Naked Storytelling

"I dreamt I was standing on stage, in a packed house, naked."

We've all heard the story. Personally, I've never had that dream. Instead, this weekend, I got to live it. And while I'll spare you the anticipation and tell you that my clothes remained on at Ignition Philly, I did get up in front of a room of strangers, and was asked to undress myself, by telling my story. My real story.

When I walked in on the first day, I was wearing my usual outfit -- the confident, friendly, yet slightly hard-boiled armor of a millennial woman-in-business whose success seems based on her confidence and ability to work a room. I thought nothing of it, because I'd never gotten anything but compliments on my personal presentation from colleagues, strangers, and even friends.

I took my seat at the front of the class, notebook at the ready, prepared to have the answers, ace the tests, get my certificate and head back to my office on Monday with a few new tools.

When it was my turn, I told the moving story of how I'd met a girl in Africa who missed days of school each month during her period because she couldn't afford sanitary pads, and how I started a monthly subscription company for organic products that gives a month's supply of sanitary pads to a girl in a developing country for every monthly box we ship.

But I soon came to find that the story I'd been telling -- literally for years -- was completely bogus -- superficial and perfunctory. It had become a packaged story, but so natural to me it sounded true as it passed my lips. Nothing about it was untrue, it just wasn't very real, because it didn't tell anyone who I am, as a human being, doing this work, and what values this movement embodies and how others can join in it.

I'd taken something naturally beautiful -- connective, human, and real -- and layered it in my fear of judgment, vulnerability, and uncertainty.

And no one had ever questioned me about it. No one ever asked me why I care that girls in India have sanitary pads, or that women in my own society have access to safe and healthy products for managing their periods. No one ever pushed me to tell my story and the story of my community, and then actually had the patience and kindness to crack it open so we could both look inside.

Equally profound was the realization that I'd been unintentionally approaching social change from the wrong angle, so I could avoid exposing myself, and my vulnerability.

I learned the difference between speaking to a group of people as potential customers who might buy what I sell, and speaking to them as individuals who share my values of equality and justice for women and will help me lead a movement to extend those rights to women in our city and beyond.

I have learned that I need not look beyond my own city to establish the community -- of men and women -- that cares deeply about this issue. I don't need to make a global appeal for support. I can turn to my neighbor and ask for her or his hand first.

This weekend, I was given the chance to peel off the metaphorical shrouds and adornments that I've used -- maybe my whole life -- to present myself and my work in a way that felt "safe."

I don't have a perfect story, and I never will, but it's starting to feel more like my own. It's the story that hurts to tell, because it makes me keenly aware of my own humanity, and makes listeners aware of theirs as well. And that's scary for all of us, but it's real. It reminds of us that we are not separate.

I am humbled and grateful, and more than anything, relieved.

I walked into that room, unconscious that I had been living with the feeling you have when you walk out the door in the morning and you realize that you hate what you're wearing -- how it pinches here or falls wrong there, but you go on with your day in misery anyway.

I left feeling like I was naked, in my own skin, and free.

There are so many stories that came from this weekend that all of us must hear, and now you can hear at least a handful of them at the Ignition Philly Campfire tonight in Philadelphia. Join the growing community of local changemakers. You never know when someone else's story of community and action might become your own.