An Artist’s Duty: A Conversation with Aleta Myles

Creativity is intertwined with culture. Art has long been a form of activism, a way to change the status quo. Everyone making art wants to change perceptions, to challenge stereotypes. The most important artists of our time are those who dream of leaving the world a better place than they found it. And some are realizing that dream.

My friend Aleta Myles is an actor, singer, makeup artist, and YouTube star with a passion for starting dialogue through art, and building bridges with storytelling. Whether you’re left laughing, crying, or thinking in a new way, Aleta and her work will change you.

For her, creativity is an integral part of the human conversation. Making art can be a step on the pathway to healing.  She and I had a great talk recently about what it means to be an artist, and the role of artistic expression in creating community.

[BTW: There’s a lack-of-line-break weirdness below that I’m still trying to fix. Thank you for your patience!]

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Of the characters you’ve created, do you have a favorite? Why or why not? Which
character do you most identify with?
 I don’t know if I would say [I have a] favorite. There are a few whom I have fleshed out a bit more so they are easier to work with. I have feel very attached to them and love them for different reasons. I really wish they weren’t me so I could hang out with them. They all carry elements of my personality and beliefs, even if it’s wacky or silly. I have yet to create a character that has conflicted with me: if they do they don’t stay around long.
Who are your heroes and why?
I’m still gaining heroes but I will say Carol Burnett, Tracy Ullman and In Living Color had a huge effect on me. I love watching them and laughing. Annie [the movie] has always been my favorite. When I first saw Carol Burnett, I was in love. She was silly and not afraid to be crazy. I have real life heroes who are actors that i get to work with and call my friends, they inspire me more than anything. I am inspired by the bravery of artists. I am inspired by vulnerability. To be an artist and to be an actor is the most vulnerable thing you can do…if you do it right…it’s not pretend it is a form of vulnerability. 
What are your goals or resolutions for this year?
My goals are to keep creating and ask questions later. I tend to question things to death, instead of releasing content. I’m also resolving to floss more.
How does being a black woman living in America shape your art or your approach to art?
You can have a few approaches as a Black creative: you can speak about your difference and celebrate it, highlight the needs, highlight the humanity  or for some it never comes into question: they don’t identify their culture and their art together.
I love the quote from Nina Simone: “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”   It’s a line that is good to blur into one. Sometimes I battle because I love creating characters and I love humor. When it comes to the heart and things that are important to me, I would rather have a conversation about it. I haven’t [fully] learned the art of letting my humor in when it comes to things that make my heart beat fast!  I’m [still] learning.
I’m more of a therapist/ educator when it comes to speaking on current events and history. My other struggle  is possibly just my own,  but I loathe the way my ancestors had to come through minstrel shows and some of the content that was created with them as the joke. Sometimes I struggle with being perceived as a minstrel show because I am funny woman of color. I never want that. I know people whose content is considered “chittlin circuit” but i just want to create content without it being put in another box. 
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What does diversity mean to you?
Diversity is not being able to tell who is in “the Majority”. There is enough uniqueness to be represented that is most definitely NOT represented. Diversity needs to represent the world we live in and having the conversations that break down things that separate us. The lack of diversity is SO strong in American entertainment that when you try to create content that is “diverse” people don’t think it’s believable. But that is only because folks need time to change their entertainment diet–they’ll get used to it and start to enjoy it when you put it on their plate more than once a year.
What was the last book you read?
I last read the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass. [It was] Black History Month so I felt it was a good choice!
 What issues affecting you/your community are you most passionate about? 
The justice system, laws that are in effect that are oppressive, housing inequality, education inequality, financial inequality… [When I] talk about these issues people often either roll their eyes [or] under their breath say, ” It’s not that bad” “Get over it” or “All lives matter” . . .  When I hear that, I think, “That’s an amazing point of view when it’s not affecting you. What you mean is it’s not that bad for YOU. So let’s get down to the root. YOU don’t care. Just say that”.  I am not afraid of those conversations because honesty is  the start to healing.
Can art and creativity solve social problems? (Why or why not?)
Most definitely! Art opens the soul and then you can insert truth. The arts are cathartic. It isn’t the only way to solve problems but it is one way.
What progress can you see in diversity/inclusion of everyone in the human story?
Love. When you can see we are all human and broken and it’s celebrated…that is LOVE…that is God’s best, in my opinion. We are made beautifully broken.
James Baldwin said : 
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Boom! Enough said. Healing hurts. Prejudice is so arrogant and fearful: it clings on being “right” it doesn’t want to be healed because it’s afraid of pain. But the pain won’t last. Healing is possible.
What work still needs to be done to better celebrate diversity and inclusion and how do artists help? 
Art is a way of allowing people to tell their stories. Being honest about your journey is healing to you and others. Let people tell THEIR OWN story…not a second hand observance of what you think someone is dealing with. Empathy is awesome but it is still coming through your filter of understanding. I think we need to shut up and listen to each other. 
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Aleta Myles lives and works in Nashville, TN. To learn more about her work, watch her videos, or contact her for a booking, please visit her website and social media pages. 

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One More Thing (on Social and Political Change)

charles-darwin-sssshh-ofset-to-right-of-frameBecause of its tendency to polarize and alienate people, and how easy it is for online “discussions” to lose control to third/fourth/fifth parties, I have resolved to no longer engage in emotionally charged social and political discourse on Facebook (or social media in general).

This doesn’t mean I don’t have strong beliefs and opinions, or that I don’t care about voting or community activism. It doesn’t mean I don’t think speaking one’s mind is important. I think there are many people who are gifted at political discourse, activism, organizing and social theory, and they continue to share those gifts.

I have simply come to the conclusion that it is more beneficial and fruitful for me to have these discussions in an environment that is controlled, peaceful, and personal. It is way too easy for me to dehumanize  another when we use machines to communicate.

If I share something, I want it to be in the spirit of sharing what I learned, how something helped, edified, or challenged me, not as a means to shame my detractors.

(I have not “arrived” or perfected any of this. I’m writing this- all of this- for the same reason I write anything down- to hold myself accountable; to preserve my commitment for posterity.)

Beyond that, I don’t feel it’s my prerogative to make sure an online acquaintance changes his mind, or that a friend changes her opinion and votes for the same person I do. I am not obligated to answer for their choices.

The best I can do is set a watchman for my conscience, my feelings toward others, and my own behavior. I think the best way for me to change the world is to change it around me, through interacting with people and with my community at large.

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Some will disagree with me and take the big picture approach. Some will see things more the way I do. Both have their benefits. Both can and do have positive outcomes. One is just a better choice for my own peace of mind and relationships than the other.

With some professional guidance, I realized that If I focused the same energy I expend trying to convince others to see my way, if I channeled that into action, big or small,  my relationships and my community would transform. [Wow, I thought. What if all people had this approach.]

With all that said, it would be hypocritical for me to tell you who to vote for, how to voice your opinion, what to protest, how to act. When it comes to choosing your candidate, your cause, or your way to take action, there’s only one thing I can ask people I care about to do.

And it’s the same thing I’m asking of myself:

When you make your choice, do it with intention. Doing one small thing that you know will have an effect changes more than sitting idle for hours, stewing in anger and contempt. If your conscience tells you that something (or someone) is morally repugnant, align yourself elsewhere.  If you want to change a social or political reality, take an action that answers the call of your conscience. Whatever you choose to do, do it to strengthen your community, not to tear down someone else. While it’s always nice when others join you, sometimes they won’t. Don’t lose heart. Act in a way that leaves you at peace and doesn’t betray yourself. You can act big, or small. The important thing is to act from kindness, in earnest, and with empathy.

Here’s hoping.

What’s My Motivation? Changing What I Share Online

The Internet: Part information superhighway, part Eternal Troll Cave of Fathomless Depths. I used to love it. As someone whose driving motivation was understanding and solving social problems, I saw Facebook as my personal megaphone. It was a towering soapbox  from which I could denounce the social/political/moral evils surrounding me.

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My Resting Scroll Face

I would type out a fiery diatribe and gleefully hit send, shocked when my condescending drivel wasn’t readily embraced by the masses. Yes, I would think, I’m making a stand. I’m speaking up for what’s right: me. 

Wait. Aren’t you a Christian? You guys are all about denouncing some moral evils, right?

Yes. I am called to put a stop to thoughts and behaviors that are contrary to loving God and  neighbor. But I’m supposed to do that in my own life before I even think of “helping” someone else “see the error of their ways”.  Reminds me of a quote I saw today by St. Maximos the Confessor:

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Focusing on changing everyone on my News Feed for the better renders my own change null and void? Dag. Is it just me, or do the Saints straight-up roast people sometimes?

Beyond that, I’m starting to believe it’s impossible to have meaningful discussion [read: debate] on social media. Why?

  • I could be wrong. There, I said it. Hey, anything’s possible.
  • I can be right and still be mean or condescending about it. And that’s wrong.
  • I could assume someone I don’t agree with is bad or evil, without knowing all the facts (which I never will anyway). And that’s judging.
  • I will probably get angry more quickly (and for longer) online than I would in person. The vitriol/intensity of the Internet and the way opinions are written there makes it a breeding ground for angry, spiteful and otherwise violent communication.
  • It’s public. Eliminating the privacy of a face-to-face conversation almost guarantees that someone else will weigh in, take something out of context, gang up on one of us, and so on.

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When I disagree with, denounce, or vilify someone else’s perspective/political party/difference of opinion online, they can see it. [Even if I passive-aggressively Vaguebook about how wrong “some people” are on my own timeline.] And everyone else we’re friends with can see it, too. Not to mention our little tête à tête  is saved for posterity. Plus there’s never really been a time when I’ve thought: Wow. That gloves-are-off Facebook debate really brought us closer.

So, if I’m going to post something online, I start with asking myself something simple: why am I sharing this?

Is it:

  • Because I’m angry?
  • To declare how right I am?
  • To declare how wrong you are?
  • To make “the other side” [or people who identify with them] look bad, or foolish?

If the answer is yes, I need to re-think. As cheesy as this little mnemonic is, it’s really helpful for us social media mavens:

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The first time I saw this, I thought something alone the lines of: well, guess I have to delete Facebook and stop blogging. I didn’t blog or stir the pot on Facebook for months. I tried my hand at holding my tongue (my success varied widely from day to day). And while I try to be much more careful about the tone of what I post now than I used to, I still believe social media and blogging are powerful ways of sharing new ideas, and building connections rooted in empathy rather than same-ness of opinion.

Filtering what I share doesn’t mean I can’t post about tricky issues or things I care about, or that I’m suggesting Shrinking Violet is the New Black. My desire for a peaceful newsfeed does not cancel out my strong convictions. The key is changing the focus of the material I post from “what they’re doing wrong”  to “what’s helping me do better”.

What did this teach me?

How is this helping me be a better human?

What about this situation worries or troubles me?  

I know this is a problem. What is a solution I can realize in my day to day interactions and/or in my community?

 If my main goal really is to change myself for the better, I can share  things in terms of what I learned, or how something helped me change my perspective. If something is important to me, I can simply say that before sharing, without bringing what “some people” think into it. If someone misspeaks online and the error could hurt them or others, I can do my best to gently present my point of view.

All in all, I’m learning it’s best for my peace of mind (and my relationships) not to get too deep into a Facebook face-off. In general, I think the tricky things are best discussed with a friend, over cold beer and Hot Chicken.

My Prayers Are Enough (Sort Of)

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There is a disturbing phrase circulating in the aftermath of the most recent tragedy: (Y)our Prayers Are Not Enough. Arising from an (understandable) anger at seeing social evils and similar problems persist, it draws a false dichotomy between prayer and action, implying that you are either a person of prayer, or one of action. But the two are not now and never have been mutually exclusive. Prayer is an act of love for our fellow humans that is taken on the spiritual plane. And prayer is certainly indispensable to many people of action as they go throughout their lives. Of course I agree that it is not meant to replace interpersonal action. Christ commanded his disciples to pray AND act. Not to discard one for the other, more “real” or somehow more superior variety. Prayer is often misunderstood [only] as a means to change our circumstances, like some sort of wish-on-a-star to a Jiminy Cricket God. But it’s first and foremost meant to change us: to transform us and those we pray for with healing, peace, and strength. Is that really something we can do without?

To look at it another way: there are circumstances in my life and health in which the pain, difficulty, and frustration is ongoing. What if I blamed the  prayers of others for that? I still have cerebral palsy and some days it sucks: your prayers are not enough! My mental and emotional wellness are still a constant battle: your prayers are not enough! I am still looking for a job and have had more heartbreaking disappointments on that front than I can count: your prayers are not enough! That would be a ridiculous, smug response. And it would be false. I am able to keep going because my faith and joy and peace have not run out, and that can only be a result of my loved ones going to battle in prayer for my heart and soul. Prayer is an action. It is an act of love for our fellow humans. It is an act of faith. It is something we cannot do without in this world.

Of course, I am not saying that prayer is all we can do, or all we should do, or that only people who pray can do good and make a difference. If we feel our conscience calling us to civic action, we can meet with or write/call our local leaders. If we feel it calling from our community, there are numerous organizations for which we can volunteer that are healing and strengthening our social fabric. If we are very limited on time, we can work with our mentors and spiritual leaders to make sure we are taking action to love our family, friends, and coworkers, and live peaceably with them. There is always something we can do, and always something we should do, to love our fellow people.

Facebook and the share button make it so easy to either convince myself I am taking action, or that my neighbor is not (whichever makes me feel best at the time). If I wanted to, I could spend hours scrolling down and fuming about how little others are doing, or just how wrong they’re getting a social issue or problem. But what action would I be taking other than that of the Pharisee: thanking God that I am not like other men, especially not that one on my feed? Instead, what if I spent my energy actually talking to a friend that needs help, or volunteering, or figuring out how to budget for more giving?

I understand and respect that we will not all have the same gifts to help the world around us; we will feel different calls to action and respond in different ways. For my part, I will continue to pray and continue to pay attention to my conscience and follow its call to action. I will strive not to shame my friends and neighbors if I can’t tell what their acts of love are, or if their callings and gifts to help are different or “smaller” than mine. If I find an action to take, I will try not to despair if my neighbor’s action seems more sweeping and grandiose. I will do my best not to look at others in contempt and judgement, with suspicion and comparison. I cannot stop my efforts to pray and act just because others make different choices or have different priorities, and I cannot let my fear and insecurity that I am not enough immobilize me when I am surrounded by hurting people who need love, friendship and prayer.

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If you are looking for ways to take action to honor the lives of the people who were lost in San Bernadino, there are many wonderful organizations supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that need volunteers, advocates, friends and allies. Here are a few, but there are many more.

The Arc (find a local chapter)

Sports 4 All Foundation

Best Buddies (look on the left sidebar to search by state)

Friends Life Community

Small Things/ Great Love

A couple of months ago, while talking to my priest. I was doing my usual: unpacking my laundry list of worries about life and the cosmos. And I don’t just talk about my worries, y’all. I pile them up. I stack them carefully, one on top of another, like scary, toxic Fear Pancakes:

Well, what about racism and police brutality?

What about global warming?

What about natural disasters and the end times and the future and GMOs and- and- and. . . 

You get the idea. We’ve all been there: that point where we are literally Can’t Even-ing because the Whole Entire Flip-Flappin’ World is just so Out-Of-Its Mind-Crazy. But I had stayed there in that state of mind and pitched a tent. I scrolled through (and wallowed in) the misery of the world and drank up all the injustice I saw in a medium where [more often than not- I know there are exceptions] no direct action can be taken by me to fix the problem.

For an aspiring social activist, I was pretty immobilized But that’s what happens when exposure is equated to involvement. The choir and I took turns preaching, we all shouted AMEN. I wrote the perfectly researched comments that silenced my opponents. I had become callous in the name of caring. I had replaced engaged with enraged. And I was beginning to drown. In fact, I noticed that the discourse on Social Media was simultaneously doing the following [and on a 24-hour, ever refreshing loop]:

Demanding I care passionately, constantly

Demanding I demonstrate I care in a specific way

Heavily implying [or outright stating] that to the degree I didn’t post, discuss, or engage in a public forum, I didn’t care.

Is it just me, or does the News Feed turn social causes and opinions into that horrible snob in every 80s coming of age movie? You know, the one who pressured their boyfriend or girlfriend with the words “You would if you really loved me”.  So much of the rhetoric on The Book turns everyone into That Guy [or Girl, anyone can be a jerk]. I see it happen all the time.

And if I’m being honest, I’ve been That Person often, and I’ve done so in the name of being correct, open-minded or [worst of all] theologically sound. I’ve done it for the recognition, for the praise, and to prove my own moral amazingness. And that both humbles me and grosses me out.

While it’s a great tool for fast communication and spread of good ideas and causes, Social Media and the Internet can also increase feelings of alienation, polarization [us vs. them], and snap judgement.

What- in a normal conversation- would amount to “We don’t see eye to eye on this, but I know from our other conversations and interactions that you are not, in fact, a soulless monster, but my friend” becomes “OMG U FASCIST I HATE YOUR STUPID FACE AND I HOPE YOU FALL DOWN A WELL!!!!!!!!”

So what’s changed? Am I off Facebook? [Girl, please- it’s open in the next tab.] I did- however- find a more realistic way of looking at it, and at the whole idea of social engagement.

My priest-remember him? the patient guy at the beginning of the story?- told me about something he read about that helped him not to become overwhelmed, hate everyone, and spend the rest of his life crying [paraphrasing there]. He told me about the Circle of Influence: areas we can actually change and influence vs. the Circle of Concern: the big, ever-present problems of the world.

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According to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the most effective [and/or proactive] people focus the majority of their time on their Circle of Influence, and far less on their Circle of Concern. This not only made total sense to me and struck me as a really healthy way to be,  it helped me realize that social media, and media in general, distorts things such that our Circle of Concern is either presented as identical to our Circle of Influence or vastly more important when it comes to changing our circumstances, when it’s really the other way around.

“Imagine,” Father said, “what it would be like if you took that energy for those causes you cared about and put them into action in your community and in your day to day life.” I  could write a letter to the editor, have a conversation that promotes empathy and understanding of someone different than me, treat a friend who is struggling financially to a meal, recycle, look someone in the eye and tell them they matter. The wonderful paradox is: I can do almost nothing to solve the big problems of the world, but the “small” things I can do that would truly make a difference are in fact vast, endless, and ever-evolving.

What if I- what if we all- took that approach first and foremost? Would all social problems be eliminated? Probably not. Would action be taken consistently, and would things change? Definitely. And that seems like what all us are truly after.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta changed the way the world views poverty, service, and love. She transformed the lives of countless people with her work, and continues to do so with her teachings. Yet she did not use a computer, and rarely traveled outside of the area where she lived. Would we dare say she didn’t care?

Even contemplating shifting my focus from “great things” to “small things with great love” has been immensely freeing. To do so helps me see more clearly how much I am loved. I realize more clearly what I can do for others.

I believe that thinking and acting in our sphere of influence- doing small things for our friends, enemies, neighbors, communities, opponents and compatriots- deliberately and consistently with great love will shift our connection to humankind from virtual to reality.

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What do you feel connects us to one another? What harms that connection? What helps it?

What small things have been done for you with great love?

What small thing can you commit to doing this week for someone that you love? For someone that you don’t always agree with?

A Letter to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

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Dear Amy and the Smart Girls:

I just visited your website where I read- with the same disappointment one might read the phrase “Sorry, we’re all out of pizza”- that Smart Girls has no contributor/intern/job openings at this time, but to check back later. I can assure you I will check back later, but in the meantime, I hope you will take a few minutes to read this letter due to your general awesomeness, your interest in story-sharing, and my bone-deep conviction that I am your long-awaited best friend. I have been trying to be more courageous lately, and this is borderline crazy, so I thought I’d go for it and see what happens.

I am a 29 year old woman (or Girl, to stick with the vernacular) from Nashville, TN. I have grown up here, and- apart from an internship for the Federal Government in DC and about 15 months of graduate school in Athens, GA- I have lived here all my life. Doing the best I could in school was a good decision; I was able to go to both undergrad and graduate school with several scholarships in tow, and to receive honors over the course of my education. Because I have always loved learning and put a great deal of pressure on myself to succeed, I started college at 17, finished my bachelor’s shortly before 21, and completed my Master’s within a few days of turning 23. [I realize that not enough people get an opportunity for an education, so I am profoundly grateful to have had it]. It is uncomfortable for me to write this part of the letter, because I was raised to be modest, which I kinda took to an extreme by never talking any of about my accomplishments with my friends. I am also leaving some stuff out because I am terrified that someone reading this will think I’m- gasp!- kinda braggy, or even worse: that I’m no fun at parties. Anyway, bear with me, I promise that not only do I have a point, it’s on it’s way. Also, I’m super fun at parties. Ask anyone.

My bachelor’s in Sociology [“Oh, wow. This world is kinda messed up for all these reasons that seem to be cemented in the social and economic fabric, and here are a bunch of depressing books and papers about just how bad it is.”] paved the way for my Master’s in Nonprofit Organizations [“Maybe it’s more like peanut butter than cement: it’s sticky and messy and gross when it gets on you, but malleable. We can change it, we will change it, as soon as we get enough grant money.”], and I have been working in the nonprofit field as a volunteer, intern board member or staff member, for about 10 years now.

But a traditional education and list of 9 to 5 jobs do not necessarily a Smart Girl make. We have all met plenty of people who have the appearances of success that are really just Mean Girls [“One time, she punched me in the face. It was awesome.”]. And of course there are plenty of Smart Girls who are so because they have found joy, success, and contentment and human connection by their own unique and innovative means. There is so much room in this world for Smart Girls, and so many Smart Girls looking for voices. I know this not just because I have met those girls, but because I am one.

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I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a disability with onset at birth that affects everyone who has it in ways unique to them. Most commonly, mobility, motor skills and speech are affected first, with other secondary effects. However, just like with any other experience of disability, the challenges faced when living out that experience are not merely physical. Beyond my own story, I know that many people experience intellectual disability, and many have a disability that is not visible but still plays a great part in the challenges they face [such as Autism Spectrum Disorders or Traumatic Brain Injuries, among many]. And while a life with a disability is certainly just as full of joy, blessing, talent and strength as anyone else’s, there are also many other factors at play that too often silence the voices of so many Smart People out there. People with disabilities face far more hurdles to employment, education, and acceptance in community life than their typically developing peers. People with disabilities are almost entirely absent from popular culture and media, with the few exceptions still placing all the focus on their “otherness”. And the rate of depression, anxiety, and similar emotional challenges amongst people with disabilities is extremely high.

Here I’ve spent a decade working for people with disabilities, with many of my peers working twice as long as I have, and it is still remarkable to people that I have an education, a job and a partner. While I am not in any way downplaying the very real work myself and so many people I know have done to reach such milestones, I dream for a world where stories like mine are no longer the exception, but the rule. And I am at a point in my life where I am realizing that sometimes in order to do big work, you have to think big. You have to try something new; you have to leap and see where you might land.

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Why Smart Girls, you ask? Why not one of those spiffy nonprofits I alluded to like a hundred paragraphs ago? Well, because the Smart Girls are all about acceptance, celebration, and inclusion. They’re all about having a voice that gets heard, not by shaming and negativity, but by affirming, by celebrating and building connections. Yes, nonprofits serving people with disabilities crusade for all these things, but the whole point of doing so is for our story to be heard, and not just by people who already know it. To make lasting change, I have to tell the story of disability experience in a way that causes someone to snap out of their comfort and familiarity zones and realize, “This is not just a cute, inspirational article. This is my story. These are my neighbors and friends. This is my family member or partner.”

Working in the disability services field the power of connection is apparent. We work hard to cultivate a spirit of empathy, and an attitude of saying “you can do anything you set your mind to, and I’m here if you need any help or support in making it happen”. I was very fortunate to have a community, a support system, a means of finding my voice. But in this age of information overload and lack of true connection, I have often wondered: are there other people out there needing that community, that sense of voice? I believe the answer is yes, and I believe that need will always be present. I also believe that Smart Girls can be one of those voices

Recently, I re-entered the job market. My husband suggested I contact you guys (because he’s smart, too), and I considered that suggestion a huge vote of confidence. Of course I realize sending this letter provides no guarantees of a response, or of any action on your part. I am just reaching out in hopes that perhaps somewhere in my story, you will see an opportunity, or that when one arises, you will remember this letter. If you want to think of ways to make your curriculum more accessible to people with disabilities, if you need help finding great stories of people with disabilities to tell, if you ever want to make sure that eliminating ableism is a clear part of your values, or if you just want to eat some nachos, you know where to find me.

Thank you for all you do, you beautiful unicorns of the sea.
Beth H. Thielman

Aspiring Smart Girl

Nashville, TN