had, quite possibly, come that much closer to being a light, myself.

Not to mention, I woke up on Sunday ready to write – this time, about what life is for me now.

Volunteer Work, Newcomers – and the Way the Crazy, Mean, Wild World Changed My Life

May 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

There’s this thing about New York city – the drinks, the people, the trains, the scene. You’re a hot shot on the plane here, moving to the city, and all. It only takes getting on the wrong train twice trying en route to Manhattan to make you realize you’re the new kid. But, that’s not the end of it. New York is the almighty measuring stick. It takes the things you thought you were good at, spins you round, and shows you about 500 people doing it better.

Better keep up, baby girl. The girl to your left on the subway owns her own company. The man to your right is in hedge funds. The women across the way is a designer. And you, finding your way, are sitting in the midst of them, hustling and running on empty, trying to get your seat at a table where everyone present is the best of what the global business market has to offer.

SoyChaiLatte writes about watching people like me – the newcomers, the people still getting the sweep of the metrocard right on their way into the subway, still standing in the dank smelling corners of the 33rd street station getting run into while we fish deep into our purses for that necessary piece of plastic – still asking if the L goes to 14th street, and then realizing that the L stop on 14th is still two blacks from the Path stop on 14th.

“Had the girl beside me known how to hold the Metrocard and pass it through the metal slit that read her stripe and granted her entrance, her buzzer wouldn’t go off every time she swiped,” Soy writes. “She kept pushing and pulling the card the wrong way, and I was fascinated how she managed to try out every combination twice, just not the right one. It was kind of cute to see the girl learning a lesson from the toughest teacher in the world. I stopped to watch. Her friend, already on the other side, seemed a bit embarrassed….I used shrugging shoulders and a lopsided grin to signal that I knew, that the same shit had happened to me, too. You can’t expect to master this city in a weekend or a week, man.”

Some days the city kicks my ass, and I find myself exhausted, walking along some street I’ve never heard of using my iPhone like a compass, twisting and turning to get to the next C stop headed to Euclid. When I finally get on the right train, I pull my pony tail over my shoulder to play with my hair and study my BBC news feed so I can pretend that I knew where I was going to begin with.

One particularly exhausting evening, I had gone the wrong way four times en route to a meeting. When I finally caught the right train, I sat and I stared at myself in the window across the way, and I realized I felt identical to a girl I knew five years ago – 18, scared to death and tugging an over sized carry on across the tarmac in Port au Prince. I knew I was passionate about international work. It only took me about 3 minutes to realize that everyone else was passionate, too. The only difference was that they had a concrete plan of action to go with their enthusiasm.

In development – like New York – you have to carve your place out of concrete. There’s overwhelming talent everywhere, and it’s not about to make room. Two months before I hit New York city, a friend from Brooklyn told me that I would have to want to be here, because it wouldn’t be easy.

“If you are hungry for this city, then you have to be willing to do whatever to make it here,” he wrote. “If you don’t, someone will run you over while you are second guessing yourself. Nothing will be handed to you in this city.”

I was 19 again, when he said that – 19 and on my first flight to Jinja, Uganda, where I learned that there were other 19 year olds starting their own adoptions, their own organizations, their own feeding programs. Back home I was a local hero for my four week stint in Uganda holding babies in an orphanage on the Nile. In Jinja, I was nobody.

I traveled this way for three years – applying to organizations, receiving PDF guides of my work in country, raising money, and getting on planes to take care of children that were orphaned or abandoned by their families. I traveled for three years as nobody, paying my figurative dues in volunteer work during my summers, and interning for international companies while I finished my bachelors.

After three years of working this way – the frustration of separation from the local culture and the restriction of guidelines from organizations, I traveled to East Africa by myself. It was there, learning to wash my clothes in a courtyard and living on a cement floor in rural Uganda, that my journey into partnership began.

I learned, that summer, that I’d decided to enter a line of work that was difficult on two different levels.

First: the work itself was intense. The emotion and energy involved in handling a culture you are not familiar with – particularly one with a poverty level you aren’t accustomed to – is exhausting. The sheer force of being uncomfortable for so many moments a day wears you out. If Stockton had been writing on location, she might have looked at me and commented, “you’re not going to learn [this country] in a weekend or a week, man.”

The intimidation factor present in East Africa compounded the difficulty of what I was doing. I felt that I was continually running into that 20 year old brunette from Texas who was already running her own company, and supporting herself at it – to boot. A friend of mine in Jinja likes to say that, “everyone is someone in Africa.” Afterward, she always adds that, “the important thing is, are you here for the attention, or are you here because you want to be?”

The rub came when I was pressed hard against both these realities. A list of questions I’d been avoiding became crucial. Was I cut out for being judged by a set of cultural standards I did not grow up with? Could I handle the humiliation of making mistakes in an environment that did not ever “go easy” on me? Was the amount of effort I would have to put in worth the compensation I would receive financially, emotionally? Was this the kind of life experience I was hoping to take from my career? How badly did I want the challenge of transnational work, regardless of how people in the United States viewed me? Applause from “back home” fades when you’re alone with yourself in a village. It simply can’t fuel a successful career in development, though many live for a period of time as though it can.

It’s been five years since I first touched down on the tarmac. When I travel to East Africa, now, I do it in skinny jeans and flip flops. In the village, I wear make up, and my favorite summer dresses. And the children running down the street shout my name, instead of calling out for Mzungu. I have Ugandan friends in journalism, photography – friends who run companies, who run successful businesses – and I ask them questions, now, instead of other young philanthropists who once intimidated me.

Like any field, international development rides on experience, the mistake by mistake process of building on ones own journey grabbing the bull by the horns and figuring out where you belong in a place where you didn’t belong before.

I spend hours on Skype. I take a lot of time to write back and forth long emails as I work to carve out a place for my company in a corner of the globe I’ve only just begun to understand. I work as a kind of broker than enables around 50 Ugandan women to support themselves as artisans in the international fashion market. And, it’s that brokering type of position – the kind where you watch a woman get on her own two feet – that has begun to change everything I thought I knew.

All Africa recently lauded business philosophy that is not about audacious philanthropy, or using Africa to glorify oneself, but, “about taking on the challenge of doing business in Africa.” I believe I have taken on this challenge, five years into my international career. But I certainly didn’t begin that way. I started out believing in audacious philanthropy. I’ve been a hero in the states, used Africa to glorify myself and I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit giving hand outs instead of helping people have a hand up.

The important thing is that my experiences changed me. They moved me. They corrected my perspective. And they sent me on a path of partnership in East Africa that I hope to continue for many years to come. I’ve come to regret statements like, “I want to tell the stories of people who cannot tell them themselves.” I’ve deleted pictures I took hoping to spark sympathy in the American people. I’ve traded in marketing poverty for marketing dignity, and the power present in a female artisan. I’ve moved from holding babies to conducting business, and I’ve gone from wondering where my place is to knowing exactly where I’m headed when I hit the tarmac.

I often meet people who describe development work as I kind of go-to, something to fall back on when they aren’t sure what do with themselves and don’t want to go back to college. “I guess I could always just go to Africa with you,” a well meaning high school friend will say. “I just have always wanted to go to Africa,” a blogger will email me – “I am so passionate about Africa!” I want to throw a god honest fit when people say these things. I want to lose my cool and tell them that I’ve fought for my spot in the development world like I’ve never fought for anything in my life. I want to tell them they don’t know Africa until they’ve had six parasites in the course of two years and showered with a bucket in a cement enclosure for a month straight, or been screamed at by a local Muslim leader at the ATM that they’re a woman and they should take their place in line.

But, it’s those moments that I come to the same conclusion that Soy did in her piece piece on subway watching. In my mind’s eye, I picture a skinny blonde 18 year old getting off a plane in Port-au-Prince with a suitcase full of long skirts, headbands, and wild dreams, and I promise myself, like she did, that, “I won’t give up, and I vow to love everyone and to remember my own baby steps in this dirty spot in heaven.”

After that, I usually get back to the subway map on my iPhone, and start trying to figure out my way home. And, it’s in those moments, lost in a new city and doing my damnedest to carve myself a place out in New York’s international business market, that I will be the first person telling a well meaning volunteer with a scared face and a skewed perspective on handouts to go get on a plane and change the world. Because, chances are? It’s just that impoverished, crazy, mean, wild, wonderful world she’s out to get a piece of that’s about to begin changing her.

Note: check out Everyday Ambassadors for a condensed version of the concepts in this post.

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