How I Became a Real-Life, Fairytale Princess

I had the opportunity to provide a lunchtime keynote speech, participate in a panel, and provide a workshop during the 2015 annual conference of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Grand Rapids. I was particularly honored to speak alongside some really powerful guests, including a number of personal friends and the tremendous damali ayo. I wrote a short, separate post with a link to this full text and also a link to my presentation visuals for the afternoon. This is the full text of my lunchtime keynote.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak, today. I’m thrilled to be here, with all of you, with all of the energy, the passion, the dedication, and the commitment you bring to the various dreams and missions you are carrying out. Uniting them is a drive to make this world a better place, not just in the abstract, but in the actual, within our own lifetimes and lovetimes. And thank you, as well, to damali ayo for making time to be here with us today – your words and your work are so inspiring, and I am so thankful to have had and to be having the opportunity to learn from and with you.

This afternoon, I will be giving a more formal presentation, Queering the Value Equation, and I hope you come (not that the other choices aren’t very good, too, but come to mine!). Right now, while you digest both your food and the ideas you heard this morning, I want to get a little more personal. I’ve written before that I am a real-life, fairytale princess. My dream and my mission revolve around young children, so I’m going to do what “kid people” do, and offer you a little storytime. For your lunchtime story, I’d like to tell you how I got to princesshood. So, I’m going to tell you part of my story, the mixed up tale that brought me to the autism revolution, and how I found myself, and love, along the way. In my time at Hope Network, I’ve gotten the chance to learn from an excellent teacher of storytellers, but I can’t make a story really, really good all by myself. For a story to be really, really good, though, you’ll have to believe alongside me. I hope you’ll do that.

Like any good story, it’s a long story. I don’t have time to tell you all of those parts here, today, but I do want to start briefly with how I became a nonprofit professional – it wasn’t my original aim. I actually studied engineering in college, and liked it enough to get a master’s degree. I worked in the engineering world for about five years, and although I think people have an increasingly hard time believing it, and sometimes I myself have a hard time believing it, I was actually a really good engineer. I learned, in particular, the art of magic-working as an engineer, and particularly that magic doesn’t come just from one’s own internal power, but it comes from connections and community. I had the chance, relatively late in my five year engineering career, to take on “fixing” a project that should have had a five year development cycle, but needed to be started over, eight months before the finish line. It was maybe the first time in my life I really worked magic, and it taught me an important lesson. What I did to pull it off wasn’t in the technology – I could solve a mean equation, but that wasn’t what helped me do what needed to be done. Rather, it was deeply within relationships. Building relationships with our customer to help them understand just how perilous the situation was, without paralyzing them with fear. Building relationships with our plant staff, who were often angry, burnt out, and felt under-appreciated. Who were never valued too much, but without whom the miracle couldn’t happen. Managing all those feelings, all those fears, pushing them but not overwhelming them. Bringing them together, even if they didn’t realize it. To make magic happen. And I – we – we did it. We launched that product on time. Not quite without a hiccup, but those are stories for another time. Nonetheless, we launched our product on time, and it worked, and the magic we wrought together saved the day.

Ummm, yeah, it didn't work anything like this.

Ummm, yeah, it didn’t work anything like this.

It worked, but it was the beginning of the end. After I’d proven to myself that I could do that – not just solve equations, not just make scientific discoveries or extend science, but build things that actually worked – I knew that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. For me, personally, although I like solving problems, I wanted a more human, connected, personal set of problems to which I could take my analytical abilities. That took a while to find. Professionally, I spent more than two years taking night classes while working 60 hours a week or more as an engineer. I dismissed some ideas, for me, right away – going to law or business school – there isn’t anything wrong with either of those things, but for me, they were dangerous because they were surface and not deep gratification of my need to change. I didn’t want to put the effort in, just to end up behind another desk, pushing other paper, feeling equally unfulfilled. See, this is something you have to know about me – I can’t live, if the fairytale dies. I don’t have life events. I go on adventures. I don’t mean taking exotic vacations (the truth is that I’m usually too busy trying to change the world to take vacations, but I’m trying to learn, I really promise I am), but this is rather how I’ve always needed to see my life, and at that point, as a young professional, I was finally committing to finding some way to make my life full of adventure, to take my rightful place. Maybe you’ve had a moment like that in your life – where you could do what was safe, or you could do what was good. Like Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s stories, I chose in that moment to be good, but not safe. And I needed to do that, to inch closer to being the fairytale princess I was supposed to be.

Meg Murry, I will always be in your debt.

Meg Murry, I will always be in your debt.

About that… being a fairytale princess. To do that, I needed to find my voice as a woman. Which was somewhat complicated by this whole business of people thinking I was a boy. For a long time, I’d been cultivating girl and women role models, from Meg in Wrinkle in Time and Madeleine L’Engle, to Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Austen, to Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, and their characters, later, in college. I learned to be as much like my inspirations as I knew how to be while letting people continue thinking I was a boy. In the middle of my engineering career, I had a little time off to myself. Really, I got laid off a couple weeks before 9/11, and there just weren’t jobs to get. During that time, I found feminism, which made things better, and worse. Gloria Steinem and others contextualized in a powerful way for me, what I had already found in Morrison and so many others. They taught me what women’s voices sounded like, and they taught me how to know, instinctively, when they were absent, and how to think about drawing them out (which is the “better” part). But I couldn’t quite master drawing my own out (which is the “worse” part).

These sisters, calling me.

These sisters, calling me.

So, my own woman’s voice was the one most markedly absent in my life. I didn’t really know what to do about that, yet. As I continued trying to molt the image of myself as an engineer, which wasn’t for me, and try to find some kind of way to the butterfly underneath, I didn’t find me, quite yet, but I did find psychology. I took a class, and I loved it. It was, admittedly, human sexuality (I hadn’t taken psychology ever, before that, except one terribly boring high school psychology class, about ten years earlier, and human sexuality is nothing if not completely unboring). How could that go wrong, right? I took that class thinking, well, I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I ought to stay sharp, until I figure it out. It was sort of like mental training. But it was amazing – I found myself intellectually stimulated, asking questions, growing as a person. So I took another. And I asked myself, what am I looking for, really? Why am I looking for my path, when it’s right here? So I set out to become a psychologist, because it brought out my passion, which ultimately led me to graduate school at Florida.

This came just a little bit later!

This came just a little bit later!

But I wasn’t a princess, yet. I had, actually, found this exotic thing called a “transsexual” (that’s the word they used, in those days). But that whole thing sounded, well, not me. There were too many problems with it. There was some kind of arcane process wherein some kind of surgery turned you into something you were not. But I didn’t want to be something I was not. I wanted everyone to know what I actually was. If there’s good magic and dark magic, that sounded an awful lot like dark magic, at least the way it was presented to me and the way I understood it at that time. And also I didn’t want to be a freak show – I totally respect people who flaunt societal expectations, and I think a new wave of people who are socially non-conforming in new ways, is doing new and really exciting things. In other ways, I, myself, am proud to not conform, but the truth is that I also kind of like fitting in, because I really love connectedness, and for me, if I couldn’t have that, I wouldn’t be authentic to me. In hindsight, since it’s such a trite plot-line in adventures, I had an obligatory near-miss with my destiny. I figured out I was indeed trans (not the arcane and dangerous sounding thing I’d heard about, but the real thing), but I figured it out just a few moments too late. About a year after I came to that realization, Jenny Boylan was the first modern, American trans professional to really tell her story of coming out while retaining her profession and her community – her connectedness. In fairness, I had missed Jan Morris entirely, who also would have appealed more to my sensibilities, than what I found, and she had originally published her book long, long ago. But, anyways, I missed the tidings of good news that were already out there, and I missed the tidings of good news that came just a few moments too late, and I made the strategic decision that coming out, and being fully authentic, wasn’t right for me (yet).

While I focused on getting out of engineering and becoming a psychologist, I accepted, but hid, this idea that I was trans. Although non-binary identities weren’t really a thing that I had been exposed to until after I ultimately came out, I essentially tried to create one for myself. Non-binary identities are great, when they’re representative of that towards which you are running, but they’re not so good when they’re just a form of running away. I didn’t talk at all about being trans, but I gave myself fairly broad ranging permission to stop much of the pretending. I did that, ultimately, for ten years. That identity occasionally made people uncomfortable, but far more people accepted me than didn’t, and I guess it was a gateway to authenticity. It wasn’t authenticity, however, and if you’ve ever been “this close” to what you’d always wanted, you know that it’s not a place to hang out for extended periods of time – that gets excruciating. And it was excruciating, although the truth is also that I made so many friends during those days, I had so many adventures, and I experienced so much joy, too.

In the meantime, though, adjusting to psychology as a culture took some work. I survived more than few faux pas, not the least of which was interviewing with someone (who would become my dissertation chair) who had been the president of two international bodies governing my sub-field and was in the process of becoming the leader of the other one, and telling him that I didn’t know exactly what this “neuropsychology” was about, but neuropsychologists seemed to ask interesting questions, and they work with interesting patients, so would you still let me in? Surprisingly, he did. It took my path away from Los Angeles, where what I thought I wanted had been, and to Gainesville, Florida, where what I needed was.

Seriously, you guys, I did not see either of these two, like, ever.

Seriously, you guys, I did not see either of these two, like, ever.

Gainesville was an adjustment, itself, too. Probably none of you are as naïve (or stupid is a good word, too) as I was, to think that all of Florida looked like a scene from those old Miami Vice shows. But that’s what I thought, and I was all ready to start stocking up on linen blazers and pastel. I arrived in Jacksonville (where my parents had actually moved, coincidentally or not so coincidentally, depending on how you look at it). Jacksonville is much more Gone With The Wind than it is Miami Vice. And then I got on the road, and I drove to Gainesville. And the swamp on the way to Gainesville is way more Anaconda than it is Miami Vice.

Also, when I got to Florida, I found I had to do rotations with children, and this was kind of a problem. The thing is, I was all excited about finding psychology, but I sort of hated kids. The only exposure I had to kids, besides having been one, was being stuck in nursery by my church, because I was a warm body, and it was my duty, which of course came with no training, and being basically thrown into a room full of crying babies. But I knew I had to learn, and so I decided to do what Buddhists call turning into the sharp points, and instead of minimizing the role of kids in my life, I started spending lots of time volunteering with them, at one of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Camps, Camp Boggy Creek. That changed a lot. The Hole in the Wall Camps are camps for kids with serious illnesses. They’re the sort of place that generally elicit one of two polar-opposite responses, of overwhelming joy, or of revulsion and pity, and it says everything about you which response you have. But they’re also places where you can learn something. I’d never thought of childcare as something in which one learns skill. I thought it just took talent. I’ve never been very good at being talented, but I’m a great learner. And when I did learn, it turned out kids actually kind of liked me. I was good for them. And they were good for me. They wanted – needed – my friendship, my love, my spirit of adventure, but never my pity. And knowing them in their joy was that deep sense of fulfillment and connectedness that had brought me in search of a new career to begin with. It must have had some impact. A few months later, people in my graduate program thought I was studying to be a child psychologist, even more than a few of the child psychology trainees thought that.

That Camp was – is – a place where love burns bright. The love burned bright there, because, there, if only briefly, the fairytale was real. When I was there, I was a fairy-tale character. But far more importantly, getting to understand kids was another pivotal moment in my professional development. When I was an engineer, I had learned that magic was real, and that it came from my connections and relationships. Spending weekends at Camp Boggy Creek and my weekdays in a hospital, one foot in the fairytale and one foot in “reality,” I learned that I could bring the fairytale back with me. Much as the magic, once I learned to unleash it, it started following me everywhere I went. I found that I could create a forcefield around me, and in my forcefield, I could be a real-life fairytale character. Being a real-life fairytale character let me learn to be a doctor without pity, which is the only good kind, because pity has never really helped anyone – if that’s the other thing my kids taught me in those years, it was that, no matter how rough the things that were happening to them were, they never, ever wanted pity from me.

So, things were getting good. Now, I was just missing the princess part. I brought the magic and the fairytale with me to Chicago for a year. I got to live around the corner from the Obamas (not that I ever really saw them). And go on more adventures. When I got my marching orders for fellowship, it took me, surprisingly, back here, to West Michigan (Holland was my home for the second half of my childhood, but I hadn’t really planned on leaving the South, once I fell in love with it, let alone coming back to West Michigan). So, back to Grand Rapids I came, and this was where all the rest of the pivotal events in my ascension to princess status happened.

The next pivotal event was Hope Network. Although, after learning the fairytale was real in Florida, I had continued to work with kids all the way through my time there and in Chicago, I had actually wound up, at Mary Free Bed, in a fellowship working with adults. Although I had ranked the position really highly in the match, it hadn’t been perfectly what I was looking for. In a different way, Hope wasn’t what I was looking for, or what I thought I was looking for, either – I knew how to diagnose autism, but I didn’t really know too much about an autism center. It was kind of funny, really, because one of my dear friends in graduate school would have thrilled at this job, back then, and she got the job I thought I needed (at a famous research hospital), and I got the job she thought she needed. And we’re both the happier for it. I accepted a position with Hope way in advance of finishing my fellowship.

And then I got to Hope – you know, there have to be dramatic turnarounds in stories like this, and this is where the lighting turns dark and the music dips into a foreboding, minor key. The thing about stories is, the good ones never go in a straight line. I walked into an empty clinic. Having finally signed the mortgage on my first home, I was surprised with an unannounced non-compete agreement, but then far more worrisome, a ghost town. We had half a dozen people on staff, but we weren’t serving any kids, maybe for an hour or two a week, at most. We had a practice manager on staff, but we didn’t have a practice. And I started seeing patients and quickly ran rings around the rest of the clinic combined, but I couldn’t generate enough revenue to sustain us all. So I did a lot of going home and crying myself to sleep.

As luck would have it, my boss, who directed the Center, and who had no idea what he was doing, took us to a conference in Philadelphia that winter. There was one other person on the team who seemed to also be a heroine plucked out of her story and placed in this wasteland, my beloved friend and ever since then, my left-hand woman, Elyse. Heroines find other heroines. In this case, we got frozen yogurt. And I asked her what we were actually supposed to be doing – you know, if I had a magic wand (I didn’t yet, back then – I do, now – I got it for my birthday and it lights up and it’s kind of wonderful), I asked her, what was our Center supposed to look like? She was the only person on the team to whom I didn’t need to say, “Because you know it’s not supposed to look like this.” Because she knew, already. And Elyse told me what she knew – which turned out to be a lot – she was the first behavior analyst I really got to know well, and although I’ve gotten to know many more since then, she’s still one of the best I know, and she’s still my left-hand woman, although now our triumvirate is completed by my right-hand man, Joe. And there was my next lesson… sometimes, fairytale princesses need to stage coups, you know, build armies, ignite revolutions, raise hell.

Before I was all like,

Before I was all like, “Welcome to the Revolution!” I was like, “Awww, crap, what have I gotten myself into?”

Now, handling court intrigue is on my short list of talents (this is not one of my more endearing qualities, at least to the HR people). So, I sharpened my knives, but I didn’t even have to depose that director. Amusingly, ridiculously, call it what you want, he got re-tasked a couple months later. The next director – she was the fifth of the Center, in the two years it had been opened, listened to me in a way he had not. She encouraged me when I asked questions. She usually didn’t know how to get the answers, but she always understood why I was asking and never wrote me off. Like any good fairytale, friends and allies are where you least expect them. She got re-tasked, too, though, and eight months after my first job working as a psychologist, I was asked to direct the Center. So, I went from never having any formal management experience to having all this responsibility. Also like any good fairytale, alliances shifted and evolved – when I first met the major donor who had made my Center possible, she stormed in yelling about how the front office never answers the phone. About what she was angry, I had no idea. But I found out, and fixed it, and we’ve been friendly ever since, and she later proved to be a really powerful ally (that’s the thing, the best people make the best friends or the worst enemies, and it’s all a matter of perspective). In that first year of rebuilding the Center (this was three years ago), I spent a lot of time responding to people who had never tried to build an autism program, let alone fix the one we already had which was flopping around like a fish on a boat deck, but who still knew better than I did what it needed to look like. I got pushed, over and over, into death by committee instead of design thinking (sorry, I love freedom, and I empower my people, but I don’t really believe that dreams are democracies). And I had to grow a backbone, and quick (not all of you went to grad school, but grad school isn’t exactly built, too often, around encouraging the idea of backbone … all too often, we’re selected as much for our smarts as we are for our sense of masochism).

It took time, but it worked. Fortuitous winds blew. I got to be involved in changing Michigan law so that kids with autism could get the help they need. I had to “fake it till I make it” with respect to being an autism expert, and I read a lot of journal articles and listened to a lot of science, and I got there. I still think being an autism expert means I’m only marginally less ignorant than the rest of the population, because we know so little about autism, but I did establish myself, as rightfully as most people can claim it, to be a little bit of an expert. And a team started growing around us, and we started delivering results. By the end of our Fiscal Year 2013, we were getting close to fifteen times the size we’d been when I started two years earlier. Little kids were thriving – learning to communicate for the first time, learning to learn, learning to play, learning to have a brighter future. Sometimes – not always – they did so well that people wouldn’t believe it, even though they were watching it with their own eyes. Parents were going from autism victims and survivors to autism advocates. And we were building community.

After I became Director of the Center, I was packing up files the prior directors had left behind, and I found a printed out e-mail with my CV in it. It was written to the director who had hired me. It said, to my great amusement, that I wasn’t a very good candidate for the job, and I really didn’t have much experience or seem very promising, but the recruiter thought she ought to at least pass on the resume, anyways. I still cherish that letter – I’m going to get it framed at some point. And it’s yet another time in this story when I had a surprise up my sleeve. What can I say? I love an underdog story.

But I was still hiding. That summer, I brought friends to Actors Theatre (if I can put in a brief plug – go see their plays. They tell stories no one else in Grand Rapids tells, and they are stories that we all need to hear). They put on a play called Looking for Normal. In the play, what starts out as an apparent mid-life crisis turns on its head, when the main character admits to family for the first time that they are transgender, and need to transition, or start living authentically as who she is supposed to be. I was transfixed. And squirming – yes, yes, I know that’s an oxymoron, but never mind that. I was waiting for people to jeer or laugh. I was waiting for people to get pitchforks and torches out from under their seats (you know, if people try to sneak a text message in during the middle of a play, they would try and sneak pitchforks into the theatre). But they didn’t. They gave the play a standing ovation, cheering and cheering. And my assumptions about what I couldn’t do, myself, turned upside down.

This is the next to last lesson I learned, but it’s the most important. I could wield the magic, I could live in the fairytale, and even bring it home with me, I could have the dream, but it would be just that – a dream, just for a time, still pretend – if I was still in hiding. Hiding wasn’t where I belonged, and until I took my rightful place, the dream couldn’t come true, couldn’t be real or permanent. I’ve always taught my team the belief that we make a long-term commitment, to hold the hand of the AutismFamily, to be an adopted part of that family, and that we can’t just make them a promise today, but we have to build, and to be, in such a way that we can keep that promise tomorrow, and five, ten, fifteen years, or more, down the road. Just as we couldn’t make decisions that would let us serve them now, but then have to shut the doors in a year and leave them, stranded by the side of the road, I couldn’t keep surviving like this, and until I could come out of hiding, I wasn’t really in a position to make anyone, including this family I loved so much, long-term promises.

So, I took a deep breath. The fall of 2013, I invited one of the friends I’d taken to the play for coffee. And I came out. For the first time, ever. And like the theatre goers, but in a far more powerfully personal way, she didn’t laugh, jeer, doubt, boo, turned out not to have brought her pitchfork, but she accepted, believed, encouraged, loved. That was so profound that I didn’t sleep at all that night. I came out to another person, and another, and the same thing happened, except for the not sleeping part – I love to sleep, usually. In December, I asked my Executive Vice President of Talent Management to coffee. I came out to her. She took a deep breath, and she said, “We want you to do this right here. You tell us what you need.” I came out to my own manager at the time, another EVP, and she did the same. They came out to my CEO on my behalf, and he did the same. When he in turn came out on my behalf to my board, the benefactress who had come in yelling about the receptionist all those months earlier was my most passionate defender. All the people who shouldn’t have – the conservatives, the clergy, the risk averse – they supported me. In the meantime, I kept coming out in my personal life. To my astonishment, no one rejected me (and really, no one ever has). Because relatedness and connectedness is really at the center of everything I am, I had a really big professional network, plus almost fifty families in our day therapy program, hundreds of families I saw as evaluation patients, a lot of people who needed me to come out to them. So I did a lot of coming out. Which is kind of good, because, after a while, you know, I started to re-learn confidence. Hundreds of people have accepted you so far. Maybe your carriage isn’t ever going to turn into a pumpkin, and maybe you don’t need to lose a glass slipper at all. Parents responded with an awful lot of hugging and crying. With more than a few “I thought you were going to say you were dying, or that you were moving away, this is great!” And a couple of, “You know, we know a thing or two about having a child who wasn’t anything like we thought they would be, and then realizing they’re pretty great. You’ll be fine.”

In February 2014, I flew to Florida to come out to my parents. I didn’t really know what to expect, although I didn’t really expect them to do anything crazy. But I had in part delayed coming out all this time for fear of hurting them. I was ready, if it really came to it (fairytale princesses must be willing to risk everything) to sit on the curb, call a taxi, and go straight back to the airport. My daddy said, “I don’t know why you came all this way to ask if I accept you. Of course I accept you. You’re my child.” My mamma (my original inspiration for taking no prisoners), lived up to form and said, “If anyone has a problem with it, they have to come through me.”

It took a lot of planning, but I ultimately transitioned at work about ten months ago – although it seems like it was a lifetime ago, and in many ways, it was. The AutismFamily accepted me as their own, just as it always has. We planned for “acceptable casualties” when I came out, but we didn’t lose any patients. Rather, my Center became sustainable for the first time, ever, in the middle of me coming out. My team celebrated me (and may possibly have gotten me drunk, but don’t tell HR that!). While I was walking through the doors of my Center as myself, for the first time, we were passing the million dollar annual revenue mark, for the first time, and we’re on track to pass the two million dollar mark easily, a year later. We keep running out of space and we’re not even slowing down, but learning to move faster. But much, much more importantly, and this is yet another lesson – I learned that, as a leader, when I was brave, my bravery had an amplifying effect. Far from being afraid or rejecting or running away from who I was, I found, over and over again, that people saw me as brave, and when they did, they decided to be brave alongside me. In their eyes, I saw love, yes, and acceptance, but I saw something much more profound – in allowing them to love me, I gave them pride. People with pride can do anything.

This Prince Charming, though.

This Prince Charming, for real

Just one thing left for this story, right? Prince Charming? Yes, that happened, too. In January of 2014, when I wasn’t looking for love, a friend who is never social asked me to come out for a drink. I couldn’t say no. I teetered up the icy back fire escape of the restaurant, trying not to fall. At the top of the stairs was Teri, in his vest and necktie, smoking a cigarette (of course I made him quit) with friends. He opened the door for me, and our eyes met, and I knew. I got him to come over and say hello, found an excuse to keep talking to him, met up with him a few more times in a group, and then we went out on a date. He almost didn’t come, because his car wouldn’t start, and he didn’t have any money. So I picked him up (I might be a Princess, but this isn’t the old days anymore, you gotta do what you gotta do). He seemed nervous, and I touched his arm to reassure him (and turn up the heat). Apparently that’s when he finally figured out it was really a date. He didn’t kiss me, that night, but he did the next time. And we’re enjoying living happily ever after, even if our life is still full of dragons that need dealing with and villages that need help. I encourage Teri’s creativity as a writer and passion for serving youth through the fabulous youth group at the Network, Grand Rapids’ LGBT Community Center, and he encourages me in my role in the autism revolution and in my own role as an LGBT advocate. There isn’t really a good lesson in this part of the story, except, if your Prince Charming (he, she, or they) opens the door for you, and your eyes meet, and you fall in love… for the love of God, don’t ever let go.

So mine is a modernized, but real-life, fairytale story, of a princess whose dreams came true. I’m a princess who took her castle from an embarrassment to something for which people move to Grand Rapids, just to bring their kids. I’m a princess who has created almost fifty full-time jobs in the last four years, with lots more on the way – not just jobs, but with a career pathway, professional development. Something like 30% of my staff is pursuing graduate education – when I say I’m in the business of helping kids chase their dreams, I get to have a broad definition of kids. I’m a princess who added more than two million dollars a year to the local economy and is just getting started. Who taught a large non-profit a thing or two about its own mission. And along the way, found not just the love of her Prince Charming, but a whole lot more besides that.

So, adding up all the lessons along the way, because storytime is almost over, the moral of my story, dear ones, is simple, and complex. It isn’t that magic is real – of course it is, any child knows that. It isn’t that life has purpose, anyone who’s really lived knows it does, and if it didn’t come with purpose, they made purpose. It isn’t that you can survive being different – I’m neither the first nor the best to do that. It isn’t that there isn’t any kind of love except love given freely – I can’t love against my will, and neither can you. It isn’t that we used to leave half the talent on the table, because we wouldn’t hire women, and now we leave talent, still, on the table, when we won’t hire ethnic, gender, or sexual minorities, again, you’re smart people, and you can do basic math. My moral isn’t any of those things.

I tell my team one more thing I want to share with you, which is really the moral of my story. I tell them there are two autism revolutions. The first, and less interesting one, is the one we bring – helping identify kids at very young ages and providing them the intensive therapy they need to learn to talk and listen and play and learn, so that they can chase a future of their own choosing. The second, and far more interesting autism revolution, isn’t anything we do at all. It’s the unexpected, unknown, unforeseeable ways that our kids are going to change the world, armed with the skills we’ve given them. The moral for our lunch story-time is much the same. My diversity moral isn’t that I was better for Hope Network embracing me (although I was), but it is about how Hope Network became better when it helped me stop pretending. My moral is that when we take the risk, collectively, organizationally, together, to let our people live out their fairytales, let them unleash their magic, give them the freedom to rebel against injustice, let them find the loves of their lives, dreams come true. We stop being 501(c)(3)’s and NPOs and all the acronyms and codes and all the blah-blah-blah, and we start being those places where the dreams come true. As leaders, we stop managing departments and we start laying the seeds that will change the world. That is your destiny, and nothing less. You have no idea what your dreams, if you allow them to come true, will do, and you have far less idea what the dreams you build in future generations of warriors and princesses will be or what they will do, but if you follow that path, it’s going to be breathtaking, and just like me, although somedays, it’ll be hard, you’ll never, ever regret it.

Thank you.

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8 thoughts on “How I Became a Real-Life, Fairytale Princess

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