Hey everybody, my name is Liz Forkin Bohannon and I am so delighted to be here with you today.
About 10 years ago I found myself in a really similar life stage, probably, as many of you – had just graduated from university. And when I was in college, I was really interested in issues that were facing women and girls living in extreme poverty, and in conflict and post-conflict zones.
So I studied journalism, I got my undergrad, I went on to get my master’s degree, and – you know – I’m a millennial. So I got a lot of messaging and a lot of encouragement to “dream really big,” and to “go out there and to be a world changer,” – right? And so that was my plan, and that was the path that I was on, and I did all the things. I marched in the marches and I worked for nonprofits and it was getting my journalism degree, and then graduation hit, and I graduated, the real world really set in, and the bills started rolling in, and I needed a job.
And I thought that people would be knocking down my door to give me this world changing dream job that I had hoped for, and that didn’t happen. And so I got a job at a corporate communications firm.
And just a few months into that job, this big dream that I’ve been formulating in college and in grad school – this huge dream that’s going to bring millions of women and girls out of extreme poverty, started to feel a little bit less likely. A little bit more idealistic. A little bit more unrealistic. And I found that every day I wasn’t actually working towards that, it started to feel a little bit more silly and like, “that thing that I cared about in college” – right?
And so I’m sitting in my first real job. And I’m actually doing work for a client and I have this moment– I can’t get into the details now, but I have this moment where I watched this video about women and girls living in developing economies, and I have this “come to Jesus” realization. That I’m like, “Man, I say I care so much about that thing – women and girls living in extreme poverty, and the reality is, I don’t have a single friend who is a girl that grew up in that context. I don’t have friends. My community is not affected by that. The world and the life that I’m building right now and the trajectory that I’m on, is entirely unaffected by that reality.”
In that moment – right? That big dream of like, “create something so big and sexy and awesome and help a million people come out of poverty” – that big dream became really, really, really small. My new microscopically small dream became, “I want to make one friend. I want to have one friend – one relationship. Have a community, a friend group, a life that’s actually reflective of the things that I say that I care about.”
And in that moment, I got on kayak.com. I bought a one-way plane ticket, and I moved to Uganda. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a plan. I had nothing to offer. Literally, all I had was my tiny dream of, “I want to go make one single friend.”
Y’all, I know that you are being told by every self-help guru and every person on the internet and every person on Instagram and your guidance counselor and your mom and your dad and whoever it is, “Go out and dream big dreams” – right? And I love big dreams. But if that feels paralyzing or overwhelming to you, I want to encourage you. I want to tell you that sometimes it’s those small dreams. Those small unimpressive dreams that can actually propel us out of waiting and into creating, if we actually take them seriously.
You know there’s a scripture that says, “Do not despise small beginnings because the Lord just rejoices in seeing the work begin.”
So I showed up in Uganda, and I’m here, I’m just here to make a friend. One friend. That’s my goal. I just want one friend – right? I ended up meeting an incredible group of young women in between high school and university. They’re wicked smart – can’t afford to go to college.
So I ended up starting this little sandal company, I hired three young women – Mary, Mercy and Rebecca – and basically said, “Alright if you promise to make these sandals for the next nine months, I promise that you’ll go to college in the fall.” And they were like, “Great!” No, it was like, “Okay, great.”
And I came back home and I started selling these sandals out of the back of my car here in the United States. Well fast forward about 10 years later and wouldn’t you know it, Sseko Designs is one of the largest exporters out of Uganda, we have this incredible team, we have a factory, we have partners all over the world now – Uganda, Ethiopia, India, Peru.
We are a multinational, multimillion dollar, socially conscious fashion brand. We’ve enabled hundreds of women to continue on to university, we’ve enabled thousands of women here in the United States to sell the product and to build their own social enterprises, and – y’all – it’s only just the beginning.
But there’s two things that I want to share with you about that. The first is that it actually just started with a tiny, tiny unimpressive dream that I took really seriously: to make one friend, to build community, to be in relationship and to pursue proximity. The other thing that I want to share with you is that over the last 10 years– 10 years ago, someone would have labeled me a “world changer,” or a “do-gooder.” I think I would have been very pleased with that because that’s what I thought I should go out in the world and do. And I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable, honestly, with that language – with these dynamics that exist. For me in my specific story, there was this sense of, just because I moved to Uganda – just because I showed up and had nothing really to offer, I was seen as like a “do-gooder,” “a world changer.”
Check the subtext of that – if you think about that, is like, “What, my Ugandan friends then are there to play the role of, like, the recipient? The grateful beneficiary?” Y’all, I do not believe that is how God created us.
God created us to live in community, with people that live across the street, across the hallway, across the world, and community is where we do this sacred dance of needing and being needed. Of learning and listening and teaching, and giving – right? And anytime we fall into this idea like, “Oh I’m a giver. I’m a do-gooder, they’re the receiver.” One, we’re delusional, two, we are stripping ourselves and others of the dignity of just being these multifaceted, complex human beings that each and every single one of us are. Every single one of us – terribly broken, but also brilliantly bright.
I don’t think the point is to go out and to be the hero, or to go out and to change the world, but rather to link arms with others, and to say, “How can we partner and how can we build something and be a part of something that is bigger and more beautiful than any one of us could do on our own?”
Just a few years into running Sseko, I ended up meeting this young woman, her name was Agnes, she was around my age, and she’d just graduated from college. When she was 13, a village elder offered her father 20 cows in exchange for her hand in marriage. Her dad – #dadgoals – kept her in school, shocked the entire village by the way, because that was a really big bride price. She went on to be the first woman in her entire village to graduate from college. She started working at Sseko as a procurement intern. She now runs the whole company. She’s the general manager of the company – we co-chair the board together. She’s traveled across the world. She’s making a huge impact in Sseko and outside of Sseko, inspiring other entrepreneurs.
But the thing that I love the most about Aggie’s story, is that back home in Uganda her village is changing. Okay, according to Aggie, 10 years ago, the average girl in her village was being married off at 13 or 14 years old. Just 10 years later – that’s not that long – 10 years later, she said, “Most of those girls are in school where they belong, and they’re finishing high school.” And it’s not because of some big program or big initiative or something some NGO is doing. It’s because of Aggie. It’s because the families and the girls and the dads in her village are seeing what happens through Aggie’s story. When a girl has the opportunity to learn and to lead.
You see, you guys, Aggie is creating a change in her community that I never could. Because I don’t have that experience. I don’t have those relationships. I don’t have that perspective. I don’t have the voice that she has. What if we go out into the world not asking, “How can I be a world changer?” But simply, “What does it look like for us to, as Ram Dass would say, just to simply walk one another home?”
What if I entered into every single room asking the question of, “What is it? What is the gift that I have to give in this space?” Because every single one of you has a unique and wonderful gift to give. A unique way that God has created you. And we need your magic and we need your light.
What if you walked into every room saying, “What is the gift I have to give, and what is it that I have to learn in this space? What is it that I have to learn and what is the gift that I have to give?” In that, we can cultivate true community and we can walk one another home.