Welcome to The Villa: The Story of Our Stories
It was the end of the third day of new program we were conducting for a humanitarian leadership group just outside of Pretoria, South Africa in February 2014. They had been a challenging group in the beginning, as we had not anticipated the resistance we met from mid-career women leaders who were skeptical about being sent to a “women’s leadership and career development workshop”. They thought it as a remedial course that women needed in order to keep up with the men in the organization. They had pushed back on nearly every concept we presented, asking, “Why aren’t the men learning this?” or “Are our leaders really serious and committed to change this time?”
But the group had miraculously softened by the morning of the third day, and embraced—no--owned the experience, and they were on fire with commitment and inspiration. We were wrapping up the schedule by inviting their “takeaways” and plans for continued learning, when one of the women flipped open her iPad and began recording each of the women’s comments and commitments to her own growth.
I listened carefully as each of the 23 women in the room vocalized her aspirations to the 8-inch screen held by the volunteer recorder. Some were tearful, others were straightforward, some giggled with joy as they described their vision and resolve to make both personal and professional strides forward.
Suddenly the iPad stopped in front of me, and it caught me off guard, as I had not considered myself to be participating in the exercise—only facilitating it. What was my plan? What could I say that would add value to their experience?
“Stories,” I heard myself saying. “I’m going to collect stories of remarkable women I am privileged to meet everywhere I go.” I don’t know where that response came from. It was true that I was honored in every program by the opportunity to sit with each group of powerful women and listen to their stories of unfathomable hardship, courage, adventure, obstacles, creative problem-solving and resilience. And I’ve thought countless times of how sharing stories of our vulnerabilities connects us deeply in a strange way, helping us see each other with empathy, compassion and less judgment.
But I had not planned on making a commitment to collecting stories that day. It just came out of somewhere. And that feeling, that strange commitment, has stayed with me since then, and resurfaced in every program I have the chance to lead.
Stories are a big part of our women’s leadership and career development program. We examine all of our “stories”—the stories we tell ourselves through our beliefs and values, the stories we tell others through our behaviors, and the new stories we can tell by expanding our awareness, skill sets and courage. When we determine what we want in our future story, we can write our own plot and narrative to achieve what we really want. We started this focus on “story” at the very first Chocolate Villa program in 2009, and have continued it in every one since.
I guess it wasn’t that surprising to me, then, when Carol and I met for lunch last summer and we ended up talking about this idea of telling stories. Carol attended that first (very experimental) Chocolate Villa program in 2009, and had just taken up photography to offset the pressures of her day job as a psychotherapist and child custody evaluator.
She showed me some of her photos from her recent trip to Russia. “There’s a story in every photograph,” she said. We skimmed through images of fantastic architectural structures, rustic doors and gates, stunning landscapes, and people—so many kinds of people. I could tell that she had combined her natural eye for taking photos with a lot of formal learning. She described the dozen or so courses she had taken to improve her technical skills in photography, and the evidence of her growing talent was right there before me on the screen.
When I shared with her my experience in South Africa, Carol’s eyes gleamed. “Let’s do it,” she almost shouted. “Let’s tell stories of remarkable, amazing, every-day, real women. Not the ones who get all the space on magazine covers. Let’s find the women who are authentic, courageous, rebellious—you know, the ones who push the limits and break the rules, the ones who’ve tried things and maybe failed, but they bounced back up with a new plan. They’re the ones you want to be like because they inspire you and make you reach way down into your own courage and want to try…something.”
I might have imagined it, but I could swear that I heard an audible click somewhere in my chest, just above the place where my heart sits. Something loud and bold connected for me that day. It took me back to the heat and humidity of a day in South Africa when I sat surrounded by a circle of women who were outwardly so different me and from each other, but so much the same on the inside, connected deeply by our experiences and our shared stories.
“I’m in,” I said, barely able to choke out the words through my joy. “I’m all in!”
We are thrilled to finally launch our blog, The Villa, as a place for storytelling, connection, shared wisdom, and—we hope—plenty of inspiration and fun. We invite you will travel this new road with us, and share your stories and ideas to inspire us and make us better. We want The Villa to be a place you come to find rejuvenation and refreshment on your journey—whatever it is.
Welcome to The Villa: The lights are on. Let yourself in.
Cheers from your Storytellers,
Merrilee and Carol