Michealene Cristini Risley on Cultivating Resiliency, Leaning In, and Finding One’s Own Voice
Interview with award-winning writer, director, human rights activist and entrepreneur, Michealene Cristini Risley
[Editor’s Note: A true force of nature and powerful role model and voice for women and girls worldwide, Michealene was first introduced to me last year by Eileen McDargh. Her personal story and professional advocacy have illuminated some of the most pressing concerns and barriers that often hold women and girls back from realizing their fullest potential. In this interview, Michealene shares her own thoughts on cultivating a spirit of resiliency, what ‘Leaning In’ means to her, and how we can each leverage our own voice to create positive social change.]
(Sharon): Eileen McDargh is widely known for her expertise, speaking and writing on the subject of personal and professional resiliency. In a recent interview for the Global Girls Project, she defined resiliency as more than merely bouncing back, suggesting that resiliency is really about moving from a mindset of survival to truly thriving.
What does resiliency mean to you?
(Michealene): I can tell you from my own experience as a child abuse survivor, resiliency is partly a mindset. Reflecting back on my own story, I wanted to make sure that my life was not defined by what happened to me. That was critical and a motivating factor. In general, people have this assumption that when you’re raped or abused; when you’ve had some violation and you’re still alive, there is less of a concern…there is often a mindset of you’re still alive, so count your blessings.
I have certainly wished for death versus staying alive while going through the painful process. Part of this comes from the process of having to go through the pain and the healing — not just on the mental, physical and emotional level; but when you speak the truth, there are repercussions all around you. It takes inordinate strength and courage (or good support) to stand up in those times.
There’s this misperception about resiliency — it also means that you have to educate the people around you as to what happens to your mind, your heart and your body, when you suffer this trauma. So again it comes back to mindset. Yes, resiliency is bouncing back, but it’s also educating people and creating awareness, and standing in your own truth. That’s the most difficult part. For me, I just wanted to thrive. I didn’t want to be another story of abuse where I didn’t survive…I didn’t thrive.
(Sharon): Conversely, one of the challenges I’ve found around the issue of empowerment is the idea…this misperception that you have to have been an extreme victim for there to be any legitimacy around this issue of disempowerment. I struggle with that, because this issue of disempowerment is a silent killer; one that affects millions of women and girls all over the world who may externally look very accomplished (or not), who may have a history of having been abused (or not), who may feel this way because of external events (or not). It’s real, it’s pervasive, and it really holds women and girls back.
(Michealene): I believe this is the single largest human rights issue in the 21st century. What you’re saying is absolutely accurate. A person can watch television and feel victimized. The media influences every aspect of how we grow up, how we interact and what we strive for. I refuse to watch certain shows because they have a trigger effect on me. Even if the show does not trigger me, I have no desire to watch rape and violence. I have absolutely no interest in experiencing those issues on any level. They are horrific. However, we have to ask ourselves these questions (and unfortunately these questions have been falling on deaf ears that only listen to the sound of money): What are the unintended consequences of failing to address these issues? How do they affect the health for both genders on sexuality?
Additionally, there are so many complicated components to this issue. Let’s say you and I were both abused growing up. You could have a very different take on that experience than I might, having to do with your own individual makeup and how much love and support was around you as you went through it. I think we are so uneducated as a society about this. Instead of looking at those variables, we say, “Well why did she come out okay, and this other did not?” It becomes more of a focus on the stability of one person over another.
(Sharon): I love the work of Brene Brown, because she’s really legitimized this subject and has brought it out of the closet. This isn’t just an extreme victim issue, but one that every human being struggles with. I think her ability to bring it out of the closet, shore it up with empirical research, and tell her own story in a no-holds-bar, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps Texas kind of way is very powerful. It’s very important, and I think those who don’t struggle to one degree or another are probably in the minority.
(Michealene): I agree. I live in Silicon Valley — the world of engineers. Certainly there’s a lot of creativity here, but I love sitting in a room full of engineers because I make them nervous. I make them nervous because they’ll say, “if you cannot measure it, it doesn’t exist.” And then I’ll go to what Brene Brown is saying and point out that’s absolutely not true. I’ll say to them, “how do you feel when you go to a concert and everyone’s excited and really standing on their feet?” There’s an energy to that. But when I push engineering friends, they’ll say that doesn’t exist. That’s simply not true. I think there’s a component of our humanity that we have to recognize and sit with. Just because it can’t be measured, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist…it just means there is no measuring device that exists yet.
(Sharon): I think it’s about honoring the feelings…not being engulfed by them, but acknowledging them.
(Michealene): Part of why I love her (Brene Brown) work is because she really resisted this. I have played that portion of her TED speech over and over again, where she SO wants the research to come out a certain way. She doesn’t want to have to face the fact that we are all vulnerable and want to be loved. The fact that she stubbornly resisted makes her all the more authentic and honest.
(Sharon): As a child, you survived sexual abuse and later, being detained and imprisoned in Zimbabwe during the filming of your latest project, Tapestries of Hope, which chronicles social activist Betty Makoni’s efforts to help sexually abused young women in Zimbabwe through her foundation, the Girl Child Network.
In the face of these horrors, how have you been able to transcend these traumatic experiences, shifting from a mindset of victimhood (if you ever had one) to one in which you feel truly empowered? From where did you draw the strength and courage necessary to transcend and heal your own pain so that you could truly thrive and step fully into your own voice and leadership?
(Michealene): Certainly at one point I did feel like a victim. Those events happened so young in my life, it was hard for me not to. In terms of how you move past that, I needed help, and I was lucky to have a very good therapist who could help me walk through this. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford a therapist.
This is also the subject of my new book. I took my journal from when I was working through abuse issues with a therapist and fictionalized them. Then I hired a clinical psychologist to do progress notes against them. This way, it will allow anyone going through trauma to hopefully find themselves in this journal and help them to get to a place of healing.
I also grew up with a great deal of love in my family, so it (the abuse) was very confusing to me. I think that’s part of why I was so passionate about helping others, because I knew how lucky I was to get on the other side. As I traveled around the country, I saw the walking wounded everywhere. It was really important for me to get out there, talking to people, which I spent the last decade doing, though I recently chose to stop my work and close my non-profit.
A couple of reasons. A therapist actually has to have therapy to process the work they do with clients, and I didn’t have the necessary structure in place to continue to do this work. I was getting bombarded by personal stories. You want to honor those stories, but at some point I couldn’t hold them all.
I would have strangers come up to me at a gas station and tell me their abuse story. I began to feel so burdened and heavy by that responsibility. Part of that, too, was feeling that particularly in America, we’re beginning to move backwards.
(Sharon): I’ve heard many people say that. I’ve attended many different women’s conferences from Charlotte to D.C., where I hear people say resoundingly…we’re moving backwards.
(Michealene): Yes. I feel strongly we’re moving backwards. At some point, when you’re sitting in a room full of middle school and high school girls, and just by the questions they’re asking, I know they’ve been abused or raped, or whatever the event or events were, I feel powerless to do anything. I also realized there are so many groups out there focusing on this issue and we’re fighting for the same dollars and awareness, instead of coming together as one large entity to fight these issues.
On a political level, Congress and Political Parties have no business using women’s issues as a political football. I have had enough. The sad news is that I don’t believe women as a whole are clear about the power they hold. Otherwise we would be much further along.
(Sharon): You said you were lucky because you were able to get the therapy you needed and you have a loving family, even if the circumstances were very confusing and traumatic things happened. What would you say to those women and girls you’ve talked to around the country who don’t have those resources? How do they find the strength and courage to develop that resiliency in the absence of a loving support system?
(Michealene): It’s true I was lucky, though when I first came to this place of mental clarity about my situation, I did not yet have therapy. I simply did not want my life to be defined by a series of incidents I had no say or control over; incidents that really defined my low self-esteem…my powerlessness…the loss of my voice. So literally, it was this resolve and determination not to be defined by these circumstances that held me up and kept me going.
For women, girls and boys who are going through this, you have to hold on to the fact that this had nothing to do with you. Hold on to the fact that these are a series of incidents. Find a way to remove the emotionality around it and realize this is not about who you are. If you can’t find support where you are, seek it elsewhere. If you can’t find it from a family friend, a neighbor or a girlfriend’s parents, there are lots of resources out there.
(Sharon): When you were working on your film and you were detained, did that just catapult you right back to the past…to a very frightening place? What were you thinking and feeling as you went through that? Here you were, making a film about young girls being raped in the name of some mythological honor around preventing aids transmission, and then you’re captured and find yourself in an abusive environment with an uncertain outcome. Tell me more about that experience.
(Michealene): The U.S. Embassy, who could only contact me by phone in a country where phone service was sporadic at best, said to me, “if you don’t get out by Friday, you will be raped and/or killed.” I asked, “Aren’t you going to do something about it? It is the U.S. embassy after all.” But she told me she wouldn’t be able to see me until after the first 48 hours, and there was less than a day until Friday, so I was on my own.
Yes, it brought me back to some terrible places, and yet the most poignant moment came when I sat in this small cell with my assistant Lauren and seven other women. Each woman took a turn telling her story. One had been so physically abused by her husband that she carried around a photo so you could see how much damage he did (and she was thrown in prison). Another woman ended up coughing up blood in a Kleenex because she was in the late stages of AIDs. All of them shared their stories…each one was more horrific than the last.
I remember just sitting there…though a couple of things were happening. I suddenly felt incredibly selfish. Here I was, stuck in this prison where I might not go home, and I’ve left my husband and three young children back home, without their mom. Then these women told me their stories and I started weeping. One woman asked, “why do you weep?” I replied, “I weep for you for your lives…” She had a blank look on her face, because she had no comprehension of what I was talking about…that the world they lived in was so bad. Their voices had been so drowned out so early, they didn’t even know it.
(Sharon): There’s an old expression that comes to mind…sometimes when our eyes become so adjusted to the dark, seeing the light of hope creates confusion and disbelief. You don’t know what you don’t know.
(Michealene): We have this perception (in the U.S.) on women’s rights that we’ve been a beacon for many, many years, but it’s just not true. There are many women leaders in Africa, yet we still don’t have a woman president in the U.S. You can’t just talk about it — you have to walk the walk; but as a country, we don’t, and we are far from leaders on women’s issues in America.
(Sharon): In addition to resiliency, one of the core principles of the Global Girls Project is advocacy. I believe that while women and girls sometimes struggle to stand up for themselves, often one of the best ways a woman or girl can find her own voice (and develop confidence) is by advocating for others.
Throughout your life and career, you’ve served in a variety of advocacy roles ranging from writer, director and producer of the award-winning film and expose on childhood abuse, Flashcards, to serving on the board of One World Children’s Fund. During the 2012 election, you even ran for the Americans Elect nomination for President!
What role has advocacy played in helping you find and express your own voice – whether through speaking, writing or your film projects?
(Michealene): I think advocacy has played a critical role in finding, maintaining and growing my own voice. You’re right…when we advocate for others, we grow our courage muscle, and the more you work a muscle, the stronger it gets. That helped me a lot…to fight for those who don’t have a voice. Your voice joins others’ and becomes a part of that fight.
(Sharon): I agree. I think there’s so much power in discovering the power that a single voice, combined with other voices, can have.
At it’s core, the Global Girls Project is about helping women and girls become the fullest version of their most authentic selves. Success in this context is not about whether you can have it all, as defined by external labels of achievement, but whether you can become your all – our external lives in alignment with our core values.
In a recent article you wrote for Lean In, you talked about your experience in Zimbabwe and how it is sometimes necessary to ‘lean back’ when you realize you’ve leaned in too far and have put your family at risk. As you reflect on your own dreams and ambitions, how do you navigate leaning in while maintaining your core values?
(Michealene): For me, leaning in IS my core value. They are not in conflict. From an early age, we are taught as girls to focus externally, and it gets worse as we get older. The challenge is culturally, we abandon the principle of core values and authenticity. I think we have to be really cognizant as parents to allow girls to express their opinion…to have a voice. You don’t have to be ‘good’ and behave properly, because I think that’s where we get stuck.
(Sharon): At what point did you realize that your leaning in was beginning to conflict with another core value…your family?
(Michealene): My work placed ME at risk, because I was giving away everything I had and put myself in a high risk situation. As women, we are taught to be selfless, but in that process we often lose ourselves. I also became very ill when I got out of prison in Zimbabwe and it took me a number of years to get healthy again. I needed to pull back, regroup and feel balanced again. I found I had to stop doing this for a while in this way.
(Sharon): There is currently a big push to increase women’s voices and put more women in elected office, though as you discovered first hand when you ran for the American Elect nomination during the 2012 election, navigating the court of public opinion can be brutal. How did you find the strength within you in the face of relentless rejection to keep going?
(Michealene): I don’t feel comfortable where this world is…leaving this world to my boys. At the time, I thought to myself, here’s a chance to shake it up!
(Sharon): What would you say to a woman or girl who is really struggling with what other people think of her…those who are uncomfortable putting themselves ‘out there’ either because they don’t want to be perceived as narcissistic or self-aggrandizing or because they worry they can’t handle the rejection, criticism and what other people think?
(Michealene): Find a voice buddy who will support what you want to do, so when you’re terrified, criticized, feeling down and/or scared, they can hold your hand. This world won’t change until women’s voices are part of the mainstream, and right now we’re still being squelched.
(Sharon): Great advice! What advice do you have for women and girls who may be struggling to find and live their own voice out loud?
(Michealene): Becoming a leader in your own life is doing what you’re passionate about…what you believe in…no matter what the circumstance. We need to get out and fight, speak and confront in a way that allows us to begin to move forward in the right direction.