how one campaign's 2014 aya summit helped me lose my mind and then get a grip
I’ve had a little bit of trouble coming back to the sturdy, figurative desk of my writing routine since returning from the ONE Campaign AYA Summit in Washington, which was the final leg of that wild month of travel that was October. Actually, I’ve had a lot of trouble coming back to that. I think it has to do with a bit of shock felt after the mechanism of a major life change has been switched on, and you realize that you’ve been on a path heading toward that change for some time without even realizing it. I came away from the summit with with my world rocked, and with a bit of melancholy over the realization that I was going to have to close a chapter of my life to which I owe almost my entire adult self.
Let me start off by explaining what it was I attended and why.
The ONE Campaign, along with Google, played host to a select group of bloggers and online media personalities, bringing us together for an intense crash course on issues facing girls and women in the developing world. Aya, meaning “fern”, is an African Adinkra symbol. It represents endurance, resourcefulness and growth—the characteristics required of a woman when she has to care for her loved ones and her community, whether or not she has the resources that make it easy for mothers like you and me to focus some of our worries on things that we don’t always need.
During the summit we heard heart-wrenching stories from women who saw and survived the atrocities we’ve read in headlines as we sip coffee in our living rooms many Sunday mornings. We met "Saa", one of the girls who was kidnapped from her school in Nigeria by Boko Haram and had managed to escape within the first 24 hours.
We heard from Clemantine Wamariya, who as a 6-year-old had to walk on a six year journey with her teenage sister during the Rwandan genocides. We listened to experts like Paul Zeitz from the Department of State describe the difference between the hype and the actual risks of the current Ebola epidemic. We learned about applying successful, for-profit mentalities to non-profit organizations from people like Jane Mosbacher Morris, founder of To The Market; Sydney Price, SVP of Corporate Responsibility for Kate Spade New York and Barrett Ward, founder of FashionABLE. These corporations and some NGOs like Heifer International create economic opportunities for women, who in some areas of the world are choosing or being forced into sex trafficking. The women in developing countries who work in the sex trade aren’t necessarily people who lead salacious, seedy, bad-to-the-core lives, Ward pointed out early on. In many cases this is the kind of work that has some job stability and will feed families.
We learned an extraordinary amount about trafficking from the discussion with Patricia Amira (The Patricia Show), Cindy McCain and Kristen Howerton (Rage Against The Minivan), including the fact that it’s pretty unlikely that any of us have not been witness to the trafficking of women and children—we just didn’t know what we were seeing.
Then we were surprised with and torn to bits by a reading from a play written by Danai Gurira of “The Walking Dead”, read to us by the extremely talented playwright herself. The play takes a very close look at women’s roles and their exploitation during the Liberian civil war.
This is only a fraction of what the summit attendees experienced. I’ve had to pause and take a deep breath several times while doing the run-through above! It was intense. So much so that during happy hour on the first evening, ONE Campaign co-founder Jamie Drummond asked me and another attendee, “When women get together for summits like this, is it always this intense? I’m emotionally spent!” Did I mention that this was said on the FIRST day?! It was an intensity I had never felt. It left me breathless, wanting to flee the room, wanting to stay there with the speakers, panelists, and amazing bloggers—many of whom I’ve admired from afar for as long as I’ve known that blogs exist—and I also wanted to do something.
Those of you who’ve been following Camille Maurice for a year or longer may have noticed the way I’ve been wavering about how I approach lifestyle blogging. A lot of my wavering has had to do with the combination of not having resolved our childcare situation for our 3-year-old over the past three months and, despite my flawed efforts to unload some responsibilities, the plate that may have been too full always seemed to remain so. As one might expect, this ultimately led to one very bad day shortly after the AYA Summit, on Halloween.
By “bad day” I mean one of those that I know is universal for all moms on some level. That moment when you’re sitting in the middle of a dizzyingly messy house, you’ve barely gotten any professional or domestic work done in two days and company is set to arrive in a couple of hours. The kids are being overly-rascally, your inbox is drowning in digital overflow, you’re behind on a deadline or two and all you can do is sit down and heave, “I can’t do ALL of this!!” However, I was exhausted and my mind was reeling on reserve energy as it continued to process all that I had just seen and heard in Washington. All that I’d learned seemed to be attaching itself to the vague feelings I’d been having about the blog, and my exhaustion was getting in the way of a clear vision. So finally, when I sat down on my stairs in frustration, heaving a heavy, leaden sigh I whispered, “I can’t do all of this.” Then came, “I QUIT! I CAN’T WRITE ANYMORE!”
Since August I’d been trying to fit my usual a 25 - 30 hour work week into about 6. All the while I was still holding it in the back of my head that I was going to increase to about 35 hours. Insane? Yes. I’m stubborn. I stopped going to events, meetings, school functions… and for what? What story was I telling from a platform I’d built in 2008, when my life was almost unrecognizably different? Not only has my personal story changed, the subjects that fit the Camille Maurice brand aren't meeting my desire to examine the walls that separate human lives and why the interconnectedness we all share persists despite those walls.
Camille Maurice’s tagline is Conversation, Musings and Beautiful Things. The concept was built around the idea of an exchange of storytelling that inspires living a full and beautiful life. When the blog kicked off, the country was in full-on recession mode, as was my own household. The blog was a tool for me to get back into writing, but it was also an escape from the uncertainty of the time and the depressing headlines coming in from everywhere.
As I’ve been growing some form of journalistic chops I’ve become infused with a need for storytelling that tells you something. The AYA Summit was all about this type of storytelling...on steroids. For example, Clemantine Wamariya was born in Rwanda. As a little girl she was a lot like any 6-year-old being raised by a loving, well-rounded family, not wanting for anything. Then Clemantine’s parents sent her with her sister to the country to stay with her grandparents in order to escape what she called “The Noise.” Here’s an excerpt of Clemantine telling her story (please forgive the instability of my arm holding my iPhone):
There’s a lot more to the story. Clemantine experienced unimaginably horrifying moments as just a tiny little girl. What’s remarkable to the privileged American mind is that Clemantine possesses an understanding that there are others who had it even worse. She relayed a conversation she had as an adult with another Rwandan woman who was a teenager during the genocide. As they compared stories, the woman said to her, “But Clemantine, you were lucky when you were walking. You didn’t have your period. Imagine walking through the desert and you can’t stop, and you have your period, and there’s nothing to do about it. You don’t have any pads or anything to stop it or clean yourself.”
Hearing or reading such things is uncomfortable, but they’re stories that need to be told, and hearing them gets right to the truths of where storytelling fits into our universal experiences. My girlfriends and I haven’t experienced anything close to what Clemantine and the woman above went through. But we’re women. We know the patterns of our bodies from week to week and month to month. It brings us into a biological circle of understanding, so we can imagine—on some level—what is was like for the teenage girl walking through the desert at “that time of the month.” That isn’t something you’re going to get from watching short bits about war on the evening news.
There’s a reason that storytelling is the oldest craft on the planet. Stories infuse our motions with our history, correct the wrongs of our past through our future actions and help us create our own stories to pass along in the same manner. This is a realization that finally came into full view the day after Halloween. I’d been a sullen, nervous wreck throughout our annual neighborhood festivities. My husband was treating me with kid gloves, and in his attempt to make me feel better he accidentally got every neighbor who stopped by hilariously drunk (if he ever offers you my favorite cocktail, which we named The Chappy, SIP IT VERYSLOWLY). The next morning, while the poor folks in the houses around us were still passed out, I realized that I was scribbling in my notebook before I could stop myself. After a few minutes Aaron looked at me and said, “See. You can’t not be a writer. It’s part of who you are.” I scowled and put the notebook away. And then it started to snow. On November 1. In Columbia, SC. He saw it on the weather map and practically squealed even though the snow line stopped several miles from our house. If that wasn’t God, the universe, and whatever else slapping me upside the head, well… that’s what it was, so let’s just leave it there. I knew I wasn’t quitting my vocation. But I was going to quit something.
Before my family’s stint in London I mentioned that I couldn’t quite bring myself to break away from Camille. Honestly, I felt guilty. Camille has taken me for quite a ride, and I’m thankful for that.
It’s time. I’m writing a book that’ll have my name on it, not Camille’s. I’m writing for newspapers with my name in the byline, not Camille’s. As I’ve continued to learn about effective storytelling my breadth has expanded beyond this space and it’s time to let myself grow up to whatever levels may lie ahead. Not to mention that there’s a whole group of people out in cyberspace who think Camille Maurice is a real person and that I’m her employee! I’ve always tried to be clear about who I am and what my intentions are, but naming a blog after an imaginary person confused a lot of people, despite the “about the blog” page* that had one section with my bio and another explaining the origins of the name.
You get what I’m saying, so let me tell you how I’m planning on laying Camille to rest. Blog posts will continue here until January 2, 2015. On Monday, January 5 the blog section of ShaniGilchrist.com will go live. Content from The New South and anything else I feel is pertinent will be transferred over there, andCamilleMaurice.com will be left up for at least 6 months to remind people of where I’ve moved.
But don’t think I’m ditching lifestyle-themed blog posts for good. Of course I’ll still share a Beautiful Thing or vignette if it really speaks to me. I even plan to run a series about interior designers who help their communities by giving back in a meaningful way. So don’t worry, this isn’t a complete personality change!
I hope you’ll follow me on this new path of digital storytelling. It would be my honor if you continue to learn with me, tell me when you think I’m wrong, cheer wildly (ha!) when you think I’m right and, more importantly, converse with me and with others about what we’re all learning as we move through the world.
Thank you all so much for the love and encouragement you’ve given Camille Maurice over the years. It’s been beautiful, humbling and astonishing.
PS- In the mean time, keep checking back here for a couple of other vignettes that’ll be going up in relation to the AYA Summit. In the meantime, if any of the stories I've related so far have struck a chord, sign up to become a member of ONE Girls + Women. They aren't asking for your money they're asking for something more significant when gathered in numbers. They're asking for your voice.