Understanding Privilege and Intersectionality: A Primer

By Kimberly Congdon, PhD


Privilege and intersectionality are two concepts that get tossed around a lot these days. “Privilege” can be a very contentious idea, and there has been a lot of pushback and denial that it even exists, let alone that it’s an important sociocultural force. “Intersectionality” on the other hand is the newest buzzword among allies. The problem is that a lot of so-called allies touting intersectionality are the same people arguing against the existence and power of privilege, and that’s a problem because – privilege and intersectionality are linked concepts. You can’t really understand one if you don’t understand the other. That also means you can’t be truly intersectional unless you understand and acknowledge privilege. So, here’s a primer, breaking the two down, and explaining how they link.

Intersectionality is the idea that each person’s identity is made up of multiple components. No one is just one thing. I am a woman, and white, and a liberal, and a scientist, and an academic, and single, and middle class, and an American citizen, and a native English speaker, and and and … If we think of life as made up of adjacent and overlapping spheres, then each element composing our identity affects our ability to move in those spheres. Spheres come in all types. Your work environment is a sphere. The bar you go to for Friday Happy Hour is a sphere. The subway car is a sphere. The Internet is a sphere. Each sphere has a power structure, and where you fit in that power structure dictates the ease with which you move through that sphere. The various aspects of your identity determine where you fit into each power structure controlling each sphere. Access to that power structure is a privilege.

Privilege is the positive consequence inherently associated with specific elements of an identity. Depending on the sphere, certain privileges may be worth more than they are in other spheres. If a privilege is associated with a certain identity, and you have that identity, you have that privilege. It doesn’t matter if you feel it, or if you’ve ever recognized the effect, because privilege comes from how others treat you, and that relies on how THEY see you, not how you see yourself (more on this another day). Privilege comes in two types – those that are innate, and those you can acquire. For innate privilege, we’re talking about issues like race, sex, gender, sexual orientation and citizenship. Acquired privileges are things like education, wealth and residency (although you can be born into some of those, too). Having innate privileges can make it easier to get acquired privileges. Changing circumstances can eliminate acquired privileges, but never innate privileges. And lacking one type of privilege does not necessarily eliminate the effects of the other kinds. For example, growing up in poverty doesn’t eliminate any racial privilege you may have, it just means you lack economic/class privilege. Since some spheres are controlled by a power structure based on race, and others are controlled by a power structure based on class or wealth, you still have privilege in the race-based spheres, regardless of how you’re treated in the wealth-based spheres.

Who has the most privilege? Rich, straight, cis, white men will always have the most power, in any sphere. After that, generally speaking, white people have more privilege than non-white people. But the problem is that people think this is an adding game. It isn’t. It’s about spheres of influence, unfair power differentials, and using our privilege to elevate those who lack it. Spheres overlap more often than they stack. A white woman will have more privilege than a black man in spheres where race is more important, and less privilege in spheres where gender is more important. (This may seem complicated, but it’s still a simplified view. The idea of spheres I’ve presented is much more discrete than the reality. In reality, no matter the sphere – race ALWAYS matters, gender ALWAYS matters, sexual orientation ALWAYS matters – it’s really more about proportions than absolutes. And because of the variable nature of humans, things can vary. Not all work spheres are created equal. In some jobs, gender carries more power than race, and in others, it’s the opposite. So you can’t really ever take your personal experience and judge the validity of the claims of others based on whether or not it matches yours. Keep that in mind when you encounter people who state they’ve experienced biases you’re unfamiliar with.)

What this all means is that no two people who share one identity have experienced that identity in the same way. It means that what my experience of womanhood has been is not the same as the experience of womanhood of a black woman because my experience of womanhood has been modified by my whiteness, while hers has been modified by her blackness. However, her experience is not necessarily identical to that of another black woman, either, because one may be an American citizen and the other may not be, or one my straight while the other is gay ….. see how it starts to get complicated? This complexity matters, and treating it like it matters is called “being intersectional”. The REASON it matters is that those individuals who lack power in a sphere also lack visibility. When we identify figureheads for identities, we tend to choose those who are visible. Therefore, when we talk about “feminism”, we’re probably talking about white feminism, when we talk about what women need to be equal, we’re probably talking about what WHITE women need – because they’re the ones we see. They’re the ones with the visibility, and they get inserted into the default setting. But when we do that, and we address the issues of white women under the false notion that we are in fact helping ALL women, all we do is increase the gap between white women and non-white women (or cis women and trans women, or straight women and gay women, etc). We have to recognize the least visible and acknowledge that their needs, while different, are just as important. And THAT is being “intersectional” – it’s recognizing the diverse needs of people who share one identity that is the result of the fact that they have other identities that they don’t share with you.

I also want to take a minute to be clear – this is not just about race. Too often, people dissolve “intersectionality” down to an issue of race. That is specifically problematic in intersectional feminism, when it gets treated as meaning “women of color have it worse than white women”. That’s true, but that’s not the be-all, end-all of intersectionality. Intersectionality isn’t just about race. It’s about gender, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, economic status, citizenship…ALL identities can be served by an intersectional approach to activism, not just racial ones.

So, recognize what privileges you have, recognize what spheres in which you have power, and start using that power to elevate the voices of those trying to exist in that sphere without the advantage of the privilege. That’s really the only way we save everyone – by elevating those with the least power – by being intersectional.


Dr. Congdon is an anthropologist, anatomist, scientist, feminist, activist conservationist. When those things collide, she writes about it here. She wants you to vote, and stop littering.

Save The Children

In its persistent quest for justice and to champion ALL women everywhere, Lipstick Republic is proud to announce a new contributor to our site. Rachael Severino is a sixteen-year-old high school student who will lend her voice to our mission. We hope you enjoy this first of many Op-ed pieces by her below.
By Rachael Severino

Continue reading “Save The Children”

A Modest Proposal To Eliminate Gun Violence (Hint: It Has Nothing To Do With the Size of Your Weapon or How Quickly You Discharge It)

By Judi Zirin

It would be surprisingly easy to limit gun violence in the US. There is one particular group that should be precluded from owning guns. This is a group that has been shown, consistently and statistically, to both be more violent and have more guns, so it makes sense they should have their access to firearms appropriately limited. They are most likely to engage in violent criminal behavior, most likely to both own guns and to misuse them, most likely to kill for sport, and most likely to keep their guns stored close by, locked and loaded.

Continue reading “A Modest Proposal To Eliminate Gun Violence (Hint: It Has Nothing To Do With the Size of Your Weapon or How Quickly You Discharge It)”

Violations and Vocabulary: How Policing Language Silences Victims

**TRIGGER WARNING: The following article may contain graphic depictions of sexual abuse**

By Kimberly Congdon, PhD

At this point, you’ve probably already heard of Larry Nassar. If not, see HERE. And HERE. And HERE.  There is no question that what this man did was wrong. There is no question it was criminal. There is no question it was sexual abuse, and that he deserves to be punished for unbelievably heinous crimes against children and young women. We can recognize the incredible wrongness of his actions even without delving into the fact that his position as a doctor added another element of psychological trauma for his victims. Larry Nassar is done – quite literally. His victims have proven themselves to be remarkable, brave women who will foster a new generation of remarkable, brave women. The judge who oversaw his case has become a figurehead for women’s rights. His trial was a watershed moment for feminism and equality. The questions still loom. How was something like this able to happen? How could something so obviously wrong persist for so long? How do we stop it from happening again?

There are a lot of factors that specifically enabled Nassar to abuse women for decades. Those specific issues must be addressed, and specific individuals must face consequences. But ultimately, Nassar is a symptom of a larger problem. First, we have to acknowledge that Nassar is not nearly as rare as we would wish him to be. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found more than 2,400 cases of doctors sexually abusing patients since 1999, occurring across all 50 states. At least half of those physicians still had their medical licenses as of 2016. And these numbers are guaranteed to be low, as sex abuse in all forms is chronically underreported. So Nassar is a monster, but he has a lot of company. What’s going on here?

Unpacking the issues that allow abuse of women to persist would take a lifetime.  There is, however, one thing that underlies it all, and it may not be what you think. It’s language. The words we use matter, the words we emphasize and teach matter. This is the principle of linguistic relativity. It tells us that the structure of a language affects the worldview of the people who speak it. The classic example is Benjamin Whorf’s claim that “Eskimos” have 50 words for snow. His point was that snow is very important to Inuit language groups, and that importance is reflected by the fact that they have a lot of words for it. It’s a rather basic, intuitive idea. Your culture will have many ways to discuss what’s important, few ways to discuss what is unimportant, and no words to discuss what it has no conception of at all. So what happens to a culture when we restrict the words that can be used to describe reproductive anatomy? Misogyny has stolen from women the very words they need to comprehend and assert their own bodily autonomy. And when you don’t have the words to describe your experience, when the words you do have teach you shame, when they don’t empower you and reaffirm your own bodily autonomy, how can you ever find your own voice to speak out against these atrocities?

We have allowed the words that describe reproductive anatomy to become stigmatized, under the guise of “polite” behavior. Parents teach their children euphemisms for their own body parts, students are punished for using words like “penis” and “vagina” in school (and sometimes even sex-ed teachers), and often it’s because they use them as expletives, having been taught they are inherently “naughty”. All this works together to teach kids that certain parts of their body can’t be discussed, which serves to build a barrier between our own anatomy and the ownership of it. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states and D.C. mandate sex education in schools. Only thirteen of those states mandate that the instruction be medically accurate, twenty-six states require that “the information be appropriate for the students’ age”, and ONLY TWO prohibit the program from promoting religion. This combination of factors is a recipe for disaster when it comes to language. If a program is not required to be medically accurate, students are not going to learn technical terms about their own anatomy. When we accept the fallacy that sex education has an “age appropriate” element, we allow for the introduction of shame associated with female bodies. What are we telling young girls who HAVE vaginas that they are too young for the WORD vagina? If we teach girls that they have to mature into the ownership of their own body parts, is it so surprising that men with power so easily assert their own rights to those parts over their actual owners? And if we CORRECT children who use the proper terms, if we insist on euphemisms, is it such a surprise that they’re reluctant to speak out when needed?

Larry Nassar’s victims ranged from girls as young as six to young women in their teens and early 20s. He told them that inserting his fingers into their vaginas and leaning towards them to whisper “How does that feel”, often with an erection, was medical treatment. In their victim statements, many discussed how he abused their trust, how he made them ashamed to discuss what he did, some of them still referenced shame in speaking out, in a courtroom where he had pled guilty – an open admission that what he had done was wrong – and they had no reason to be ashamed. They speak of being touched in private places, the loss of innocence, but above all – confusion. Confusion over whether what he did was wrong, confusion over who to tell. They speak of knowledge that internal pelvic floor therapies exist, and are legitimate – leading to a difficulty to distinguish legitimate treatment from sexual violation. One victim STILL questions her own interpretation of the experience, she is still unable to tell if she was being molested or treated. That kind of confusion can happen when we don’t give girls the tools to tell medicine from abuse, when we don’t teach them about their anatomy, and don’t give them the words to understand what is happening to them. Rachael Denhollander, the first accuser to file a police report and start the ball rolling against Nassar, says one of her earlier complaints was dismissed because “a 15-year-old girl thinks everything between her legs is a vagina”. The assumption that girls don’t know their own bodies was used to dismiss an accusation of forced penetration – and it worked, because so many young girls DON’T know their own bodies. The girls that did come forward in the late 90s were repeatedly told they were confused about what had happened – an easy thing to push when you’ve already robbed people of the language they need to conceptualize the event in the first place.

For years, child psychologists have been emphasizing both the importance and appropriateness of teaching children proper terms for their anatomy from Day One. It will empower them to speak out against inappropriate touching, teach body positivity, and perhaps even protect them from predators who will recognize that a child who knows the words vulva and vagina likely has parents that will discuss these subjects with them, and listen if they report abuse. Body-related shame is a real and persistent problem. We all know adults who won’t use the word penis or vagina or insist on whispering them if they must be said. People who aren’t comfortable discussing their body will struggle to tell health care providers about medical problems. They will struggle to tell sexual partners if something causes them pain or discomfort. They will be more susceptible to those who would manipulate them via that shame. And if we start by teaching kids shame about body parts, we’ll continue with shame about all language that
discusses sex. This will disproportionately hurt girls, who are made to believe that they should not want or enjoy sex, that they should not express sexual desire for fear of being labeled a slut, and that if sexual contact is forced upon them, it was somehow their own fault. In short, sex euphemisms are a tool of female oppression. We de-emphasize the importance of that anatomy and suggest there is inherent shame in those body parts since we won’t use the actual words to discuss them. This is a problem that can be overcome at home, but politicians at the local and state level who advocate for comprehensive sex education also need our support. Too much of what we learn about language happens in school for this to go unaddressed.

People who criticize women inspired to speak out during the resurgence of #metoo discuss female agency, female responsibility – they ask why women don’t say no, don’t speak out against behavior that bothers them. How can we demand women speak out when we deprive them of the language to describe what happened to them and teach them that putting it into words is shameful? We have to reclaim our vulvas and vaginas, our penises and testicles. Before we can assert autonomy over our anatomy, we have to know what to call our anatomical parts and deny that discussing our bodies is shameful or wrong.


Dr. Congdon is an anthropologist, anatomist, scientist, feminist, activist conservationist. When those things collide, she writes about it here. She wants you to vote, and stop littering.

The Women’s March welcomes all women – except Feminist Zionists?

Power To The Polls _Womens March Anniversary Event Jan 2018See the Women’s March Host Planning Committee above? I’m in that photo. I thought the Women’s March would be a great opportunity to register Millennials to come out and vote and loved the catchy “Power To The Polls” slogan thought up to entice young people to make their vote count in these midterm elections coming up. The idea of it all was punchy and persuasive.

After the 2017 Women’s March – the largest protest in the history of the United States – I felt like I was part of a sisterhood, a feminist collective voicing their needs while wearing crocheted pink hats and locking arms together across the country (and the world). To me, the only thing missing about that glorious day that we all needed so badly after enduring Trump’s election, was the presence of the real hero for many of us – Hillary Clinton.  Let’s be real. In those one million bodies holding signs and chanting in unison most of them were heartbroken to know DJT was going to be sitting in the Oval and not HRC.

Fast forward to a year later when I got the news that a local group of which I’m a member was asked to be part of a planning committee because the founding members of the Women’s March had decided to hold their anniversary event in Las Vegas, Nevada where I live. Nevada is a key battleground state and is also home to the first female Latina United States Senator (Catherine Cortez Masto), is the state with the second largest number of females in its legislature (second only to Vermont), has the 5th largest school district in the country (Clark County School District in Las Vegas), is the number one tourist destination in the world (Las Vegas), and recently was the site of the worst shooting massacre in modern US history. You can imagine my excitement. As a dedicated feminist, activist, and a staunch supporter of progressive causes, why would I have any reservations at all when it came to this opportunity? Two words.


Seeing the Women’s March 2017 organizers giving the cold shoulder to Hillary was a bitter pill for me to swallow, I did it knowing that Hillary herself was tweeting that she was proud of the women who were marching, who were raising their voices, who believed in racial/social/economic/political equality and justice for ALL women (the true definition of a Feminist, by the way). I did it because I saw the importance of the larger picture. I understood the strategy. This time around though, that pill is a little harder to swallow. Why? It’s those pesky two words again.


Linda Sarsour QandA Lipstick Republic Blog

Ms. Sarsour makes no secret of her disdain for Feminist Zionists. In fact,  when asked for her response to an op-ed article written by Emily Shire of the NY Times, Linda said it wasn’t possible for a person to be a Feminist AND a Zionist.  Clearly, Linda needs to brush up on her vocabulary because the definition of Zionism is not a bad thing. Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination and freedom in their historic homeland. Being a Zionist does not mean that you agree with Israeli politics or that you’re a fan of Bibi or the Likud Party or that you don’t care about Palestinian Arabs. It simply means that you believe in the things stated above and that you believe the Jewish people have a right to liberation (they have, after all, been in existence for 5,777 years without a generation passing since the Babylonians where somewhere in the world some nation or ruler hasn’t tried to lobby for their extinction) and protection. Sarsour’s misdirected and misinformed beliefs she espouses with loud vitriol have rankled me for quite some time. I decided to share some of my concerns with her at a committee planning meeting she and the other three Women’s March co-founders were at with me along with a crowd full of people.

Below is part of the transcribed version of the video/audio that was taken which is still in the process of being uploaded. 

M: It’s no secret that a lot of Jewish women felt unwelcome at the Chicago Dyke March. So my question is, what do I say to women who are hesitant to come to this Women’s March event? Are women who identify as Jewish Americans welcome? Are they going to be turned away for wearing the Star of David? Are they going to be turned away for being Zionists? What should I say to them?

Linda Sarsour: This is a domestic movement meant to bring to attention the tyranny we’re living under. This is not a moment for any community to come and invoke their political position on our campaign. We don’t talk about foreign policy. There’s been conflation by some people. Not all Jewish people are Zionists. In fact, we have included all communities in our movement. In fact, at a recent convention we just had, it was I that organized the Shabbat Friday evening. It was I that paid for the kosher meal. It was I that coordinated groups like Jews for Justice and Jewish Voices for Peace to attend. Everybody has always been included. I think it’s important for people to understand that we don’t have time in groups like this for this conversation. It’s very clear that I’m Palestinian. There’s nothing I can do about that. I’m very proud to be Palestinian. Unfortunately, that in and of itself and my very existence has created controversy just by the virtue of who I am and particular positions that directly impact me and my family.

M: So are you saying that wearing a Star of David or being a Zionist won’t make them unwelcome at the event?

Linda Sarsour: What I want to say to people is that we have a tyrant in the White House and we are being stripped of our rights and if you care about the rights of your fellow Americans then show up to this March.

*This was just one of three questions I asked Ms. Sarsour. I plan to probe more at our next meeting and then blend both video recordings to upload here on the blog. This way, readers can see and hear all the questions and answers in full. 

Her answers did nothing to allay my concerns. In fact, they compounded them for me. She completely deflected my question about the Star of David and responded by basically saying that the political positions of other communities are not meant to be heard or shown at Women’s March events. Since when was the Star of David a political position? Last time I checked it was a religious symbol. Why are attendees allowed to wear Free Palestine t-shirts and hijabs but Feminist Zionists are shut down and told they have to choose between those identities. Also, groups like Jews for Justice or Jewish Voices for Peace are about as relevant and authentic to me as Jews for Jesus or groups like BDS in representing me. For her to try to spin their participation to allyship is laughable.

Sarsour’s social media accounts are rife with her own glaring modus operandi that is illustrated flagrantly. Why is she not held to the same standards she expects of other feminists in their intersectionality? Why can she have an outspoken Muslim voice but Jews with outspoken Zionist beliefs are “invoking their political issues on the WM”?


It would appear from Ms. Sarsour’s propaganda and behavior that she is intent on using the Women’s March as a platform for her own designs disguised as championing feminism. When author and brave victim of female genital mutilation Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke out in her book “Infidel: My Life” about crimes committed in the name of Islam, Sarsour had some very supportive (insert sarcasm here) words about the issue.

Linda Sarsour Twitter Rant _Lipstick Republic BlogCompassion and concern for all women really just radiate from Linda.  It’s evident that all views are fine as long as they are Linda’s views. Seriously though, if that’s not enough proof for you, try a quick Google search on Linda and you’ll find that she also endorses Siraj Wahaj, unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who believes homosexuality is a disease.

Linda doesn’t seem to realize that Jewish women have always been at the forefront of the both the Women’s Rights and the Civil Rights movements. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem are Jews. In fact,  It was the Women’s Movement that made Betty the proud Zionist she grew to be and spent her lifetime defending.

I know many Feminist Zionists are choosing to boycott the event in Las Vegas because of Ms. Sarsour’s stance on Zionism and interest in competing in what many call Woke Olympics. While I can certainly understand their pain and anger, I will be taking a different approach. On January 21, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada I will be at the  Women’s March: Power To The Polls. I will not let Linda Sarsour’s twisted definition of Zionism or Feminism dictate my narrative. I will not take off my Magen David. I will not be silent. Linda Sarsour does not represent me or any of my values with her support of violence or intolerance.

That’s not the sort of sisterhood I want to be a part of or the sort of feminism that I believe in – not today, not ever.


Mimi Bergman is a business owner, historian, wife, and mom. She’s an ardent feminist, Zionist, and activist. Mimi is a fourth generation Chicago Cubs baseball fan.

Get a grip. No, really.


[Dr. Julie Buzby and Chloe]

According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), in 2017 Americans spent a total of $69.36B (billion!) on their pets. With figures consistently growing year after year, it’s pretty obvious we love our furry friends in this country. Among those leading the pack, providing care and service to pet owners is Dr. Julie Buzby, who lives in Beaufort, South Carolina. Dr. Buzby is a woman on the go who wears lots of hats. We were fortunate enough to get some time with her and learn more about her amazing company, Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips.

LR: I know you’ve been a veterinarian for over twenty years and have pets of your own. Did you ever think you’d become a product inventor too?

JB: Never. I am an accidental entrepreneur. A client of mine came up with the idea of putting something on his dog’s toenails to keep his senior dog quiet on the floors at night. He quickly realized his device did much more than that though. I saw the early prototypes at our veterinary hospital’s annual Open House and it was love at first sight! I like to say he had me at “hello”. He pointed to his dog’s toes and my mind started racing. Because my practice is now predominantly caring for senior and special needs dogs, I knew there was a huge need. We could impact and improve pain and mobility for these dogs but not slipping. Slipping is a biomechanics problem. These simple devices were what I’d been looking for my whole career, I just didn’t know what they looked like until I saw them that day. My friend didn’t want to pursue his idea. He was busy patenting something else and said, “If you think you can help dogs with it, Julie, go for it.” And that’s how our business launched. I knew this product was going to change the way we care for our senior, slipping patients and that they needed this solution.

LR: For those who aren’t familiar, can you explain what ToeGrips are and how they’re used?

JB: ToeGrips are nonslip rings that fit onto a dog’s toenails to enable traction on slippery floors. Dogs use their nails for traction. They flex their paws and engage their nails like soccer cleats digging into the ground. Hard nails can’t grip hard floors. ToeGrips work by allowing the nails to grip, unlike dog socks and boots, which interfere with a dog’s natural gripping mechanism. ToeGrips are simple, natural, affordable, and effective!

LR: What types of dogs benefit most from ToeGrips?

JB: Senior and special needs dogs and even more specifically would be arthritic dogs, dogs with hip dysplasia, dogs with cruciate ligament injury, dogs with hind-end weakness, blind dogs, Tripawd dogs, dogs that use wheelchairs, dogs with IVDD, and rehabilitating and post-surgical dogs.

LR: Are ToeGrips unisex? Do they come in different sizes?

JB: Yes, they are unisex, come in seven sizes (XS-XXXL), and are color-coded by size for simplicity.

LR: I know you operate a vet practice, run Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips, and are a Full-Time mama to a large brood of human kiddos too. How do you balance it all?

JB: I owned a practice in Pennsylvania and sold it so I could be home with my kids. We homeschool them and that’s what I really what I consider my Full-Time job. Practicing veterinary medicine is part-time now and ToeGrips is my hobby, even though I put in about 40+ hours per a week in the company. When your work is your passion, it doesn’t feel like work. My husband often says to me when I go to the veterinary hospital, “You’re the only person I know who looks a hundred times better when you come home from work than when you go.” Caring for my clients and patients brings me great joy. Caring for our customers and their dogs is also very rewarding! How do I balance it? I have a great husband who’s actively involved in keeping me afloat. I also have great help – we have a close family friend whom we’ve hired to help us homeschool since we have seven grade levels being taught right now.

LR: What advice would you give to women looking to follow their passions and start their own business?

JB: Start on a shoe=string budget and expand as you are able. Debt is crippling. The less debt you have, the faster you will become profitable! Have a core group of wise counselors whom you go to for advice. Plans succeed with many counselors and it’s dangerous to go it alone.

LR: Where can people go for more information or shop ToeGrips?

JB: By going directly to our website www.ToeGrips.com, on Facebook by clicking HERE. or at @drbuzby on Twitter.



Hey Buddy!

FB_IMG_1512986840497Michelle Aventajado wears many hats: mother, wife, daughter, entrepreneur, writer, model, product endorser, and Non-Profit Director. She grew up in New York, one of five children, the daughter of a Filipino mother and an American father. Michelle has a degree in Education from SUNY Cortland and has worked as both a teacher in the American public school system and as a camp director. In 1996, she was on vacation when she met the man who would eventually become her husband. By 2006, they had been married a few years and decided to move their young family to Manila where Michelle is currently the Director of Best Buddies Philippines

LR: You are a mother of four children (two teens, a pre-teen, and a little girl). Your youngest has Down Syndrome. Was that largely the impetus for you taking the job as Director of Best Buddies Philippines?

MA: Actually, I’ve always been drawn to children and adults with different abilities. When I was in high school, my track coach ran a club called Interact. Besides shadowing professionals in our small town to explore what we wanted to study as we went on to college, the main thrust of the club was to “INTERACT” with others in the community. We volunteered weekly at one of the local group homes and spent time with its residents. In college, I pursued my degree in education because I knew it would be the perfect career to satisfy my desire to help kids and change the world one student at a time. After the birth of my fourth child, I realized that God had been preparing me for all that my baby would need for me to be as her mother. I could never explain the interest I had in this marginalized population I had until Evangelina – her name means God’s gift – was born. After the initial shock of her diagnosis wore off, I realized that Gelli (her nickname) suddenly gave the work and volunteering I was doing more purpose. I can’t say I immediately thought of “fighting the good fight” when she was born, though. My initial reaction was to take it day by day and make sure that my daughter and my family had everything they needed to adjust to our new normal. I read up on how to best care for my daughter because her birth changed the playing field. I felt like a new mom. A fish out of water. I thought I was already a pro at the parenting thing, and when she was born, I suddenly felt unprepared. I bought all the books I could get my hands on, watched videos, and read blogs of moms who were parenting a child with Down Syndrome in the States. I followed one particular blogger and credit her for changing my outlook. Kelle Hampton was the blogger who helped me see the positive side of parenting Gelli. I started blogging too. I had no idea that it would open so many doors for me in terms of identifying with other parents who might be in the same situation as myself. It was through blogging that I met Anj Onrubia. Anj has a son with Autism and she wanted to bring Best Buddies to the Philippines. She invited me to the training and the meetings and I signed on as a Program Manager for my children’s school. When Anj started planning her move to Canada, she asked me if I would consider taking on the role of Country Director. The rest is, as they say, history.

I do what I do with Best Buddies, not so my daughter can join the activities I organize but in the hopes that by the time she is of age to join them, that she will feel accepted. That she’ll have less difficulty than the children who came before she did. I do it so that when she’s of college age, she’ll have more than just two choices of schools to attend in Manila. I do what I do because I believe in our programs and hope for a better future for my precious six-year-old. I want more for her.  I want to change the world one friendship at a time through our programs in Best Buddies.

LR: What has been the biggest challenge in terms of bringing awareness and education to the conversation surrounding people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

MA:  Initially, the stigma. The mindset. The culture. The belief that kids and adults with IDD are less. Less capable. Less deserving. There are still families in this country who hide their children away, who are ashamed of the beautiful child they’ve been gifted.

I have a friend who is in his mid-fifties. After asking him to get involved with Best Buddies by volunteering his time to help with a PSA on “End the R-Word”, he disclosed a sad story to me from his childhood. Apparently, when he was a kid growing up here, he remembered a child with Down Syndrome who was chained to the front porch of a neighboring home. CHAINED. Like an animal. Mimi, this was only forty years ago!

LR: Wow! That’s both tragic and maddening! That’s during our lifetime!

MA: Exactly. They say it takes seven generations to see the effects of how we live today (physically) in this world. I believe that it takes just as many generations to change a mindset. Just as many generations to shift the conversation and the perspective. We need that paradigm shift to happen before my daughter will be seen as someone who is counted and included in all aspects of society.

LR: Best Buddies is in fifty countries around the world. It’s great to see the Philippines has been involved in helping spread the organization’s message since 2014. What are some of the things you have planned for Best Buddies Philippines in 2018?

MA: Good question. After attending recent training in Madrid, Spain, I know we’re on the right path. Best Buddies Philippines has been slowly growing our membership and chapters in both public and private schools and making changes to bring added awareness to the plight of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Also, we have an elementary school campaign that we’re hoping to launch a pilot for so that our friendship programs can begin with even younger children.

LR: Hillary Clinton famously said “it takes a village” to raise children and I know Best Buddies Founder, Anthony Kennedy Shriver, believes deeply in community service and helping those in need (Anthony’s mother, Eunice, was the Founder of the Special Olympics and his father, Sargent, was Founding Director of the Peace Corps). What is it about Best Buddies that you love most? Is it one thing in particular or a lot of little things?

MA: It really does take a village. The village I live in consists of children, families, and professionals who all can take part in our programs. Small businesses that can employ individuals with IDD. Educators. All of these people are important in furthering our mission of inclusion for all people.

I was bullied because I was different as a child. Living in a small town where there were very few Filipino kids – most of whom were related to me – makes this cause even more meaningful to me. I’ve been on the other side and I know what it feels like to be left out. Everyone wants to be a part of something. As a mother, I want Gelli to be included in all that she desires.

What is it about Best Buddies that I love most? The time I spend with the Buddies. The selfies. The stories. The smiles. The laughter. The growth of each individual as they participate in our activities. The leadership I see that is nurtured in both the typical kids and the kids with IDD. I enjoy seeing our parents sigh with relief, knowing that their children are safe in our programs, that they’re being included, and that their kids have a chance at friendship.

LR: In May, you were honored at a ceremony in Malibu, California with the award for Mother-Of-The-Year by Best Buddies International. What was that like for you?

MA:  A bit awkward. Humbling. I do what I do for Gelli and others like her because it’s personal to me. I don’t do it for recognition. In fact, I didn’t even know I was being honored. I thought they were just asking me to attend as a guest. It was a surprise to learn that I was actually being given the stage to share part of my story as Gelli’s mom and as Country Director for the Philippines. I can talk for hours about the work we do and how others can help, but talking about myself in front of all those people was difficult for me. Still, I wanted to make sure the audience understood that it was only a few years ago the Department of Education in the Philippines made it the law for my daughter to have the right to an education with her diagnosis. I bring the knowledge of that statistic to the work I do for Best Buddies and what we are up against. I felt it was my job to share these personal experiences of mine so they could understand that it was only through my motherhood of Gelli that I became aware of what the real fight was about here. I am extremely thankful for the award and the recognition but it felt a little silly being acknowledged for a job I would do anyway. Does that make sense?

[L: Michelle with Maria Shriver and R: Michelle with daughters Gia, Gelli, and Cindy Crawford]

LR: It makes perfect sense. You’re a Filipino American who made the decision to move to the Philippines with your family. What’s a big difference in terms of how people with disabilities are treated in the Philippines as opposed to in the United States? I know you mentioned earlier that there’s still a stigma, but you also noted some of the improvements you’ve seen.

MA: We are still light years behind the United States when it comes to an inclusive society. When Gelli was born, my first inclination was to move back to New York where I knew she’d have a better chance at becoming who she was meant to be. In the end, I realized there’s a reason for everything. A reason she chose me as her mother. And a reason why I found myself in Manila. There is so much work to be done here. It’s why I had to step up and walk the walk.

LR: What’s a typical day like for you as Director of Best Buddies Philippines?

MA: I wake up and see the kids off to school and then I jump on my laptop and answer any emails or messages received. I check on the activities we have planned for the week and see if any of the chapters need my help with anything. I talk to parents and check in with the ambassadors. I do this while also balancing the writing I do for my own website, attending events, and preparing meals for my family. I’m hands-on with everything and honestly, when my head hits the pillow at night I find myself making lists of things I need to tackle when I wake up. Some days are full of work with Best Buddies and others aren’t, but I’m pulled in so many different directions that no two days are ever alike.

LR: How does the Buddy System work?

MA: In each chapter, the faculty advisor and/or the program manager has to be really astute in making matches. We match according to age, gender, and interests. By getting to know the Buddy and the Peer Buddy, we can make the best match possible. It’s not easy, but with help from everyone involved, we try to make matches where a selected friendship will naturally evolve to a deeper one. In our more established chapters, you can see the matches that were made well because they stay on as Buddies long after the year-long requirement has been fulfilled.

LR: How can people volunteer or get involved with Best Buddies Philippines?

MA: We are always looking for Buddies, parent volunteers, schools, teachers, and professionals. Interested parties can contact us on Facebook at Facebook.com/BestBuddiesPhilippinesManila, on Instagram at @bestbuddiesphilippines or email us at BestBuddiesManila@gmail.com.