I’m My Own Storyteller

The following is an adaptation of my Presentation of Learning (POL) from my global gap year with Thinking Beyond Borders. The original presentation combined speech, audience participation, artwork, and photography. It was first presented in April at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.


As a writer, I practice the art of storytelling. I find stories can be told in a variety of ways. Sometimes the story finds it niche in a poem, a short story, a blog post, an essay, or even a letter. There’s a reason I love literature, and there’s a reason I connect it with social justice. You see, in my years of writing and reading and studying, I’ve discovered that stories tell us about humanity. They teach us about human nature, society, the individual, collectives, identity, love. And I am so thankful for these beautiful creations. But some stories hurt, and not in the good way. Not in the “I-didn’t-realize-I-could-feel-so-much” kind of way, but in the “stop-seeing-me-as-less-than-human” kind of way. As a woman, I have been told all kinds of stories, and they have cut me down to the core. And since the very beginning of my gap year, I have begun to feel my bruises and try to heal my wounds. I’m reading a book—if I can call it that—called The Women Who Run with Wolves, and it is a path to reclaim the wild woman within all of us. This woman that has been trapped by society’s expectations and outlining of womanhood. The author goes through female archetypes and shares stories and actions that move us toward wild woman, towards wholeness. The first story is of La Loba, the Wolf Woman, a she-wolf who gathers old bones which are in danger of being lost and sings them to resurrection until she has created a wolf which comes alive and, running, transforms into a laughing woman. So here I am, singing over my bones to all of you. This is a healing process, and this is social justice through a lens of love. It is loving my oppressor: patriarchy, misogyny and sometimes myself, and healing the oppressed: my womanness, my pain, me. And it is forgiveness and understanding and pain and hurt and anger and healing. I came on this trip as a fierce feminist, and I am leaving it even fiercer. But Thinking Beyond Borders has been an evolution for me in which I have made this feminist shift through self-love. I have learned about my role as a woman by looking inward and challenging my identity, my assumptions, and the stories I’m about to share with you.

I wrote a love note over the summer. It goes a little something like this:

Thank you, feminism, for the love you have created in the world but most of all, within me. You are not perfect, I know that now, but, hey, what is? Feminism, you and I both have a long way to go. I hope that together we can remember humility in the face of change, confrontation, and difference. But before we join hands and profess our unabiding love for humanity, I want to thank you for the years of strength and support who have given me and will give me. You are the reason I am writing my own stories. You are the reason I am not drowning in a sea of voices telling me that I am not enough. You are the reason I pick myself up after every time I fall. You are the reason I know what passion tastes like. And you are the reason I know what loving myself looks like. So thank you, feminism. Without you, how could I learn to love?

I found the note on napkin tucked into one of my poetry anthologies last night. It sounds pretty sappy, I know, and for the most part it is fairly generic. But when I wrote it, I felt electric. I could feel this aura surrounding me. Letter by letter some strange sensation of power flowed back into my body.

You are the reason I am writing my own stories.

If I am not actively saying No. I reject this. I am a puppet in the powerful’s play. According to the patriarchy, my storyline goes something like this: You’re prettier in makeup. A relationship will bring you a happy ending and fulfillment. You’re a victim. Always say sorry. Beauty is determined by how a man sees you. You need to be rescued. You’re too emotional. Your worth is your waistline. Unrequited love is poetic, and you deserve to chase after someone who doesn’t love you. Your story isn’t good enough.

These fictitious stories have wormed their way into my life; I have internalized them. They are the stories I am fighting against.

You see, I am my own storyteller. I don’t always have to smile. I can love myself enough to see my wounds. I can heal them, but I can let others help. I am my own place. It’s okay to feel. My dress is not a yes. My voice deserves to be heard. My worth is within myself. I can need others, just not more than I need myself. I deserve love. I am an interdependent being. I am strong. I am my own hero. I am not perfect, but I am perfectly human. My voice deserves to be heard.

Those are the kind stories, the truthful stories. The stories I have begun telling myself.

Everyday, I am told those first stories over and over again, and I must contend with nearly two decades worth of memories in which I was not actively rewriting them. When I was nine years old, I was told I should “go on the Jenny Craig diet.” Ten years later, I find my hands exploring my body, pinching my fat, and imagining a vacuum scanning my body to suck myself thin.

There are more stories within and beyond these which I have told, but underneath them all I see a message of “You’re not enough.” And it takes me back to one of the most impactful moments on my gap year. Sitting on the sidelines of the community soccer game in Bua, Ecuador, with my Program Leader Yvonne, I kickstarted this search for self-love. She held me as I cried, and she made me laugh through the pain. It was one of those days that I’d avoided, a day when it all comes rushing out, when the weight of being just becomes too much to bear. As I vocalized the pain of not doing enough—not getting into the college I wanted, not being loved by the right boy, not being strong enough to handle it—Yvonne pointed to the sky and suggested I try to be like the bird flying above us. I quickly rejected the idea. A bird? What a boring life! Where’s the passion in relaxing, in just being, in just flying? So she asked me what I wanted to be, and I said I wanted to be a lioness. Fierce and protective but able to rejoice in the sun, able to see that she was enough. And so I am both the lioness and the wild wolf. I am a both/and, both a complex human being who is unlearning the stories I have been told and a proud writer who is able to tell her own stories.

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Origin Story Two: Living in Limbo

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Sitting in my neighborhood Starbucks, I realize a profound disturbance. We live a life of unconsciousness. Society has numbed and dumbed us just enough so that day-to-day life is lived just under the brink of awareness. We are taught not to question, to follow authority and tread along in the name of progress. Oh, yes, you can have your political opinions, and yes, sure you can be whoever you want to be when you grow up, and yes, yes you live in the land of democracy—let freedom ring! But meanwhile no one is actually awake. Besides, individual freedom does not exist until universal freedom is recognized. I understand now why the first few weeks after coming home I felt like I was in a daze. It was not that I was reaching for the dream-like trance of TBB. No, I was reaching for the reality and active consciousness TBB provided. Returning from TBB means living in limbo. You are alive, but you live in society’s dreamland. Most of the time, the people around you are living examples of the unconsciousness you left behind eight months ago before you died a social death, but when you see them you do not question their existence—you question your own.

This theme of consciousness versus unconsciousness is prevalent in all three pillars. On my gap year I discovered multilateral consciousness (which is really just a fancy way of saying I learned how to not only stand on the three pillars—love and community, challenging your assumptions, and looking inward—but also practice them simultaneously). What does society’s unconsciousness look like in this context? Respectively, a lack of emotional literacy, honesty, and vulnerability; a blinding faith and trust in the system born from a quasi-factory line education meant to booster ego; an unrecognized fear of depth and of introspection and a humility deficiency. There’s plenty of evidence from my past which says that I have been developing the three pillars for quite some time now. And perhaps similar evidence can be found in your past and even your present. However, for me, the difference between the past pre-TBB and the past during TBB is consciousness. And that has made all the difference. During those seven months of travel, I actively pursued love and community, constantly challenged my assumptions, and committed myself to looking inward. It was a lived reality during which I was fully awake, and my struggle to remain awake is what leads me to the type of exhaustion as if I am treading water.

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My original intent for this post was an explanation behind the pillar “Challenge Your Assumptions.” Instead, I ended up here. Before TBB, I would have forced my canoe down the intended course rather than the purposeful course. I would have listened to my head space’s “supposed to be” instead of my heart space’s “this is.” I would have followed the plan when I could have let the writing take over me. In all essence, I would have heard my ego over my soul.

I say this because I want to emphasize that society is not consistently unconscious. The moments when the soul is heard over the ego is consciousness; when art is created, observed, or heard consciousness exists; when love is recognized, that is consciousness. We all carry within us the ability to reach the brink of awareness, even beyond the TBB community.

The late poet laureate Mark Strand once wrote, “I think what happens at certain points in my poems is that language takes over, and I follow it. It just sounds right. And I trust the implication of what I’m saying, even though I’m not absolutely sure what it is that I’m saying. I’m just willing to let it be. . . Because if I were absolutely sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems . . . I don’t think the poem would be smarter than I am.”

Living in limbo comes with the responsibility of awareness and education—at least for me, because living in limbo means fighting to keep that consciousness alive, fighting to keep yourself “alive, awake, alert and enthusiastic.” Living in limbo means more than just wanting the poem to be smarter than you. . . It means letting it.

So here you have the purpose of the three pillars: for the soul to be heard above the ego.

Origin Story One: The Beginning of Humility

At sixteen, I knew I didn’t have it all figured out. (And nearing 19 I still definitely don’t have it all figured out). I wasn’t arrogant enough to believe that I had all the answers just because I started You Me We Empower. In fact, I have always been an eager learner, always ready to find out more, especially about the social justice world. But, I wasn’t humble either. I thought I had some of it down and that some of it was my theory behind empowerment. Although back then I never would have considered calling it a “theory”–in my mind it was fact not theory. I founded You Me We Empower–both the organization and the blog–under the assumption that I could empower others through both humanitarian work and my writing. If there are any fellow Thinking Beyond Borders alums out there, you’re probably shaking your head because, well, that is somewhat problematic thinking. My reasons for why this is problematic will hopefully become clear in this and future posts.

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Let me start with India Seminar Two “Does education oppress or liberate?” on my global gap year with Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB). Program Leader, social justice guru, friend, and mentor Stacey led this seminar. About thirty minutes into the discussion she dropped a metaphorical bomb on my somewhat literal “empowerment junkie” identity. Stacey explained a popular definition of the word “empower.” In short, a person cannot empower another person because this would be invoking an oppressive power dynamic. It would look like giving a hand out rather than a hand up and in reality would not last. So instead, a person can only empower oneself. The moment this clicked, the moment I realized I too agreed with this definition was a moment of deep rooted confusion. When the seminar ended, I was left with my arms flailing, screaming “This can’t be over! Someone, anyone, Stacey, please, answer my questions! I don’t know where to go from here!” Had the past two years of my life been spent perpetuating oppression? Was I hindering not helping the issue? And what about all the organizations I supported? Were their values aligned with my new ones?

I was exhilarated. I may have been at a low point personally, but I had never felt more academically challenged. The seminars that followed continued to confound me. I asked more and more questions and quickly started facilitating my own conversations beyond seminar to satisfy my overflowing love for liberation theory and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Months later, I am still asking questions and practicing the love and humility born from this original pursuit for liberation.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is truly at the crux of my shift. Sitting here now, I am not sure how to define what I shifted away from, but I do know what I shifted towards: wholeness, humanness, humility, understanding, love. I cannot untangle every story or theory which led me to where I am today in a single blog post. Or even in a single series of blog posts. Maybe that is what the future is for–untangling the stories we have lived and are living. Consider this the first installment of The Lioness and the Wild Wolf origin stories. I cannot promise a regular schedule, but I can promise a full-hearted process. In the near future, you can expect explanations of The Three Pillars: Love & Community, Challenging Assumptions, and Looking Inward, and of the meaning behind my practice and this blog’s tagline, Social Justice Through a Lens of Love, and also of the meaning behind the new name, The Lioness and the Wild Wolf.

Until then, I will leave you with this:

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The Traveling Blog

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Hello, all!

It’s official: one week until I depart! I have to admit, the butterflies are starting and trepidation kicking in. I’m realizing just how much I will miss my family, but I suppose this is just how life goes. 

Regardless of the twinges of sadness and fear, I am thrilled. The reality of my adventure increases with every check off my to-do list. I even started packing today! 

If you’re interested in keeping up with my adventures, you can go to: http://mattieleila.wordpress.com. I decided it would be best to make a specific TBB blog so the core values and focus of YMWE doesn’t go askew. I promise to update my new blog as much as possible, but I’m afraid internet access in Ecuador and Thailand will be minimal. If you’re interested in subscribing to my blog so you get automatic updates, please let me know! 

With seven months of adventure ahead, here’s to living without regrets and being bold and honest,

Mattie Leila

Let’s End Poverty [?]

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I have not posted in a little while, but I can assure you I have been journaling. My red Moleskine has a sizable chunk scribbled in, with mindful thoughts interspersed between the TBB journal questions. I am on my fourth TBB read now; it is called The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities of Our Time by Jeffrey Sachs. Since Ishmael I have read John Perkins’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. I began the latter book in February 2013, nearly 18 months ago. I had approximately 75 pages to go when I picked it back up for TBB. It is a favorite of mine, filled with shocking anecdotes of female oppression. As for Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, I devoured the book. Half the book is highlighted and annotated. I felt like I had a VIP behind-the-scenes look at my AP US History class. I highly recommend it if you find history, politics or economics the slightest bit intriguing.

With all that said, I have written a journal entry I thought would be of value or intrigue to share. We only need to read certain chapters of Sachs’s book, but this one is from Chapter One.


What is poverty?

     My heart grows heavy when I pass the many poor, rural areas across my state, South Carolina. But my head grows guilty, too, as I subconsciously lock my doors and grip my wheel a little tighter. I wonder if this assumption is a by-product of growing up in the South or simply a by-product of growing up American/human.

     I am a lower middle-class white American. I know some of the struggles of being under financial burden, if only because of my expensive college and travel dreams. But then I wonder if those who live in poverty–even the “relative” poverty Sachs speaks about–I wonder if they even entertain such dreams. I wonder if they know they could still obtain those dreams. And once again my heart grows heavy and my head grows guilty.

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     So what is poverty? When I google it, the responses include: “The state of being extremely poor,” and “the state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount.” Let us accept the former, not the latter. Jeffrey Sachs places poverty into three categories: relative, moderate, and extreme. All that is good and fine. Yes, they are the technical definitions of poverty. Yes, when the question is asked, that is indeed the answer. But, I still don’t truly understand poverty. I have not lived it, so I cannot truly know it.

     Reading this book, I am shaken awake by questions. Does this not go against everything Ishmael taught? Yes, I wish we could end the suffering of a billion people, but for a least some of them, wouldn’t we be imposing our culture upon them? Technology has done wonders for the developed world, but do the so-called “under-developed” and “developing” worlds want all that “progress” has brought? Are they happy as “Leavers,” or do they wish to be “Takers?” In the end, who are we to tell others how to live? People say that money doesn’t create happiness. In fact, one study shows that if a person wins the lottery, the following year they will be approximately just as happy as they were before their win. So should our aim be “end poverty,” or should it be “end unnecessary death?” Or even yet, “provide the option and availability of health.”

     Let us lead them to the watering hole, but let us not force them to drink. 

     Like so many of my other journal entries, I am left with more questions than I have answers. I am currently in chapter two of my book, but suddenly my thoughts on how we attack the poverty situation are jumbled. Perhaps I will find some answers with TBB. Or perhaps I’ll simply find more questions.

The Question Game

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For someone who wants to be an international journalist, I am quite terrible at the whole “questions” game. And by “‘questions’ game” I mean simply thinking up questions. It’s not for a lack of curiosity–far from it. In reality, I am just so curious about everything that has to do with anything that I am completely, wholly unaware of where to start. Questions don’t really come too easily for me. Instead, I prefer to do the digging myself, figuring out what I need to know piece by piece. Which I am aware is not how to do get the job done. Other times, in class discussions let’s say, I generally answer myself immediately after posing the question. In AP English, when I occasionally articulated a question or shared a confusion of mine, I would continue rattling on until I eventually came to the answer all by my lonesome, generally ending in a “yeah, so. . . I guess that’s it.” (Shout out to all my AP English Lit classmates who can–and have–imitated my exact protocol when speaking in class).

Alas, I will one day need to overcome my controlling personality and learn how to deal with questions. Perhaps this journal entry is my first step in the process.


What are your most pressing questions about development?

      I feel like I know so little about development. Yes, I’ve read Ishmael, and yes, I’ve read some articles, but really what is development? I find myself asking that question whenever I try to starts this journal entry.

     I’ve read plenty of TBB blogs and even watched parts of last years’ graduation speeches, so I have a basic understanding of the question. I know that it is the type of question which leads to more questions than it does answers.

     I’ve been stewing on this journal entry for quite some time, never really knowing where to start. Because I felt I know so little about development, I wasn’t sure how I could write this entry. And yet, here I am.

     Once again, I have Adam Braun, my personal hero, to thank. Recently–just two days ago, actually–he shared his new TED Talk (YAY! Double the magic!), entitled “What the U.S. education system can learn from the developing world.” In the talk, Adam touches on a question I heard relentlessly while my organization was fundraising for Pencils of Promise: What about educating our kids here? Why should I help kids half way across the world? And, as Adam explains, it al comes from this underlying belief that the developing world’s education system needs to take pointers from the U.S. education system. And yet, Adam blows this idea out of the water as he introduces three key concepts about the developing world’s system, which perhaps the U.S. should inherit.

     How does this have anything to do with the journal question? Glad you asked. From what I’ve read of TBB, I’ll be learning about development extensively, and it seems as if many TBB students come back questioning the classifications themselves. You know, first world versus third world. Ishmael touches on this a bit, too. The Takers versus the Leavers, as the book calls it. The developed world versus the developing world. So with all this in mind, I’ve come up with a handful of my “most pressing questions about development” which I hope to be able to answer during my TBB gap year.

    1. What is development?
    2. What qualifies first versus third world?
    3. Can we/should we do without these labels? And how do these labels effect the specific cultures?
    4. What are the social differences and similarities between developed and developing worlds? What does Mother Culture tell each society?*

*This last question is discussed in Ishmael, but I hope to gain further insight on the topic.

 

The Only Thing That’s Left To Do is Live

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Good morning, world!

I piddled around all of yesterday, putting off this journal question with every task.

Well, I should do the laundry first, and then I’ll start. 

The dog needs to go out, and then I have to run some errands. But after that. . . maybe?

I’ll do it before work. Yeah, definitely before work.

Well, guess I’m doing it after work, then. . .

And so it goes.

I suppose this one was so difficult because I had so much to say and no real understanding of where to start, where to finish, any of it. But, I finally put my nose to the grindstone, curled up with a nice cup of tea, and unjumbled all my thoughts into one (semi)coherent journal entry. Enjoy!


 

What do you expect from your experience with Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB)?

     I’m a dreamer, and as such, I easily create day dreams of the future, quilted in high expectations. But I’m also a planner, and I love getting all the info, so you can trust me when I say I’ve spent 20+ hours reading TBB student blogs and clicking through Facebook photos from the recent graduates. With such extensive creeping–or researching, whichever you prefer–it’s safe to say that my expectations are concretely based.

     What are they, you ask? To be honest, they overwhelm me. Everything overwhelms me these days. But in the best way possible. The future, the fall. It was all so uncertain for so long that to have a definite brings tears to my eyes. I remember the moment I first decided TBB was what I wanted. . .

     It was late August, right before I began my senior year. The evening sun had set, and the sweet and salty Pawleys air saturated the porch. I was with my best friend Caroline, rocking back and forth on her hammock. I’d discovered TBB not too soon before that, and I was telling her about the program when I had what Pencils of Promise founder Adam Braun calls a “lightning moment.” I knew in my heart and soul that TBB was just what I needed. Perhaps that is when my first expectations took place. Now, ten months later, I am researching backpacks and water bottles. My lightening moment roars thunderous sounds, ringing out that my dream is becoming a reality.

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     As I think up all my expectations, I feel certain that they will not be met. They will be exceeded. Because I expect to feel wholly uncomfortable yet tragically safe with the knowledge that I am growing and breaking and growing again. And I expect to miss my family and friends, but I also expect to create lifelong friendships I truly cannot yet fathom. I expect my mind to be stretched farther than I think it can reach. I expect my mornings to be early and my days filled with teaching and learning and questioning. I expect to be saddened by the state of the world and perplexed by what I am supposed to do about it. I expect to come face to face with scary, insane moments and laugh in the face of fear as I leap forward into the arms of adventure. I expect to be happier than I have ever been before because I expect to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. And I expect that the latter is not an exaggeration because I know I will come back a different, changed person. I expect the transition from there to back here will be tougher than I expect. But above all, I expect that while I may write this and think this, reality will outshine my dreams, and my expectations will become soulless ideas, far beyond the capability to understand all that lies ahead.

     There’s a Frank Turner song called “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous.” It’s a favorite of mine, and there’s one part that goes:

Life is about love, last minutes, and lost evenings / About fire in our bellies and furtive little feelings / And the aching amplitudes that set our needles all a-flickering / And help us with remembering that the only thing that’s left to do is live.

     Well, I have a fire in my belly, and I am ready to wash away all expectations and truly live in the moment. TBB, here I come!

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Must Have An Earnest Desire to Save the World

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Hello, all!

With just 85 days until I embark on my seven month long journey with Thinking Beyond Borders, I have begun my summer reading assignments. We have a handful of books to read pre-departure, the first being Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It is a fascinating read, one consumed with thought provoking ideas. Throughout the novel, I yearned to drag my (former) fellow classmates from their places of comfort, drive over to our (former) AP English Lit class, and “circle up” to discuss these complex issues. Of course, I will be able to hold plenty of discussions with (new!) classmates come September, so I suppose I’ll have to hold my questions and theories and intrigues until then.

For those of you who don’t know (which is probably the majority of you) Ishmael is about a man’s efforts in becoming a proactive agent of change in the world. He answers an ad in the paper, “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” Upon answering the ad, he discovers his teacher is a gorilla named Ishmael. Ishmael teaches him–and the reader–about how “Mother Culture” has taught us to believe certain ideas about “how things came to be this way.” 

Part of our summer assignment requires us to answer some journal questions. For Ishmael, these questions include:

  1. What are your assumptions about yourself as an “agent of change” in the world?
  2. What do you expect from your experience with TBB?
  3. What are your most pressing questions about development?

Tonight, I answered the first question. As I opened up my new, pristine, passionately red Moleskine, I decided it needed a bit of a wanderluster’s touch, so I inscribed the phrase, “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders,” into the first page. Here’s to seven months of life thinking beyond borders.

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Now, if you care to read, here is my first journal entry. I hope you enjoy. I certainly enjoyed writing it. There is something incredibly raw about journaling. You discover so much more about yourself journaling than you typing. I’m looking forward to filling up journal after journal and sharing as much of them with you as possible.


What are your assumptions about yourself as an “agent of change” in the world?

     When I look at myself as an “agent of change,” I suppose I make all kinds of assumptions, but at the moment I’m not sure I would classify them as “assumptions.” For me, right now, they are opinions, facts, feelings, ideas–just not assumptions. Because to have an assumption is to believe something that is most likely incorrect. But perhaps that’s my own assumption about the word’s connotation.

     Truthfully, when I first discovered the term “agent of change” I had an a-ha! moment because it’s just how I perceive myself–or at least the best version of myself–the version I hope to one day become. Over the past eighteen months, my life has been devoted to human rights advocacy. My thoughts are constant narrations of articles, exposes, editorials that I am perpetually drafting, writing, editing in my head. So, you know, those thoughts add up, and I’ve formed some serious opinions. . .er, assumptions (it’s a hard pill to swallow) about my role in the world as an agent of change.

     When I first decided I wanted to become an international journalist, it was a decision made with my gut and my heart–certainly not my head. (I personally believe that is how all important decisions should be made. . . Well, most. . . some). So, upon reflection, I began asking myself if I believed I could make a serious impact on the world by simply writing about it. My gut growled at me, “Yes, of course!” and my head did, too. But for a while, my brain had no explanation for its answer. That is, until one day in my Anatomy & Physiology class.

      We were learning about the reproduction system–an awkward, hysterical, curious, informative unit for any high school student. My class was incredibly. . . inquisitive about the topic of sex (go figure). Personally, I believed several questions to be basic knowledge for any 16 to 18 year old female–most questions raised were directed toward female anatomy and reproduction. The questions ranged from “What is the clitoris?” to other, specific questions about sex which I won’t delve into right now. It amazed me just how many girls were unaware of this vital information. And then it dawned on me: I had researched all this information on my own. I was not told any of this sexual knowledge; I was just curious, so I Googled. This realization led me to another realization: girls are ashamed and shamed when it comes to sex, yet boys are not. And this led me further and further into my questioning. How does this have anything to do with my being an agent of change, you ask? Well, it was that day that I realized that the root of my empowerment comes from my research, which is all thanks to journalists and writer-activists. The people I want to be.

     I love writing, and I love public speaking. Both of which, I realize now, are my main modes for sharing my ideas, my opinions, my assumptions. They are my way of educating the masses.

     My love of learning has brought me to unique and fascinating places, the best of which is Thinking Beyond Borders. Upon graduating high school just last week, I understand that I love learning because it is a universal vehicle for everywhere and anywhere I want my life to take me. So with all this said, I suppose my main assumption about myself as an “agent of change” is that my role is learner, writer, educator.

How To Be a Fashionable Do-Gooder

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If you know my story at all then you probably know that Sseko Designs founder Liz Forkin Bohannon is pretty much my Changemaker hero. But if you don’t, here’s the 4-1-1:

So way back in October 2012, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a small women’s leadership lecture at Coastal Carolina University. The lecture was given by a young woman, Liz Forkin Bohannon, who is the founder and CEO of Sseko Designs. Sseko Designs is a footwear and accessory company that provides scholarship and job opportunities to young Ugandan women during the 9 month gap period in which they raise money for university cost. Liz and Sseko completely changed my life. Liz taught me about reaching outside of your comfort zone, embracing the awkwardness and failure that life can leave on your doormat, and welcoming all that lies ahead–good or bad. After the lecture, I became consumed by human rights, particularly women’s rights and education equality. That lecture led me to founding this blog, and then to founding my organization, and now to my gap year with Thinking Beyond Borders. 

And once again, Liz and Sseko are helping change my life. We’re two weeks in to fundraising, and I have raised $3,600 for my global gap year! Now, Liz has agreed to help. Up until May 6, if you use the code “MattieAdventures” at checkout, 50% of your purchase will go to funding my gap year! How amazing is that? Now you can be the fashionable do-gooder you’ve always wanted to be.

Invest fashionably in a life dedicated to human rights and empowerment. Shop Sseko Designs!

Want to donate directly to my fundraiser? Go to: http://igg.me/at/TBBempower/x/6680532.

Empowering Beyond Borders–Because You’re Worth Your Dreams

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Sitting next to me is a mason jar housing a few remaining Hershey’s Kisses and Charleston Chews. One of my best friends inscribed “Happy Pills: Take as Needed–Unlimited Refills” on an attached label and prescribed them to me a couple months back. I’d like to say it’s the last vestige from that rough patch, but I’d be lying (and that’s a general no-no in the blogging community.)

You see, back in late January-early February, I received rejection letters from both my childhood dream school and one of my back-up colleges. To say it was a tough blow would be an understatement. Any semblance of self-worth went flying out the window–along with “the thing with feathers.” Where I was once fearless and optimistic, I became scared and cautious. I no longer knew how to have faith in the future–something I once held so dear. But, I was still waiting on three more letters. The old me would have spent the months of waiting consumed by day dreams of What Could Be. The new me built an army in my mind to fight off any thought of the best case scenarios. I refused to wear my coveted Brown sweatshirt, and I ran from any conversation about college (which were unfortunately frequent).

Then the fateful day came. I opened up my web browsers, and to my surprise, discovered I had been wait-listed at both Brown and Princeton. Remember that self-worth that shot out the window before? Well it came flying back in, eager to bask in the pride and joy. For the first time in a long while, I beamed. I beamed because I believed in the possibility of the future again.

But, what I have come to notice lately, is that outside influencers only offer temporary self-validation. No college can prove to me my worth. That is something I am going to have to figure out for myself. I have been evaluating these past few months lately, and I still wonder if I’ll ever be the girl I used to be before everything happened. Especially on days like today, when I am afraid of what lies ahead, I try to be that girl. But what I am slowly realizing is that not only can I never be that girl again, it’s okay that I can’t be her. Who I am now is who I am supposed to be. I have a greater self-worth than ever before, and it’s not reliant on anyone or anything other than myself. And maybe this fear I am feeling is just because I finally understand what is at stake here. Maybe my dreams are just bigger than ever before. And how grand is that? To know that your dreams are so big they scare you? I think that means you’re starting to truly live.

So what’s my fear you ask? Well, I have been invited to participate in the global gap year program Thinking Beyond Borders next year! This means that hopefully this September I’ll venture with 18 other students to Ecuador, Cambodia, India and several other countries for nine months to study global development issues. Basically it’s an educational year full of training for exactly what I want to do with my life (an international journalist–read: Nick Kristof/Sheryl WuDunn). Our year will consist of living with host families, fieldwork with local experts, academic study, language learning, and independent travel opportunities. Unfortunately, it does cost money. The total cost is about $30,000, but Thinking Beyond Borders has agreed that for every $1 I raise, they’ll raise $2! This means I need to raise $10,000 to experience this global gap year.

Understand my fear now? There are some nights that I am gripped by the panic of not reaching my fundraising goal. Then there are other nights where I think of how important this gap year is to me, how much it can teach me, and the incomparable lessons I will learn, and my optimistic soul says there’s no way the universe could take that away from me. But somewhere in the middle there’s a voice of reason, reminding me that I am going to do everything in my power to raise this money. And, after all, that is all I can ask of myself.

Last night I launched my online fundraiser: http://igg.me/at/TBBempower/x/6680532. I have 60 days to raise this money through the site (and then I have until July 1st to commit to TBB). I will host fundraisers, a letter writing campaign, a video campaign, apply for scholarships, and so much more. Yet, even with all that said, the fear still haunts me. It was especially prevalent today as my anxiety was high due to the recent fundraiser launch. I eventually calmed myself down by repeating, You are worthy of your dreams.” Because at the end of the day, I think that’s where fear of failure lies–in the belief that we are somehow not worthy enough for our dreams.

I have news for you (and for myself): if your dreams are big enough to scare you, you’re plenty worthy of them. It takes courage to dream big; to put your heart and soul on such a breakable limb; to look the unknown dead in the eye and continue walking forward. You see, fearlessness is not the absence of fear. It’s having the courage to keep dreaming even after you’ve been rejected. Look, I may not ever be the girl who never allowed the idea of the worst case scenario to haunt her again, but I am the girl who believes in the best case scenario, even with the worst case in mind. And that’s just as fearless.

To donate or understand the trip in full detail, please go to: http://igg.me/at/TBBempower/x/6680532