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The Courage To Change: a guest post from Tia Kelley

Saturday, April 4, 2015 by Marianne Elliott

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I was born in the middle of the night, on the floor of a little stone house, in India. This isn’t unusual; millions of little girls share the same birth story.

Mine takes a turn for the unusual when I include the fact that my parents in this moment are young European hippies living in Goa, who mistakenly assume their midwife will be arriving any minute.

Having never so much as taken a Lamaze class, my parents are about to bring me into the world… With no running water, electricity or a hospital for miles.

Like most of their crazy adventures they manage to pull it off, I arrive alive! But in my fathers harried panic, running around the room, he accidently steps on my tiny infant body as I lay there in the near dark room. When my dad recounts the story of my birth he leaves nothing out.

“I stood right down on your little newborn neck! I helped bring you into the world and then I thought for sure I’d killed you!”

Needless to say I survived that night and so did they! It was an adventurous start to life and I just kept going with the theme.

Fast-forward through a childhood with 7 siblings, wild ponies and apple orchards. Living illegally in the United States as homeless migrant workers. Traveling through in the jungles of Mexico and sleeping on the lakeshores of Guatemala. Moving “home” to live on my father’s ancient family farm in Ireland, and on, and on around the world.

After living what feels like a 100 lifetimes in one, I now get to dedicate myself to a work that positively impacts the lives of other girls and women around the world.

When people ask me why I’m not afraid to go to dangerous countries with our all female team, I don’t have an answer. To me the world is my community and going to work in a place for a few weeks feels like nothing at all. What it takes to be a woman actually living every day in most of the developing world is where I see real courage.

This courage in the face of it all is what inspires and motivates me as I sit on the floor of a one-room structure, in one of Bangalore’s largest slums.There are 15 or more women in dazzling and differently colored saris sitting cross-legged and barefooted around me. Their heavily bangled arms folded at their chests. These beautiful ladies with whom I share a birthplace, are not at all impressed to see me.

Let me back up a little bit.  

A few years ago I cofounded a nonprofit initiative called Global Sorority. I wanted to create a global community of women who would come together in support of each other’s highest potential despite their differences.

Marianne Elliott featuring Tia Kelley

My goal is that women will step forward courageously, to encourage and support one another to lead lives of dignity and purpose.  I want mothers to see the value in themselves and know it in their daughters. I feel as long as we deny our feminine strength and continue to silence the voice of half of the world; we’re doing each other a huge disservice.

Through the work of Global Sorority we deliver leadership and self-development education for young women 11 to 24 years of age. We also create a documentary film series about what it’s like to be a girl in the world. We share their voices, their struggles and their triumphs. In hope that women form around the world will see that we are one community of global sisters, despite many of our differences in culture, country, religion or socioeconomics.

The things that separate us are much smaller than the things that bind us together.  

On this particular Global Sorority trip, we had traveled from Canada and the US with our small group of volunteer facilitators and film crew. We had traveled thousands of miles to specifically work with the daughters of these women sitting in front of us now.

When we had arrived in Bangalore the day before, we met with the local program directors with whom we would be working, One of these community leaders was named Maria, she met us outside the slum village on our first visit and escorted us over a narrow footbridge that spanned a wide river.

The “River” was actually an open river of raw sewage. It separated the slum from the rest of the world and you knew you were getting close when your olfactory system started to shut down.

My own breathing became too shallow to bring enough oxygen to my lungs, and it was extremely difficult not to gag.  This was my experience and I’d been all over the third world and smelled many overpowering smells, as most of us had. We were feeling a lot of empathy for our less “acclimated” crew member.

We made our way painfully slow across the bridge, as families, motorcycles, rickshaws, cows, goats and children in school-uniforms crossed in both directions. In that crush of people struggling daily just to survive, I’m sure we were the only ones trying not to breath.

We winded our way through the slum, making mental notes of landmarks so we could find our way back to and from the river. We finally arrived at the tiny Global Concerns office that would serve as our workshop space for the next week or so.

We were introduced to the girls and talked a little bit about what they would be learning over the next week.

Many girls in the developing world drop out of school because of their menstrual cycles. They can’t afford sanitary protection, so they stay home in shame and fear of staining their uniforms and after so many missed weeks of school they can’t keep up.

Our translator may have mentioned to them that we would also be giving them washable and reusable sanitary pad kits that would last each of them up to 5 years.

All we knew was the girls left our first meeting with curiosity and excitement and we were really looking forward to our time working with them. All we had to do now was get each of their mothers to sign a participation release form.

Marianne Elliott featuring Tia Kelley

Meeting with their mothers was going to happen the very next day in this same room. We would explain our work and have them sign off on their daughter’s participation in the workshop and the film. Everyone had already agreed to this so it was merely a formality.

We obviously hadn’t taken very good mental notes the day before. Through the labyrinth of the slum we get lost and we arrive late for our meeting with the mothers. This is not a good start! Maria approaches us. If you’ve ever been to India you’ll recognize the yes/no head shake that she gives us as she explains.

“ We have a small problem. Some of the mothers they do not wish to sign.”  

A small problem!? This is a potential disaster! We’ve traveled thousand of miles, worked countless hours and raised thousands of dollars just to work with their daughters.

Our awesome, organized plans where in fear of falling apart… As awesome organized, plans often are.

What had happened? Was it because we were late? No, it was because many of the girls had gone home the day before and asked questions that made their mothers very uncomfortable.

These questions, this preverbal can of worms we had opened was not within their comfort zone. Either they didn’t have the answers, or they didn’t want to answer what had been asked.

Had something been lost in translation? What could we have possibly said yesterday that would have caused such a stir!? … The sanitary kits! Had Maria mentioned those? Is that what this was all about?

So here I am, sitting in front of them all, as they stare unsmiling at my Irish white skin and blond hair. I can only imagine what they must be thinking. How far removed from their reality I must seem, how little I actually understand about their life, how presumptuous I am to think that I have answers that will actually make their lives easier. What do I know?

I do know something! I know the power they hold to change the future. I know that women coming together in supportive community can move mountains. I know their daughters have this one shot to positively change the course of their lives, I know that ifI can muster the courage and find a way to explain what we’re trying to do here, in a way that they will understand, then our awesome and organized plan can live another day.

We ask them to tell us about their concerns. (Lesson number one. When you’re a western NGO “helping” communities in developing nations, don’t ever try to fix something until you’re crystal clear on what they say is the problem) They tell us that their daughters had asked them questions that led to conversations that they had never had with their own mothers. Conversation they were embarrassed to have with their daughters.

One woman who was clearly a leader in the group, a woman who had some serious objections, told us that she didn’t know anything at all about her own body until after she had her first child.

The tone of the conversation was definitely “this is the way it was for us, and this is the way it has always been”

I ask her when she was younger, if she would have learned more about her body or had been able to ask those forbidden questions to her mother, would it have been a positive or a negative in her life?  She said emphatically with a huge smile that it would have made all the difference and her life would have been much easier… The room fell silent as what she said rang true for most of the women there.

They started to chatter and giggle nervously as they collectively realized that the way things had always been, had not been in their best interest. That this pattern of mothers withholding information and keeping silent on subjects that were “not talked about” had made their lives unnecessarily difficult. They realized right there that they had the power to give their daughters something they never had.

It takes courage to disrupt what has always been. To break the mold is to risk rejection and scorn. However, not one inch of progress has taken place without someone bravely stepping forward to create that progress.

What did I say about the women I work for being the bravest of all? They proved it once again. They embraced change and uncertainty; they stepped outside of their comfort zone. Each mother allowed her daughter to participate, even though they had no idea what questions they might have to answer tomorrow!

Marianne Elliott featuring Tia KelleyMeet Tia.

Tia is a professional ICF trained life coach, creator of Epic Life Maps, a girl’s leadership education facilitator and the cofounder of Global Sorority. Her passion is to empower and inspire girls and women to self-define and live Epic Lives.

Tia is inspired to create change by focusing on gender-based solutions to global problems. She also coaches women to find their path to deeper fulfillment and joy through contribution to make the world a better place, creating a legacy and life they love. Find out more by clicking here.



30 Days of Courage: a guide to bravery in action

30 Days of Courage is for people who want to step out of their comfort zone, through the small acts of daily bravery that add up to a courageous life. The next course kicks off on 20 April. I’d for you to join me. Registration is open — click HERE to find out more, or get signed up.




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2 Responses to "The Courage To Change: a guest post from Tia Kelley"

  1. Kellee says:

    What an inspiring story! I love what Global Sorority is up to and as a very western mother of a VERY western 13 year old, I can appreciate what it must have been like to be with these women and their girls, wanting so much to understand and help them. I think the reminder to “ask them what their problem is” is extremely wise. Well written and wonderful. Thank you Tia!~Dr Kellee Rutley DC

    • Tia says:

      Thank you Kellee,
      Yes the contrast between their reality and ours is quite stark! But once I get too sit down and start working with the internal stuff, I forget where I am in the world. We’re all so very much the same at our deepest level. Women all over the world really want the same things for themselves and for their children. This is what I wish to highlight in the film too. That we are one large community of sisters.
      Thank you for your comment and support.


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