HEATHER BISHOP: “This Is My Defiant Thing”

Photo by Jodie Copelin

I met Heather Bishop in 2011 on a commercial shoot for a Christian radio station. She was one of several singers who sang the jingle repeatedly in front of Austin landmarks. As choreographer, I danced behind the cameraman during each take and pantomimed “Smile!” for each singer, most of them church luminaries a bit stiff in their delivery. Not Heather. She was smooth, her voice unfailing; off camera she was serene and good-natured. My immediate favorite. Afterward, we saw each other at shows around town—until one day I realized that years had passed. Then Facebook revealed that she’d been enduring heavy changes.

“I’ve had some significant medical issues,” she explained recently when we met over coffee. “So I’ve been reassembling my life. … As a woman, an individual and an artist, all of this can really begin to overwhelm your identity and make you question why you are here and what it is you’re still here to accomplish.”

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A stroke upended Heather’s life and career as a musician, songwriter, poet, author and playwright in 2015 by, leaving her memory and motor skills ravaged. She had to relearn how to eat, talk, write, sing, play instruments. Several years of memories were just gone.

“I liken it to having a whiteboard cleaned. There was a lot of information written, then someone came along and wiped the board. There was just a little information left.”

 

Heather made the picture clearer with a story: “I was in my doctor’s office after a medical incident one day a few years ago.  I was trying to tell her something. She stopped me. She leaned in close and held my face in her hands and looked at me to make sure that I could really see her. She said, Honey, I need you to listen. The words you think you are saying are not the words that are coming out, OK? I need you to understand that. I know that you are still in there. I need you to work really hard. And I need you to come back to me, OK? It was incredibly poignant. I did hear her, and it was the first time that I understood that a medical incident had just occurred. I set my intention to recover.”

With the help of her parents and friends researching her condition, Heather began the steep climb of recovery. She pursued speech therapy at home. Music therapy helped her regain cognitive abilities and motor skills. Upon her physician’s advice, she began learning to write again.

Hear Heather’s experience of relearning to play music after a stroke.

 

But in 2016, she had another stroke, and smaller but more frequent ones followed. “None of the successive ones have been like the first one, thank goodness,” she says. “What they have done is take away some progress, which is frustrating.” Complications piled up: broken bones, cardiac events, degeneration of her body’s systems.

“Things are degenerating with nothing stopping them right now,” Heather said. “I made the decision not to do any more experimental things and just feel good as long as I can.”

The pitfalls that come with medical events have become familiar to her. “I can still do my job very well because I’ve been doing it for so long,” she said, “and I can do a lot of my art, still … but I can’t find my socks. Cannot operate a can opener. My activities of daily living are severely compromised.”

Listen to Heather describe losing the past and working toward the future.

 

Another riddle she’s trying to solve is the Catch-22 of advocating for herself in a medical crisis, especially one that compromises brain function. “I don’t know how to tell you what I need,” she explained. “I often won’t know until I’m in the moment, and then I don’t know how to communicate it correctly.”

“I don’t know how to say it until it’s an emergency, and in the emergency, I don’t know how to say it.”

 

Having a medical representative would be key, she says. “You need someone to advocate for you, someone who’s in charge,” she explained, not only mid-crisis but also during the aftermath and recovery. “Now I’m just feeling overwhelmed, trying to make decisions and figure out what’s next and how to do it. … I need a project manager to help me facilitate the things that need to be done.”

*          *          *

Heather’s origin story diverges from that of many other OG Austinites: She was born in New York into a family with Caribbean, African-American, and Native American roots. They moved here in the 1970s. Her mother, a medical professor, and her father, a pilot and aviation official, encouraged high standards for academic achievement, a love of cooking and travel, and a hunger for literary and musical pursuits.

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Heather and her mother preparing a meal

“Everyone wrote, and everyone played music,” said Heather of her family, “and everyone did something else [for work]. I think they gave me a cello when I was four, and I started playing piano as a toddler. … Music and writing were your baseline; that was just who you were.” Her family and their artistic background have been part of the support system during her recovery.

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Heather and her father at the piano

“Throughout all of this, I’ve produced books, albums, theater, photography and more. I still have other projects on the way.”

 

After each setback, Heather found a way to return to making art—as both lifeline and life’s work. The daily practice of writing was crucial to her recovery. After the first stroke, she wrote poems that were collected in 2015 for the book A Tree Like This. Several of those, plus ones she’d written for Spark, a 2012 volume, provided the material for a spoken-word album.

“On that album, Unspoken, I worked so hard,” she says. “I was literally relearning to speak. My face would cramp. I was in tears. I wanted to show, You can do this. You can hear that my voice is not ideal. I’m still a little bit mealy-mouthed. … But that was the whole point.”

“I’m relearning. I’m gonna do this. This is my defiant thing.”

 

It’s important to note that these poems are not just therapeutic exercises; they are poignant works of art. HEATHER BISHOP’S POETRY IS STUNNING. The images are evocative, many of them haunting. The language is deftly tuned to a key that rings clearly in a human’s inner depths. In the first two books and Mercy, her 2017 collection, the subject matter ranges far beyond her medical experiences—but several focus on their aftermath with a laser.

Bookshelf from Mercy by Heather Bishop
From Mercy [Plum Pearl Press, 2017]
On the musical front, Heather is putting much of her energy into a new album, Flood, to be released this year. As is typical, she’s found a way to benefit others with her work. The title track will be released in August for the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, with a percentage of proceeds going to a Houston recovery/support organization. [Links to hear, read and buy her works are at listed the end of this post.] 

“It’s really important as an artist that I get this last album out. I mean, hopefully it’s not my last album, but you always hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”

 

When she mentions a cookbook on the horizon as well, I finally ask the questions on my mind: Why work so hard when you have such limited energy? Why not take a well-earned (a likely well-advised) break? She delivers the answer with characteristic gentleness:

“I’ve been working on [the cookbook, My ‘Bajan Table] for years now,” she said, “and I’m like, You have to finish this! I really don’t want the last thing ringing through the air to be focused on sorrow or illness or transformation .… I want this project to be about something completely different: a celebration of family and heritage, an integration of cultures.

“I really don’t want the last thing ringing through the air to be focused on sorrow or illness or transformation.”

 

“I’m not embarrassed or unhappy about the books I’ve written about losing and regaining, but that’s not the sum total of who I am as an artist or as a writer,” Heather explained.

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Heather performing with friends at the Saxon Pub

“I’d like to assert that, No, I do really have an identity separate from these crappy things that have happened to me. The only way I can show that is by producing the work.”

I also asked about her extraordinary openness surrounding her medical journey; she has consistently shared details on social media, giving equal, unflinching space to the obstacles she’s faced and the insights she’s gained.

“I only shared,” she responded, “because I thought it would be helpful. I really never wanted to share any of this to begin with. But I thought if there’s a chance that there’s something beneficial for friends, family, for other people, then it’s worth it.”

Listen to Heather’s perspective on sharing her medical experiences via social media.

 

After our interview in June, Heather had another medical setback. Still, she was gracious and generous with her time and attention, and answered these questions for the AUSTIN.WOMEN.LOVE. community.

 

HEATHER BISHOP: Q&A

AWL: How long have you lived in Austin?
HB: Since around kindergarten, first grade. I remember when Austin had no traffic and occasionally had to reroute cars around cattle in the road. My little neighborhood was more creeks and trees than houses.


AWL:
What does your work look like? What do you do for a living? What do you do for passion? Have you found ways to get those to work together? Have you always been on this path, or has your career focus changed over the years?
HB: Historically, I have always had dual careers: one technical, and one in the arts. There was a time when both [fields] were quite arrogant: You couldn’t work in one and also in the other and be treated with respect. That has changed quite a bit over the years.

 

I thought that being friendly, professional, and talented was all that was needed to be successful.

AWL: What were you like when you were first starting your career? Have you changed in the way that you work and approach situations and people? What kind of scene could you envision if You Today hired or worked with You Starting Out?
HB: I was very young and idealistic when I started in both careers. I thought that being friendly, professional, and talented was all that was needed to be successful. I still believe in and encourage people to be friendly, professional and talented, but I have certainly grown to understand that relationships and strategic planning and a whole universe of other things are also very important.


AWL:
What takes up the majority of your brain space these days? What are you working/ playing/ wrestling with currently—idea, mission, project, problem, obsession, mystery
HB: I’ve had some significant medical issues over the past several years, so this has taken up quite a lot of time and energy. Reassembling my life, figuring out what’s possible versus what’s probable, navigating new challenges, trying to make sense of what is happening, and—emotionally most important from my perspective—dealing with the impact on my family: These have taken up the bulk of my time.
As a woman, an individual, and an artist, all of this can really begin to overwhelm your identity and make you question why you are here and what it is you are still here to accomplish. Throughout all of this [medical trauma], I’ve produced books, albums, theater, photography and more, and have other projects on the way. I have a new album in progress, sort of in the spirit (though not the style) of Warren Zevon’s album The Wind.  But I still have a lot of questions.


AWL:
What events do you feel have been most responsible for shaping you into the person you are now?
HB: My mother joked this week that if lightning struck down in the middle of a group of people, I’d be the one to get hit. And then I’d meet some nice people and write a song about it. That’s probably the shortest and most accurate answer I could give you.


AWL:
What’s your super power?
HB: Hmmm… That’s a hard one. I asked an old friend that question first, and he said that
I remind people to be better versions of themselves by always expecting them to be better versions of themselves.


AWL:
How did you first recognize it?
HB: I only know it because I heard his comment. I’m not sure that I would have any other way of knowing, and I can’t vouch for the truth of the statement. I do know that I have to hold myself to the same expectations that I have of others; you can’t hypocritically have a lower set of standards for yourself and a higher set for everyone else.

 

Some people really appreciate that you have no negative preconceived ideas about them based on something circumstantial—that you just assume that they are good folks.

AWL: Do you like having it?
HB: Yes and no. Expecting people to be decent and ethical and make good choices can make them irritated with you because sometimes making good choices can be inconvenient. It doesn’t always jive with what we want or match our desires in the short term. And that can make people really resent you. The flipside is that some people really appreciate that you have no negative preconceived ideas about them based on something circumstantial—that you just assume that they are good folks.


AWL:
Do you use it for good or evil? (Or both? Or has it changed? Please describe.)
HB: Hmm… That’s a good question. I never considered consciously using any of this. I guess I think it’s important to make sure that if you really don’t see eye-to-eye with someone, you can still think of them as a good person. Sure, some people are jerks. But by nature, a disagreement doesn’t automatically put someone in that category. Other stuff does that.

 

You always know that there is someone who loves you, who is celebrating your joys and grieving your sorrows, who just wants you to be happy and healthy. That’s a lot.

AWL: Who are three of your female besties? How, when and why did you become friends? Why are you still friends? Tell me the worst awesome story about one of them! (Just kidding.)
HB: My mother, my doctor, and my attorney—which sounds like the start of a joke! We are all friends, actually, and the latter two went to school with me.
Probably first and foremost, we share humor. There’s a lot of laughter, which is always grounding. And no matter what is happening, you always know that there is someone who loves you, who is celebrating your joys and grieving your sorrows, who just wants you to be happy and healthy. That’s a lot.

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Heather’s best friend wants her to finish rehearsing.


AWL:
Who makes up your communities—groups, fields of work, activities, causes or crews? Have you accumulated or integrated different communities as you’ve moved into or through different areas?
HB: There’s musicians, there’s writers, kind of engineering and technical people, there’s my accounting world and friends … It’s just sort of all over the place.

 

I really do believe that if you see something beautiful in someone, you should sincerely tell them.

AWL: What do you do for your lady community? How do they support you in achieving your goals? Do you fall into consistent roles, or do you switch up roles as situations necessitate?
HB: For my lady community, I do a lot of listening. I’m the person you can vent to about your day, your partner, your boss, your Great Aunt Mildred who said that horrible thing last Thanksgiving, your dog, your whatever. And I won’t hold it against your partner, your boss, your Great Aunt Mildred, your dog or whatever the next time I see them because I understand that sometimes loved ones drive you nuts. Also, I compliment a lot—because I really do believe that if you see something beautiful in someone, you should sincerely tell them.

 

The common threads are peace, nature, travel, and an unencumbered freedom.

AWL: What effect do you most consistently work to exert on the world?
—aka—
In a yoga class, often the teacher says, “Set an intention for the class” as something to keep in mind and dedicate the fruits of your practice to. It’s usually a one- or two-word concept: peace, acceptance, strength, etc. If you were to set an intention for every day in your world, what would it be? Would it change all the time or remain the same?
HB: Rather than words per se, these days I use a lot of visual imagery. Currently this is beach, lake, or ocean scenes at sunrise or sunset. Recently it was forest scenes like one might find throughout national parks in North America, other times it has been desert scenes that one would find throughout the southwest. If I had to choose words for these images, I guess the common threads are peace, nature, travel, and an unencumbered freedom. These are all places where I used to roam as a kid.

 

San Angelo Trip

 

HEATHER BISHOP’S WORK

BOOKS
Mercy (2017)
A Tree Like This (2015)
Spark: Audience Optional (2012)

RECORDINGS
Flood (2018)
Dime to a Dollar: Live at One2One (2017)
Unspoken (spoken word, 2015)
The Story Sessions: Songs recorded for American Public Media’s “The Story” (2011)
Trains and Revolutions (2011)
Graceful Riot at the 710 (2001)

LINKS
Website
Facebook
Music
Books

JENN DALY: Love, Art, Service

If you’ve eaten in an Austin restaurant in the last 24 years, Jenn Daly has definitely served you.

JD in action
Behind the espresso maker. Photo courtesy of Jenndaly

A lifelong attraction to the service industry has led Jenn Daly (both names, thank you) to work in nearly every notable restaurant, bar and coffeehouse in town. The short list features Les Amis, Hole in the Wall, Spider House, Wheatsville Co-op, Mojo’s Daily Grind, The Ritz, High Life Café (the counter where we first met), The Elephant Room, Epoch Coffee, Uchi, Justine’s, Wink and Chez Nous.

“My passion is creating feelings within a space—as an art form.”

“Service is my favorite thing in the world,” she said. “I’m in love with Restaurant, whom I talk about as a person. It’s got all the excitement and love, all the problems and solutions, and all the food … It’s everything that I ever want.”

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“I’m gonna do it until the day I die.” Courtesy of Jenndaly

In yoga, seva is a person’s unique offering toward making the world better. Jenn Daly’s seva is service, and she offers it with a sincerity bordering on devotion. Food, drink and hospitality are the tools she uses to acknowledge people’s humanity and forge a connection.

“I can tell what people need before they sit down,” she said, describing her gift. “I can see from across the room that that couple does not have anything to talk about anymore. I can get their drink order and sprinkle a conversation piece over the table, and they’ll talk for the rest of the night. And that, to me, is really what it’s about.”

Listen to Jenn Daly’s story about a life in service:

This impulse that creates memorable experiences for customers also fuels a distinctive DIY career as an artist and curator. “My life revolves around people, their stories, the food they eat and the wines they drink, the art they make, their process, their concept, their inspiration,” she explained.

“I truly believe the only things to do in life are eat, drink, talk, travel and make art.”

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The Pagliacci Years. Courtesy of Jenndaly

One of her iconic installations was titled The Tower, after the tarot card representing calamitous upheaval and destruction. Jenn Daly’s version used restaurant detritus: brooms and café chairs precariously stacked atop broken plates, surrounded by candles and half-full glasses of water, and topped with an ashtray and a server’s ticket book.

The Tower installation by Jenn Daly
The Tower. Courtesy of Jenndaly

“Because I prefer install, it seemed silly and pretentious to have a show around one piece,” she explained. “So I started pulling people into my concepts and throwing enormous group shows.”

These happenings rocketed to another level in the late 1990s, when she joined the staff at Mojo’s Daily Grind, the legendary coffeehouse on The Drag.

Mojo’s became infamous for its annual TV Smash, in which patrons demolished old TV sets in a frenzy of anticommercial bloodlust. Every year, Jenn Daly collected TVs via BMX bike (her only wheels for 20 years), then gutted their toxic interiors before reassembling the sets for patrons to destroy. “The first [TV Smash] had three TVs and six people,” she said, “… and I think the last one had, like, 700 TVs. I might be exaggerating … but hundreds and hundreds of TVs.”

Listen to Jenn Daly describe the infamous TV Smash at Mojo’s:

Jenn Daly has always been an unflagging supporter of her community. Every night for years, she paid cover, bought drinks, cheered a show, and rolled to the next venue.

“If someone had a show, I was gonna go to it. Whether I liked their music or not, whether I wanted to be out or not. It seemed wrong to not support.”

In 2012, she and Jon Lawrence opened The Wet Whistle at Martin Luther King Jr. and Chicon. The stress of opening and running a neighborhood grocery took its toll, exacerbating her patterns of alcohol and prescription drug use. She left the Wet Whistle and started to spiral.

“…the root to every problem I’ve ever had is empathy. It’s my greatest blessing and my biggest curse.”

“To be an empath in the service industry can be really awesome,” she said. “But I figured out the root to every problem I’ve ever had is empathy. It’s my greatest blessing and my biggest curse.” At the time, she didn’t understand her empathic nature, so she was left at its mercy.

“On any given day,” she remembered, “anywhere between 5 and 25 people would tell me all of their problems, and I’d sponge it up. And I suddenly find that I have all of these feeling that aren’t mine. Fast-forward three hours, I’m crying my eyes out, I have no idea why. Then I’d be like, Who’s got the Xanax? or Ooh, I’ll just have 500 glasses of wine.

In 2014, she rolled a friend’s truck while driving to the airport.

There was no roll bar in the truck or other visible means to keep her from being crushed in the single-vehicle rollover. Yet somehow, she emerged with a serious concussion and no life-threatening injuries.

“I’ll never, ever know what all happened in that. I’ll never know how I came out of it so well,” she said. “I kind of wonder, was it god? Was it the half a pound of crystals that got pulverized in my purse? Was it luck?”

The wreck brought noticeable changes, whether from the intense blow to her head, the somatic therapy she pursued afterward to recover, or both. She found herself free from addictive tendencies as well as her anxiety, depression and insomnia, and a lifelong eating disorder. The changes to her neural pathways were intense enough to change her handwriting and signature.

She subsequently swapped nights for morning shifts. “That nightlife can just take it out of you. And it didn’t lend itself to my piss-poor behavioral problems, either. Four years as a 6 a.m.-er kinda changed the game,” she said. She even conquered a lifelong fear of dogs and adopted a sweet pit bull whom she named Tallboy.

Jenn Daly and Tallboy
Jenn Daly and Tallboy. Courtesy of Jenndaly

Most of Jenn Daly’s energy now is focused on making healthy decisions for her life and recovery. “I’ve learned I need to not say Yes all the time. When I first started saying No, it took practice. Now I’m real good at it. … And I’m finally coming back into saying Yes to things that are awesome,” she said, then paused.

“I wouldn’t take that accident back for a million dollars. You know what I mean?”


Jenn Daly tells her own story better than I ever could. I had the distinct pleasure of visiting her witch’s den—full of shrines, plants, photos of loved ones, good things to eat, and the sweetest pit bull in the world—to catch up with her.

JENN DALY: Q&A

My community is all over the map. But within every group, my loyalty is strongest amongst women.

AWL: What events or conditions do you feel have been most responsible for shaping you into the person you are now?
JD: Being a latchkey kid, being poor, being a server, being a drug addict, being an empath, and being in one particular motor vehicle accident made me the Jenndaly I am today.

AWL: What effect do you most consistently work to exert on the world? Do you have a concept or mantra that guides you?
JD: “It is the speck that makes the cloud that wrecks the vessel.”

My super power is empathy.

AWL: What’s your super power? How did you first recognize it? Do you like having it? Do you use it for good or evil? (Or both? Or has it changed? Please describe.)
JD: My super power is empathy. I discovered this about myself as a child but could not identify it, so it has ebbed and flowed in and out of a thousand formations that I only recently have understood more thoroughly.
I use it mostly for good, but it has its darkness, which usually is directed inward, when I cannot recognize its presence. It changes constantly. It depends on the people involved, their intentions and circumstances and the volume in any particular amount of time.
You once told me I was the most sensitive person on earth. Turns out, you were right!

 

AWL: What takes up the majority of your brain space these days?
JD:  My brain is generally occupied with maintaining my mental health and well-being. Since mental health and physical health are braided together, my days are consumed with making the best possible decisions concerning my diet, sleep patterns, supplements, hydration, temperature, the company I keep, and the things I choose to say out loud.
I keep vocal judgments to a bare minimum and work constantly to minimize silent judgment of others, as well. That shit is no good for anyone, including myself. Criticism and negative circular thinking make me a terribly unhappy and anxious person. So my desire to eliminate judgmental thought patterns is more self-involved than moral, if I’m being honest.

I take the humanitarian side of things, always. So service is perfect for me.

AWL: What does your work look like? What do you do for a living? What do you do for passion? Have you found ways to get those to work together? Have you always been on this path, or has your career focus changed over the years?
JD: I work in service. Restaurant industry. My passion is creating feelings within a space. As an art form. In small ways I combine them often. In big ways, I have tried and sometimes pull it off. But at the end of the day, I loathe paperwork and that doesn’t make the best at being in charge of things. I also don’t give much of a crap about money, so business just ain’t my cup of tea. I take the humanitarian side of things, always. So service is perfect for me.
I enjoy creating lovely spaces, feeling out what folks need emotionally from their experience when they are out, and delivering just that! I treat strangers at the restaurant the way I do my very best friends sitting in my kitchen. Service is truly a dying art, and technology is its grim reaper. I’ll be proud to be an elderly waitress who still makes eye contact and hand-writes tickets. Most folks search high and low for romance. I find romance in restaurants. It’s my longest-lasting love affair. Till death do us part.

I treat strangers at the restaurant the way I do my very best friends sitting in my kitchen.

AWL: What were you like when you were first starting your career? Have you changed in the way that you work and approach situations and people? What kind of scene could you envision if You Today hired or worked with You Starting Out?
JD:  I started working in rural New Jersey at age twelve. I worked the register at a dry cleaners on Hope Road. I paid myself $85 a week, cash, out of the register and could smoke all the Marlboro Lights I wanted from the owner’s stash of cartons. From there, various bagel shops, delicatessens, and coffee spots. Then Houston, Texas, at an Applebee’s, where I was too young to carry alcoholic drinks to the tables. In 1995, my first job in Austin was as a line cook at Les Amis. And that is where I fell in love with restaurants. 27 years and 50 jobs later, I’m as in love as I’ve ever been—maybe even more.

I’d make Younger Me understand that kindness is what makes people “cool,” that ego is counterproductive, and that smoking is stupid.

AWL: Who makes up your communities? Have you accumulated or integrated different communities as you’ve moved into or through different areas?
JD: My community is all over the map. But within every group, my loyalty is strongest amongst women. Artists, dancers, BMXers, activists, welders, carpenters, servers, cooks, bussers, dishwashers, healers, herbalists, musicians, teachers, babies, dogs—these are my people. I sway in and out of many different scenes and cliques. And I almost always fly solo.

AWL: Who are three of your female besties? How, when and why did you become friends? Why are you still friends? Tell me the worst awesome story about one of them! (Just kidding.)
JD: My three best female friends?! Over the course of my life I’ve had too many too count. And every last one of them holds space in my heart as big as the moon.
But here, in what is probably the middle of my life, I have my three that will be in place for the second half.
    My mother, Kathleen Margaret Huysee Daly.
    My aunt, Cindy Evelyn Tracy.
    And my dog, Tallboy.
The first two were a package deal with existence. The third came with the lucky break that gave me my second chance at existence!
All three are open-hearted, loving, generous, gifted and honest (sometimes brutally). They give me the opportunity to also be all of those things without the fear of being left behind, riddled with guilt for feeling too much. Cindy and I have had identical dental work done. My mother and I have all the same freckles on our left arm. Tallboy and I have a matching tattoo.  These women could never be replaced.

I have a tendency to be overall available to the people I care for, willing to sacrifice whatever I can to keep a girl afloat.

AWL: What do you do for your lady community? How do they support you in achieving your goals? Do you fall into consistent roles, or do you switch up roles as situations necessitate?
JD: As an empathetic woman, that is probably what I bring to my community. I have a tendency to be overall available to the people I care for, willing to sacrifice whatever I can to keep a girl afloat. I enjoy being a good listener and sharing my life experiences to find solutions for others’ hardships. I like to share my opportunities and resources. I also am a connector, a conductor, if you will. I enjoy introducing like-minded folks to accomplish their goals for the greater good.
And I’ve definitely been on both sides of that fence.

Jenn Daly, Austin, Texas
The iconic Jenn Daly. Courtesy of Jenndaly

 

SHALEIAH FOX: “My Super Power is My Struggle”

Shaleiah CollageI met SHALEIAH FOX in 2011, her first year in Austin, when she nailed an audition for my dance troupe with the best “crybaby” I’ve ever seen.

Prince Crybaby giphy

Her geeky moves and straightforward positivity endeared her immediately with our crowd, but soon we learned she was also a powerhouse for social justice. One dancer said, “Shaleiah’s got such a light spirit, I had no idea she was such a heavy hitter.”

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“Shaleiah’s got such a light spirit, I had no idea she was such a heavy hitter.”

 

Shaleiah grew up the only black child in an otherwise all-white family. She and her sister moved in and out of Florida’s foster care system. The alienation of these experiences gave her the fierce desire to help others in similar situations and fueled her motivation to attend Florida State University, earning master’s degrees in social work and public policy.

In 2012, she co-founded Fresh Chefs Society, a nonprofit that equips teens in foster care with a healthy mindset toward food, plus skills necessary to feed — and support — themselves as they move into independent living. Shaleiah’s dedication has turned Fresh Chefs into a national juggernaut (see their press in Martha Stewart, Edible Austin or Kettle & Brine). She keeps an eye on the kids, whether in or out of the program.

“A lot of the alums that have come through the program still stay in touch, so that’s the highlight for me,” she said. “One of the kids works on [the University of Texas] campus at one of the cafés, so once a week she comes in an hour before. We catch up, she does her work, then she goes to her job. That’s one thing Fresh Chefs does really well: staying connected to an incredibly transient population.”

“That’s one thing Fresh Chefs does really well: staying connected to an incredibly transient population.”

Shaleiah had more to give. In 2016, she took a position as the Associate Director of External Relations for Black Studies at UT Austin, overseeing outreach and fundraising for the program’s endeavors in scholarship, policy research, and cultural programming. She believes passionately in the Black Studies mission and cites the personal impact it has made on her life.

“Growing up in a small, white town with an all-white family, this has been the first time I’ve tapped into a community that … All these feelings that I’d dealt with growing up, all these things that I felt like may be different … It’s not that I was different; it was just that I was black, living in a white world!”

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“It’s not that I was different; it was just that I was black, living in a white world!”

Her Black Studies work also has clarified new professional possibilities for her. “I’ve grown into a whole new person within this profession and community,” she said. “It’s encouraged me to seek out new things in a profession that I feel really good about: philanthropy, specifically black philanthropy, specifically black women in philanthropy. That’s what I want to do — and be unapologetically focused on not just women of color, but women-led initiatives.”

In addition to her community endeavors, Shaleiah is a vividly present wife and mother. I reminded her of one of my favorite scenes, at a backyard party where her son Miles was playing with other kids while the grown-ups talked nearby. Pushing a toy grocery cart, he called, “Mom, I’m going shopping!” In mid-conversation, she hollered back, “Pick me up bananas!” and continued talking. Their easy, casual rapport cracked me up.

When I said the story made clear to me that she integrates her child into her life, rather than rearranging her life to feature him as its central figure, Shaleiah laughed. “That’s really important to me,” she said. “When we thought that Miles was going to be an only child, we really knew that [the attention he would receive] needed to be controlled—for our own happiness, and for his, too.”

She added, “And now that I have a [work] world I really want to integrate, he’s not going to be the only kid of color in his life. And that, to me, is the greatest gift that I could give.”

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“He’s not going to be the only kid of color in his life. And that, to me, is the greatest gift that I could give.”

Shaleiah is almost finished preparing another human and is probably delivering her second child as you’re reading this. Just before she was set to pop, I got to talk with her over lunch.



SHALEIAH FOX: Q&A

Positivity. It’s always there, we just have to find it.

AWL: What effect do you most consistently work to exert on the world?
SF: Positivity. It’s always there, we just have to find it.

 

AWL: What’s your super power? How did you first recognize it? Do you use it for good or evil?
SF: My super power is my struggle. I really came into it when I was 18 and realized it wasn’t something to hide from. Now, I love it. I see how it makes me stronger, more resilient, and an asset to the community.
I use the power for good most of the time—but I definitely fall victim to using it as a tool for judgment.

 

AWL: What events do you feel have been most responsible for shaping you into the person you are now?
SF: Three events.
1) My childhood: spending time in the foster care system, poor, and the “token” in every sense imaginable;
2) College: learning how to think for myself—period—and the freedom to do that under the illusion of maturity and responsibility;
3) Meeting my two professional mentors: fiercely independent in different ways, but both invested in my success.

 

AWL: What takes up the majority of your brain space these days?
SF: Currently, the fact that I am about to birth someone out of my body. It’s as if my brain is shutting down all unnecessary functions (reasoning, caring too much about dumb things) as it prepares for something far more important.
Outside of that, I focus on figuring out how to 1) increase diversity in the spaces I operate; and 2) raise money for an executive director for Fresh Chefs so I can be a boring, regular volunteer!

 

My passion is advocating for youth in foster care, being a mentor, creating positive experiences around a dinner table.

AWL: What do you do for a living? What do you do for passion? Have you found ways to get those to work together?
SF: My job currently is overseeing development and fundraising for Black Studies at UT Austin. In my day-to-day, I connect with alumni and supporters, introducing them to the work happening at Black Studies in hopes that they’ll support it today or in the future.
My passion is advocating for youth in foster care, being a mentor, creating positive experiences around a dinner table. Being a social worker and advocate is soul-wrenching work and I see, fully, how people have to turn away at certain point.
For me, I’ve never had the privilege (and it truly is a privilege) to make my passion my work. I’ve reconciled that that’s not the life I am to have—and now that I have a full-time job I love, that’s okay.

 

I found women I wanted to be like professionally and copied everything  they did in the workplace—their tone in emails, their filing system, organizational structure, etc.

AWL: What were you like when you were first starting your career? Have you changed in the way that you work and approach situations and people? What kind of scene could you envision if You Today hired or worked with You Starting Out?
SF: My first full-time job was when I was 22, for the State of Florida. Because I knew I knew nothing, I found women I wanted to be like professionally and copied everything  they did in the workplace—their tone in emails, their filing system, organizational structure, etc. It turns out they both became incredible mentors and dear friends, and they shaped who I am today as a professional woman.
The career path has changed, and I now feel is heading in the right direction: philanthropy.  I see myself in so many young staff in my building, and I try my best to “lift as I climb,” dropping little crumbs of wisdom until they ask me for more.
If Me Today hired Me Starting Out, I would have either been annoyed by my ambition or confused as to why someone so young could be so positive about a shit job. Ha ha!

 

AWL: Who makes up your communities? Have you accumulated or integrated different communities as you’ve moved into or through different areas?
SF: I remain extremely close to a core group of childhood friends who remind me, daily, where I’ve come from.
I also have a Florida crew that migrated to Austin, and we are family.
The last, but incredibly important, community I found was through Black Studies—faculty, staff, grad students. All remarkable.

 

AWL: Who are three of your female besties? How, when and why did you become friends? Why are you still friends? Tell me the worst awesome story about one of them! (Just kidding.)
SF: That’s so tough! I feel like I am going to make someone angry!
     Stacy Gammill — We bonded over having popular, sexually active friends in high school who used us to make themselves feel better about their frequent poor choices.
     Ashley Williams — Met in college, kept in touch throughout the years, and when she moved to Austin, we enjoyed three glorious months co-parenting Miles during the day while I worked from home before transitioning into full-time again.
     Lauren Nottingham — She challenges me to be more, while at the same time putting zero expectations on the friendship.
Stacy definitely has the worst stories. I’ll tell you as many as you need. 

 

We all support each other when the time comes. Some of us are just stronger some days.

AWL: What do you do for your lady community? How do they support you in achieving your goals? Do you fall into consistent roles, or do you switch up roles as situations necessitate?
SF: We spa, we yoga, we sit in my yard on Saturdays.
Consistent roles, absolutely. We all support each other when the time comes. Some of us are just stronger some days.

Never Been a Better Time

We all know why 2018 is the perfect time to shine a light on women in solidarity; you don’t need me to tell you that. Abysmal times are famous for bringing light out of darkness, and there’s no more time to lose.

I live in a town where women do solidarity beautifully, in many respects. Women in Austin treat each other exceedingly well (ask around). They work to make the world better, and they do it in thousands of unique ways.

So this blog is a love letter to and about the women of Weird City, focusing on how and why they are badass.

With immense hope, I introduce to you AUSTIN.WOMEN.LOVE.

 

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I’m here to interview the big lovers and hard workers in my community about what they’ve been wrestling with and what they hope to accomplish.

The criteria for a woman to be interviewed are as follows:

1) She’s my friend. (It’s my blog, so I can make whatever rules I want.)

2) She’s accomplished in her field. Usually it’s more than one. Or two.

3) She does her life’s work motivated by a desire to increase and enhance the greater good.

I send each woman a set of questions that she can answer to her liking, and then we have lunch and talk. And talk. And talk. Then I take some of that conversation, cobble it together with her answers and a summary of the things I know about her, and post the results in brilliant form.

If you want to suggest an Austin woman for me to interview, hit me up. And stay tuned for Austin Lover Woman #1, coming soon!