When Ashley and I decided to pitch an activism project to Feminist Apparel, we decided we would be transparent and honest with the audience we want to reach.
That audience is everyone. There’s not a single person I can think of that I wouldn’t want to learn more about the difficult topics of sex trafficking, exploitation, unfit and unfair labor conditions, and abuse.
We decided our first step would be sharing our stories and how and why we decided to start standing up for women and children everywhere.
I’ve always, always been a worrier. I’ve worried about people I’ve never met, people I read about, people I saw in documentaries, everyone. I was the child who wanted to know how everyone was doing and if everyone was happy. I wrote that in my notebook as a second grader after 9/11, “everyone just wants to be happy, everyone wants love.” I was always told I was sensitive and overly emotional. I used to view it as a hindrance to my growth, but it definitely is something I now pride myself on. Need someone to cry with? Seriously, I’m your girl.
Growing up, I had a funny, bright family. I had a life I knew was cushioned with financial and emotional security, and stability.
Until it wasn’t.
I was in high school when some deep, abusive behavior was revealed within my parent’s marriage. I witnessed things that felt like an episode of The Twilight Zone. I felt like I had been wearing rose-colored glasses for years, ignoring all the subtle signs that maybe things weren’t okay. My parents divorced and I was devastated. It’s still beyond my understanding how you can know two people are better apart and still feel yourself shatter in a million pieces watching them separate. But I did. And while I thought the worst part was over, there was more coming.
A few months after my parents divorced, my sister was diagnosed with cancer that turned into a year-long fight to remove a ganglioneuroma tumor the size of a football, located in her stomach. It was the very first time that the struggles I had seen through books and movies were part of my life. Teens with bone cancer, babies with leukemia, and siblings like me, praying hard every day, became something I witnessed. We had Thanksgiving dinner in the hospital waiting room that year, pushing together coffee tables and eating out of plastic containers, praying fiercely that life would look different soon. Looking back now, life was exactly what it needed to look like. The trials that year revealed to me that my constant worry and concern for people could be used to bridge the gap between strangers and creating a meaningful, conscious community. I wanted everyone to know I saw them, that I supported them. We spend so much of our lives making irrational judgments, when we have no idea what people are up against. I started think about the families who couldn't afford treatments my sister was getting, the families who got this news and had no choices. The families who had no one to push coffee tables together with and create a makeshift holiday dinner.
I went back to school that year and my sister didn’t. She fought to get healthy. Anyone who knows me knows just how deeply I love my sister. We are eleven months apart and I swear, if she wasn’t my sister, I would look and long for her. She is the best part of me; the carrier of my favorite memories. Seeing her sick pushed me off the edge and I constantly had anxiety about her life. I became sick with the idea I would lose her forever, and in turn, I would lose myself. I went through a depressive spiral, suffered with an eating disorder, and found myself writing everything. I began pitching support and anti-bullying groups to my high school and as student body president I worked really hard to make sure I did what I could to recognize that not everyone is doing alright all the time. I knew I wasn’t the only one with a whole other hidden side to their life. I was able to keep up with varsity dance team, student council, and be voted as most-involved while stressing and suffering the moment I got home from school.
That’s part of my story I want people to understand the most- I think you can be incredibly hurt and sad and still be happy. I think you can be scared out of your mind of what’s in front of you and still be brave for those who need you. I think you can wake up at 8 am with a grateful heart full of hope and find yourself in the trenches of grief by noon. I don’t think there’s an instruction map to healing, but I do know you have to be willing to look within and realize your worth. I knew that despite everything that was going on in my life, I had an entitlement to give everyday my best shot. I knew despite everything, I was brought into this world because I was loved beyond my own comprehension. In college, this belief launched my blog, www.lifeisthis.com. This crazy beautiful platform where I’ve met crazy beautiful people and I’m forever grateful that my biggest passion gave me hope.
I wrote because it was truthfully the only thing that kept me going. I started interviewing people for fun. I’d be at a coffee shop or a park, tell people I had a blog and ask them questions about what life is to them. I was this 19-year-old approaching strangers, asking them personal questions and it encouraged me every time they would share openly. Writing and sharing is a reminder that we are never truly alone. No experience is singular. We’ve got a tribe even when we think we don’t.
Despite how much I loved my blog, I still wasn’t studying English or Journalism in school. I was first studying to be a therapist, and then studying to be a teacher, until I realized my one constant was waking up everyday and putting pen to paper. I decided I needed to make a major change.
I started planning a trip to Bali, Indonesia. Because it makes sense to take off and go far when you don’t recognize your most obvious truth, right? I went by myself and met up with a tour group during my trip. The people I met are my life-long friends. The experience was eye-opening. It made me realize how abundant and beautiful my life is. I saw villages with no real plumbing or electrical systems, children eager to go to school, washing their one uniform in a tiny river by their homes and practicing their English when they saw me. I met people who wanted a life like mine, a life I had started to feel sad in. Everything is relative, and I believe all feelings are valid, but the trip made me realize while I could feel sad, hurt, and lost, I needed to direct it somewhere. Somewhere that opportunity and hope could grow again.
A few days before going home, my new friend and I had gone into a nail salon in a village called Lovina. Prostitution was big there and the streets were scattered with men looking for young girls. My safety felt so threatened. My first few days in Indonesia, I had been grabbed by a man walking home who shoved his hand down my swimsuit. I fought back hard and he ran as I screamed and a family came to help me, but my sense of security was completely rocked. My skin itched, my stomach flipped, and I carried that dark feeling that bad things are lurking around you and you don’t want to look any further.
In a “nail salon” I met two girls who were 15 and 16 and both pregnant. Old men came in and they made a face like they were in physical pain. The girls followed them to the back, where hot air blew curtains and sticky air around. Men came in and out. I began to cry. I asked one of the girls, “What do you want to be? This doesn’t have to be your life.” The girl said she didn’t understand. I asked again, “What do you dream of doing?” She shook her head, “Oh no, I do this.” There I was, acting upon wanderlust in their country, travelling with the knowledge I would return back to safety and comfort and she was suffering. I gave her money, and immediately, a man in charge of the salon took it out of her hands. Before I left, she showed me she had a purse with a big American flag on it. She smiled and hugged me.
The next day, I went to a women’s birthing center that helps prostitutes, youth, and abandoned women receive proper care and a safe birthing place. The woman who runs it is from Hawaii and said, “I woke up one day and asked myself, ‘What do I want to live for?’, ‘Love,’ I answered. And I moved here and began this center so I could live for love everyday.” I, being the overly emotional person I am, could not keep it together. I meet new mamas and sweet babies, swaddled and cuddled. The air was so thick with love and redemption. I fell in love with idea of serving others as a lifelong career.
I returned back to the States and had an internship at the Las Vegas Sun that turned into a year-long job. During that year, I had incredible classes as a new English Literature major that informed me about the trials and setbacks countries were facing. Ours included. In my women’s studies class, we learned about prostitution in Las Vegas, racial and sexual discrimination, women and children in other countries being sold and bought. I learned that women in Syria were just “promised” the right to vote, nearly 95 years after we were given the right. I learned that most women in impoverished nations never received an education. I learned that I had a voice, strengthened by change-makers and rule-breakers before me that paved a way. I learned that it would be a real shame not to use it and continue their fight.
At the end of summer the next year, I left to study abroad in Pau, France for a semester. Learning French gives me an advantage to volunteer and communicate with women in parts of Africa, a volunteer opportunity I hope to have in my 20’s. It also gave me the opportunity to eat baguettes everyday and get over myself and my fear of gaining five pounds. I met people abroad from all over who informed me of the issues happening in their country. I feel so grateful to be able to receive an education and a way to communicate with others. I learned so much about myself and how to deeply love every part of my story. I’ve since volunteered with special needs children and hosted two small events for women to get together and share personal stories and writing, enjoy music, and learn from each other.
Throughout everything, writing has been my light and I truly believe my platform to help others. Stories remind us that we are not alone. You can read something and realize that no matter how different someone looks, acts, and lives, they have hopes, dreams, and aspirations just like you.
Learning from others and sharing their stories is what pushes me to be open-minded and not judge. Because life is messy. We can’t look at how someone lives, how they dress, and who they pray to and decide that they are “bad.” We can’t view our values as the only way to live. We can only love people. Allow them to know they are seen, supported, and acknowledged. We have to know that this world is big enough for everyone to thrive and for every individual life to be meaningful and intentional.
With everything going on in the world, I never say, “Gosh, there are bad people.” Because there aren’t. There are people that are seriously misguided, hurting, neglected, and taught that the only way to be seen is to create a tragedy. I want people to be able to rewrite their stories. I want people to stop referring to each other by their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and nationality. We are all human beings inhabiting that same planet. We are the same.
If traveling has taught me anything, it’s that we are all so much more similar than we are different. I lived in a place I didn’t speak the language for a solid month and made friends I will treasure my entire life. Because empathy and kindness are not only free, but universal. Because whoever said you have to be just like someone to understand their life, has never stepped outside of their comfort zone and into humility.
I want my life to be an expression of radical kindness and empathy. It’s why I feel so compelled to do this project. I want people to know they are loved even if I don’t personally know them. I want to hug the hurting, I want to stand up for everyone told to sit down, I want to speak up for those told to be silent.
We get one shot at this whole life thing. I want to live in my truth: that life and all of its struggles are a gift. That each individual life is no more or less than another.
I believe education is our strongest power. Witnessing what I did abroad has taught me that you can’t simply volunteer for two weeks and then feel that the work is done. Providing someone with sustainable tools and skills is a lifelong help, not just a quick fix. Education is lasting. People need to understand the issues to know just how much they need to be changed.
Maybe it’s that seven-year old in me who believes people just want to be loved and feel happy, but I have no doubt that this is the time that lives around the globe can change. We all have the ability to do good. We owe it to our brothers and sisters of the world to go out and show them they’ve never been alone.