ESSAY |  Broken Ground Women

Recently, I was honored by the founder of American Diversity Report, Deborah Levine, as a Groundbreaking Woman of Chattanooga. The women with whom I shared the stage humbled me. Here are the remarks I shared at this event:

When Deborah mentioned the title of this event, Groundbreaking Women, I thought for a moment about the groundbreaking women I've known and, like these women here today, none of their groundbreaking-ability came easily.

So many times at women’s events l leave feeling inspired, but also not quite good enough. The women on stage, their lives seem too tidy.

There is the 'after' with none of the 'before'.

Their stories are what I call 'bow stories'. You know, there are a few bad chapters in the story, a little bit of self deprecating disclosure, but nothing that prevents the story from being wrapped up in a large bow and presented as a palatable tidbit of motivation that leaves me feeling inspired but also, frankly, a bit queasy.

I have very few, if any, bow stories, but I certainly have been impacted by the groundbreaking women who shared their stories with me-none of those stories were of the bow genre.

They were groundbreaking women first because their own ground had been broken, and their broken-grounded, messy stories inspired their families, their neighbors, their communities, their countries.

In recent years, an entire field of study was devoted to this phenomenon, the phenomenon of the broken-ground people becoming groundbreakers.

New research supports what Hemingway once said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places."

Now psychologists studying trauma see what is showing up in many traumatized peoples’ lives not as a posttraumatic stress disorder but as posttraumatic growth.

Psychologists link the growth specifically to the stories we tell ourselves in the middle of the breaking.

The breaking does away with what was before. And, on that broken soil a new story created with seeds planted only from the brokenness: empathy, resilience, perseverance, take root.

Dr. Stephen Joseph, a social psychologist says, “Through telling new stories we are able to rebuild our sense of self—to reconstruct an understanding of who we are, our place in the world, and what our expectations of the world are."

Chattanoogan Becky Chinchen had to tell a new story about who she was when her ground was shattered.

Becky was living in Liberia with her family in 1996 when she was forced to flee from the country’s civil war and  become a refugee who eventually landed in Nairobi.

Becky shared with me what it felt like when the earth shifted beneath her:

“There was the feeling of being a lesser being because life is in such limbo, the loss of dignity when you live at the mercy of others.”

While working through her own feelings of loss, Becky had a different vision of who she could beShe launched an organization, Amani Ya Juu, Swahili for Peace From Above, in her living room in Nairobi. Amani offers skills training in sewing and high-quality production of home furnishing items and clothing.

Amani ya Ju now has centers across Africa.

I met Diana at Amani in Nairobi.

Diana’s family was Hutu when the civil war that was the Rwandan genocide- ethnic conflict between the Tutsi tribe and the Hutu tribe- broke out.

In the garden at Amani, Diana, through tears, shared her story.

Rwandan forces imprisoned her mother and Diana, a new wife and mother, fled with her husband and lived in the forest of the Congo. She is not sure for how long.

Eventually, Diana landed in Nairobi. Once there, Diana found Amani Ya Juu.

She learned that her mother had contracted HIV while imprisoned in Rwanda. Women are often raped while living as prisoners. Diana’s mother died not long after she was released from prison.

Because Amani accepts refugees from across the continent, Diana found herself working alongside women from the Tutsis tribe at the Amani complex, I asked her how she felt about that.

“Yes, the Tutsis are here,” she said, “but the atmosphere here does not bring out the hatred that I felt.”

Diana was healing.

Maya Angelou once said, “As soon as healing takes place go out and heal somebody else."

And, that’s another thing groundbreakers do. When they have healed. they reach out to others on less stable ground.  

It was one such groundbreaker who reached to me when my own story was turned upside down.

I’m reluctant to talk about my challenges in the face of the real suffering these women overcame.

But, I said I hate bow stories, so I can't put a bow on mine.

And, when Deborah asked me to speak, she said, “Tell me how a woman like you from East Ridge has experienced the things/places you have?”

I had to say it started with my own earth shifting moment.

It was a cancelled wedding and the end of a long-term, very long-term, relationship that first inspired me to realize my dream of Africa, a childhood dream.

I’d left the beginnings of a new life that I loved in LA behind to come home to Chattanooga to marry a high school sweetheart and put a big fat bow on my story. That bow unraveled in a huge way. And it unraveled on the wedding day.

Somehow, that broken heart and ground led me to Kibera, Kenya, where I found myself working alongside Rachel Lomosi who works in one of the most challenged slums in the world.

With an estimated 25 percent AIDS rate, Kibera is home to countless beautiful orphans; Rachel Lomosi started a school for them with her retirement funds.

Inspired as I was by Rachel, without the former expectations that others and I had for my life, I was finding it hard to imagine what life awaited me when I returned home.

Rachel took the time to meet me on my own turf.

Groundbreakers like Rachel don’t discriminate against pain, even if it’s just the pain of a mundane broken heart.

I flew with Rachel on a small plane to visit her family north of Nairobi and we spoke briefly of my recent hurt.

Later, discreetly, across the narrow airplane aisle, she slipped a note to me. On a torn scrap of yellowed paper, she had simply written, “You….strong-hearted girl!”.

Looking out over the African terrain to hide my tears, though miles above the earth, for the first time in a very long time, I felt the ground beneath me; I could stand.

Since then, I‘ve achieved many of my once forgotten goals, goals that were buried because I was trying to live a certain story and achieve a certain set of expectations. WIthout those confinements, I've become strongest in my most broken places.

Lest this story sound like a bow story, the journey is not easy. There have been more failures than successes, There have been more ‘where is the ground’ moments.

But I like this corner of earth where I’m standing now. It feels much more like home.

Speaking of home, I would be remiss if I missed the most important groundbreaking, broken-ground woman in my life, the woman whose empathy first drove me to be curious about the rest of the world and imagine a bigger story for myself.

As a naïve girl, I thought all women had the spirit of my mother, then, as I experienced some of the heartlessness of the world, I realized my mother had a gift of a heart. A gift and heart she links to her own broken-ground moments.

She had her first debilitating accident when I was five and she spends many days in pain.

But her own broken ground was why so many sought refuge at our house and hearth, to be near her heart.

When my own life crumbled, I felt firsthand how healing broken-ground women can be, in the arms of my mother.

A music teacher and pianist, when she would hit the wrong notes she’d laugh and say, "I’m just playing in the cracks".

And, that’s how she has lived her life.

Though pain has confined her life to a sometimes narrow physical existence, her life and light are still at play, peeking through the cracks.

Another favorite musician of mine, Leonard Cohen, says it best. "Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, That’s where the light gets in."

Let the ground break.

Essay Data:

Written by: Millicent Smith