If you don’t have anything nice to say 

Best not say anything at all. 

Some old idioms do have meaning and wisdom – don’t they?

And hey, I’m all about public discourse, enriching conversations, and working to find spaces for disagreement. However, when it comes to a person’s individual life, I have yet to figure out why it has become culturally “okay” to offer unsolicited commentaries.

I won’t dance around the elephant in the room – I am speaking specifically to my experience as a lesbian. I came out several years ago and even today continue to encounter pushback in the form of texts, Facebook messages, and the like from individuals who are affronted by my “choice” to be gay.

The most recent message just came a few weeks ago; a scathing, loaded message that, quite literally, was “a message from God” from the person who wrote it. Included in this long note was comments about the surprise and shock that came with realizing that I was gay, specifically that I was touting myself as both gay and Christian.

This person wrote, “I was once again surprised and devastated to see on one of your recent posts that you still consider yourself to be a Christian even though you’ve chosen a lifestyle of homosexuality. That is not possible, Heather. Please believe me that it is not my desire to preach to you: my utmost desire is to obey God in reaching out to you in love and truth, and I do so because I care for you as a person.”

Mhmmmm.

You can imagine I had lots of thoughts about this. One, I didn’t choose this identity. What I did choose to be was a Christian. Also, homosexuality is not a lifestyle. IT IS NOT OKAY TO SAY THIS. A lifestyle is how a person chooses to live (i.e. “a lavish lifestyle” would imply lots of vacations and luxury travel). It is problematic to assume that an LGBTQ+ person has a specific kind of lifestyle. LGBTQ+ people are not robots and certainly do not live in one particular kind of way.

And lastly, it is probably best not to make presumptions about my relationship with God OR how God sees me. Nobody can say this definitively. We are humans. I am tired of communities or individuals thinking that they have their market share on who or what God stands for. The entire premise of faith is that of mystery. Faith is expounding on certainty; it is finding solace in the inexplicable. Faith is trusting something bigger than yourself. Faith is vested in hope, love, and humanity. Yet, so many of these kinds of messages reek of self-righteousness, doctrine, and a prescribed kind of religion.

I wanted to share some other comments, words, questions, and conversations I have had to have in the last few years since coming out. Many of these have been so uncomfortable. And so, I write this with the hopes that if you do know someone struggling with their identity or someone who has already come out, please please – don’t ask them these questions. I’ve listed them below for reference.

Whatever you think about LGBTQ+ people, understand that your opinion does not carry more weight than the right for that person to exist. Their story is just as important as yours. It is tempting and often the norm to feel as though you MUST share what you think about a person’s life experience. Here’s the thing: you don’t.

All you need to do is listen. Hold space. Make no assumptions. Be curious (but respectful). Be open. 

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“Why can’t you change?”

This question assumes that a person a) should change or b) hasn’t already asked this question. I prayed at least a hundred times for God to change my identity. I wanted it so badly. I even tried to be straight. It doesn’t work. At one point, I even considered trying conversion/reparative therapy. The “therapy” works on a premise that having a non-conforming gender identity or same-sex attraction is a mental disorder. Conversion therapies are largely discredited by governing associations the psychological and psychiatric realm. Countless studies show that the therapy is ineffective and harmful.

But to the point – how would you feel if a core piece of your identity existed and someone asked why you couldn’t change that? Could you help that you were born with a particular skin color? Could you help what nationality you have?

It is offensive to postulate that a person must change to be “better” or accepted.

“Have you tried to pray or talk to God about this?”

See above. Yes. A million times.

LGBTQ+ individuals who also hold a faith tradition have likely explored this within a faith lens. It’s no wonder that many LGBTQ+ individuals leave or shift away from the church as an institution – if they are not welcome there, why would they go?

And after all, how do we know God hasn’t already created us as the people we are meant to be?

“But, Heather, it’s not possible to be both Christian and Gay.”

If you believe this, then fine. That’s your prerogative. However, your experience and understanding of faith and Christianity is bigger than you. Leave room for other ideas. Leave room for experiences you can’t necessarily understand. Christianity has not and could not look the same across the world. I am telling you – Christians in Rwanda do not look like Christians in the United States.

It would be important to then ask (to yourself), well, why do I believe this to be true? Why couldn’t a person have a different sexual identity and also be Christian?

Perhaps this will conjure up the six bible verses (known as the clobber passages) that mention this.

Is it possible the text was written for a different context? Is it possible that the writer could have been speaking to something else? It is possible that the text does not hold up today? I am not suggesting the answer to these questions, rather, these are the kinds of exploration a person who would make a statement about someone else’ faith should be asking themselves.

“You have so easily fallen into this lifestyle…carefully consider the choices you are making.”

To say that a person’s exploration and understanding of their sexual identity has been easy is ludicrous. More than anything, it’s also dangerous. According to the Trevor Project, LGB youth are 5 times more likely to consider suicide than heterosexual youth. That’s a big number. And, we’re talking about lives. We have to be more delicate than assuming the road for an LGBTQ+ person has been “easy.” It is anything but that. It breaks my heart to think about the isolation, anxiety, depression, fear, shame, and loss that comes with this process.

Stick by your person. It’s scary. They need you simply to love them, regardless of what you think.

“How do you know your gay?”

To that question, I can only ask: how do you know you are straight? Exactly. You just know.

I remember as a young girl thinking I was different because I wasn’t attracted to boys the way others were. I pretended, and of course I can objectively recognize a man’s beauty, but I was not drawn to it the way I felt I was supposed to be. I know I am gay because I am attracted to women. In the same way, I know I am a vegetarian because I don’t eat meat. I know that I have green eyes because I was born with them. Much of what makes us us, isn’t easily extracted with explanations. It just is. 

“Maybe you just haven’t met the right guy.”

Oh boy. I tried being straight for a number of years. I believed this. I thought that maybe I just hadn’t met the right one. And so, I went on a dating blitz and had dinner with boys from all over the place (Denver, Centennial, Parker, etc.) I dated some more seriously. And trust me when I say, it was not a fit. Even when I met someone who was everything I would want on paper, when it came closer to physical intimacy (or really, any intimacy at all), I balked big time. It felt so, so wrong. This is not about meeting the right man, it is about knowing which gender is the one I am attracted to.

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NOTE:

Full transparency: this was hard to write.

It is hard to revisit these painful wounds that I have experienced. Yet, when they keep happening, I know it’s then time to say something. I still struggle the residual impact of coming out. I wrestle with anxiety and shame. I fear I am doing something wrong, sometimes. But I am happy to say, that BECAUSE of my faith and trust in God (and myself) I know who I am is good. I know I am worthy. I know I am loved. No matter what questions or words come my way, this truth cannot be altered.

Thank you for reading. Keep spreading love.

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Growing & Learning (a lot)

I started graduate school at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) about 6 months ago. It is just the beginning of what will be a long (but significant) journey; my schooling (inclusive of practicum and internship) will last over three years, then, for two years I will work under supervision before I can become officially licensed as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).

I joined UCD’s Counseling Program specifically because of the program’s multicultural focus, fusing psychological approaches with specific cultural contexts for people of all backgrounds.

Originally, a few years ago, I had thought I had wanted to be a social worker.

Post-Peace Corps, I applied to the University of Denver, got in (twice) and subsequently decided that I didn’t want to fork over that much money simply to be qualified to help people.

There was more too – I realized that while social work is an incredible profession – creating ways for individuals to access important resources – I wanted to help individuals, groups, and communities in a more relationally focused way. I started researching and exploring and found that counseling was a great fit for my interests and skillsets.

Social workers work within systems, usually matching services for the needs of a client.

Counseling, however, provides treatment (often in the realm of mental health) for clients in a setting that prioritizes a professional relationship so that a person can slowly heal, grow, and become fully empowered in their life. I like to think of this more positively; instead of focusing on a person’s shortfalls, a lot of constructive change can occur when a person knows (and uses) the assets and strengths they hold. Leveraging these, I’m learning, is a powerful way to pursue health and wellness.

Upon starting my program, I was ready to learn about the ins and outs of counseling, therapy modalities, and techniques to use when working in therapeutic settings. I had a vision for the kind of therapist/counselor I wanted to be – one that worked with individuals from different trauma backgrounds (like refugees), cultures, and age groups.

As with any formidable learning opportunity, already a lot has changed.

My coursework has challenged me; I have had to confront my own bias’s, beliefs, opinions, assumptions, and understandings about people. In just a handful classes, I have also re-explored some of my own past to understand better why I do what I do. In doing so, I can see where some of my perspectives have come from, and while I can hold onto these, I must also see where my blind-spots exist, too.

You see, what I forgot to consider in starting my path as a counselor-trainee was that I would need to continue to do “work” with myself. After all, without self-awareness and knowledge of self, how can I possibly begin to help the clients I work with in the future? As a result, It feels like the door has opened and that this journey has brought far more emotional healing than I could have otherwise found. That has been a pleasant surprise.

I have also felt overwhelmed at my interest areas, not unlike a child in a store filled with candy:

Do I want to focus on trauma? How can I use narrative therapy? What if I want to work with older adults? Can I specialize in working with LGBTQ+ populations? Do I want to work in an agency or focus on private practice?

 The questions have felt endless, but I do believe this is ultimately a really necessary step within a much larger process. I am beginning to filter through where and how I will work. I mean – how cool is that?

In the meantime, I am learning to be kinder to myself, to let myself dream, to imagine what my profession will be like as I learn, and to enter it all with fearlessness, grace, and patience. It isn’t easy – but it is necessary.

Here’s to growing, learning, and doing it all with some humor, sass, and fun.

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Body, Trauma, & Connection

Over the last month, I have had a book recommended to me, mentioned to me, and shared with me at least four times. The book, The Body Keeps the Score, is a well-known read in the psychology world as the author, Bessel Can der Kolk, is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Massachusetts.

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Blending neuroscience, medicine, psychiatry, and healing, Kolk breaks down what we understand trauma to be and how it shows up and manifests in our bodies. Powerfully, he uses case studies, interviews, and research to push the fact that because trauma is a fact of life, it is also an inherent public health issue.

Though only halfway through the book, I have already learned a lot of new concepts, particularly about our brain systems and how information is processed. Moreover, I have learned how this changes for someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the difference is huge. Traumatization re-wires processing functions and thus, reactions to stress occur even if the trigger or the stimulus does not present a viable threat. Kolk explains this process when he writes,

“While we all want to move beyond trauma, the part of our brain that is devoted to ensuring survival (deep below our rational brain) is not very good at denial. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions, intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often being to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.”[1]

Yeah, I know. Our minds (and bodies) are powerful.

Interestingly, a lot of what I am learning from this book connects to topics, therapies, and theories that I am learning in my coursework in the Counseling Program at University of Colorado Denver. In both of my courses, Counseling Theories and Multicultural Counseling, we have discussed trauma in varying capacities. In Multicultural, we have explored the epigenetics of trauma (intergenerational trauma) when it is passed down and through family lineages. In Theories, we have begun conversations in how to use certain techniques with clients who have experienced trauma, techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), exposure therapies, or stress inoculation training (SIT).

It is all connecting – and usually that is how I know am on to something meaningful and important in my life.

For most of this year (and last), I have been working on reconnecting with my emotions and body. For a long duration of time, it was hard for me to cry and emote for things that would have previously sparked an emotional response (Moana and Coco not included). This left me feeling disconnected and far from the core of my personal self. This is another aspect of trauma that is just as important, but perhaps, less discussed.

Kolk shares in some of the stories about clients he worked with that some “could not feel whole areas of their bodies.” This happened because in some cases, to cope, people shutdown of parts of their brain, particularly the parts that send out feelings and emotions. This doesn’t only affect the negative emotions, the ones that they want to remove, but all emotions, too.

While my experience in desensitization was not as extreme, I still knew that my brain and body has experienced emotional blockage. Through walks, hikes, rollerblading, writing, counseling, and weightlifting, I have come to understand the weightiness of shame and how it blocks us from our true selves. This has been a major part of the emotional blocks that I have felt in the last year and being able to name that has been an important part of re-orientating my self-awareness.

So, what, in this context does healing look like?

For me, it has been about confronting the pain, sitting in silence, recognizing the hurt (non-judgmentally), and taking power back over it. Just trying to identify what I feel in any given moments has been annoyingly slow (to be honest). But also, as I have been able to do this, I can move closer to a radical acceptance of myself.

This begins in the body, mind, and heart and flows outward.

Like I said, it is a long process. But, I have needed to start it, and I am grateful I have. Plus, it’s pretty wonderful to have good books to help, support, and clarify the process along the way.

Kolk proposes the question that guides his work and his book, “how can people gain control over the residues of past trauma and return to being masters of their own ship?

I am still learning and figuring that out. I think in a large sense, we all are.

[1]Van Der Kolk, Bessel. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

The Next Big Thing

I knew at a young age that my bones, brain, and heart had been crafted in such a way that I was meant to help people. When my grandmother cooked chili and grilled cheese for dinner, I wanted to set the table. When my teacher had a stack of papers to grade, I wanted to make sure she had a full set of pens. When my teammate was hurt, I was first to make sure she had the proper medical equipment or medicines. More than just action, I knew and believed in the power of asking questions and helping people through conversation and dialogue.

It was here where I felt most energized.

This deeply earnest part of me was like a seed that grew (and grew) as I got older. Helping in many ways, became a way that I felt most apt in communicating love.

And yet, growing up becomes more complicated. As I ventured into my teens, and young adulthood, I had to learn the necessary (but at times painful) process of also accepting, receiving, and engaging with help. I had to learn to ask for it, and I had to learn that it was healthy to acquiesce to it. Being helpful certainly doesn’t make you invincible. When I was stranded, someone always showed up. When I needed extra money, a check always came my way. When I was sick, someone always filled in as my caretaker. When I was heartbroken, someone was there to rub my back.

At 29, I recognize fully that there is no way anyone can do this – life – alone.

We need each other.

By knowing the power of relying on one another, I have been able to find a great deal of healing from pain in my past. Healing, I know now, requires us often to go back to places of suffering. Instead of pushing against my own feelings, reflections, or experiences, I have chosen them. I have acknowledged them. I have reconciled with them.

This has been grueling, and it has not come quick or fast. Yet, through this process, I know that I can now fully, authentically, genuinely help others. This realization has been life-changing for me – now, I know that I’m ready to take the next step in my professional life because of the work I have done in my personal life.

Often, the notion of my career has included education and advocacy for people who need it the most. Now, knowing what I know, and believing what I do, I am pursuing to be a Licensed Professional Counselor through the School of Education & Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver. Because I do love helping, and because I love people, I would like to apply my life experiences into a professional path that creates access to healing for anyone – and everyone. For the next 3 years, I will be training with other Counseling candidates to become certified and work on behalf of those needing mental health services.

The University of Colorado Denver is unique in how they structure the Counseling program; with multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion at its core, all of the methodologies, theories, and therapies that I will be learning will hold tightly to these values. I will learn how to be not only a counselor, but a counselor that has to consider privilege, difference, and oppression as we work for social justice. Our world needs this.

I want to be a counselor because I want to help people understand their lives better, to know themselves, and most importantly, to know they matter and that healing is possible. I want to be a counselor because I believe that this service is too often inaccessible for many people in our society. I want to equip individuals with the mental help and wellness they may need. Whether it’s refugees, the elderly, or LGBTQ+ people, I want to be a part of a movement that brings mental health services to ALL.

I want to create a safe space – even if it is the smallest of spaces.

Becoming a counselor has been a dream of mine for many years. And yet, it has never been the right time. Other things were in the way, I had too much to work through, or I was abroad. They say timing is everything – and they’re right. Now, it is the right time, and I am beginning a path that will not only fulfill a professional desire, but a personal one, too.

I will help people, and in turn, I recognize they will help me too.

Here’s to the next big thing, with lots of dreams, love, work, hope, and papers. Always papers. This new journey begins on January 17th, and likely will take 3 – 3 ½ years to complete.

I’m in it for the long haul and truly, I can’t wait to get started.

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Onward & Upward

Driving to the Denver Coliseum last week, on a Friday mid-afternoon, I found myself nervous, giddy, proud, and ecstatic all at once. Grandma, smiling with a dark red lipstick, was in the passenger seat as the soft sound of Google Maps ensured that I took the fastest route. We parked close to the old beige-colored building and were able to find the rest of my family waiting inside.

We – all of us – had gathered to witness something miraculously momentous.

My brother was graduating college. Lance – he did it!

The anticipation was palpable as the ceremony begun and the commencement speakers shared their keen words of wisdom. I was particularly inspired after hearing from Metro State’s current President, Janine Davidson, who formerly served as an undersecretary for the U.S. Navy, among other high-level leadership positions in the Pentagon (um, so cool). She acknowledged that for many students, the path to success is not linear – it’s bumpy and windy, and often, ends up in places that we couldn’t necessarily expect. She shared that the youngest graduate from the December 2017 class was in their twenties – the oldest, in their seventies. She noted that over 300 graduates were the first in their families to secure a degree. From anecdote, to fact, to story, she exemplified why graduations are important at all – and I couldn’t help but glance at Lance ever so often, remembering all that he has been through to get here.

Simultaneously, I sat next to (and at times, held) Kysyn and AnaLynah, my nephew and niece, encouraging them to cheer loudly when they heard their dad’s name. Eventually, he stood, and meandered toward stage in a slow-moving line.

Lance Taylor Newell.  

We cheered and clapped and smiled. Yes! It was happening.

You see, the path for my brother was not and has not been easy. He has had to overcome challenges that I could not dream of facing. And yet, he has survived.

I don’t say that lightly either; many times, especially while I was living abroad, I wondered if I would see him again. I feared that we would lose touch. That maybe, things would never get better. In my heart, I knew how badly he wanted a solid, strong future. But, ultimately, he was going to have to fight for it. He did – and he won.

As I heard my brother’s name called for completion of his Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, I tried to freeze and capture the moment as best as I could. I looked around at our family, I gazed at him, and I held closely to my feelings of joy. I did not soon want to forget the rawness of miraculous joy. There really is no feeling like it.

A couple days later, at his graduation party, my mom and step-dad showed a slide show with pictures from many points in his life. From his teen years, from his time in sports, and even his earliest pictures, at just over 3 lbs, when he was still in the hospital. It was those pictures that made me weep; I have known Lance my entire life and for the duration of his life, he has been fighting. He has been brave. He has been resilient. He is not perfect – nor am I – but he’s done something that I hope he is proud of.

My biggest hope for him is that his story becomes one that he not only shares – but one that he can look back on and be proud of.

More people need to know that surviving (and thriving) is an option. More people need to know that overcoming addiction is possible. More people need to know that addressing mental illness is critical and necessary and NOT a weakness. And, more people need to know that it has been done.

My other biggest hope is that Lance can know deeply, and fully, how valued (and loved) he is. Though a diploma is a testament to one kind of success – it can never give a person the full value that they deserve.

Lance – wholly and completely himself – is worth gold. I have never been prouder and I simply cannot wait to see what is next on the horizon.

Sibling relationships are special – after all, at least for Lance and me, it’s the only kind of relationship where we’ve have shared so much of life at similar ages and at similar times. I used to say that Lance was my best friend. Though adult life has taken us to different places for different reasons, I still believe he is.

He knows me. He is my best friend.

And, he’s a newly graduated young man with so much ahead of him.

Onward and upward.

when education is not enough.

I come from a family built solidly and firmly on the bedrock of education. Becoming an educator is a source of deep pride; my father, for example, attended Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado (a member of the first graduating class) and after receiving his education license during his undergraduate studies, he returned to Overland to teach and has been there ever since.

For nearly 30 years, my father has been teaching a diverse, multi-cultural student body in geography, history, and social studies. Much of his life has been formed within the confines of a classroom, and honestly, I think it’s super badass. He’s inspired me to know the incredible gift that education holds.

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That matters because I grew up noticing and observing and then believing that education was the tool. For me, it was. I attended school systems with resources, qualified teachers, and supportive add-ons to enable the highest student potential to be met. This extended into college too, as if education was assumed to always be present and existent in my life.

So, remaining always enthusiastic to the process of education, I am faced with a deeply important and stark question: what happens when education is not enough?

Kigali, Rwanda

Inside a thick-aired upper room of a small alimentation in Kimironko, Kigali (towards the east side of town) I sat together with a Rwandan student of mine of whom I have known for six years. I hadn’t seen her since my last work trip to the country (in late 2015) and so she updated me, slowly and meaningfully, on each fragment of her life. I leaned in, listening, hanging on every word, wanting to know exactly what was happening.

With bread and fanta on the table, she chewed and sipped and told me everything.

Her mom is sick. Gravely ill. I try to imagine her lively, energetic mother withdrawn and in pain. It’s agonizing, honestly, to even imagine. This student does not have a father – her mother is her only parent. She confesses a fear of what happens if her mother dies. It will be okay, I tell her. But, really? Will it?

Her older sister, in pursuit of a job, left for Kenya without telling anyone in her family. Her family is devastated. They are waiting, hoping she will return.

Her younger sister passed the national exam last year and was selected to a reputable school two hours away from their community. They could not afford the school fees, so instead, she is attending a school that requires a 90-minute walk each day, one-way trip. The school’s education is sub-par and so, she fears that her sister will retain little, and perhaps be confined to the fields for farming for the rest of her life.

This student has the same concerns for herself; she graduated secondary school last year (a major accomplishment) but now, without an accessible (or even permeable) job market in her rural community, she feels stuck, isolated, and alone. Her fear, in addition to being single, is how she could possibly support her family without finding a job.

As she tells her story, I listen. As I listen, the same question repeats itself. This is a girl who did everything “right.” She studied hard, got good grades, and yet still, remains stuck.

How does she get out?

That’s the question, and it’s one that I cannot shake.

As she confesses all of things before me, her throat tightens as she does her best to not cry. Crying in public is quite taboo in Rwanda, and she knows this as much as anyone else. I give her a few minutes to hold it together, reminding her that I’m there for her, and with her. She is stressed and rightfully so; she worked for the last six years (even coming back to school after her father’s death so she could make a life for herself) and now this?

Now what?

How do we fill this gap?

Certainly, that’s the root of the model with my work with TWB: we seek to provide a tangible, realistic, and powerful application for an educational foundation. Yet, our program hasn’t yet reached this young woman – nor has it for all the women in Rwanda (and around the world) that enter the sphere of education but fall short when it comes to applying it. Herein lies privilege – yes, privilege, that uncomfortable elephant in the room of a word where we confront what others have (or do not have) and try to understand how we leverage our own existing mobility.

This student of mine is currently immobile – at least in an opportunistic sense.

For now, I have encouraged her to join other girls that I have supported to map out “next steps” especially as it relates to community-based solutions that would enable her to continue to take care of her family. Whether a small business (of tutoring in English for example) or seeking out educator jobs, I have instilled the hope that she can seek with diligence and confidence. She has something to offer the world and my god, she will offer it.

Yet, even in these small actions that work for a better future, we must take a larger step back and think about the education systems we promote and the larger systems of society they exist within. The strongest education, I believe, is one that is experiential and applicable. Learning can be done for learning’s sake, but it also must allow the learner to build capacity to leverage their own work ethic, knowledge, and potential for a better life.

What if we could re-work our systems and integrate the job market with what we are teaching? What if instead of teaching rote memorization skills, we built a curriculum that was alive, active and channeling participants directly into a trajectory? What if, instead of de-funding our entire system, we invested in it and compensated teachers for the value that they are worth?

I don’t have an answer for these questions, thought I genuinely, authentically wish that I did.

What are your thoughts?

How can we address the gap of education and income security?

How do we protect those, especially women, who are left with limited opportunities and yet incredible, limitless, budding possibility?

These are hard, awkward questions.

But until we ask them, we cannot discover and work through possible solutions. Let’s begin the conversation together. Let’s do this together. Let’s make education work for everyone. And I do mean, everyone.

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