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Conversation with Pat Mitchell

pat mitchellPat Mitchell: Since assuming her current role as President and Chief Executive Officer of The Paley Center for Media, Ms. Mitchell has brought new life to The Paley Center for Media’s event series with innovative programming, attracting high profile leaders in entertainment, technology, business, politics, and policy. Drawing upon its influential board of trustees and International Council of media executives, Ms. Mitchell has clearly positioned the Paley Center as both a neutral forum for industry professionals and a public space for media lovers to gather for informative and entertaining events—from evenings with casts and creative teams of current popular series to premieres of new and innovative work to industry dialogues focused on the dynamics of a rapidly evolving and converging media landscape.

Ms. Mitchell came to The Paley Center for Media from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), where she was named president and chief executive officer in March 2000, the first woman and first producer and journalist to hold the position. During her tenure, she oversaw the development of many new projects, including a celebrated new series for children focusing on teaching literacy skills and celebrating diversity, a testament to her belief in the power of media to empower and inform. She also led public broadcasting into the digital future with such initiatives as the conversion from analog to digital broadcasting, the launch of a high-definition PBS channel and an on-demand and cable preschool children’s service, the growth of PBS’s website into one of the three most visited sites on the Internet, and the establishment of the Digital Future Initiative to help define models for public service media using new digital technologies.

Ms. Mitchell came to the world of media when she was recruited from college teaching by Look magazine. Not long after, she took her first story to WNBC New York, where she saw her work go from page to screen – and never looked back. Over the next three decades, Ms. Mitchell worked for three broadcast networks and several cable channels, winning national acclaim both in front of and behind the camera as a reporter, news anchor, talk show host, White House and special correspondent, producer, and executive. In the mid eighties, she established her own independent production company that produced documentaries, series, and specials for broadcast, cable, and national syndication. She became the first woman to nationally syndicate her own show, the Emmy-winning Woman to Woman, which she also hosted. In 1992, Ms. Mitchell became an executive in charge of original productions for Ted Turner’s cable networks. Over the next eight years as executive producer, her documentaries and specials received thirty-seven Emmy Awards, five Peabody Awards, and two Academy Award nominations.

Ms. Mitchell herself has received numerous awards during the course of her career, including the Women in Cable and Telecommunications Woman of the Year Award; the CINE Golden Eagle for Lifetime Achievement; the PROMAX Century Award for contributions to the television industry; the Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Leadership; and most recently, the NATPE Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award. In addition, Mitchell was named one of the most influential female executives in the media by the Hollywood Reporter and was honored as one of the first fifty women in The Paley Center for Media’s She Made It initiative.

In addition to her accomplishments both on and off the screen, Ms. Mitchell is also known for her humanitarian efforts and her work as a dedicated member of numerous nonprofit boards. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; the vice chair of the Sundance Institute board; a founding member of Mikhail Gorbachev’s global environmental organization, Global Green USA; a member of the V-Day board, a global movement to end violence against women and girls; a member of the Human Rights Watch board of directors; an adviser to the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Harvard University; a member of the Mayo Clinic’s board of trustees; and on the corporate boards of Bank of America, Participant Productions, and SunMicrosystems, Inc.

A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Georgia, with a master’s degree in English literature, Ms. Mitchell has also been awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Emerson College, Hollins University, Bloomsburg University, and Converse College. She and her husband, Scott Seydel, have six children and ten grandchildren and reside in New York and Atlanta, Georgia.


The following interview was conducted at Omega Institute at the conference Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations.

Marianne Schnall: The theme of this conference is connecting across the generations. Why do you think intergenerational dialogue is so important?

Pat Mitchell: Well, it’s essential because there’s so much work left to be done. And those of us who were in the first, second and third waves have, where many have been - I think creating a more fair and equitable world has been going on a long time for all of us, right? In all our different ways. So if we don’t pass on what we’ve learned, then everybody starts all over again. And I feel like that was the lesson from our mothers’ generation – we saw so many of their lives not go the way they wanted, and then they would see our lives going a different way, and so I want to make sure that my children, my grandchildren, have every opportunity to know where the opportunities are. So that maybe we can eliminate some of the same battles having to be fought again, and more importantly, maybe we can take what we’ve learned and unify our actions and build coalitions – the things that are the toughest to do. Across generational coalitions are the only way we are really going to reach the outcomes we are looking for.

MS: It seems like we’re at the cusp of something new for women – it’s hard when you get into linguistics with terms like the “feminist movement” or “women’s movement” - but like some different phase is emerging for women. I love that this conference is bringing together all these diverse voices and talking about all these important bridges of issues, such as between racism and sexism, connecting all these generations – just opening up the conversation.

PM: Yes. Well, you know part of dividing us – dividing us by race, class, generation – has been part of keeping us oppressed! I mean, as long as they could say, “Well, those older feminists. You don’t want to be like them after all!” - it was a way of keeping younger women from identifying with us, because if they identify with us, then they might fight with us. And the same thing with saying the women’s movement was a white, middle class women’s movement – not true for any of us who were in the middle of it. But as long as that can be perpetuated - then black women, and Asian women, and Mexican women – they’ll feel out it, left out of it. So I really believe that’s the way the oppressors - those who are the dominant class, culture, gender - manage to stay that way. Is to make sure that bridges aren’t built between the other various sectors – that should we all come together – well, now that’s a force to contend with.

I think it’s happening. You saw that research that was talked about here at Omega that younger women do in fact, in very large numbers, identify themselves as feminist. So how come every newspaper article, every television thing I hear about this, says the opposite. How come

MS: Speaking of misconceptions, what do you think is the biggest stereotype about older women that needs to be debunked?

PM: Oh, that we gave up a lot. That we fought all those battles and became hardened, unhappy women who were doing without husbands and children, leading unfulfilling lives. Also not true. Totally not true! Now there are many of us who make compromises along the way and never felt as successful as parents and as working women as we wanted to, because there were so many existing barriers to our being to our being able to feel fulfilled that way. There were times, I’m sure, when we all looked at each other, like that great Lily Tomlin routine who said, “If I had known this is what it was to have it all, I’d have settled for less.” [laughs] There were certainly times in my life, I thought, “Oh, OK – I might just settle.” But of course I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t have wanted to settle for less, I just wanted change so that we can have more of what we need, when we need it. It’s only asking for the same access, for the same opportunities.

So the misconception, in my opinion, is that we, the older generation of feminists, fought all the battles, yes, but didn’t win as many of them as people would like to think – because so many of the battles were small and quiet and behind the scenes. And then the fact that many of us didn’t have very fulfilling lives. That our lives got out of balance. I think they did get out of balance. But that’s all part of the growing and evolving that comes from going down new pathways! The pathway is not going to be even, if you haven’t walked it before. And we were walking new paths and balancing all kinds of things at the same time

MS: Speaking about stereotypes about older women – there are so many cultural influences that make women feel like they should fight or fear aging. What’s your attitude about getting older? That’s been another thing that’s great for these younger women to see, all these vibrant, passionate older women.

PM: There was an interesting difference of opinion here at Omega with Isabel Allende who was saying “You don’t get wiser, you just become more of what you are.” [laughs] Which is really, you know, part of me agrees with her, but part of me doesn’t. Part of me is where Elizabeth Lesser is on this subject, and where Gloria Steinem is, is that we are redefining every age of our lives. All of us are. I mean twenty-year-olds today – they aren’t where I was at twenty – and they’re in a very different world, so how can we say that we’re not different, we’re not a different kind of sixty or seventy or eighty-year-old? We are! So I’m just hoping for myself and for the women around me and that I come into contact with – I just hope that I’m still learning. As long as I’m learning every day of my life, I will never feel old. Never. And I don’t feel old, I feel in my head and in my heart – I don’t know, ageless! You know? And that’s I think because I’m still learning and still growing as a person.

MS: Two years ago at this same conference I interviewed Carol Gilligan and we talked about her research showing that girls tend to lose their voices around the age of eleven or twelve, then having to do so much work to re-discover them later in life. I myself have two daughters, eight and eleven, and I can see these societal pressures. What message would you most want to instill in girls and younger women?

PM:You know, I see this – I think Carol really tapped into a reality about being a girl, not only in this society, but in almost every culture. There is a point, and it’s usually around puberty and when you are becoming a woman – that transition time, where women do lose their voice, for all the reasons that Carol goes into. If we could save them the time lost between that time and the time when they start to regain it - can you imagine the power we would unleash? And that’s why this conference in my opinion is among the most powerful that we’ve ever addressed! And it’s why most of my work now is in mentoring. Because that’s a way of doing it one-on-one, one-to-twenty – however I can do it. I spend a lot of time on college campuses, a lot of time mentoring young women in all sectors of business, because I don’t want them to spend as much time to get their voice, as I did.

And you know, people say to me, well, you say you’re sixty-seven because you don’t look it, or you don’t act it or whatever. And I go, “But what does that mean?” That’s like saying to a fifteen year-old, “Tell me you’re eighteen, because you don’t look fifteen.” No – what is it inside our heads, and how much do we trust in who we are at any age, and recognize whatever the age is, we have something to say, something to contribute, valuing that, and saying that, speaking that, doing that, is what we’ve got to believe in. And boy, there’s work to be done. Carol pointed out the gap, and now I think it’s up to each and every one of us. I see it in my grandchildren, two of whom are coming into that space where they are going from being very active, energetic, totally upfront with opinions [laughs] and everything else. I can see them starting to recede – physically they just start to recede, out of the mainstream.

MS: How old are they?

PM: Thirteen, fourteen. And I want to grab them back and say, “Wait a minute – we cannot afford, the world is in too big an emergency, we cannot afford for you to go into that wallpaper place and lose your voice and struggle with identity for four years, so let’s help.

MS: So how is this rectified – is it through the media, is it through educational systems, is it through parenting – is it all those things combined?

PM:Well, here’s my passionate conviction about where we are in terms of the tools we have to change that. Media and technology are our greatest assets. And yet, they are our most undervalued and underused assets. Now when I say that people look at me like I’m crazy, because every young person we know in the world is never without media, ever [laughs]. I mean, between their phones, their Blackberries, their games or whatever. So how come we’re not using all that? How come we’re not putting important information, empowering content, celebrating content, on those phones, on those games, on those computers, so that all that time they’re spending with media, at least a part of it, is empowering them, instead of sadly what it’s doing now, which is disconnecting them. It’s funny, it connects them to their friends, but it’s disconnecting them from the things that need to know about their own lives and about other people’s lives. I think they’d spend a lot less time obsessing about what they’re going to wear on Friday night if they knew that there were young girls in Kenya being married off for fourteen cows at their age. MS: By the way, since my conversation with Carol Gilligan, Feminist.com has been working with Carol on developing an exciting online initiative tentatively called “Young Voices” that I would love to have you involved with.

PM: Fantastic – I would be happy to do it. I think it’s the best way that we, in the older generation, give back, I really do. Again, what you suggest, what you’re doing at Feminist.com, is you are using media and technology to scale up what I’m trying to do on a one-on-one basis with mentees. You can’t do it at the scale that we need for it to be done, except through these tools we now have that we never had before!

You know, someone was saying a minute ago, you know women have always used the written word – it was essays that led to the abolition of slavery – or at least started that movement. It was certainly the written word that started the suffragist and suffragette movements. OK – we‘ve launched two major human rights movements in the last 200 years, so let’s get going here. We have more ways to put that written word out there and the ideas out there than ever before. And images to go with them.

MS: I read this powerful speech you wrote called The Media Effect – it seems you’re passionate about this, your belief that we are wasting the power of the media.

PM: We are, we are! And I use examples in those remarks – I have had the privilege of witnessing it, so I know it’s real, and we all know it in our lives – there is probably no single greater power. So why aren’t we using it? Every other group in the world is using it.

MS: So why do you think we’re not?

PM:Well, we’re very quick to recognize the negative power – I mean, it’s very easy to blame the media -as you and I have just sat here and done – fairly, by the way, because it damn well deserves it for all the stereotyping and the fact that less than twelve percent of news globally concerns women and their stories. Less than twelve percent! That’s outrageous! Can you imagine in any other group thinking that was OK, especially when the group is half of the world’s population, more than half? So, part of it is that we have stood on the sidelines and been critical and tried to approach it that way, as an advocate saying “fix it” you know, “give us more time, do more stories.” Well, I’ve just come to the conclusion that’s not going to work. It’s good – it’s a valued effort, but it’s not going to change. Mainstream media is too entrenched in the things that keep it going – the structures and the constructs that keep it going. So let’s create an option! Let’s take all these tools - they don’t belong to anybody after all. I mean, the technology’s there – you’ve done it with Feminist.com – let’s take them all, and find a new way to unify all of that power into one new thing. Is it a new global women’s network? Yeah! By network do I mean what networks look like now? No. No, because we will have a lot of barriers to doing that. But is that what we want to do anyway? No – we want to do a news and information and content service that will be available to you if you are a Kenyan woman who has one computer in a wireless Internet café a hundred miles away but gets there once a week or a month, or you’re a woman with a cell phone in Africa – we want to create something like that – because it’s possible! We don’t have to create anything, all we have to do is take the tools that are there, put them into some unified network of distribution. And then we can turn that media effect into a “change the world effect” for women and girls.

MS: It seems like with the new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, and even the coverage of Hillary’s recent visit to the Congo, I feel like there maybe is some increasing awareness about how supporting, protecting and educating women and girls is interconnected with helping the whole of humanity and interdependent with a lot of the other problems the world faces.

PM:Totally. Totally. The best part of “Half the Sky” for me is that they have taken the arguments that we all know about bad things are, illustrated it with profoundly tragic stories which most of us know, and knew, but they have put it on this head, saying “here’s an economic opportunity.” And that may be a tipping point - although I think we passed the tipping point a long time ago [laughs]. But it won’t matter enough – one book won’t matter enough unless we take that new interest, and galvanize it in some sort of long term, scaled up way. And I just believe it’s possible now! There’s just too many examples of people doing it small time, small scale, and making big-time difference. So let’s do it big-time - and make globally a big difference.

MS: I posted a few of your quotes from Omega’s Women, Power and Peace conference in a special section I created at Feminist.com, and one of the things you said was, “Part of the reason that women aren’t in that group, and a lot of other groups, where decisions are being made today is that we will still move away from power.”

PM:We do. We do. We’re even moving away from the power of media just as we were just discussing. Well, part of it is because power in our lifetimes has been defined by the dominant gender who has it. And a lot of the way they have defined power is not something we as women are comfortable with, nor would we want to carry out power in that way. And so we move away from the current definitions and current manifestations of power. Well, that’s not the kind of power we are talking about anyway! We are talking about redefining it, putting a woman’s perspective on power. And the good news now is we have more women leading countries and companies who are doing that, so we are actually piling up a lot of evidence that isn’t just nice little feminist mythology – that it’s actually real, women really do use power in a different way. So that’s why I say about the power of media – let’s don’t move away from it and just get frustrated with it as we all are and say, “Ah, the media will never cover this story. The media will never tell that story. The media will never sell…” OK – let’s create our own.

MS: In your extensive background in the media, you have broke so many barriers, being the first woman President and CEO of PBS, and so many different accomplishments – you really are a trailblazer. What advice would you give to women on finding the courage to overcome obstacles or barriers they may face?

PM: Well, I always go back to my grandmother’s advice to me, which was, the first time I fell and hurt myself. And she said to me, “Honey, at least falling on your face is a forward movement.” And that came back to me many times as I failed to get the job, or failed to do things perfectly or the way that I needed to do, or wanted to do or whatever – or I was in a show that got cancelled - I mean, you know, all those things. The times we face failure. So you have to be willing to be brave enough to risk falling on your face. To risk failing. And that’s what women like yourself are doing when you go out there and create new web sites, and when you try to make a living as a writer, or balancing a career with motherhood – everything we do is about taking risks. You have to be willing to do that.

And then you have to – in my opinion, the thing as a woman leader that to me is the most important thing, and I learned this early through a whole bunch of great women who were in my life – and men, I have to say. That if you have a position of leadership and power, and you don’t use it in a different way, then you’re wasting it. So when people used to say to me when I was the first woman President of PBS and they would say, “Well, you know, does that mean that as a woman you’re going to be a different kind of President?” And I would say, “Well, I hope so!” And people would say to me, “Don’t say that! That’s like saying women are going to …” I would say, “No – I want to be a different kind of President.” And I think if we back away from that – that’s why the progress doesn’t count as much as it should. Because if we took every step, and we figured, OK, may not change the world here, but I’m going to do this my way. And if doing it as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter – all of the experiences of life that we bring to something as a woman – that’s going to naturally mean I’m going to do that job differently. I’m going to lead differently. If we all did that in every place we are, starting with being President of the senior class, starting with being your school editor – whatever, even on the cheerleading squad, on the soccer team – whatever!

MS: I was listening to Alberta Nells’ speech, who I will be interviewing tomorrow – I loved when she talked about the balance of the masculine and the feminine in Native American culture, because we often talk about all this in a very literal gender sense. But what you’re saying is really about women valuing their feminine – it’s not just enough to be a woman. That was a big thing a couple of Omega conferences ago.

PM: It was. What we were saying is it’s not enough to be a woman to get my vote – and by the way, it isn’t – it’s not enough to have a vagina, as Eve Ensler says [laughs]. You’ve also got to have values. But that’s what I’m talking about – the feminine values.

I’ll share an anecdote – I ran into Alberta’s parents on the pathway here – and I said to them, “What an amazing couple you are and how proud that must have made you that she stood there and said that my mother and my father are equally responsible for who I am.” I don’t think there are many of us who would say that, by the way. I think you’re a very lucky girl to have a mother and a father, both of whom think contributed to your balance in the world, right? I think most of us had a battle with one or the other, right? [laughs] So the Native American approach to harmony is – oh, boy - is that something we could learn from and incorporate more of. So in that way, she grew up in a culture where they do see male and female in everything. But that doesn’t mean that they in any way diminish the feminine. If anything, they celebrate it. And by the way, most of the men I know, including my husband and my sons, love to celebrate the feminine in them, just as I am sure that I have a lot of things that might be defined as “male” by somebody, somewhere. I define everything I do, though, in my opinion, through my womanhood. But I think my life is enhanced by having enlightened men in it. [laughs]

MS: Yes, I think that is actually an important part of this next wave, including men into the conversation, both in terms of as allies, but also in terms of helping men realize how they’re also limited by constraining gender roles and stereotypes.

PM:Well, one more thought about power and why this issue is really critical. No one in history has ever voluntarily given up power. It just doesn’t happen. People don’t say, “Oh, this has been wonderful to be King, but I think I’ll let you do it.” You know, no. So we’re asking people who have power in most countries and societies and families, to give it up voluntarily. What we have to do instead, is say we don’t want to take your power, we don’t – we want to share your power, and by doing so, create a different, more equitable place.

It’s interesting, I saw something in the Maasai Mara two weeks ago with Eve [Ensler] that I’ll just share with you – I’m sure she’s going to write about it, but I will share it with you. Because it was a perfect example. Female genital mutilation passes on as a cultural tradition in the Maasai, largely because the grandmothers and the women, they are the ones who do the cutting, they are the ones who hold the girls down and force them to do it. Now, they do that because they were cut. And they believed that they couldn’t get married if they didn’t, they understood their place in the family was to make sure they were marriageable so that the family could get the dowry. And fathers of course were complicit and agreed – they didn’t actually do the act. So now that there are so many mothers saying “I don’t want my daughter to do this – I know how bad physically it was for me to have this done.” Not just the pain - but what happens afterwards. So they’re helping them run away. And fathers then have of course said, wait a minute, wait a minute - that twelve-year-old girl running away means that I don’t get the fourteen cows the neighbor promised to get to me, give to me, for her. Well, if you convince that father that that young girl, un-cut and schooled, educated, is going to bring him a lot more income than fourteen cows – he feels very different about the situation. And we had fathers stand up and testify at the school that V-Day set up there – and this is just in one five year period – you see this change.

So sometimes the power thing is about, “Look, I’ve got the power but I’ve got the responsibility to feed the fifty-one people who live here in this village.” OK – let’s understand that, let’s respect that. How can we help you do that, in a way that doesn’t disempower and humiliate and abuse the women who live here, and who are your wives and children? And if you can do that, then you have created a much more equitable situation. So yes, village by village, it’s a hard, long slog, but if that’s what it takes, then you’ve turned around a generation. You’ve freed up a generation of young Maasai women – who knows what that might mean in bringing the Maasai truly into a progressive era

MS: Do you feel hopeful? Sometimes we forget the horrible things that are happening to women and girls globally – female genital mutiliation, the epidemic of rape in the Congo, or burning girls schools in Afghanistan, the oppression of women in places like Saudi Arabia – we tend to forget the horrific things that are happening around the world to women and girls. I know you have experience travelling around the world with V-Day. Do you feel hopeful when you look out at the world that the situation is improving?

PM: I felt very hopeful two weeks ago in the Maasai Mara when I witnessed this. I felt very hopeful when Hillary Clinton went to the Congo and said we will not tolerate sexual violence. I feel extremely hopeful when I’m at Omega. Because it’s here that I see the women, and the men, who are going out into the world and working day in and day out on changing the dynamic of power which has to be changed, and helping create a different kind of world. A world where opportunities are a lot more fairly and equitably distributed, and a world where girls are valued, and a world where a woman’s power is fully deployed.

MS: I always wish we could bottle the feeling we get here at these conferences…

PM: I do too! And by the way, this is why I’m so high on this media effect thing. We can’t bottle it, and we can’t share what we’re feeling. The four hundred lucky ones of us who are here? Well, that’s what media can do. That’s what you’re doing right now in talking to me and putting it out on your web site and anywhere else you can get it. Well, suppose I gave you an opportunity to put it somewhere that would be immediately available to any woman in the world who could get anywhere near a media device. Wouldn’t that be great?

MS: Absolutely.

PM: Ok, let’s do it!

MS: What is your vision or prayer for the future when you look out at the world?

PM: Well, I think I just said it – I mean, my vision of a world is one that is built on sustainable values and practices, because there won’t be a world if we don’t figure that one out [laughs]. And again, no better people than women to save the planet! Because we understand the cycles of life. So if cycles of life were applied to all of our environmental and natural resource degradation, we would change where we’re going.

A world where girls are valued, because they must be, they have so much to contribute, and that’s the economic opportunity that the world is missing. And then a world where a woman’s voice really makes a difference. Because we have a different set of values, and if we speak them and live them, then the world will reflect that. And that’s bound to be a more equitable and just place.

MS: Where does all your energy and inspiration come from?

PM: Talking to women like you! I mean, I feed off that energy, because it reminds me there’s so much work left to do. It also, by the way, makes me feel that it might happen in my lifetime. Wait - I don’t want to say it might happen in my lifetime – I’m sorry - I want to say it will happen in my lifetime.

MS: I love you corrected that - I watched your video on the V-Day site the other day, where you said what attracted you to working with Eve was when she proclaimed V-Day’s mission was to "end" violence against women and girls - not using more tentative terms like "saving" or "fixing" or "figuring out the reasons for it" – but pointedly to “end violence” – it’s having that audacity to just have that bold vision and hold it.

PM:Well, when I talked to the Secretary of State’s office after her Congo visit and she said – not Hillary – but someone who works closely with her – she said, “Oh, but it’s so complicated and all the political issues in the Congo and blah, blah, blah, blah…” And I go – look – of course it is. There isn’t anything worth doing in the world that isn’t. We have to end it. We can’t just fix it, build another hospital, help another rape victim – no, it’s to end it. And by the way, if we can end it there, I think we can end it anywhere.


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Other interviews by Marianne Schnall

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©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.

Marianne's new book based on her interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.

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