This Documentary Tells The Fascinating Story Of The World’s First Female Tiger Trainer

Hey there 🙂 I interviewed Leslie Zemeckis, creator of Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer.

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In the past several months, we’ve seen the #TimesUp movement challenge a romanticized idea of Hollywood and reveal just how much work the film industry has to do with the way it treats women. But the hope is that the exposure of this raw reality leads to progress. Cinema Libre Studio, based in LA, claims they’ve noticed a “subtle but important shift in the industry,” marked by the release of films about women who shaped history, directed by women. This year, the studio is telling the story of Mabel Stark, a female circus performer who performed stunts no man would at the time, and Lou Andreas-Salmome, the first female psychoanalyst. These women broke ground in their professions and eras, but their stories aren’t well known. The directors of these films are hoping to change that. We spoke with Leslie Zemeckis, creator of the documentary Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, about what drove her to explore Stark’s history.

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Mabel working with one of her tigers.

You make documentaries about female performers. What inspires you to tell these stories?

I am drawn to women that were hugely famous in their day, but have since been forgotten. Their stories have never been explored, we just know the headlines of their lives. Mabel’s, for example: “World’s First Female Tiger Trainer Mauled.”  We don’t know why she ever walked into the cage for the first time, or how hard was it for a woman—back when women did not even have the vote—to break into a male-dominated arena. I am always seeking the “why” and searching for inspiring voices that women today can look up to. It was so difficult on many levels in the early 1900s for women to succeed at any endeavor, be it burlesque or the circus (both which were a bit frowned upon), or really any other career. I like to look to the past to inspire the future and all that we, as women, can do.

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Mabel Stark, the world’s first female tiger trainer.

What kind of influence do you think telling these stories have on our world?

I think if we show women what other women went through, they will prevail. It wasn’t that long ago that a woman had to marry who she was told, her husband was in charge of her finances and property, and women weren’t allowed to enter certain careers. But Mabel Stark did not let being a female or an older female prevent her from pursuing what she loved. She trained tigers into her 70s!

What happens when more stories about strong women are told?

We become stronger.

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Mabel Stark at the dining table with her tigers.

How Dance Is Helping Girls Launch STEM Careers

It’s been too long since I’ve published anything but finally here is a little something about a few cool things: dancing, coding, and empowering young women! (Written for BUST.)

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When Yamilee Toussaint noticed she was one of only two black girls in her mechanical engineering program at MIT, it became clear to her that young girls of color need more encouragement to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. A few years later, she created STEM From Dance, a nonprofit dance program in NYC designed to expose Black and Latina middle school girls to jobs in the STEM fields.  

Since 2011, Toussaint’s program has introduced its participants to coding and technology principles by pairing them with dance. Music and dance play a large role in the culture of the communities Toussaint hopes to engage, and she sees it as a great way to draw girls in. Toussaint credits her academic success at least partially due to her dedication to dance: “Confidence and mindset play such a huge role in what we’re able to achieve. Dance helped me overcome self-doubt, and that translated into other aspects of my life.”

This summer, Toussaint launched an inaugural summer dance camp called Girls Rise Up, taking place in Brooklyn, New York. The program supports and encourages 75 girls as they craft dance routines that integrate software and engineering principles. We talked to Toussaint about how her program is transforming young girls’ mindsets.  

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How do STEM From Dance and Girls Rise Up work? What motivated you to launch a camp program this summer?

STEM From Dance’s usual program runs during the school year as an elective during the school day or after-school, and Girls Rise Up is an extension. I was inspired to launch Girls Rise Up because it creates an opportunity for girls we might not reach during the school year. Participants applied to our camp with an interest in dance, STEM, or both. We split the girls up into groups to brainstorm their best ideas for tech projects that will enhance their group dance. Instructors create a tech lesson based on each group’s project, while students construct the project and choreograph their group dance. At the end of the two weeks, the girls perform in a showcase, presenting all of their hard work.

What kinds of changes do you see in the girls as they move through the programs? Do you have a favorite success story?

I see an overall confidence boost in the way that they approach STEM, the way they express themselves, and their ability to collaborate with others in a small group. Students who did not consider it before walk away with a strong desire to go to college, and sometimes even a desire to pursue a STEM career, or at least continue coding in college while majoring in another field. 

One of my favorite stories is of a young lady named Yessenia who started our [STEM From Dance] program with a “too cool for school” mindset. At first it was challenging to get her to complete a task without complaining about how bored she was. She just didn’t seem into the program and was unwilling to really try. However, her mindset started to transform after a few weeks. We saw incredible growth both personally and academically. Yessenia returned to our program for three semesters and helped other students in class who struggled with coding. She began to take on roles of leadership and became someone who her peers admired. 

Can you explain why confidence is so important? What kinds of doors does confidence open for young women?

Targeting confidence is a major factor of STEM From Dance. When I taught high school math [after college, for Teach for America], I found that one of the biggest challenges I faced was persuading my students to try, given their preconceived notions. It was challenging to teach when they were nervous to try.

When confidence is lacking, students see everyone else as being better for the job without even considering themselves. I knew that whatever we did with STEM programming had to address confidence in some way, especially given the atmosphere our young people are going to be entering should they pursue a career in STEM. They’re going to be in workplaces and college classrooms where they may be one or one of few people of color, and they need an extra amount of confidence to persist in environments like that.

What can readers do to help?

We love hearing from people with whom our work resonates. There are several opportunities to get involved, from sponsoring a program to volunteering with our girls. You can contact us at

Watch a past performance below.

images courtesy Damon Plant

Food Rescue: Meet The App That’s Saved 1.5 Million Pounds Of Food To Date

Ever since I started writing for BUST a few years ago, I’ve gotten tons of emails from publicists everyday. It doesn’t matter that I only write for the site occasionally now, the pitches keep pouring in. And honestly, I’m so glad they do. There are roughly a million ridiculous ideas to one great one, but I’m always so excited when I have the time to sift through and find it.

When I read about Leah Lizarondo and her app, I knew I had to write about her. She and her organization–412 Food Rescue–came up with a pretty ingenious way to get food that would be wasted to people who desperately need it. Her app connects establishments with excess food, to nonprofits in need of food, to volunteers willing to transport the food from A to B. It’s currently only active in Pittsburgh, but their hope is to go nationwide (and there are some pretty promising plans in the works to start that expansion this year). I asked Leah some questions about both food waste and food rescue. Here’s what she had to say:

Nearly half of the food in the United States is thrown out, while 1 in 7 Americans go hungry. There’s no doubt this is a tragic paradox that demands transformation. The question is, how do we get food that will be wasted to people who need it? Leah Lizarondo, co-founder and CEO of 412 Food Rescue, might tell you the answer is technology — and plenty of volunteers ready to make a difference.

Lizarondo co-founded an app that first connects food retailers with excess food to nonprofits, and then locates a volunteer willing to make the delivery. In just two years, the organization has recovered over 1.5 million pounds of food — equal to 1.3 million meals. 412 Food Rescue currently has a network of over 1,400 volunteers, and that’s only in the city of Pittsburgh. But they aren’t stopping there — this year they want to take the project nationwide (so keep your eyes on your app store.)

There’s nothing we love more than learn from inspiring, badass women, so we did a little Q & A with Lizarondo. Here’s what she had to say about the logistics of food rescue, how food waste affects the environment, and what it takes to keep a nonprofit moving.

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Can you briefly describe how 412 Food Rescue works?

40% of all the food we produce gets wasted. This impacts not only our environment, but also the fact that many Americans are food insecure. Food waste is both a logistics and moral problem.

The difficult thing about food waste is almost half of it happens at the retail level, where each instance of waste is small and unpredictable. So it’s difficult to recover this using traditional trucking logistics. Couple that with the fact that waste management costs are so low (it’s very cheap to dump things in landfills), and the easiest option is to just throw things out.

That’s where 412 Food Rescue comes in. We developed an app that aggregates food retailers who have surplus food, nonprofits that need the food, and most importantly, people who want to do something about hunger and the environment.

412 Food Rescue is like a bat signal for our volunteers – and we call them food rescue heroes. When we have a donation matched to a nonprofit, our heroes get a push notification that there is a rescue available. They click on that notification and see where the rescue is on a map. And then they can volunteer to rescue the food.

The app takes them through all the steps — from getting to the donor and picking up the food, to getting to the nonprofit and dropping off the food. The app even has troubleshooting and social media capabilities — so they can share their rescue with other heroes.

The social growth of our app has made us one of the fastest-growing food recovery organizations in the US, which I think is reflective of the fact that all of us want to act. We just need to be shown how we can do it, and even better, how we can do it in the context of our everyday lives. It’s so easy to do a rescue that we have everyone from students, to stay at home moms, to seniors and even those working 9-5. Each rescue takes 30 minutes to an hour and you can do whatever fits in your schedule.

Why do you think this is such an important project?

Food retailers do not want to waste food. They want to donate food. But it’s not easy. Over 50% of what we rescue is fresh produce, something that’s difficult for those who are food insecure to access. So food needs to be rescued right away andconsumed right away. Trucks are not nimble enough to do this (and are costly!), and you cannot dispatch this food to a warehouse to be sorted and stored, or it will go bad. This food needs to go directly where it can be used.

A distributed food source network requires a distributed food transport network that can transport the food to an organization that can use it that day (soup kitchens, meals on wheels programs) or distribute it that day (pantries, housing projects). That is exactly what we do. We are the air traffic control, and it has worked beautifully. Our food rescue heroes have transported over 1.3 million meals!

Other than volunteering with 412 Food Rescue, what are some suggestions you have for saving food in our day to day lives?

Don’t buy the samples. Make a list and stick to it. Buy fresh veggies that you know you will use and use them first, and augment with frozen veggies so you know they won’t go to waste if you can’t get to them right away. Have one day of the week (maybe the day before your weekly grocery trip) where you just use everything up in the fridge. Also, before you go to a warehouse club, ask yourself if you will really eat that 5 pound bag of whatever it is.

How will food waste impact the environment, especially in the long term?

Food waste represents one fifth of what’s in our landfills and causes up to 16% of the world’s methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. That is astounding when you think about it.

But that’s only how food waste impacts our environment at the end of its life. When you think about the inputs we lose – the resources that we have put into growing and processing the food – you see that we lose 20% of all the freshwater and land. And California, a state in drought, is where most of our produce is grown. We need water in California and yet we are throwing it away.

I always get asked – but your heroes are driving around in cars, releasing CO2. But one of the statistics that I love to share is that the food we saved in 2016 alone is equivalent to about 675,000 miles driven and our volunteers only drove 50,000 miles. Add the fact that we were able to provide food to those who need it, and the exchange is decidedly positive.

Saving food is something that we all need to take part in. Not only to take care of those less fortunate than us but to take care of everyone — including ourselves, and our environment.

Do you see technology making a positive impact on the world as we move into the future?

Technology has to make a positive impact. It’s up to us to make sure of that, right? I’m proud that we’ve created an app powered by everyone’s desire to do good. There are thousands of folks out there watching for that push notification like it is a Pokemon, and jumping on that chance to get a rescue. You really have to see it to believe it. 

Altruism is addictive. It gives you a high to know you have done something good. And when you do a rescue, you don’t drop off to a warehouse — you drop off directly to our partners. So it not only takes you to neighborhoods you may not have visited otherwise, it connects you directly to those who need it. It opens your eyes, widens your world, and takes you out of your bubble.

This is one of the best things we hope technology does. And we give you many opportunities to do it every day.

Founding such an amazing program is a dream for many, but you made it a reality. Do you have any advice for readers who might have aspirations of starting a nonprofit?

What was that Hamilton line? Winning is easy, governing is harder? Launching something is easy, actually scaling it is harder. It’s easy to talk about a provocative idea and make a big splash. The challenge is persevering after the initial wave of attention has gone. The work in between is not quite as romantic. Counting every little success and every little step toward your goal keeps you going. They may not all be earthshaking but every little step is just that – it gets you closer.

An Interview With Daily Action’s Creator, Laura Moser

As someone who believes we’re living in an age when it’s vital to stay politically attentive, I find Daily Action to be a powerful and useful tool.

The fact that we have the ability to share our opinions with our representatives is nothing to take for granted. And to do our best at protecting our rights and the rights of those around us, we have to take full advantage of our abilities as citizens of a democracy.

I wanted to talk to the creator of Daily Action, Laura Moser, for BUST because I think it’s comforting and inspiring to hear from innovative individuals who are staying active and helping others do the same.

Here’s what Moser had to say (and if you aren’t sure what Daily Action is, no worries, I explain it below):

Each day we’re bombarded with increasingly absurd and distressing news, making 2017 feel more like a Salvador Dali painting than another year in history. As understandable as it is to feel hopeless at times, we’re fortunate that there are ways we can speak out.

Research shows a strong link between a legislator’s understanding of their district and the citizens they have recently spoken to. In the past few weeks, we have seen phone calls change the minds of our representatives.

One way to stay regularly engaged with the issues your officials are voting on is by signing up for Daily Action. The tool was created by DC writer and mom, Laura Moser, in direct response to the election results. Like many of us, Moser felt “I didn’t know my own country.”

Moser’s hope was to provide an easy way for people to get politically involved, and that’s exactly what she did: All you have to do is text the word DAILY to ACTION (or 228466) and enter your zip code. After that, you’ll receive a text message a day encouraging you to get involved with a current issue. When you call the number in the message, you’ll receive a brief explanation of the issue, and then be connected to the relevant elected official (your state senator or another Congress member, for example). From there, you’ll have the chance to let them know how you feel.

We were so inspired and motivated by Moser’s tool, we wanted her advice on how to stay vigilant during a time when activism is so necessary.

Laura Moser (courtesy Laura Moser)

Besides signing up for Daily Action, what are some ways we can stay involved?

I started Daily Action because I thought that if every one of us could do a little more than we’d done before, we could make a huge impact, and we’re already seeing that playing out. People all over the country, getting involved for the first time ever. We just have to keep believing that our phone calls and emails are making a difference. We must show up at our elected officials’ town halls and ask tough questions and never ever forget that they work for us, not the other way around.

What kind of reality do you fear we are facing for the next four years?

Well, if the last 12 days are any indication, a terrifying one — but I am hoping [Trump] will be out of here well before the next election. The way things are going, I just can’t see how he will last out a term. Then again, I never thought he would survive the Republican primary and I certainly didn’t see him winning in the general, so I guess my predictions aren’t worth that much.

How do we get through to the people who disagree with us?

I’m not sure we can — but, in the case of our elected officials, we can certainly let them know that we’re out there, watching their every move and paying close attention to their policy decisions. Maybe some Democrats will feel emboldened to stake out more bold positions than they otherwise would have, and maybe some Republicans will realize that the extremists in the White House do not represent the views of the majority of the American people (or even of the Republican party).

We’ve been seeing lots of large, organized protests in the past two weeks. Is this the age of protest? How do you feel about that?

The majority of people in this country voted for a different candidate than the one who is now President. Rather than acknowledge that, he has stepped into office as if he has a massive popular mandate. We are not as stupid as he thinks, and I think all the protests we’re seeing are a noble effort to speak up for our beliefs and reclaim our values, as we rightly perceive a massive assault on our rights taking place at the very top.

How would your role be different right now if Trump hadn’t won the presidency?

I would never have started this organization. I would’ve carried on with my article-writing and kid-raising — but now far too much hangs in the balance for me — for any of us — to sit on the sidelines.

Saudatu Mahdi, Gloria Steinem, And Jane Fonda On Missing Nigerian Schoolgirls

About a month ago I had the honor of attending a panel discussion about women’s rights with Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Saudatu Mahdi. I also had the privilege of meeting Steinem, a longtime hero of mine. (Side note: I once drove two hours after work to see her speak, and the auditorium was so full I ended up having to watch her projected onto a screen in an entirely different room. Shaking her hand and talking about her love for BUST felt like serious progress.)

It was just a few weeks after the election, and hearing three inspiring female leaders speak was exactly what I needed. They did take time to address the future and how vigilant we’ll need to be, but the discussion mainly centered on an incredibly devastating issue occurring in Nigeria: The 197 schoolgirls who are still missing after their kidnapping by terrorist group Boko Haram. Saudatu Mahdi, a cofounder of the Bring Back Our Girls organization, emphasized how important it is that other countries help get these girls home. Funds are needed, but media attention is also fundamental. (Note: I was happy to see this exposure from the NYTimes on January 27th, not just about the Chibok girls, but about Boko Haram’s repeated use of child marriage as a weapon of war.)

Here’s my piece for BUST:

In December, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Saudatu Mahdi met in New York City to discuss the rights of women and girls around the world. Hosted by Donor Direct Action, the panel’s main goal was to bring attention to the nearly two-hundred Nigerian schoolgirls who are still missing since their kidnapping over two years ago.

When 276 girls were captured by Boko Haram terrorists in April of 2014, Mahdi said the silence that followed was just “too loud.” She and three other Nigerian women refused to watch the tragedy go ignored and founded Bring Back Our Girls in an effort to spread the word worldwide. Mahdi also acts as Secretary General of Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), another women’s group working assiduously to rescue the girls.

In total, 79 girls have escaped and been released. 197 girls have not returned. In Mahdi’s words, “if this were arithmetic, we’d be failing.” Envisioning the thoughts of just one daughter’s parents proves that the fight will not end until every single girl comes home. “I once was privileged to see a lamb looking for a lost ewe,” said Mahdi. “And whenever I remember that image, I shudder at what is going on in the minds of the mothers and fathers of these girls.”

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Even upon the remaining girls’ rescue, there will still be much to do: Mahdi explained that not only is there immense work to be done to rebuild the girls’ psyches, there are also Nigerian communities that need complete reconstruction. Women’s voices must be prominently involved in this reconstruction in order to drastically transform the violent treatment of women and girls, which is now at epidemic levels.

To put these plans into action, Mahdi explained that pressure must be put on the Nigerian government to act on its rescue operation. Additionally, the government must take responsibility for the reintegration and rehabilitation of all girls. Steinem stated, “There is a dramatic urgency to increase funding to local women’s rights organizations. We need to help them punish the government that fails.”

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The unfortunate theme of the night was that the kidnapping is not an isolated issue — it is simply a horrific illustration of the violence women face all around the world. There is a direct link between the treatment of women in a society and the level of conflict in that society. Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, stated in 2006, “The world is… starting to grasp that there is no policy more effective [in promoting development, health, and education] than the empowerment of women and girls. And I would venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended.”

Mahdi, Fonda, and Steinem’s tones were somber, but their words focused on forward movement. A recent deal allowed the release of some girls, and Mahdi believes we can build on the hope that provided. There is a possibility this could lead to further negotiations with Boko Haram, and potentially the rescue of more girls.


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When it comes to progress for women around the world, Fonda expressed that empowering girls before they reach puberty is a powerful agent of change. “If you want to make a big impact, girls are the group who will make the change,” said Fonda. Girls must learn at a young age — prior to the absorption of ingrained oppression — that they do not have to accept violence.

Steinem stated that our ideas about gender and dominance are made-up, and we can un-make them up. We can deconstruct systematic biases, and we can diligently draw attention to global injustices to curb violence against women.

To aid in the rescue of the girls, spread the word and consider donating to WRAPA or Donor Direct Action.

A Conversation With Wendy Davis

It was such an honor to interview former Texas senate member, Wendy Davis, for BUST. She’s a badass woman who speaks her mind and advocates for human rights. There was a time when she couldn’t imagine public speaking would be a regular part of her life, but she moved past that fear because she knew the fight was too important. Davis’s biggest goal these days is to encourage other women and girls to do the same.

Here’s my interview:

There’s no denying that Wendy Davis’s confidence, courage, and devotion to feminist ideals have been an inspiration to countless young women across the nation. Now, the ridiculously badass former Texas senator is taking her influence a step further: Davis—who once performed an 11 hour filibuster to prevent a bill restricting women’s access to abortion—just launched Deeds Not Words, a project devoted entirely to getting young women actively involved with issues of gender equality.

I talked to Davis about the goals of her new organization, why it’s so important that women gain more political representation, and what a huge effing deal it is to see a woman so close to the presidency.

What would you like to see Deeds Not Words accomplish in the next few years?

If my wildest dreams could come true, I would look out five years from now and I would see a much larger percentage of young women weighing in on all things gender equality. We would see women voting in numbers that were much more commensurate with their population, we would see young women stepping forward and crying out in a very public way against those politicians and private entities that are not abiding by principles of gender equality, and we would begin to see women on a much more common, day-to-day basis pushing back when they see misogyny in the public space.

How will Deeds Not Words help make that happen?

Obviously for all of those things to come true, young women have to play a part in making it a reality. And my role is to encourage them and connect them with ways they can do it. I’ve been working on these issues for some time now, and I feel like I’ve learned a thing or two not just about how to be effective in the conversation but also why it’s so important that we are a part of this conversation. There are a lot of young women that ask me how to plug in. They care about a number of issues in the gender equality space, but they’re not sure how they can contribute to moving those things forward. And that’s where Deeds Not Words comes in. We want very much to provide young women with ideas of how they can get involved that are tangible and real.

How does the Deeds Not Words site work?

The website functions as a hub, and it will continue to evolve in the coming months to become an even more powerful tool than it is now. Right now its main function is to connect young women to organizations doing amazing work, whether that work is with reproductive rights or economic justice or sexual assault prevention. Ultimately, we want this to be a network that connects young women to on-the-ground campaigns. I know that when I can show up, and speak up, and feel as though I am fighting for something that matters to me, it feels better to me than signing a petition. Petitions are definitely important, and you’ll see suggested petitions to sign on the site, but when we are invited to move an issue forward, on the ground, that to me feels like the most powerful way of all that we can get involved. And I know young women are anxious to be involved in that way, and that they’re waiting to be asked.

As a young woman who graduated college four years ago, I’ve struggled at times to stay connected to the feminist causes I was once so active with. I think it’s easy for any young person to get distracted by bills, relationships, career decisions, and life in general. What advice do you have for young women like me who want to stay involved with these issues that we sometimes put on the backburner, but really do affect our day-to-day lives so strongly?

I think the most powerful way to feel like you’re still playing a part is by becoming part of an organization that’s doing work that you care about. I know that when I was younger, there was a time when I got so consumed with school and work and family that these other things weren’t a part of my world, and it took some time for me to find my way back into it. To get reconnected, I suggest looking for organizations that are doing work that you appreciate and reaching out to them to see how you can help. Let them know if you have a few hours a week or a few hours a month, and ask “How can you use my time? How can you use my energy?” I guarantee these organizations will take advantage of that. And if you’re not sure how to get started, the Deeds Not Words site hosts a variety of organizations you can get in touch with.

On a slightly different note, you’re a strong Hillary supporter. What do you think it would mean to our country to have a female president?

I don’t think we’re talking about this enough. Getting a woman into the White House is literally monumental. I think we’re gliding past that in some ways and we need to bring ourselves back to the awareness of why this is so important. We cannot expect for our issues, our concerns, our day-to-day experiences, to be carried by someone who hasn’t lived them. The whole idea behind reflective democracy is to have people in office who understand and mirror a variety of experiences. And yes, we’ve had people who are friendly on gender equality issues, but we haven’t ever had anyone whose had a passion to move them forward in a way that needs to happen. I feel like we’re stuck in this freeze-frame in time where we got to a certain place and not only did we stop there, but we also started moving backwards in some ways. The only way to get past that hump is to put someone in office who brings a passion on these issues, which I think Hillary Clinton does.

What are some of the most important things that you think Hillary will do for women in our country?

She’s been talking about a lot of different things she’s going to do, but moving forward with family leave policy and equality of pay are important parts of her plan. And affordable quality childcare, which is not only about making sure that our youngest and most vulnerable have a good head start in the world, but also making sure that their mothers can get on a good career path or go back to school to improve themselves and increase their earning capacity. Increasing minimum wage impacts everyone, but it especially impacts women because we represent two thirds of minimum wage workers in the country. At the end of the day, her message is about improving women’s lives so that we improve all lives and that message is very, very important. When we provide women with the opportunity to be equalized and to earn more, we are ultimately stimulating our economy. This isn’t just about making sure women are treated fairly, and it’s not necessarily coming from a place of disdain about feeling like we’re treated less-than; it’s more about empowering women because it makes us a better, stronger country when we do.

Most of the time, we agree with political candidates about a lot of issues, but also disagree with some of their history and policies. How do we reconcile these mixed feelings and align ourselves with someone who might not fully represent us?

We can’t expect to find the perfect candidate. It’s going to be very rare for us to find someone that winds up with us one hundred percent of the time. But I think we’re doing very well if the person we’ve elected is on our side about the things that matter most to us. It alarms me when I hear people say if my candidate doesn’t win, I’m going to sit this one out. I’m going to say now, as a strong Hillary supporter, that if she didn’t emerge from the primary for some unknown reason, I would line up behind Bernie so fast your head would spin. This is about making sure we don’t have someone there who’s going to further erode the progress we’ve made as a country.

Any books that have inspired you lately?

I really enjoyed the book I read recently about Ruth Bader Ginsburg [Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik]. She’s just such an incredible role model and completely unapologetic about who she is and what she stands for. She’s a great inspiration to draw from.

I Was A (Terrified) Commencement Speaker, And Here’s What I Said

A couple of months ago, one of my college professors got in touch with me to see if I’d be willing to speak at my alma mater’s graduation ceremony. Even though it was just for the small group of Women’s Studies graduates and their families, I couldn’t help but find the offer laughable. I felt ridiculously under-qualified for a lot of reasons: I only graduated four years ago, I work in the financial industry (hardly an obvious use of my Women’s Studies degree), and public speaking is one of my biggest fears. I try to write as much as I can, often about women’s issues, but I still haven’t found a way to make it lucrative or produce as much content as I’d like. I typed this out with brutal honesty in my response to my professor, in the hopes that she would come to her senses and find someone with more experience. As I queasily awaited her reply, I tried my hardest not to envision a reality when I’d have to get in front of the 130 person crowd and attempt to be insightful and inspiring.

It turned out she still thought I had something to offer, and I knew it was one of those terrifying opportunities I couldn’t turn down without feeling like a complete coward for years to come. I spent weeks writing and rewriting my speech. I can’t remember how many times I cried, which is probably a good thing, because it was definitely more than I’d like to admit. It took me a long time to realize what I wanted to say and to figure out how to say it. But I’m so happy that the work resulted in something I’m proud of and that students let me know did comfort them. Take my word for it: If I could be a keynote speaker at a graduation ceremony, despite the incredible level of anxiety public speaking gives me and the general average-ness of my life to date, I promise you that the seemingly impossible things you’d love to do are plausible. All it takes is a willingness to step outside your comfort zone:

Good morning and congratulations to you, the class of 2016. When I was invited to do this, I have to say, I was not surprised. Since graduating four years ago, I’ve become an extremely successful, highly impressive individual, who is no doubt on track to achieving her wildest dreams. I’ve also amassed tons of public speaking experience at prestigious conferences and lectures around the world. So strap in and prepare for one of those graduation speeches they make a book out of.

I’m totally kidding – I haven’t done any of those things. And I could not have been more shocked, or more afraid, when I was offered this opportunity. Not only do I feel entirely lacking in wisdom, I’m also terrified of public speaking. So unstrap, re-buckle, and prepare to feel uncomfortable with me.

Truly, though, I am honored to be here. The one advantage I have over people with more experience is that I remember what it was like to be sitting where you’re sitting now. I remember being excited and afraid of what would happen next. I remember feeling at once anxious and invigorated about the fact that I didn’t have a plan, and that for the first time, my plan would truly be all my own.

When I was graduating, I had a lot of vague ideas about what my future “should” look like. I’d tried to make concrete plans throughout my senior year, but they had either fallen through or I had decided against them. As each plan dissolved, I realized that it wasn’t really what I wanted at all. Mostly, I just wanted the comfort of knowing what would happen next.  

But by the time it was finals, I had no idea what my life would look like after school. All I knew was I that I needed to find a job, and I hoped that job would involve the vague concept of improving the world. I couldn’t wait to get past the anxiety of landing that elusive job. I assumed that once the interview was over, and I settled into the routine of working, I would feel comfortable.

Looking back, I’m not sure there’s anything I could have told that version of myself that would have convinced her it would be more valuable to get well-acquainted with “uncomfortable” than to seek the impossible—and boring—feeling of comfort.

Honestly, I think my real understanding of that only could have come from the place it did—raw experience.

Since graduating, discomfort has become one of my closest friends. At first I didn’t like her, but maybe that was just because we didn’t truly know each other yet. Don’t get me wrong, we’d spent a lot of time together over the years. But it wasn’t the kind of quality, one-on-one time staring into each other’s eyes that kindles a real connection. That didn’t start until I was at home with my parents, aimlessly searching for jobs online, and wondering what the hell I was going to do next.

Sending endless applications into the vast sea of the internet didn’t get me the job I imagined. It actually didn’t get me any job at all. But it did show me that spending a lot of time at home on my computer, waiting and wishing for something to happen, made me anxious, overwhelmed, and unhappy. So I went back to my old summer job making minimum wage as an office assistant, and signed up for a volunteer training to be an advocate at a local women’s shelter.

After gigs as a camp counselor and then a waitress–taken mostly out of fear of being idle–I was told about a paid position opening up at the shelter. Even though it was for the overnight shift, I went for it, because as unpleasant as it sounded, it seemed worth it to do something I cared about. And in retrospect, it was absolutely the right decision and one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. But at the time, not seeing daylight, dealing with issues in my family, and witnessing my clients’ pain without really being able to talk to anyone about it, made those six months some of the darkest months of my life.

So when another position opened up at the shelter, I went for it. Incredibly, it didn’t even matter to me at the time that the job was to be a community educator—which meant lecturing to groups of all sizes and ages about domestic violence and healthy relationships. I remember a friend who worked the day-shift in shelter fearfully saying to me, “Don’t you have to talk in front of a lot of people in that job? I could never do that.” Honestly, a big part of me agreed with her. But the difference was that I was so uncomfortable in my current position, that I was willing to tolerate another kind of discomfort, if it meant change.

I loved being a community educator and the experiences it brought me. Each day was different, and I was constantly meeting people and forming new connections. I learned about myself, and I learned about teaching. The work was tiring, and it seemed like each day I faced a new fear, but it was so rewarding that the stress was always worth it.

I would have been happy doing that job for a long time if I’d been making just a little more money. I had more than enough to afford living with my mom, but I wanted to be financially independent. I knew from conversations with my co-workers who had been there for up to ten years that wages never increased significantly. I could have scraped by, but I wanted a position where there was room for growth.

When I heard about an opportunity in finance from my brother, I had to weigh the comforts and discomforts of each job to make a decision about what path I wanted to go down. With one job, there was the comfort of doing work that meant something to me, but the discomfort of struggling to pay my bills. And with the other job, there was the comfort of being able to afford my bills, but the discomfort of not doing something that deeply mattered to me. But because I wasn’t sure what comfort I preferred at the time, or how to find a balance between those comforts, I decided to try something new. I took a job working with mutual funds and software, in a field I had never imagined myself in.

Cut to a year later. My dad had just passed away, and I couldn’t keep my focus on financial regulatory services. Life seemed too short to spend forty hours a week doing something that wasn’t really engaging me, so I applied for an unpaid internship at a feminist magazine I’d always loved. And when I got the internship, I made the bold move to quit my job and move to New York City. Luckily for me, when I told my boss, she was not only extremely supportive of my decision, but she also offered to keep me on part-time, remotely. 

Since then, I’ve been able to write about the things that matter most to me without the pressure of relying on it to cover my living expenses. And I’ve gotten to a position with my company where I’m doing work with software that I finally find challenging and engaging. It’s not perfect, and it’s not the end goal, and like everyone else, I truly don’t know what will happen next. But even though I was uncertain of them at the time, I’m grateful now for where my decisions have led me. 

For a long time, I wondered constantly if I was making the “right” choices, and doing what I “should” be doing. And of course, like every other person in the world, I still have those concerns. But their power over me has been diminishing slowly. With time, I’ve started to realize that feeling lost and uncertain is not so scary, and it’s also not that unusual. From what I’ve observed from the people around me—people my age, and people older–feeling lost is simply part of being human. Life changes constantly, and discomfort and unsettledness can come at any moment. Even when work is going well, no one is protected from struggles in their personal lives. Those impossible-to-predict moments will always exist, and always have the power to interrupt the comfort we think we’ve found.

Our Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies degrees acquainted us with discomfort. We learned that it is discomfort with a system or the status-quo that leads an individual, and then a group, to challenge it. We saw that movements are birthed out of discomfort, and therefore, so is progress. We read people’s most personal stories about their discomfort, and we began to recognize their deepest vulnerabilities. We saw ourselves in these stories, and we realized how much feminism and social justice matter to us.  

It was hearing people’s personal stories as an advocate that added color to what I’d learned in school. Because even though I knew the issues I read about in class were significant, it was not until I stared them in the face that I truly recognized their urgency.

A big part of what gave me the ability to be a compassionate listener was what I learned in my Women’s  Studies classes. I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes my knee-jerk reaction was to feel disappointed in the choices I saw some women make. But I’m grateful that when those feelings came up, I was able to take a step back and do my best to put myself in the shoes of the women I was working with. And almost every time, I realized that I had no idea what I would do if I were them.

If I hadn’t spent so much time in college learning the roots of the issues my clients faced, I might not have remembered to take that step back. I might have overlooked the fact that the women I was working with were limited by systems and circumstances, and that many times it wasn’t comfort they were after, but simply survival. If I’d let the judgments I’d internalized throughout my life get in the way, my clients wouldn’t have been able to trust me. I had to replace those judgments with the openness I was taught in school. It made me believe that only by understanding a person’s discomfort can we truly comfort them.

On the campaign trail, we see political candidates refusing to empathize with the struggles of the people they claim to represent. It’s not uncommon to see people act this way, simply to avoid the discomfort of taking on another’s pain. We all know that at times, our own pain can feel like more than enough.

But when we see this behavior in the larger political picture, it’s obvious how damaging it is. We see how it causes suffering and perpetuates injustice. We see how it marginalizes certain groups and fails to unite us. And we are faced with just how vital it is to be willing to feel and get to know discomfort.  

I think that getting to know discomfort means looking at the parts of yourself, and the parts of the world you’d probably rather ignore. It means recognizing those parts, and finding the courage to improve them. It’s the kind of work that’s difficult, and it’s the kind of work that’s never complete. But it’s also the kind of work that I know your education the past four years has prepared you for.

Like me, you might feel uncomfortable if you find yourself doing a job that is not what you imagine as technically “using your degree.” If that’s the case, I encourage you to rethink what it means to “use your degree.” As women’s studies graduates, you have earned a very special education. You’ve taken classes, met professors, and become friends with peers who have opened your minds, increased your capacity for empathy, and shown you what really matters to you. Your degree has shaped you so strongly that you wouldn’t be able to stop using it if you wanted, because it’s simply a part of who you are.

You’ll be reminded of it wherever you go, and whatever you do, because the essentialness for feminism and social justice is so prevalent, and your passion for it is so clearly needed. And even if a job you take doesn’t feel directly related to your Women’s Studies degree, remember that you will still be using it.

You will be using it every time you take a step back and rethink your judgments towards people. You will be using it every time you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to understand the history and circumstances that brought them where they are. And you will be using it every time you question a system or a norm.

The way Women’s Studies teaches us to question things isn’t just significant when we think about progress and equality and the ways we’d like to see the world change. It also applies to how we shape our own lives. If something is the status quo, but it’s simply not working for us, we know we can reject it. This is key when we think about the way we want our lives to look, and the way we want our careers to look.

Learning to be less hard on myself about the differences between what I am doing and what I think I should be doing is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past few years. It’s important because when we let go of the “shoulds” we’ve internalized, we free up space to make room for a life all our own. And when that life suits us, and includes what we really care about, the discomfort we face for being different tends to hardly matter to us at all.

The future is not clear-cut, and that can be uncomfortable. The years ahead of you will undoubtedly involve insecurity and tough decisions. But I promise that in time, discomfort will feel more and more like a friend. It will help you grow, realize your strength, and increase your self-awareness. 

Your time here  has shown you the value of tolerating and learning from discomfort. It’s made you more empathetic, and revealed to you the issues you care most about. It’s molded you into a person who is eager to connect with others, and who will undoubtedly touch many lives in the years to come. And then inspire others to do the same.

Thank you, and congratulations. 

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