Minister of Truth
Selfie - “I only know one way to be, and that’s real straight. What you see is what you get."
Super Power - Nurturing
Message to women everywhere - “Own your superpower!”
Andrea Baker says, "I only know one way to be, and that’s straight. What you see is what you get.” What you see and get is a magnetic and magnificent truth-sayer hailing from Jamaica. A serial entrepreneur ten times over. A proud mother who has nurtured several children in addition to her own two sons. A community builder. An outside the box thinker. A believer in education and investing in children is the surefire way to elevate a community. A frequent actor of random acts of kindness. A wife of thirty years who gushes about her man like a girl in love for the first time. The only thing you see that you don't get and would be shocked to learn is how many years she has walked the earth. She is in fact as old as dirt (her words), but Andrea is, and one can only imagine, always will be, a larger than life force to be reckoned with.
Spending time with Andrea is like being in the presence of a mighty waterfall. Her effervescence and lyrical storytelling is mesmerizing. Her audacity simultaneously cracks you up and makes you sit up a bit straighter. Pay attention, you tell yourself, this badass lady knows how to break the rules. She can put you and every other shmoe in his place, but the only place she winds up putting you is inspiration point to speak your own truth. She pushes boundaries and consistently chooses the path of generosity and integrity. She is so unapologetically honest, irreverently bold and openly caring that you want to be your best self around her. Andrea likes to say, “I am all in” and you plainly get the sense that she’s all in with you when she’s with you.
Andrea was all-in when (1) her mother left her family in Jamaica to immigrate to the US, and Andrea, who was nine and eldest, took care of her four younger siblings aged between nine months and eight years old, and for many years, ran the household. When (2) in the 1960’s, her all-girls British high school in Jamaica issued a rule prohibiting afros, and Andrea led the student body in a series of protests to overturn the policy. When (3) she learned that all the major hotels in Jamaica, a country renowned for its tourist industry, were owned and/or run by non-Jamaicans —“and I said, ‘What the hell, all the hotels are run by expats who are flown in? This is our industry, our country, that's bullshit, I’m about to change that'” — so she pursued a degree at Cornell then the best school to study the hospitality industry, where she worked to pay for her education which she obtained in three years, then moving to professional jobs in which she held her own as the youngest person or only woman in the room, but not before she made the Valedictorian speech at graduation. When (4) she re-visioned another future for the declined neighborhood of which she’d been a resident for many years, and activated then aligned the residents, business owners, developers and city government to revitalize economic development and bring vibrancy back to the area. When (5) after twenty years of estrangement among family members, Andrea began one Sunday to call each of her siblings one by one through what became a ritual of what she calls Sibs-Sundays, when she didn’t give up after not hearing back she just kept calling, kept showing up, until her family was willing to put aside the past and pull back together, Andrea weaving these bonds. Still more of Andrea’s all-in’s, not the least of which is her marriage celebrating 30 years with Byron, a man who keeps his promises, with whom she has raised two sons.
Andrea is the person we want running the Ministry of Truth if we had one whose mission is to set the record straight, cut down the bollocks and make change for good. She fights groupthink like nobody’s business. She's the person who says, “I’m sorry to tell everybody, but the emperor has no clothes on. You want me to act like he’s fully dressed? I can play the game, but I’m just sayin’: He. Got. NoClothes. Ownng.” She delivers her truth with heart and humor, commanding respect, creating rapport. An example of how she told some folks about the emperor’s lack of attire. She was being interviewed for a community development project for which she and her firm were well-qualified to run and would have loved to take on. After some discussion, it became clear to both the potential client and Andrea that they held different notions of what community engagement meant. In classic Andrea-straightness, she said, “I need to be upfront. It doesn’t have to turn out the way I would like it to be. But you need to know from the get go, I’m not necessarily on board with the way you’ve proposed because that’s not really getting the community involved. That’s just checking the boxes. I’d love to make it work, but you have to know who I am and what my work is about.” Sometimes being the Minister of Truth means she loses opportunities she’d otherwise like to take, but as Andrea says, "All money is not good money." Another example many years ago, the first time she went back to work after being at home with her sons, she said to the potential employer, “Before we confirm this, I need to tell you something. I’ve never been accused of not working hard enough. Never. But you need to know that for me my kids come first, because my kids don’t have another option. If you ever ask me to make a choice between my kids and you, your feelings are gonna get hurt. I tell you this because I’ve got two young kids and there are going to be times when I get the call and I gotta leave.” Still many more years before that, Andrea telling her direct boss, the general manager of then the largest convention hotel in New York, for not issuing her business cards which she needed to do her job. She was the only employee in the male dominant team not to receive business cards. Once she pointed this emperor out, she promptly got cards and continued to bring excellence on the job. Andrea’s truth has made her legendary with the people and across the organizations she encountered. Not everyone will agree with her, but they are clear on where she stands. And Andrea is clear with herself. "This is who I am. I have to be real.”
Andrea was real with her first husband, a man of prominence. When they married, he grandstanded that he was bringing Andrea — who technically "grew up poor but I didn’t know it or see myself that way” — into his world of wealth and prestige. Andrea said to him, “Here’s what you need to understand, I’m not marrying you for what you believe you have. I’m really clear on how to make my way. If I need to make money I know how to do that. I’m marrying you for all the things that money can’t give me. I choose you for all those things.” Later, during their marriage when he would question her sense of self and criticize her for a dress she wore on a special occasion, her response was, "Oh that’s okay, I’m not asking you to wear it.” True to herself, when they divorced, Andrea walked away quickly, leaving his world of wealth behind, not wanting or taking any of it. Over the course of the subsequent decade, she went on to start and successfully run several retail posts at the San Francisco Airport and Moscone Center, a cafe in the Ferry Building, a catering business, a gift basket business, and a Jamaican restaurant which she established for her mother who’d dreamed of becoming a chef.
When Andrea's son Justin was graduating from college, he told her that he will probably go to law school because it’d pave a secure and lucrative career. But if he was being honest with himself, what he really wanted to do at some point was teach. Andrea said to him, “Do the thing that makes your heart sing. You’ll want to do it all the time because you just love it. Because you do it all the time, you’ll become an expert and somebody will pay you for your expertise. And if it doesn’t work out, you can always find another way.” Justin went on to becoming a teacher, creating innovative programs for middle school students around matters of civic engagement and social equity. This is the same man who as a boy learned from his mother that it's not enough to stand by in the school yard watching someone get picked on, even if he had nothing to do with the situation. “When you have the power, it’s your job to protect the person who doesn’t,” Andrea taught him. "Stand up for the person who doesn’t have the power.”
Andrea lives her truth. The fundamental elements of her work involve giving people a voice to bring about change. The mission of her firm Andrea Baker Consulting is Empowering Communities to Thrive. Andrea facilitates community outreach, implements space activation and drives economic development for marginalized neighborhoods. With her many decades of entrepreneurship and deep experience in both public and private sectors, Andrea is a powerful bridge for diverse stakeholders. Andrea believes that people in the community need a forum to express their voices, and her job is to create this forum. What Andrea loves about her work is that she gets to connect people, lay the groundwork for innovative projects and support the project's growth. Her work aligns with the way she wants to move in life. Makes sense with Andrea's "I’ve always found it easier to ask, even demand, for somebody outside of myself. If I see something that’s larger than me, I get big, I am all in.” Consistent with Andrea’s “Big problems don’t scare me if I’m working on them” and "I especially like it when I have a role in something and nobody knows it.” Ultimately what Andrea says is, "Say yes more than you say no.” To communities and the work of building up lives. To family and love. To life. Say yes.
Photos from HERliograph
Selfie - life-long learner
Inner Light - positive thinking
Message to women everywhere - “Be kind to yourself. Don’t shoot yourself with that second arrow.”
Sylvie Lee is understated, the kind of gal you don’t notice at first glance. Until she says something in her quiet, warm voice that sends a whole room roaring in laughter. She does so with a straight face and mischievous light in her eyes. She makes quirky connections about the mundane that the rest of us overlook. There’s more than meets the eye in this straight-laced facade of a feminine spirit. A millennial-creative, Sylvie solves problems as a graphic designer at a hip startup. She also has her own business, SylvieCeres Designs, through which she makes and sells her art. Her portfolio spans across watercolor, graphics, photography and textile.
Sylvie became an artist through a circuitous journey of self-discovery. She recalls long childhood days jammed with school, sports and music; classes upon activities, hustling from one thing to another. Though she is glad to have been exposed to many interests, she had a hard time with the over-scheduling. "It took me a long time to unravel being told what to do all the time. And a long time to find my own way.” Unclear in college about what direction to take, she studied communications and economics, figuring these fields were broad enough to make good on her life. Out of curiosity, she also added a minor in studio art. College ended, and on to Google, then an advertising agency.
For several years, Sylvie achieved along a well-defined path. On the surface she was building a promising career in advertising, but inside she was lost. “I was working so hard at something I didn't feel passion for. And I thought, if I’m working so hard, it should be for something I am passionate about.” It was confusing and exhausting, her creative spirit yearning for more, but not knowing for what or how to figure it out. Sylvie realized that she couldn’t expect to get clarity by just keeping the status quo. So she made a brave move. She quit her stable job where she was liked, and she set out to carve her own path. Recalling how much she enjoyed learning art from her grandmother who was a talented Chinese painter and calligrapher, Sylvie took several design and art classes. She tried different creative jobs: apprenticing with a textile designer; producing creative elements for weddings and events; and freelancing as a designer and photographer. She created original artwork — paintings, billboard designs, event signage, stationary. “I had to do a ton of hustling, and it was hard to put myself out there again and again. It's also hard when people ask you what you do. The social pressure of not having an easy answer and not having work as my identity. And the stigma around millennials who take time off because they feel so entitled. But I told myself to have faith, to listen to my inner voice and let that guide me.” She stayed the course of exploration. She painted everyday. She surrounded herself with supportive family and the study and making of art, determined to reinvent herself.
Sylvie remembers winning her first art challenge with Minted, an online marketplace well-known for crowdsourcing art. Her submission was called Indigo Wanderlust, an image she created in a series of one hundred 5 by 7 pieces she made to celebrate the colorful people in her life. In a mosaic of interconnected, infinite triangles, drawn through ink and watercolor, Indigo Wanderlust evokes a prism reflecting upon itself. Indigo Wanderlust was selected over 1900 pieces of anonymously submitted artwork. When Indigo Wanderlust won on its own merit, Sylvie felt seen for her true self. She knew she could stand on her own as an artist.
Now working at a self-publishing and design company, Sylvie combines her creative and project management skills, a job Sylvie says she could have only dreamed of doing when she set out to find her way. She also continues to create original artwork. Her latest venture is Elemental Supply Co, a platform she created to work with other artists. Each collection on Elemental Supply is inspired by an element from the periodic table, and the creative goods are collaborations with different makers. Knowing how hard it can be for artists to believe they can make something, Sylvie's vision in Elemental Supply is to offer a springboard for people to do more of what fuels their creative expression. “Often people don’t even try to make art because they fear they’ll fail or because they lack the opportunity. It’s so much easier to put yourself out there if you have someone to collaborate with. Elemental Supply is for anyone who thinks they have something to say."
Sylvie continues to invent ways for her art and self to emerge. In her own real life Indigo Wanderlust, Sylvie is creating prisms through which to see and be seen in a never-ending, ever-multiplying discovery of self.
Photos by Daniel Nguyen
Indigo Wanderlust by Sylvie Lee
Selfie - creative-confident
Inner Light - grounded alignment
Message to women everywhere - “Every woman has power inside of her. Men utilize their power all the time without consciousness, and women feel powerless because of that. Women also have power: Find it and use it.”
Sophie threads a hair-thin, gold wire into a square flat clasp half the size of an earring back. She ties the wire in an intricate loop around the clasp. She repeats this process, which she calls beading, with another thin wire and tiny clasp. As her agile fingers spin and weave metal through stone, Sophie describes how she has always loved to make things. A sensitive and quiet child growing up, Sophie Silverstein's favorite activity was treasure-hunting with her mother at beads stores and collecting materials to serve as mediums for her creativity. She continued her maker’s passion into adulthood, and crafting jewelry grew into her business, now at Slate & Stone Jewelry.
A lover of world travel, Sophie shares about a time a few years ago when she was lost. Having recently left an unsatisfying job as a manager at an education firm, she traveled to the remote mountains of Ecuador. In this high altitude Andean country, it is thin air, no wifi, and scarce potable water. Sophie had taken a long ride on a rickety bus into the region to find Lake Quilotoa, a crater lake created centuries ago by a volcanic explosion. When she arrived, she didn’t have a place lined up for the night. “I was having a hard time. I was by myself, and it was freezing,” Sophie recalls. An Ecuadorian man approached and offered her a place to stay, pointing to his uncle’s tin-roof structure nearby. Sophie took a leap of faith and agreed. Then she set out to find Lake Quilotoa. Having been warned about encountering rabid dogs, she picked up a big rock. Following the signs, she wandered around seeming to go in circles. “It was an uncertain time in my life, and I was feeling low.” She hiked a while, rock in hand, increasingly skeptical of finding anything. “Then I turn a corner and all the sudden, I see this massive, dark turquoise, gorgeous crater lake. It was so strikingly beautiful. And it contrasted so sharply with how I felt inside.” Brought to tears, Sophie sat down along the edge of the lake and let the blue-green waters align her. When she returned later to the tin-roof shack, she discovered it belonged to an indigenous family with small children. The family fed her dinner. She was safe. Surrounded by good people and the beauty in the landscape she’d found, Sophie reflected how differently the day ended from how it began. Where we are headed is often not clear, and trusting oneself along the twists and turns is a scary thing to do. Sophie says, “That was for me a powerful experience of letting go and what we can receive when we do.”
Adventurous yet grounded, Sophie brings unique insights to her work as a transitional coach and college counselor. Sophie guides students through an important time in their lives as they ponder and plan for life after high school. With backgrounds in both traditional education and alternative counseling, she supports students through the college application process, but she can also be a trusted resource for students contemplating alternative paths. Sophie says, “My work is very much about the holistic student.” By following her own path, even when it isn't clear, Sophie founded her jewelry business and built a coaching practice. Sophie believes that everyone has resources within to draw from. As we grow aware of our own power, we are more able to access our inner strength to build a life that is truly our own. "I want to help my students feel empowered so they can bring their truest and best selves to the world.” She helps students open up their thinking about the options they have as they enter adulthood. She also advocates for them by navigating tricky conversations between students and their parents or other influences who might have different expectations. “For me, the most real way to make an impact is through one-on-one interactions. I hold space for each person to be vulnerable. I hope that through my deep listening, I can be a part of helping someone realize something about his or herself and become empowered.”
Sophie admits that though she doesn’t feel it acutely from day-to-day, there are moments when she faces her own vulnerabilities. Moments like when the jewelry she presents to the world isn’t received as she hopes. “Each piece I create is a wordless representation of something within me. If people don’t like it, even if I intellectually know it’s just about preference, it can still hurt.” Sophie also describes herself as “such a doer.” So she is not only an artist, she is also a coach and an entrepreneur building two businesses. She is also the producer of The Good Craft, a socially-conscious pop up market that showcases works of emerging artists. Sophie loves all her doing, and each one feels authentic to her being. “But I know that all these things I do are projected images of my identity,” she says. “And I know that I don’t have to do all or any of these things to be who I am.” When the labels are stripped away, beyond how we are seen or projected, that then is where our core being lies. Sophie says, “It's actually in moments of stillness when I’m not doing that I truly know I am enough.”
When Sophie finishes the beading in her hands, she has built a bridge through a cloud-shaped, translucent crystalline to a gold chain and created a delicate necklace. The necklace wears effortlessly. Like its maker, it creates presence without screaming for space, an ethereal cloud-cystalline floating elegantly between the head and the heart.
Photos provided by Rachel Heydemann
Selfie - Shmee
Her Inner Light - Love
Her message to women everywhere - “Thank you, first of all! I’m sorry. You’re beautiful. You are life. Teach us.”
During the recent eclipse as the moon and sun joined as one, Shmee noted how the sky, usually appearing two-dimensional, revealed the depth of space. Another memory of the moon and sun, this one from some years back, Shmee’s first time in California on a bus crossing an expansive landscape. From the bus window, she could see that it was just turning dusk. As the sun set in the west, the moon rose in the east, two celestial bodies harmonizing the sky in a swath of incandescent colors.
Shmee is a visual artist. Since childhood she has turned to art for solace and creative expression. Through watercolor and ink, Shmee delves into herself and comes out the other side of a flow state with a story from the heart to tell. The Art of Shmee can be commissioned on paper, canvas, tapestries and clothing. Shmee is also a student of depth psychology, the study of the unconscious. She is braving self-knowledge into the shadows and the light through a central inquiry that she has undertaken her whole life. The inquiry of her self as a female-bodied, masculine-of-center, gender-nonconforming person.
Trees, like people, can be male or female. But trees do not have to be only one or the other. Indeed many trees can blossom both male and female flowers. Others — conifers and gingkoes — can change sex as they mature. Tree morphology is complex and evolving, and they are far from the only species in nature where the line between male and female is blurred. Shmee likes to say, “There’s an unifying humanity that potentiates in each of us. Identity can sound so permanent, and it’s easy for me to forget the fluidity that’s available to me, that’s available to all of us. Let’s meet each other where we’re at.”
Four-year-old Shmee is standing next to her dad in front of the bathroom mirror, shaving with a toy barber shop kit, a gift she’d asked for. Seven-year-old Shmee is playing happily with dolls and trucks, alike. Little Shmee is at the doctor’s office telling the doctor that she wants to be a boy and asking what can the doctor do to help her with that. The doctor tells her that to become a boy, she should kiss her elbow. So Shmee does for days, reaching her lips to her elbow; for years, reaching for mirrors to her true reflection; for decades, reaching for interconnection with herself and others.
Trees have no need to translate themselves. They exist majestically: Casting shade, giving oxygen, stabilizing the soil that gives life and composes the after-life. We too can exist, simply, without incessant translation. Shmee says, "For a long time, my story has been one of defending myself, of grasping my worth because I didn’t see society or my culture of origin relating to people like me, the ‘others’. I had no queer, gender-variant role models, no transgender people who I knew in my life as a kid." The struggle for integrated existence is universal whatever our origins or makeup. If we can connect on that level, maybe we can see past the layers of our permeable outer shell, beyond the confines we have constructed upon biology, upon social expectations and stigma. Maybe we can see beyond the lines of ‘othering' through to the heart of the being.
We are not born until we are. We are not sisters, mothers, grandmothers until others are born. Like gingkoes and conifers, our fundamental yet fluid identities change and evolve as we mature. What more then of our identities that are not the result of our decision-making, not the result of others’ births, but seed from within the organic core of us? With her soulful eyes and warm playfulness, Shmee will look straight at you and say, "It’s not that I’m born female and identify as a man. I’m very proud to be a woman, but I also don’t fully identify as a woman. I embrace my female biology as my natural self, and I also embrace my non-binary identity as an expression of my human nature. I'm not trying to present myself to fool or confuse others. I’m trying to live authentically."
“Shmee” started as a whimsical nickname given by friends. Later she learned that in the Hebrew language, the sound “shmee” meant “my name is”. In my name is, Shmee honors the struggle that has come between her inner and outer confluence. In my name is, full stop, Shmee authenticates who she is. "My name is just my name. I am just who I am. Let it go.” Let it flow into the widening of a smile that emerges when this name is sounded. Let it flow, this “she-me-he" that embraces her polygenderedness.
Shmee has largely kept her gender identity private. Her heart goes out to those who experience rejection, ridicule, and threats to their safety in response to their authentic expression, and to those whose lives are devalued in the patriarchal constructs. She has drawn strength from family and friends who express genuine interest in her experience, and she is especially grateful to her mother who continues to grow and evolve with her. Like trees, our healthy roots enrich our healthy growth. Now Shmee is grateful to bear witness to her emergence. "To acknowledge that my body is one of the beautiful things that has emerged from the earth, the cosmic dust and the air in between. I have to honor what’s coming up in me because no one else is going to give voice to that, no one else can give voice to that.” After a deep, life-long inquiry, Shmee says, “I’m ready to own up to the rejected aspects of myself, the unkind ways of the world, the things I’m afraid to look at in the face. The courage has been built within myself. I’m ready for my voice to feel strong in the world.”
Selfie - cheerfully silly
Her Inner Light - God. And faith that things will work out if I walk my path.
Her message to women everywhere - “We are beautiful creatures. We have only to discover and appreciate ourselves.”
The first step she took was renting a storage unit, where little by little she brought over her belongings. “I knew I couldn’t just take everything from home at once because my parents would get suspicious. And I’d never been allowed to travel alone before.” For three months, she put her plan into motion, setting up bank accounts that could be accessible abroad, obtaining an international driver’s license, purchasing airfare. On departure day, she left home with her camera, like it was any other day. Just before her flight took off from Hong Kong to San Francisco, she took a selfie and texted it along with a message to her mother. “I love you, but I want to live my life. I’ve tried to be the daughter you want. Now I have to be me.” The day she ran away from home, Christina Szeto was thirty-three years old.
Before running away, Christina had a full, anchored life in Hong Kong. She grew up with a brother, who is her best friend. She was close to her grandmother, who is her heroine. She adored her parents, including her father who introduced her to photography, which became her passion. With her camera, Christina captured special moments for a wide circle of friends, a practice that grew her into a professional photographer. She had a mentor, Professor Freedom, who lit the way for her becoming a university-level photography instructor. But Christina's main work was in her family’s electronics company, where she worked as an accountant.
It had always been expected that Christina would run the family business. She started working there when she was fifteen. She studied business and accounting to prepare for this work. After college, she joined the business full time and worked there for ten years. Christina worked hard and did what was expected. She says, “I was obedient, but I dreamed of a different life, exploring the world through photography.” Time and again Christina spoke of her dreams with her parents, but they couldn’t hear her. They gave her more responsibilities until she became the general manager and ran the whole company. Born and raised in a culture where filial piety remains a core value, Christina struggled between making her parents happy and following her heart. “The love and duty I held for my family and the urgency I felt to live my life tore me apart.”
Christina recalls her long flight from Hong Kong to the United States. “For twelve hours I was a complete mess. I imagined my mom suffering a heart attack after receiving my goodbye message. I was terrified both of letting my parents down and the total unknown ahead.”
Since she landed, Christina has not stopped building her new life. She established Christina Szeto Photography, specializing in family and children photography. Christina says, “Photography allows me to connect my heart to the world and with the people I meet.” Through photography, she channels the familial relationships she holds dear, and her best work is in capturing bonds between loved ones in weddings, family occasions, and maternity portraits.
Christina is simultaneously building Photosprouts, which offers photography instruction to adults and teens. Photosprouts provides in-class workshops, photo field trips as well as the camera equipment for any level of photography enthusiast. Christina is passionate about helping people master the technicalities so they can find creativity through the lens. She says, “For me, the photo is a condensed version of relationships in the larger landscape. I want to help my students see themselves more clearly in a world with others.” Through photography Christina connects with her students who can then amplify their connection with still more others. Shot by shot, each a beautiful mirroring, a whole picture emerges.
In a recent class she asks a student to locate a reflection. This field trip has brought them by an open waterfront framed by a majestic bridge. The student looks around — water everywhere but there's no reflection. Christina prompts gently, “Take a breath and step back. Where do you see a mirror image?” The student tries harder. There must be a reflection upon the water somewhere. There isn’t. The student gives Christina a puzzled look. Christina smiles and playfully tilts her head away from the water towards a large puddle on the sidewalk merely a few feet away. Railings along the waterfront: Gridlines upon the puddle pane. Light comes over the student’s eyes. And laughter. Christina says, “Photography is all about discovering what you usually miss. Now that your naked eye sees this puddle, let’s set up the camera to see it too so you can capture just how you’re feeling in this moment.” The student does so eagerly. Christina slows her down only to say, “Look first for the light, always look where the light falls.”
Christina’s parents are coming around to her renegading the family business. They still ask when she will return to Hong Kong, but they are supportive of her ventures. Leaving home was Christina's first big leap. Now is hurdle after hurdle of starting two business entities as a foreigner under unfriendly immigration laws. Staying in Hong Kong would have been easy. In this new life, nothing is. Yet Christina remains hopeful and passionate about connecting people through photography. “I’m proud that I’ve created my own way to see the world and live my life.”
Photos taken of Christina by Photosprouts student
Help a Mother Out
Selfie - family person
Her Inner Light - nature, trees
Her message to women everywhere - “Take care of yourself. It’s not your fault. You deserve better.”
“It was in giving that she received,” says Aggie Briscoe of her mother. “This encapsulates how my mother lived her life.” Aggie comes from a strong matrilineage of French Creole women who since the early 1900’s raised large families in the rural farming lands of East Texas. While men worked the fields, grandmothers, mothers and aunties watched each other's dozens of children and supported one another in tight, vibrant communities.
Today Aggie is herself a mother, a grandmother of nine (soon to be ten), and a great-grandmother of two. After a full career in computer programming, information consulting and teaching, with adventures living along the West Coast, Hawaii, and the Caribbean, Aggie retired in the Bay Area to take care of her grandchildren. When Aggie’s professor-psychologist daughter is teaching families how to combat trauma and consulting for nonprofit organizations, Aggie is joyfully nurturing her grandchildren. Aggie’s granddaughter thinks of Aggie as her best friend. “I feel very fortunate for our special bond,” Aggie says. "This was the kind of relationship I had with my own grandmothers. The stories they would tell me. The kind of women they were. Growing up around them, watching them, I learned who I was.”
True to the spirit of her matrilineage, Aggie cares not only about her own children but others as well. For seven years she has volunteered regularly with Help a Mother Out, a nonprofit whose mission is to secure wellbeing by providing families in need access to diapers. Water, food, shelter — we all know these to be basic necessities. Diapers? “Yes, diapers,” says Aggie. “Diapers are expensive, and for families in poverty, having enough diapers is a real problem.” In the years of infancy before a child is potty-trained, diapers are a huge expense. Choosing between food and diapers is a very real struggle for mothers in need. Not having enough diapers causes not only baby’s physical discomfort and illness. It also results in toxic stress: When a child experiences strong or prolonged suffering, the stress response systems change brain development and cause cognitive impairment. More than the child's toxic stress, when a mother can’t adequately provide for her child, she experiences guilt, anxiety and depression, which in turn often leads to diminishing mother-baby engagement. The resulting damage, both physical and social-emotional, cuts much, much deeper than a diaper rash or two. Aggie also points out, “When you don’t have diapers, daycare programs won’t take your baby. So now you can’t go to work and earn what you need to stay afloat.” Such a small thing — the diaper — but its lack creates a vicious cycle against the whole family’s wellbeing.
Unlike the recognized basic necessities, diapers are not funded by federal assistance programs. In 2009 two mothers, Lisa Truong and Rachel Fudge, saw that this need wasn’t being addressed. They organized a Mother’s Day diaper drive. The overwhelming support and diaper donations that came from mothers everywhere led them to found Help a Mother Out (HAMO). In the early days diapers were collected and distributed out of the trunks of their cars. Now Aggie regularly organizes and distributes diapers out of HAMO’s warehouse. Boxes of diapers go to an extensive list of family service agencies throughout the Bay Area that then make their way to mothers struggling to care for their babies. Aggie welcomes the hands on volunteering at the warehouse and dropping off diapers at key locations like a children’s hospital. With her professional expertise, she also implemented and manages a database system that keeps HAMO’s operations running through its latest milestone — 5 million diapers distributed. One clean tushie at a time to supporting a whole lot of families. Aggie says, “I was raised in a community where people could lean on each other. Volunteering with HAMO keeps me connected to that tradition.” Felt upon the tender bottoms of babes and through the strong spirits of mamas, Aggie’s efforts with HAMO give those in need a chance to thrive.
When asked about the best gift she’s ever received, Aggies answers, “The gift of being a mother, the gift of being part of a loving family.” In recognition of your mother, and all the mothers in your life, give love and growth here, and HAMO will send your honoree a card on your behalf.
Shorn to Give
Selfie - Life-long learner
Her Inner Light - Play, curiosity and wonder
Her message to women everywhere - “Follow your passion, trust your instincts and don’t hold back.”
Born in Brazil and living across coastal towns, Nicole Zimmerman grew up interested in world travel and cultural immersion. Her first identified passion was travel writing, but long before becoming a writer, Nicole worked in different capacities with women and children. For many years, she supported survivors of violence in women’s shelters and on rape crisis lines and was a women’s self-defense instructor. Specializing in early childhood development, she worked with pregnant teens, teen parents, and their infants and toddlers.
Now Nicole is a writer for a travel company. Nicole has no complaints; she gets to write and lead a financially stable life. But some part of her is always thinking about how she can make a difference. Nicole gets to the heart of the issue: “Working with children and survivors of violence, I got to make an impact in a very real, live way. It was deeply fulfilling work, but I was under-compensated. Such important and necessary work but so undervalued by society.” Nicole evolved to find sustainable, bread and butter work. But she grapples with the gap between soulful and profitable, between meaningful substance and merely subsisting.
Recently, Nicole took a bold step towards closing this gap — she shaved her head. She did it to raise money for childhood cancer research. She did it in honor of Cole who passed away of leukemia at the age of two and in honor of Jackson who is a six-year-old warrior against neuroblastoma. On a spring day under open skies, Nicole took a stand in solidarity with kids fighting cancer. Nearby, while baby lambs tussled and yellow flowers popped upon green pastures, Nicole shed her thick, long, dark locks. The shaving event was organized by St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a nonprofit committed to funding childhood cancer research. Nicole raised over $1600, more than tripling her original goal of $500. A good day’s work that is both soulful and profitable. Generosity continues to flow in and can be shown through the spring of 2018, here. Nicole says, "In what feels to be a perilous era, this was a concrete way I could make a positive impact."
Nicole believes that people were generous about donating to her campaign in part because a woman willing to shave her head carries a weightier significance than for a man to do the same. Hair is a key marker of femininity and beauty and to take an act that defies this marker for a higher cause makes a strong statement. Women receive an abundance of messages throughout life that devalue women’s work and women’s bodies. When women are not seen as important — and when we, men and women, internalize these negative messages — we erode not only gender relations but humanity on the whole. We cut ourselves out of the power and beauty we can bring. In shaving for a children’s cause, Nicole reclaims her feminine sovereignty in the face of conventional achievement and compensation.
Nicole was thoughtful about being HERliographed. Hesitant at first, she said that her bravery doesn't hold a candle to so many heroines, including the mother who has been a donor-shavee half-dozen times to raise funds after her ten-year-old son died of cancer. Nicole also felt that she didn’t do very much to be called heroic. "This was a choice I got to make, which is very different from someone who is powerless in losing their hair for health reasons.” Nicole is humbled by the recognition that while shaving is an empowering act for her, it is not so for those she seeks to honor. She hopes that by sharing her story, others will be inspired to take an act towards closing the gap between making a living and making a difference. She says, “We'll always fall somewhere on the spectrum of greatness when compared to others. In sharing what has been empowering for me I hope to highlight how a small act can make a big impact and to celebrate beauty in all its forms."
Selfie - Passionate
Her Inner Light - Optimism
Her message to women everywhere — “Believe in yourself!”
1920’s curls with a page boy hat. Entrepreneurial. Bolero with the Heavenly Silk Tank. Creative. Long necklace with a simple white-T. Street smart. Mohair sweater coat with gold top sneakers. Genuine. These are the colorful facets of Sue Yerou.
Sue has loved visual styling since a young age. Following her heart to New York to study fashion merchandising, she started her career as a digital photo artist. She launched her first business, which offered services in digital retouching and events production. Traveling to far flung places like Fiji and Australia, Sue ran her business for several years in New York and abroad. “I listened to my inner voice, and I moved without fear.” In Sydney, hard times hit. With the downturn of the global economy, Sue could not generate enough business in digital design. She was also mending from a broken heart. Sue’s attitude about hurdles in life is to confront them head on. “I keep knocking them down until I can’t go forward anymore.” Learning when and how to let go is hard. But when every turn led to a dead end in Sydney, Sue steadied herself for another path.
Tuning into her inner voice again, Sue found her way to San Francisco where she parlayed her digital artist skills in several companies. But she never gave up her dream to run her own business. While working hard at her corporate job, she nurtured her passion in fashion design and style consulting. In 2012 she launched Style Rehab, a wardrobe consulting service for men and women. Starting with a few clients— professionals too busy to shop, mothers re-entering the professional sphere, people who have never enjoyed shopping or wanted help with re-imaging — Sue steadily grew a devoted clientele base.
Equally savvy in consignment stores and high end department stores, Sue exercises her visual creativity in textures, colors and shapes. But she offers much more than a styling service. She brings image curation, discovery of identity, and therapy all rolled into a fun and transformative experience. She lights up her personal brand of warmth and compassion — gifts she credits her mother — for every engagement. “I appreciate that my clients expose their vulnerabilities when they show me their bodies and closets. Being my most true self is the best way to foster trust.” For Sue this means not hiding or pretending and being willing to be seen as she is. Sue’s owning herself prompts others to take down their barriers. "Inside this intimate space, I create safety for each person who comes to Style Rehab so they can come out and find their own style.”
Sue is passionate about getting her clients looking and feeling their best. "The most exciting part is when we look in the mirror, and a client sees something she never saw before. There’s a shift in her body posture, her smile. She holds herself in a whole new way. That somehow I've been able to bring this awakening for someone is what I love most.”
Recently, all of Sue's strengths came together when she took a small group of clients personal shopping in the East Bay. She planned an itinerary of treasure hunting through carefully selected boutiques and consignment stores. Knowing the women of her group to be open-minded and friendly, she welcomed a woman who also happens to be transgender to join. With her authenticity and warmth, Sue amplified the safe space she creates so well. In laughter, dialogue about passion projects and supportive energy, each woman found items that suited her personality and lifestyle. Everyone embraced being seen. By the end of the day, a femme tribe had formed, tethered by fun, creativity and integrity.
Mother of Her Inner Child
Selfie - resilient
Her Inner Light - faith in God
Her message to women everywhere - “Don’t be afraid to speak your truth even if it takes you out of your comfort zone. Through sharing we receive.”
Warmth is Aleli Crutchfield’s trademark. As is her smile and hearty laugh. Approaching each day with a sense of discovery, Aleli says, “I may not understand my struggles in the moment. But I hold on, knowing that in good time, I’ll gain the wisdom."
Aleli’s road towards motherhood has been arduous. For five years, she and her husband have struggled to start a family. She was able to conceive once, but her hopes were dashed when at six weeks, the doctor couldn’t detect a heartbeat in her precious bundle. She became deeply depressed, and there was a lot of self-blame. “Maybe I am not relaxing enough. Maybe I did something to my body to cause this. Wasn’t being a mother the reason I was put on this earth as a woman?”
Though not openly discussed, infertility is a common problem. According to the CDC, infertility affects about 10% of women in the child-bearing age. Infertility is not just a woman’s problem as generally perceived. In cases treated for infertility, problems traced to men versus women are found in equal numbers. But because infertility is such a personal matter, many women suffer in silence as Aleli did in her earlier years. “I didn’t know anyone going through it. All I kept seeing were babies and pregnant women.” Not having anyone to turn to was extremely isolating. Even now after she has gone through several cycles of infertility treatments, the emotional rollercoaster and month to month heartbreaks have not gotten easier.
Since grieving her miscarriage, Aleli put herself on a healthier path. Today she chooses hope rather than self-doubt. Even though infertility has shaken her to the core and tested her marriage, she is not ready to give up. “I know God has a plan for me, and maybe I will have to make peace with not being able to get pregnant. But I know one day I will be a mother.” She is also learning her limits. “We women, we're so hard on ourselves, so critical. We are wives, mothers, or mothers-to-be, all these different roles to different people, and we're always trying to be perfect. But who and what am I trying to prove? Why am I constantly so competitive against myself?” Aleli is moving towards a peace of knowing that she is enough as she is.
Speaking out about her infertility has also charted Aleli towards her healing path. She has seen how she can help others gain clarity on their experience and take away some of their sadness. With her trademark smile, Aleli says, "Even though our paths are hard and unclear, sharing our stories allows us to be blessings for one another.”
*** Since Aleli shared her story with HERliograph some months ago, she went through another round of IVF. Breaking News: She is now healthily sixteen weeks pregnant! Mamas and Mamas-To-Be everywhere, let’s send our joyful, nurturing energy to Aleli!
Aleli is a proud member of Sol Sisters, a nonprofit organization that provides holistic health services to empower women of all backgrounds.
Photo provided by Mandy Arlene Photography. @mandyarlene
Selfie - “Chiquita pero picosa”
Her Inner Light - seeing the good in everyone regardless of where she is from or what she has done
Her message to women everywhere - “Love the person you are. Yesterday has made us. And we are mighty, awesome, beautiful.”
At four years old, Nubia Barraza stole across the United States border from Mexico with her family. In the years that followed, Nubia struggled in school. Her mother suffered from a serious accident. Her father’s unsteady employment forced the family to move from place to place. Through it all, Nubia held on to her sense of self. She joined the wrestling team as an healthier alternative to the social circles that taunted her. She studied hard, setting her sights for college. During her first year of college, her family broke apart. Her parents divorced, and she lost both sets of grandparents within some months of each other. Through these tough times Nubia told herself, “I am taking good care of myself now so that later I will be able to help others.”
After college Nubia joined the Oakland Police Academy where she was surrounded by a rough culture she didn’t understand. But in her heart she wanted to serve as a bridge between the community and the law. When an opportunity came to work with at-risk youths at an after school program, she knew she had found the place to build her bridge. She advocated for young people in the juvenile system, those who had gone through foster care or who were struggling with substance abuse. Nubia saw that in order to do this work well, she needed more learning. She applied to graduate school and obtained her masters degree in family therapy and counseling.
Throughout the last decade, Nubia has served minors who have been victims of assault, human trafficking and other trauma. She has volunteered and worked professionally at domestic violence shelters and youth detention facilities. In her various roles, she has supervised the daily activities of detained minors and overseen their emotional well-being. Nubia is currently the lead clinician at the Girl’s Program with StarVista, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming the lives of children across San Mateo county. Girl’s Program is an intensive court-mandated program that provides psycho-therapy, group and family therapy services for incarcerated girls between the ages of 13 and 18 who are dealing with trauma and addiction.
Nubia is passionate about her work. With her strength and huge heart, Nubia supports girls’ physical health, emotional stability, and social interactions. “They know that I see them for who they are. That I care deeply about them, and I hold space for everything they are going through. What I love most about what I do is that I can help these young women recognize their strength, courage and intelligence.”
Nubia has modeled resilience throughout her entire life. At the age of 32, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. While fighting for her life, going in and out of the hospital undergoing treatment, Nubia continued to advocate for at-risk girls. She is in remission now. Thankfully this force — this beautiful, perseverant force of light — continues to shine upon the lives of those vulnerable among us who would otherwise be lost.
Nubia is a proud member of Sol Sisters, a nonprofit organization that provides holistic health services to empower women of all backgrounds.
Photo provided by Mandy Arlene Photography. @mandyarlene
Selfie - Tenacious
Her Inner Light - Her daughters, who are hope, compassion, and everything humanity could and should be.
Her message to women everywhere - “You are strong, you are powerful. Be loving and kind to yourself, forgiving yourself of whatever transgression you think you may have. Whatever you want to do in this world, you can do it."
Kim Lan Grout was born in our land of the free, but she grew up in the shadows of those who barely made it to this country. A boat person from Vietnam, Kim Lan’s mother experienced atrocities before her escape, the weight of which she carried to her new life. Kim Lan’s father was born Polish during WWII in a labor camp where he lived for many years before immigrating to America through Ellis Island. Kim Lan grew up on cultural tension both at home and school.
Kim Lan also battled a disorder from birth. Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, which manifested on Kim Lan’s left leg, is a rare condition that affects the development of blood vessels, soft tissues and bones. Painful and debilitating, the disability also impacted her socially and emotionally. “I didn’t hate my leg,” Kim Lan remembers, “but my mother seemed to. She would hate on my freckles, for example, maybe as a distraction from my leg for herself.” As a child, Kim Lan didn't understand the ways people devalued her because of her disability. "People often said to me that I won't have long to live. Mortality was a very real thing for me during my childhood, a time that shouldn’t be about death and how it looms."
Even though so much of her childhood was conflicted, Kim Lan identifies herself as a happy person. With light in her eyes and a perpetually joyful smile, she says, “I could be resentful and sad, dwelling in the darkness and the decisions that made up my life. But what good would that do? That is all in my head.”
When Kim Lan was eighteen, she chose to have her left leg amputated. She pivoted. Kim Lan describes the elation, power and strength she experienced upon waking up post-operation. "I’d just gone through this horrible thing, but I was so excited for the rest of my life and all that was to come. I’d had a disability my entire life, but after my amputation, the pain was over, the hospitalizations were done. I was free to be me. This was my liberation!"
In the spirit of no holding back, Kim Lan started her own business. First a teaching academy that offered tutoring services in math, sciences and verbal comprehension. She managed a staff of tutors and ran the business out of a space in San Francisco. She met and married a man who shared her sense of freedom and love. With him, she embarked on the adventure of parenthood with their two healthy girls. With the birth of each child, she dialed down her tutoring business. Not wanting to be away from her own children, she told clients she could either help them find other good tutors or she could offer them her services via Skype. Every single one of her clients chose to stay with her so her business grew organically into an online service. “My work evolved with me,” Kim Lan says. She took up photography to capture her growing family. Before long, people hired Kim Lan for their portraits and family moments so she started a photography business. Alongside birthing her children, she birthed a talented photographer.
Of all her creations, Kim Lan’s absolute favorite are her children. Kim Lan is effusive about how much she loves being a mother despite the regular challenges of motherhood on top of those that come with being a mother as a disabled person. "I love that I have created something that will tell their own stories and I’ll get to be part of them.” But she saw how the ways people approached her disability increasingly affected her girls' world view. Her daughters grew terrified about Kim Lan dying, a fear with which they framed their lives. "This broke my heart, how my three-year-old was internalizing a message from all the voices around her — how her own mother was not strong and would not be able to take care of her for long.” Kim Lan did not want her girls to grow up with such unfounded fears and misinformed attitude about people with disabilities.
In 2014 Kim Lan started the Redefining Disabled Project, a photo series accompanied by stories about people of various disabilities in their daily lives. Kim Lan interviews disabled people who apply through her website. She takes photos and writes their stories. Kim Lan saw very quickly the many stories that wanted and needed to be told. Kim Lan’s Redefining Disabled Project creates a way for disabled people to be seen and understood as the individuals they are. Kim Lan says, "Now is the time to start having these conversations. The basis for understanding, acceptance and tolerance starts with proper information."
Kim Lan is a good listener and a natural story teller. “I genuinely love my models. They are taking an enormous leap of faith with me. For days and weeks, their spirit and stories stay with me and carry me through everything. That people are willing to let me tell their stories is a dream come true. I am humbled, and I honor their stories.”
Photos provided by Kim Lan Grout
Selfie Word - Overcomer
Her Inner Light - the joy of being a child of God and being part of a sisterhood of light
Her message to women everywhere - “Love yourself first and the rest will follow.”
Drug dealers, so not cool. Car dealers, snooze. Card dealers, so yesterday. A Hope Dealer, now that's the real deal. Want to spot a Hope Dealer? Meet Christine Shayesteh. She’s got Wonder Woman gravitas, eyelashes that go with her gorgeous curls, a warm smile, and true courage. Stomping around in high heels and slinky multi-layered necklaces, she’s moving forward with her vision where women of diverse backgrounds build each other up in community and become their best selves. She’s a badass who’s all heart, a dealer of hope for women's empowerment.
Christine was a child of different cultures. Born to a Mexican mother and an Iranian father, she was only a toddler when her parents separated. Raised by her mother's traditional Mexican Protestant family, she was surrounded by strong female figures. On weekends when she spent time with her father she discovered his Persian Muslim heritage. He didn't tell her much about himself. Collecting bits and pieces from other family members, Christine would learn that he had remarried and formed another family, served time for money laundering, and lost his business. He was in and out of Christine’s life. Then one day in her early teens he left for a business trip abroad and never came back.
“The abandonment of a father is so fundamental to the development of a girl’s identity,” says Christine who grew up to study psychology and is currently working on her doctorate in marriage and family therapy. Through her study of attachment theory, she saw how her own upbringing shaped her. Even though she grew up with a tight-knit maternal family and church community that provided for her positive childhood, Christine doubted her self worth all along and struggled with body image issues. She did well in school and maintained a healthy social life but couldn’t sustain positive relationships with men. “Without a stable, loving father figure, I didn’t know what it was like be in a healthy, true partnership with men.”
In college when Christine had her first serious boyfriend, there were already troubling signs of abuse. During a heated argument, he put his hands on her. She broke up with him and told herself to never let that happen again. Unfortunately this was only the beginning.
By her early-twenties, Christine had launched her life. She had her own apartment, a car, and a job she loved working with at-risk youths. But she continued to struggle in relationships. She was in and out of co-dependent relationships where she met her boyfriends' needs. She paid for rent, maintained a comfortable lifestyle, cooked and cleaned, all in order to sustain a relationship. “I believed that I had to do everything to keep a man with me. Only then would I be whole. And as long as he stayed with me, I was okay even if he was hurting me.” The more she gave or the harder she tried to please, the more wounds she received. Her partners took her for granted. In anger, they threw things at her. They abused her physically — choking, grabbing, threatening her. “I minimized things,” Christine shared. “I would tell myself that it wasn’t abuse if it wasn’t a direct hit. I made up excuses for the violent behavior. And I worked even harder to preserve my relationships. This unhealthy cycle went on and on. I was deeply wounded on so many levels, I couldn’t see a way out of it.” For several years, Christine lived in relationships with men who tormented her. On the outside, she appeared to be a healthy, well-educated, successful professional of psychology. She had a circle of friends who were all studying therapy. She contributed to her community. She had a passion for beauty, fashion and wellness. But on the inside, she was patterning what she had internalized from childhood. "So much of the hurt that my mother carried from her own relationships with men and in particular with my father, all the fears she was trying to protect me from, I winded falling into them."
With tremendous courage and strength and the foundation of her psychology training, Christine redirected herself toward healing. She made her breakthrough when she came to a realization. “Attachment during infancy is profound, and if a child doesn’t get it from her caregivers, she looks for it everywhere. I sought for attachment whatever the cost. The saying goes ‘You are what you attract.’ I had to heal by being whole first." She left the country, traveling abroad for some time to give herself space and time. By the time she returned, she was ready for a fresh start.
To rebuild herself, Christine began pursuing her doctorate degree in marriage and family therapy with a focus on the mental health of women of color pertaining to objectification and sexualization. She also continued her work as counselor at a college preparatory school for girls from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. For these high school girls Christine is a haven where they can be their authentic selves amidst all they are going through during the teenage years. Christine nurtures them with her empathy, experience and training. Her journey to self reclamation helps her be an effective counselor. “I’m humbled by the powerful work I get to do with young women."
In 2013 Christine founded Sol Sisters, Inc. by combining her professional experience in mental health, her passion for the arts and her creativity as a makeup artist. With the tagline “Enrich, Empower, Evolve,” Sol Sisters' mission is to bring holistic health practices for under-resourced women in the Bay Area. Sol Sisters provides a variety of services in partnership with other organizations. Complete with makeovers, self-esteem building workshops and arts therapy, the full-day Revivals help women embrace their beauty from the inside out. In 2015, SOL Sisters officially received its 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit, and under Christine’s leadership it now has a network of over three hundred women all helping each other to enrich, empower and evolve. True to form to the Dealer she is, Christine reflects upon her personal history of trauma with hope. “My journey has blossomed me onto my path.” Having mended her broken spirit and become a fighter, Christine is growing a sisterhood of light. Deal on!
Selfie Word - AND. For my being a combination, capable of holding paradoxes.
Her Inner Light - Everything that has intersected with me and my part in the whole.
Her message to women everywhere - “You’re beautiful. Every wrinkle is a sign of true emotion shared with another human being, and together they make a map of all the emotional connections.”
Why do I feel the way I do and what is the connection between emotion and thought? What is reality versus what I perceive and define as reality? What is my subconsciousness and how does it work? Gina Mele has long been asking such questions, and they have taken her on an unique path. She started in science for answers, studying biochemistry and cell biology, which culminated in a graduate degree in neurobiology. When science alone wasn’t enough to satisfy her queries, she embarked on a decade-long investigation of eastern philosophies, belief systems and mindset practices.
Raised in Oakland by a mother who had been a nun and a father who had studied to be a Jesuit priest, Gina's quest of big questions was sparked at an early age by this background in divinity. "I like to look at things from a high vantage point,” says Gina who also happens to be an avid rock climber. She has mountaineered all over. Her biggest rock climb is Huascaran of Peru, one of the furthest places from Earth’s center. Steeply grounded in the physical world, Gina continues to span the internal. By combining her scientist sensibilities with her belief learnings, Gina is forging a new field of study that draws on neurobiology, spirituality, mindfulness, and communications all towards opening untapped human potential.
"This is the truth for me,” Gina says, “Now is the most exciting time to be alive as a human being. We have our thumbs. We’re walking upright. We’ve discovered tools and created technologies. What's next for our species along the evolutionary process?" Another big question. Gina believes that humans are at a powerful point of transformation. But instead of the Darwinian view that maps out physical evolution, Gina believes that our species is on the brink of a consciousness evolution. She explains, “We are not only our physical bodies. More than cells, we are also made whole by our emotional, mental, and spiritual states. On top of that, our physical bodies are interconnected with the inner-wise parts of us. So it makes sense that our species' next level of growth is going to come from a place that’s not just physical.” Growing our understanding of our inner landscape is a step toward a higher state of being. Gina’s work focuses on harnessing the inner consciousness to achieve awareness and effect purposeful change in the world.
Gina is herself an example that positive change is possible by tapping into one’s potential and shifting one's internal consciousness. Gina had always wanted to start her own business, but for a long time she was too scared. In 2005 she came across a technique on expanding the mindset. After practicing the technique herself, she began to see tangible, successful changes in her own life. She offered her Belief Work to others and became so successful with it that she launched a consulting company to help people overcome self-sabotaging beliefs and make large-scale changes. Now through Gina Mele Consulting she offers her techniques to Fortune 500 companies. Gina's workshops on corporate leadership, effective communication and team building have helped many executives shift unconscious barriers and create positive change on an organizational level. With her expertise, corporate leaders recognize how consciousness controls behavior. By creating workplaces where leaders speak from inner authority with authenticity and clarity, Gina is bringing more consciousness to the corporate world.
Self-Description - exuberant
Her Inner Light - mischievous laughter
Her message to women everywhere - “Don’t be afraid, embrace your witchiness.”
Born to a Russian mother and Kentuckian father, Polina's is a special brew of bloodlines, coursing with creativity, magic the likes found in fairy tales, and grand world artistry. Raised in the East Coast, Polina Smith has since a young age loved theater, which she shaped as she grew with her zeal for social justice. She followed her passion to India where she studied street theater, to Montreal where she specialized in a theater program for social change and to San Francisco where she practiced clowning with a circus center. In 2015, Polina founded Crescent Moon Theater Productions and produces original work across different disciplines of dance, music and circus. “Each of us has in our souls something that we came into this world with, something that our spirit loves. And life is for discovering what that is and reveling in it. For me that’s theater.” Polina says.
While themes of poverty, addiction, feminine empowerment, self-understanding and spiritual enlightenment drive her performances, Polina also brings a lighter side with her art. She regularly hosts a literary clown cabaret open to the public in which she transforms into her clown character, the chauvinist know-it-all, Dr. Schmidt. On certain Mondays throughout the year the good doctor can be found expounding his views on navigating womanhood, engaging properly at social functions with or without smelling fragrant, and mastering Burning Man pyrotechnics.
Within her creative Matryoshkas, Polina draws from a wellspring of integrity. She has always been deeply curious about human nature, spirituality and questions around what it means to live a fulfilling life. As she walked an unconventional path guided by her creative spirit, she has studied under many disciplines, from physical fitness to the spiritual and shamanic and taken mentorship under various thought leaders and healers. Grateful for these experiences, Polina launched Dreamcatcher’s Coaching, through which she offers life coaching for women. Through one-on-one and in small groups, Polina brings herheart, sense of humor and multidisciplinary practices to help women define their purpose and embrace a meaningful life. Polina questions our pervasive culture of self-hate. Why do we live with work that we don’t care about? Why do we move through life in such misalignment with our values? "I am passionate about helping women get unstuck from a soulless cycle of living,” Polina says.
In a day and age where there is endless output, Polina is a rare gift of a listener. She hears both what is said and unsaid. She honors each person, and her output is about creating space and clarity for those she coaches. Both nurturing and practical, she helps women recognize their stumbling blocks and turn these into learning moments towards becoming their best selves. Women find their way to Polina during moments of professional or personal change and come away from Dreamcatching with her brimming with freedom and actionable steps towards a fulfilled life.
Photos by Terry Schmidbauer
Spirited and Joyful
Self-Description - Hardworking
Her Inner Light - laughter
Her message to women everywhere - “Women are fighters. Life comes right at us, but we keep fighting, always with hope we can come out ahead."
Carmen has been cleaning other people’s houses for over two decades. Grime, clutter, dust and stain may be determined, but they are no match for Carmen. She comes with her stack of white towels, her baking soda and vinegar, and her used toothbrushes. She gets into every crevice, pane and surface. She climbs high and she gets down low. Her spirit comes through the perspiration upon her forehead and the silence that accentuates her every squeak and scrub. When she is through, even the stillness of a home is brighter. She cleans houses with the spirit we pray for in a surgeon operating on a loved one. The spirit of a pilot flying a craft carrying families.
With each scrub and drop of sweat, Carmen has built a life for herself in America and sustained the lives of family she left behind in Mexico. How could a mother bear to go to a foreign country leaving three young children behind, not knowing when she’d see them again? “What a horrible, unforgivable thing it was to do,” Carmen says. "But I could either have stayed to mother them or I could have left to feed them. I chose to feed them.” She made that decision over twenty-seven years ago, but the pain is ever fresh, evident in her tears and voice. “The thing I’m most proud of in the whole world is my children. They have grown to be good people.” And Carmen has made that possible.
Self-Description - Intelligent and Homemade
Her Inner Light - an attitude of gratitude for all that has happened, for all the narrow escapes
Her message to women everywhere - Sister friends, daughters, mothers, we all have a right to a life, our own life. We know very well how to take care of other people, but in the midst of all that, don’t forget that it’s about your life.
Political artist. Mother. Writer. Performer. Teacher. Director. Mentor. Visionary. Rhodessa Jones is a rad force of feminine power. For many decades she has been working with incarcerated women. Through storytelling and performance arts she has transformed lives of women from San Francisco to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Rhodessa first entered the prison system when she was asked to bring aerobics classes to incarcerated women. She saw right away that the women had no interest in aerobics exercises and that she had something much more to offer. Through sound and movement, Rhodessa began to share her own story while looking for ways to connect with these women. “I talked about my struggles, how I looked for love in all the wrong places, thus my own dance with dangerous men, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. They were fascinated that I knew something about where they had been.” When they realized Rhodessa wasn’t there to “social work” them, their skepticism made way for curiosity.
“Why are you telling us your business?” They asked.
"Because I’m interested in building a bridge together out of this place,” she answered. Then she asked her own questions, “How many of us here bleed? How many of us here are mothers?”
Rhodessa’s candid fierceness in taking the common ground they all stood upon as women created a rapport.
"So you aren’t the police," they said to her.
“No, I’m an artist.” Rhodessa answered.
"What’s an artist?"
“So that was my challenge — what’s an artist? And what’s an artist in marginal communities?” Over the next few decades, Rhodessa would show that an artist is someone who changes lives.
What started out as aerobics classes grew into storytelling into a covenant that held women together. Rhodessa created The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women (http://themedeaproject.weebly.com), a theater production company with a mission to reduce recidivism among women offenders by addressing issues of guilt, depression and self-loathing through an arts-based approach. First women find the words to talk about their past, breaking their silence often for the first time in their lives. Then coming together they gather the courage to share stories and end the stigma tied to their harrowing past. Finally they craft their stories into performances on stage for the larger community. Rhodessa tells her women, “Everybody’s pain is important. Everybody’s pain is real. Everybody move in. Let’s take hold of this woman. Let’s lift her up above us until she can feel all our support, until she can breathe again. Nobody is to let her fall. This laying on of hands I call it the womb circle.” Over and over again Rhodessa has established womb circles in which women honor each other’s stories, lay hands upon one another, and rebuild their self image and then their lives.
Rhodessa herself became a mother at the age of sixteen. She was born into the cultural revolution of the sixties to a migrant worker's family. She grew up moving from place to place, always the outsider. She followed her passion for performance arts with a goal toward strengthening marginalized communities. “There’s always somebody that needs to hear your story, to know they’re not alone. Through theater you can share that."
Rhodessa continues to open dialogues and build bridges. Now she has women ask of themselves. How did I break my own heart? Given everything I’ve been through, what do I know now? Rhodessa says, “I want women to stop placing blame and to start taking responsibility. There are a lot of odds against us, but how do we play into that? How do we play into a role of going down a path of self-destruction?” When women take agency in their own lives, the healing can begin.
Mom in Charge
Self-Description - Mom
Her Inner Light - A switch that reframes a negative into something positive.
Her message to women everywhere - “Be yourself. Don’t pay attention to what others are expecting of you. Be who you want to be."
Carmina Littlefield is a chameleon. She can be a clown when she needs to be a clown. A nurse when she needs to be. A driver, cook, juggler, creative artist, party planner, the CEO and COO of a busy, thriving operation. These are but a few of her job descriptions on any given day. Carmina is a full-time mother of two daughters and a son, all under the age of ten. “My children are very different from each other so mothering them requires very different job descriptions.”
A lover of learning, Carmina has been taking social psychology courses at the local college throughout her motherhood years. But life’s most important lessons are happening outside the classroom. Recently she and her oldest daughter Natalia were making art together. For a little while mother and daughter were content to enjoy each other’s company in the shared activity. Then for no obvious reason, Natalia threw a tantrum. Frustrated, Carmina stopped drawing and said, “If you don’t want to spend time with me, then I’m going to go do something else.” Carmina got up and left.
Later, she found a piece of paper slipped under her door. It was from Natalia. “I’m sorry, Mama, for my bad attitude,” it read. "I got upset because you’re a much better artist than me.”
In this humbling moment, Carmina saw how she’d completely misinterpreted the situation. The complexity beneath Natalia's misbehavior — her grappling with feeling inferior to her mother in something as simple as drawing — simply hadn’t occurred to Carmina. She was heartened that at ten years old Natalia could recognize her negative feelings, articulate them as jealousy, and be honest about them to the very person causing the intense feelings. The self-awareness. The courage. Not to mention the trust. Because Natalia was able to put her feelings into words, they had the opportunity to have a healthy dialogue about the experience. Carmina said to her daughter, “Understanding others is a gift just as is understanding ourselves. It’s only when you understand yourself that you have the capacity to truly understand others. And understanding yourself is a journey, a day by day thing.”
Life’s lessons are a lot of work. So Carmina sprinkles in the fun too. Miniature pails filled with green gummies, labeled River Frogs. A totem pole made up of a huge pile of donuts culminating in a top center piece with all the donut holes. A cheese, cracker and salami platter arranged in animal figures. A fruit salad is an owl whose eyes are orange rounds dotted with blueberries, whose wings are sliced apples. Carmina goes all out for her kids’ birthday parties. One has a campfire theme, another an owl theme, and another is all about race cars.
“Mothering is not all fun and games. There are moments when I am completely overwhelmed.” In those moments she sits down and takes a good look at her children. She takes herself out of it long enough to see that the moment will never come again. “They are always changing, and as they grow, they push me to change and grow also. So I remember to enjoy this experience that is so fleeting.”
Selfie - Responsible
Her Inner Light - “Bringing joy because when people around me are happy, I’m happy too. And I’m willing to do anything to keep spreading that joy."
Her message to women everywhere - “Be independent, take action, and be a doer."
The bowl starts empty, chipped at the rim. Gigi chops, staccatos of garlic. In one swift swipe, she palms the garlic from the cutting board to the bowl, which she infuses with drops of soy sauce and sesame oil. She lays on a bed of noodles cooked adente. She drenches the bowl with steaming broth then lifts its spirits with cilantro petals. Efficiently yet without rush, she breathes life into the bowl. No longer hollow, the bowl becomes a gift of nourishment.
Gigi is on the floor, tumbling, laughing, and tickling two little boys. Then one is climbing a tree, and the other is skipping across the garden. Gigi is up. Gigi is down. Chasing, bolstering, catching, she is a human trampoline, and her laughter is her bounce.
Gigi sways, paces, sings, whispers. For over an hour, she sways, paces, sings, whispers. Until the feverish toddler in her arms goes from tears to peaceful sleep, the strain of Gigi’s body transmuted into the easy inhales and exhales of the child she cares for as if her own.
Not so long ago, Gigi herself was a little girl running around farm fields in Central China and learning to cook from her mother who she lost too young. Since immigrating to the US in her late twenties, Gigi has been working with families, nurturing young children of different backgrounds, and feeding them and their families her delicious cooking. She is the fairy caregiver that mothers dream for.
Leaps and Grounds
Self-Description - Conscientious
Her Inner Light - my ability to notice little things, like the light in the dessert or a snail on my windshield, keeps me in tune with life. And kindness makes me alive.
Her message to women everywhere - “Dig for the thing that makes you go and go for it! Find people who can support you to do what’s going to make you happy."
Born in Ohio and raised in the Bay Area, Deb started working at a young age. She has worked at a gourmet grocery store, a card company, a home furnishings company, a dot com, and a wine importer. Deb absorbed what she could from each of these experiences. “I met many kind people and great influences who I learned a lot from."
After nine years of traveling widely and learning about wine with the wine importer, Deb grew restless. Having always loved plants, she decided to take a horticulture class at the city college. "I love how plants can talk to you and make you happier. I love how surprising they are.” That first class, an introduction to environmental horticulture, led Deb to take a second class and then another, until she found herself with a certificate in horticulture and landscape design.
During this time a friend said to Deb, “You’re stuck.” This candid honesty woke Deb up. She saw that she was indeed stuck, but she had no reason to be. Deb made a decision. She left her job of a decade at the wine importer and started apprenticing with a professional gardener. It was a bold move to leave a job where she was doing well and to forgo the financial security. But Deb said, “I couldn't just stay at that job and coast through life. I had to take a risk and challenge myself.” Deb made a leap in the face of the unknown, and she did it by following her inner knowing. When she’d learned all she could through her apprenticeship, Deb started her own gardening business, and Deborah Thomas Gardens was born.
Today Deborah Thomas Gardens, over five years old, has grown to a full service garden company. Deb didn’t realize it at the time, but all her experiences working in the many different businesses was preparing her to run her own business. Deb does everything from maintenance, upgrades and installations to landscape design. “I like to be an advocate for the garden,” Deb says. “But I also work with the homeowner to make sure they are getting what they want. I want my clients to enjoy their garden as a special place.” Clients find Deborah Thomas Gardens (http://deborahthomasgardens.com) by word of mouth. While gardens come in all sizes and colors, a common pattern is clear: Deb is drawn to kind people and kind people are drawn to Deb.
One of the challenges of being a gardener is that Deb can’t be the sensitive being she is all the time. "I love all forms of life. It’s hard because sometimes plants or insects have to die.” But Deb loves the work of being close to the earth and working along the cycle of life. She shares a memory of losing a loved one earlier in her life. "I had a boyfriend who died from cancer. He was in my life to remind me to live, and I think I might have been in his to help him go. I remember a defining moment after he passed. I remember walking and feeling so low to the ground. It was hard, but it was also a good feeling, the state of being so grounded and humbled.” It is with this grounded humility that Deb breathes life and tranquility in her gardens.
Camera. Light. Transformation.
Self-Description - fully alive
Her Inner Light - God
Her message to women everywhere - “Live life being fully alive in your heart, letting everyday be a gift in all its struggles."
When you first meet Julia Woods, what strikes you immediately is that she sees you. She sees you with openness, warmth and a beautiful smile that lights up her grey-blue eyes. Because she is so in the moment with you, a current of possibility courses through you, compelling you to be present as well and make a real connection.
Being present has not always been a natural stance for Julia. Born and raised in a Midwestern family plagued by addiction and violence, she spent the first decades of her life trying to run away from this past. Julia married young and started a family with her husband who is also her business partner. Together, they homeschooled four children and built a photography business. Julia threw herself into her roles as entrepreneur, creative photographer, wife and mother. She thought that by doing as much as possible, she could distract and ultimately numb herself from the things she couldn’t confront.
Years of hard work paid off: Julia’s company reached the top levels of success in the photography industry. In career, she was a self-made entrepreneur who garnered accolades, invitations to speak around the world, and monetary rewards. In love, she had a true and steadfast partner. In life, she'd raised four beautiful children, and together they lived in their dream home.
But Julia could not take joy in what she had. "I felt dead inside. I was trying to prove my self-worth through my work, and I realized what I had was a facade of a world that I’d created.” Her workaholic tendencies had long created unhealthy patterns in her marriage and family life. It was time to deal with the childhood trauma that led to her adulthood patterns.
She awakened her heart by turning to God for guidance, and the first breakthrough was a realization that she was her own worst enemy. “It was the darkness inside of me that was closing me inside my world.” Through a process of deep internal work, Julia began to shed layers upon layers of lies she’d told herself since childhood. She took a new stance of not allowing her past to hold her present hostage. Day by day she chose to come into a life of light, a life founded on self-embrace in the here and now. In an act of courage and faith, Julia sold her photography business and her home of over 20 years in the Midwest and moved with her family to the West Coast. She left behind a life driven by ambition and fueled by a desperate need to feel worthy.
On this side of transformation, Julia devotes herself as a consultant and coach, supporting others along their journeys of emergence into light. As the founder of Beautiful Outcome (http://www.beautifuloutcome.com), Julia works with individuals one-on-one to help them see where they are stuck and how to move towards living fully. She photographs families, capturing the essence of the bonds that knit the individuals into a whole. She consults with businesses, educating groups of people to see that what they dream and desire is possible. While her clients are one or many, coming from different spheres, Julia’s vision is the same: "I want the beauty within people to emerge. I want to help people recognize the gifts that they are.” Having come through her own transformation with experience on both sides of dark and light, Juilia’s passion is contagious. She stands with those who want to choose their own beautiful outcome.
Photos provided by Julia Woods
Listen to Your Heart When She's Calling
Self-Description - Integrity
Her Inner Light - My higher self that’s always been there and always will be.
Her message to women everywhere - “Love yourself. Everything comes from the perspective we have of ourselves."
Two things have always been true for Elizabeth Ross: her love of music and a calling to help underserved populations. Throughout her life, she has sung and played guitar, including once with Patti Smith in concert on stage. After graduating with a degree in sociology from college, Elizabeth followed her calling to a group home working with mentally disabled children. But after only a year and half, she left this work. The disabilities didn’t bother Elizabeth, but she feared the violence. During the two decades that followed, she worked different jobs, but all the while, she felt her heart tugging her back to social work.
Heeding her inner voice, Elizabeth found her way back. Through a serious search that took Elizabeth three years, she found her way to Family Service Agency of San Francisco (FSASF), the oldest, nonsectarian, charitable social-services provider in San Francisco. FSASF focuses on the needs of low-income families, children, the elderly and disabled people. More than 70% of the clients served by FSASF have annual incomes below the poverty level. Its mission is to improve the quality of life for the most vulnerable among us.
Elizabeth works directly with people between the ages of seventeen and sixty who have severe mental health issues, most of whom also have substance abuse concurrent issues. Despite suffering so much trauma, they are incredibly intelligent and aware. They have, as Elizabeth puts it, "amazing bullshit detectors.” When they come to Elizabeth for help, they show up fully and expect no less from her. So much of her work requires her ability to connect with people. "If we can’t connect, there’s no trust. Then I can’t understand what’s going on in there.” Elizabeth brings her authentic self, openness and humbleness to each interaction. The work of witnessing so much pain is hard. The stories that upset Elizabeth most are those that involve children and animals. But Elizabeth loves the human connection she forges. Elizabeth says that finding her way back to her path of helping people through social work has changed her life. “It’s who I am. I’m doing what I love. The more I do what I love, the more I become who I am. The more fully I become, the more capacity I have to help others and the more the world in turn opens up to me.” And so it goes this flourishing cycle.
For Elizabeth the best gifts come in the form of those who believe in her. "When people get me, they help me believe in myself.” How fitting for Elizabeth who has been called a Beacon of Light, who gives of herself to the world in this way exactly. With compassion and respect Elizabeth shows up everyday for her clients, those overlooked among us, so that they can begin once again to believe in themselves.
The Next Big Thing on Sesame Street
Self-Description - loud and inquisitive
Her Inner Light - theater and children
Her message to women everywhere - “To women and all women-to-be, I say: 'Use your words. Speak your mind. Say how you feel.'"
High energy, eloquent, and passionate, Alexa Goldin is a small package that packs a big punch. She has an incredible voice — it holds court. Mismatched socks and mischievous eyes, she has the ability to command authority, engender trust from children and still be the funnest and funniest person they know.
Alexa’s passions are working with children, reading, knitting and theater. Picture her as a quirky character on Sesame Street who tells stories in different voices all the while knitting. Clickety click and out comes cowlnecks in green, turquoise, purple weaves, colors and patterns as vibrant as her personality. Out comes halloween costumes like a cheeseburger dress, Big Bird, cupcake or monkey.
“I have always enjoyed children’s company,” says Alexa. Even when she was little, she took kids under her wing, feeding or dressing them. As an adult she brings children out of their shells. She is especially drawn to kids who are struggling socially. She loves helping them realize how much they shine just by being who they are.
Alexa sees teaching as a kind of performance art with children as her audience. "Teaching is creating a community where young people can feel safe. And good teachers are part of you forever.” She strives to be a good teacher for all the children she meets. When young people entrust her with their fears, these are the times when she feels enough.
The Mindful Chef
Self-Description - passionate, vulnerable
Her Inner Light - creative energy that comes both from within and from a higher power
Her message to women everywhere - “It is in our nature as women to give, but we forget about ourselves. It doesn’t do anybody any good. If you’re passionate about something, you want to do something you love, you may need to be selfish. If you believe you have something to give then give to yourself first. If you need help, ask for help.”
Born and raised in Thailand, Komoot Ngaojutha came to the US in search of more to life. She started as a graduate student in interior architecture and launched a successful career in interior design. But Komoot’s passion had long been in food. Since she was a little girl, she loved to eat, to cook, to be around food. "I used food for a lot of things to the point that I ate emotionally. Even though I dreamed about a career in food, I didn’t dare to pursue it.”
In 2009 she was an executive at a design firm, a position she enjoyed, and she imagined growing with the company for a long time. After twenty years in the design world, she felt she had her life figured out. "I was proud of what I’d accomplished, for a Thai woman to have gone so far in the design business in America.” Then one day before her birthday, everything shifted. The economic decline led to the collapse of the company, and Komoot was let go. She lost her financial security, but more significantly, she lost her identity.
Amidst the uncertainty and loss she felt that day, Komoot recalls a vivid moment of clarity. "Since this happened the day before my birthday, I said to myself this has to be a gift.” In that instant she reframed the change as an opportunity to start fresh.
During the months that followed Komoot asked herself, “What do I need to learn from this?” Seeking clarity, she decluttered her life, and all around she found signs of her long-time love affair with food. In the margin of one book, she found a note she’d written to herself years ago, “Go to culinary school.” This message sent a jolt through her system. She could no longer avoid facing her greatest fear that was also her truest desire. She researched different schools and quickly realized that she didn’t want to cook in the classical methods, which emphasizing taste leaned heavily on creams and sugars. Humbled by her own experience with emotional eating that had led to illness, she set out to approach cooking differently. She would redefine food as a healthy force in her life. “I had my awakening: My path to healing was by healing others through healthy cooking."
Komoot trained at Bauman College, a pioneer in holistic nutrition and culinary arts. She became a certified therapeutic chef and launched The Mindful Feast (http://themindfulfeast.com), a soulful company offering personal chef services. SOUL-ful — seasonal, organic, unprocessed and local — is the marrow of Komoot's fare. “My speciality is what I call empowering treats with loving kindness. Healing medicinal nutrients from different cultures and flavors around the world made in a mindful manner that expresses loving kindness and respect to your wellbeing and our planet.”
The Mindful Feast is shrimp with avocado, cucumber and mango salad with vermicelli served in butter lettuce cups. The Mindful Feast is ribeye steaks with kimchi and rice rolled on nori wraps. The Mindful Feast is balsamic glazed lamb chops with sautéed vegetables and mashed potatoes. The Mindful Feast is turkey meatballs and mixed vegetables miso soup with sweet potato noodles. The Mindful Feast is a delight of colors, taste, texture and smell. For the young and grown, for couples and families, Komoot’s treats feed the belly and nourish the soul.
Five years into making The Mindful Feast, Komoot cooks in homes with very different needs. Some have special diets, others are recovering from serious illnesses, several have growing children. Komoot expresses deep gratitude for each of them. "The people who are my clients are my healers. I see them taking care of themselves and their families, and I feel blessed to be playing a role in their intention for self-care. The more I do this, the more deeply I care for my clients and the more I see how I must do this with integrity. Cooking is demanding work, and I need to take care of my body so that I can stand for long hours and craft the meals. I cannot lead a double life. I can’t just preach healthy eating, cook and present healthy food and then at the end of the day, I’m doing the opposite to myself. Cooking The Mindful Feast keeps me on my healing path."
One of Komoot’s biggest fans is a small boy who clamors around her in the kitchen. He wants to know what’s making the wok sizzle, what makes for the bright colors whirling inside the blender, what will go into the salad. Pineapple or mango? Mint or sprouts? Almonds, cashews or peanuts? Then his favorite question: “Komoot, may I please try some?” And he’s never disappointed. When he savors her treat of loving kindness, it’s hard to tell who has the bigger smile. As Komoot would say, "Some of us give what we need to receive. Some of us teach what we need to learn."
Self-Description - Fabulous
Her Inner Light - Empathy for others that comes from a compassion for herself
Her message to women everywhere - “Love who you are. Don’t let situations define your destiny. Take charge of your life."
"I am a Kenyan born 29 years ago in a small village called Chinga,” Jayne Waithera begins her story in a lyrical voice that is a joyful song all its own. "I appear white. For me to be born white in a black dominated culture, I stood out. I don’t think there was anyone else in the entire county who looked like me. Because I had no skin color, I was treated differently, and it came out like something was totally wrong with me.”
Jayne is strikingly beautiful. Her honey-colored curls and the constellation of freckles upon her regal forehead and cheekbones. Her soft eyes, framed by champagne-washed eyelashes and eyebrows, are full of light. Then there is her smile, wide enough to invite anyone in, wide enough to bring her all the way to the United States from Kenya on a fellowship directly from the White House, wide enough to withstand the multitude of hurts in her life. If her voice is a concert, her smile is the opening curtain. Jane was born with albinism, a rare recessive genetic condition characterized by lack of pigmentation in hair, eyes and skin.
“When I was a toddler, my mother left me in a field,” Jayne continues. "She left to no return, and I only saw her again for the first time when I was twenty-four.” So great is the social stigma in Africa of birthing and raising a child with albinism that mothers abandon their children. Others aren’t able to protect their children from those who believe that body parts of albinistic people have magical powers. Ignorance and superstition have created a black market in Africa for albinistic children, who are kidnapped, sold, dismembered and murdered, their body parts used by witchdoctors as ingredients in potions and rituals. Still many others believe that those born with albinism are cursed, and they are persecuted and murdered for exactly the opposite reason. Fortunately for Jayne, her grandmother found her and brought her home.
"My grandmother loved me unconditionally. She did not see me as different even when everybody else did. Now remember this is a woman who never went to school, who had zero knowledge about albinism, who could barely afford to put food on the table let alone buy sunscreen. But in the thick and thin she was always there for me. This was how strong of a woman my grandmother was, to go against everything and everyone else to raise me up,” Jayne says. The first thing Jayne’s grandmother did everyday when Jayne got home from school was check her body for signs of abuse. Children regularly came up to pinch Jayne's skin just to see it change color. Children with albinism usually attended special schools or no school at all. But Jayne’s grandmother enrolled her in a regular school with all the other kids.
“Throughout my life I was called lazy, stupid, ugly, a demon. Sometimes I was punished for not getting something correct. I could not explain to people about myself because I didn’t know beyond the fact that I looked different that I also had other physical challenges,” Jayne says. Like many children with albinism, Jayne was legally blind. She recalls not being able to answer questions when called upon in class simply because she couldn’t see the information presented. Despite physical disability and social persecution Jayne persevered through primary and high school and qualified for university. Thanks to her grandmother, Jayne grew up believing that she could have the same opportunities as everybody else.
Since her grandmother could not afford her university fees, Jayne waited over a year to start. She then enrolled in a program that her grandmother could afford, one that specializes in sciences and math. There she was told she was not smart enough to make it through the program. But Jayne challenged the dean’s decision, and she did well. Upon graduation, she got a scholarship to attend a social entrepreneur leadership program in India. She came out of the program with a clear mission, which she put to work immediately upon returning to Kenya.
Jayne founded Positive Exposure - Kenya (http://positiveexposure.org), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to bridge the information gap on albinism. Her program runs workshops on albinism: Albinism is neither a curse nor an ingredient for magical powers. Children with albinism can’t be ‘cured’ by being left out in the sun to brown. They need sun protection. They need support for their visual impairment. Jayne also has plans to launch mobile support centers — cars or vans that could move about villages, however remote, to hand out information packets and sunscreen as well as organize support groups for mothers raising children with albinism.
“This work is about upliftment, about seeing humanity,” Jayne says. “We give dignity. We find someone like this.” She hunches over, withers her expression. “And we leave them like this!” She snaps back to herself, shoulders back, arms raised, head held high, her smile full of light. Albinism is Jayne's focus, but she is also passionate about women and children. She believes that every beautiful life starts with having a loving family. “I am most proud of parents who accept children for the way they are.”
When asked about her feelings towards her own mother, Jayne expresses compassion. "I am open to having my mother in my life. I forgive her for what she felt she had to do. Anyway that was her decision, which she has to come to terms with. Not me. My life is about going forward with what I have been given, not what was taken away.” So Jayne moves forward with Positive Exposure - Kenya. In her spare time, she also serves as a mentor for young girls at her high school. There are no children with albinism there currently, but she returns to those old battlegrounds so more girls can have access to the opportunities she knows about.
With her life Jayne weaves a song of strength and upliftment, and in her refrain that is also her crescendo, she proclaims, "I have challenged the status quo. People have said many things about me. She will not live beyond a few years. She cannot read. She cannot learn math and science. She will vanish soon. But I don’t let others limit me. I rise. Above all odds, I rise.”
Photos provided by Jayne
Self-Description - Brave, Crazy, Strong
Her Inner Light - “My ability to connect with children. My warrior mentality."
Her message to women everywhere - “We are queens. We are empresses. Let’s know our worth and own it."
Hot pink feathers tucked into her black curls, red smudges across her cheeks and forehead, a belt of tinkling bells over an orange tutu around her waist. If you look past the big red rubber nose and crooked, oversized black spectacles, you'd notice her alluring eyebrows and sensitive eyes. She trips like a class A klutz yet juggles clubs, three or four at a time, clubs aflame. In this disguise, she is a jester, an innocent, an autistic savant, a clueless student, a girl who desperately wants to be a woman. She appears simple but she is no simpleton.
Tristan Cunningham knew herself to be a performing artist from a very young age. Through a tumultuous childhood of losing both parents too young and growing up in foster homes, Tristan has followed her inner knowing. She entered the circus when she was ten, working through acting programs and performing schools in the East Coast. A circus act brought her to the San Francisco Bay Area, where over time she established herself as an equity actress (https://www.backstage.com/tristancunningham/). Performance has been her outlet, her safe place, and her home.
Tristan is also a teacher. She works with teenage moms to find self-empowerment through performing arts. She also teaches at a circus skills life program that helps young people develop confidence, teamwork and perseverance. While she is focused on growing her own artistry, Tristan says, “I will always teach at places where I feel like I am needed."
Of her own tough teenage years, she says, “I was ready to bring myself and anyone else down with me. Thanks to some people who gave me specks of light, I worked my way out of darkness to live a very different life.” In gratitude Tristan gives back by shining her light on and off stage for others who may need it.
On the question of being enough, Tristan says that it’s a day by day thing. But in the end it comes down to this: “When someone has needed my help, and I was able to do that for them, those are the moments when I feel enough."
Self Description - Growing, shifting
Her Inner Light - playfulness
Her message to women everywhere - "You already have the answers. Take an exhale."
Crystal Higgins' story is one of growth through transition. Hailing from the Midwest, she was the first in her family to attend college. Driven and down to earth, she was successful in building careers across different industries, including wine, web development, digital advertising, public relations and social media. Also agile, Crystal has done well in corporate environments as well as startups and the nonprofit sector. But it wasn’t until she created a position for herself — a yoga teacher who is also a marketing consultant for wellness professionals — that she arrived at being herself.
Some years ago Crystal divorced from her husband who had been her sweetheart since high school. During this painful experience that rocked Crystal's core, she examined how to rebuild her life. On the day of their separation, Crystal was struck by an acute clarity to become a yoga teacher. Yoga had long been an important part of her life. Practicing had helped her move through childhood trauma, and in adulthood it has helped her tap into her feminine strengths, namely of embracing vulnerability while staying grounded. “Practicing yoga cracked open my life, and I realized I wanted to teach yoga through a feminine inspired practice. I want to help women find their way back to their strength and resiliency."
Crystal made swift and necessary changes to follow her clarity of purpose. She moved to Kithira Island, Greece, where she immersed herself in intense teacher training. Upon completion, she returned to the Bay Area where she shadowed an experienced yoga teacher. When she felt ready, she began to teach and establish herself in the yoga community.
After a few years of teaching, Crystal took the marketing skills that she had honed from previous careers across different industries and applied them in the yoga world. From consulting, strategy and execution, she helps yoga teachers, studios as well as other wellness professionals examine ways to broaden their market. Guided by her feminine-inspired yoga practice, Crystal follows both her intuition and linear thinking to best serve each of her client's unique needs. Her work includes leading marketing workshops, launching outreach campaigns and creating social media plans. But more than the tactical stuff, Crystal says, “My philosophy is to help clients see that marketing can actually be a continuation of their teachings outside the yoga studio. It’s yet another way to inspire their students and make the mindfulness practice more accessible.”
After only a few months of launching her marketing business (http://crystalmarieyoga.com), Crystal already has a full client roster. She continues to teach hatha and restorative yoga. By bringing clarity, presence and sense of purpose both on and off the mat, Crystal is able to attune to the needs of those she serves. She feels tremendous joy in building her life around both teaching and consulting. "My work feels truly authentic to who I am. I get to be myself everyday!"
Crystal is proud that she took charge of her life in a moment of crisis. She believes in each woman’s ability to draw clarity and strength from within. “We have instincts that are strong and potent. We tend to mute them. Or we don’t give ourselves space to listen. But the most powerful thing we have is that inner knowing.” When she followed her inner knowing to become a yoga teacher and later to launch her own business, Crystal encountered doubt from those around her. “Everyone told me it was such a risk I was taking, but I actually felt it was riskier not to do what I knew I should do.” Crystal continues to tune into herself, watching for shifts underneath the surface and creating space for transformations to unfold.
Self-Description - Humble
Her Inner Light - “My kids and my grandkids who are so precious."
Her message to women everywhere - “Be honest and speak your truth. If you stand for nothing you’ll fall for anything. Don’t be afraid to be who you are.”
A self-described navy brat who grew up all over, Cassandra Steptoe is a a PTSD survivor, a stage performer, a mother of three and grandmother of nine, a child development expert, a recovering addict seventeen years clean and sober, and a woman’s advocate.
Cassandra raises two grandchildren. During the day while her grandchildren are in school, Cassandra also takes care of children from other families. One toddler in her care comes from a young mother recovering from drug addiction while another comes from a single mother working to make ends meet. Cassandra accepts a nominal fee from these struggling mothers, far below the going rate for a caregiver. Having come down a similar rough road herself, Cassandra lovingly nurtures these children. She cooks for them, takes them to the park, cuddles them to sleep. “We do all the small things together, like stop to smell the flowers and take those first steps. For me, there is so much joy in this work because I didn’t get to care for my own kids like this. I missed it all with them because I was the one in recovery, the one trying to get my life together.”
Growing up a child victim of sexual and emotional abuse, Cassandra became addicted to drugs, which led her to prostitution followed by incarceration followed by becoming HIV+. For the first forty years of her life, Cassandra lived in darkness and shame. She found a will to get clean and turned her life around. Today she has her health, her recovery, her church, and her children. Cassandra says, “I am enough for myself because I know who I am.
Now that she has found her way, she wants to give women a voice. She wants to offer a safe place where women can gather and find their courage. She speaks openly about her redemption story so that women with similar struggles don’t have to live in fear or secrecy. Working with the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, Cassandra performs her story on stage in hopes of empowering women everywhere.
“I was given a second chance at a first class life,” Cassandra says. “I’m still here. I get to spend my days with children. I don’t take any part of it for granted."