Unplug to reconnect: Social media has become the main outlet and focal point for so many people, yet it’s anything but social. For millions of Americans, their community has been taken away from them and replaced with something inherently isolating, keeping them tethered to a screen. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining a divide. Add to that the onslaught of misinformation and algorithms designed to feed us a one-sided narrative, and we find a landscape designed to trigger discourse and reaction. This has led us to becoming more accustomed to speaking at each other, rather than with one another. It’s the responsibility of each of us to pick our heads up from the screen, and talk to our neighbors and community that surround us. And not through online forums…I’m talking about real world interactions. These relationships are critical to our own mental health and well-being, as well as taking a step towards healing as a collective nation.
As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Manion of Travis Manion Foundation.
Ryan Manion has dedicated her life to supporting our nation’s military, veterans, and families of fallen heroes. She is inspired by the character, leadership, and sacrifice of her brother 1st Lt Travis Manion, USMC, who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Al Anbar province of Iraq while drawing fire away from his wounded comrades on April 29th, 2007.
Serving as the President of Travis Manion Foundation since 2012, Ryan leads a national movement focused on assisting veterans and families of the fallen to take the next step in their personal journeys, and inspiring the next generation of leaders. Ryan is the co-author of The Knock at the Door, in which she shares her personal story of grief, and how she moved forward to be the best version of herself. She is also the host of The Resilient Life podcast, where her guests discuss their experiences with resilience and how they have turned their challenges into opportunities of growth.
As a highly regarded advocate for the military community, Ryan has been invited to address national audiences on numerous occasions — including Good Morning America, CBS this Morning, CNN, The Today Show, The View, Fox News and many more.
Carrying on the legacy of her brother Travis, Ryan continues to lead a life of service to others. This was most notably recognized in 2015 when she was selected to receive the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Volunteer Service. Ryan served on the Advisory Committee at Arlington National Cemetery and remains committed to their mission. As a leader in the Veteran Non-Profit sector, Ryan serves on the Advisory Boards of the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation and With Honor.
Ryan began with Travis Manion Foundation as a board member, but as national recognition increased, her calling was to become even more involved. Ryan left a position in government to dedicate herself full-time to TMF. She would go on to eventually follow in the footsteps of her late mother who started the Foundation, where Ryan remains to this day as the leader of the “If Not Me, Then Who…” movement.
Ryan resides in Doylestown, PA with her husband and three children, Maggie Rose, Honor and Travis Brendan. Ryan continues to serve her local community by serving as a Township Supervisor since elected in 2011. While responsibilities of this position are focused on deciding issues of public safety, growth management, environment, etc., Ryan most appreciates the personal connection with those within the community she is able to directly serve.\
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in a military family with a Marine Corps father, a strong mother and a competitive brother who was one year younger than me. We moved a few times which was always tough to leave friends but I liked getting to experience different parts of the country. Because of having to constantly make new friends, my one constant was my brother so he and I were best friends. I played every sport growing up including lacrosse all the way through college. We spent as much time as we could with our extended family and I would describe us as a very close family.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My brother, 1stLt Travis Manion, USMC, is my inspiration. On April 29, 2007, he was killed by an enemy sniper fire while rescuing his injured teammates after they were ambushed. My brother was a great leader that truly lived to serve others. Before leaving for his final deployment, he responded “If Not Me, Then Who…” when asked why he had to go back. These five words have become my ethos and my daily reminder to be a person for others.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
After losing my brother, I was asked to speak at his high school. Instead of speaking solely about him for an hour, I used him as one example of a person of character among other examples. Following that talk, I began going around to high schools throughout Philadelphia delivering this presentation which I named “Character Does Matter”. In the 10 years that followed, we’ve trained 2,000 veterans and family members of fallen heroes throughout the country to deliver this presentation as well as a more in-depth course on character and leadership impacting almost 400,000 young adults. This past summer, I also launched a podcast called The Resilient Life, where I have the honor of having authentic conversations with people who have dealt with real life struggle — death, illness, career and financial hardship — and come out stronger on the other side.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My mom was a fiercely strong woman.Following the loss of her only son, she started Travis Manion Foundation to support veterans and other families of the fallen. She was determined to use her grief to do something good and ensure that Travis’ mission continued. And you would have thought starting a small family foundation in the suburbs of Philadelphia would have been enough but my mother was never satisfied. She had a dream of Travis Manion Foundation becoming one of the top national non-profit organizations serving veterans and families of the fallen. After my mom was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2012, I took over her vision and today the Travis Manion Foundation has over 130,000 members across the country continuing my brother and my mom’s legacy of service.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
A few years ago, we were approached by someone with a very impressive resume that told us how he helped other non-profits connect with some of the most well-known philanthropists that would take our organization to the next level. We worked with him for about a year and were amazed by his rolodex of who’s who in America’s corporate leaders. After a couple of questionable interactions, we decided to do a little research and discovered that he was not who he claimed to be. Fortunately for us, we broke ties before his plot unfolded and no one was hurt. But my lesson through that experience was that if something is too good to be true, it probably is. Success is the result of hard work and there are no shortcuts.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I am a big fan of the book Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. This book is all about personal accountability, which is something that is too many of us overlook. Nothing will be handed to you in this life.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I’d have to go back to my brother’s five words “If Not Me, Then Who…” that he spoke before his final deployment. At the time, my husband had asked him why he would have to go back to Iraq for a second deployment, and that was Travis’s response. Those words really drive my decisions in life because they remind me that if I want to see change in myself, my community, or the world, I need to be the one to step forward and serve. While I more than realize the significance of these 5 words today, I was a different person before my brother was killed. My biggest regret is that it was only after Travis was killed that I became the woman I wanted to be.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is inspiring others to accomplish the mission. A good leader focuses on developing herself and her team in order to have the biggest impact serving others. The best example of leadership was my brother. He worked hard his entire life developing himself to be the best leader of Marines and he was prepared on his final day when his team needed him the most. He ensured that every other member of his team survived.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I think that people have lost important connections and the ability to effectively communicate as our lives have become increasingly more digital over the past couple of decades. While technology has improved many things and made us more efficient in many ways, it’s eliminated many of the old ways that we used to connect and communicate. Text messages and social media have a use but they don’t replace in-person experiences which help to build trust and improve relationships. Add to that a divisive media, a polarizing presidential election and a global pandemic, and it’s like you’ve added gasoline to the fire which is the current situation where we find ourselves.
I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?
One of the big surprises last year was how people’s reaction to the pandemic became political. Each of us is in a different situation and have different risk tolerances which should dictate our reaction; however, instead it became about political ideology and which news source you watch. For my family, we’ve tried to stay in the middle of the risk spectrum. My children go to school in-person, I continue to go into an office or meet with people for work, and my family traveled over the holiday. We wear masks and follow social distancing and other CDC guidelines. However, I have other extended family members that refuse to leave their house and therefore get left out. If someone is vulnerable due to a health condition, I understand. But, unfortunately, in most cases it’s due to the partisan media, misinformation and politics.
In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?
I think divides that have occurred in families will be bridged over time as we start to spend more time together, as the vaccine rolls out, and as our country moves forward from the pandemic. Genuine relationships, along with having a sense of purpose, are the most important factors that determine well-being. With the lack of social interaction and increase in subsequent mental health problems, small problems have become big problems. We need to get back our in-person connections in order to bridge the divides that have become exasperated over the past year.
How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?
First, professionals should not feel the need to share every thought over social media. At Travis Manion Foundation, one of our organizational values is “Out of many, One” which speaks to respecting others and leveraging our differences to make us better. But publicly stating every thought or opinion over social media is not productive and is often divisive. I encourage our team to sit down in-person and truly listen to each other if they want to have a discussion about a difficult topic. But trying to communicate complex issues in 140 characters will lead to fractured relationships. While working from home has been necessary at certain times this past year, we need to get back to safely working together in-person collaboratively to improve relationships and build trust.
I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?
At Travis Manion Foundation, we’ve invested hours of training into topics of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion which help people understand the different ways that we identify ourselves and see each other. I think this type of training should become commonplace in order to overcome some of the political and social divides that we are experiencing. People will find that we have much more in common than may appear at first glance. And what unites us is so much stronger than what divides us.
Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?
Social media is a great tool, but too many have begun to use social media to create a community, where in reality it is a forum. Nothing will take the place of real community through genuine interaction. It is not a great way to try to communicate complex topics. I think people need to rethink how they use social media and which topics deserve more intimate communication channels such as face-to-face. These relationships are critical to our own mental health and well-being, as well as taking a step towards healing as a collective nation.
What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?
In my house, we purposely try to get multiple perspectives on an issue by watching or reading about it on different networks or outlets. You can’t rely on any single source to get the full story. While the idea of discussing issues like race or politics has become uncomfortable, especially among family members, the trick is to not go into a conversation trying to win or change their mind. Instead we need to listen to all sides before coming to an informed conclusion.
Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?
I think it starts by educating ourselves on the systems that our country has in place to protect us from ourselves. Our government was created with checks and balances that purposely make it difficult for any single person to achieve their agenda without the support of elected officials that represent a diverse population. Within all government agencies, we have career professionals dedicated to the American people without regard to politics. We should have faith in our great country and understand that the only threat to our existence is our own divisiveness.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Unplug to reconnect: Social media has become the main outlet and focal point for so many people, yet it’s anything but social. For millions of Americans, their community has been taken away from them and replaced with something inherently isolating, keeping them tethered to a screen. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining a divide. Add to that the onslaught of misinformation and algorithms designed to feed us a one-sided narrative, and we find a landscape designed to trigger discourse and reaction. This has led us to becoming more accustomed to speaking at each other, rather than with one another. It’s the responsibility of each of us to pick our heads up from the screen, and talk to our neighbors and community that surround us. And not through online forums…I’m talking about real world interactions. These relationships are critical to our own mental health and well-being, as well as taking a step towards healing as a collective nation.
- Commit to your community: At Travis Manion Foundation, we’re actively building a community that is made up of more than 130,000 veterans, families of the fallen, and inspired civilians who all have something in common — they all exemplify character by being part of something bigger than themselves. These individuals come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, races, religions, and cultures — every sense of the word diversity, and we’ve pulled them together to accomplish a common mission of BEING the good in our own communities. Everything that we do, whether its volunteering at a soup kitchen, cleaning up a neighborhood park, organizing a food drive, or even just holding the door for someone, are actions we take to honor the service and sacrifice of our fallen military members. They are the inspirational backdrop to everything we do. By carrying on their legacies of service and character in our own communities, we’re not just doing good, but we’re also setting an example for our next generation of leaders.
- Have constructive conversations with those who think differently: Many of us are less practiced with having conversations with those who have different beliefs than us which has made us resistant to seeing other perspectives. While the idea of discussing issues like race or politics has become uncomfortable, especially among family members, the trick is to not go into a conversation trying to win or change their mind. Instead we need to listen to all sides before coming to an informed conclusion. Even if there continues to be a difference of opinion, when we have conversations with those who may have different beliefs, we can’t go into it assuming that person is out to get us. Right now there is a real fear that the other side is strictly out to slander the opposition. We’ve gotten away from the idea that we’re all Americans looking to solve a problem, and instead see it that anyone with a different mindset is out to get us. Yes, there are actors on both sides of the divide who are maliciously leaning into this narrative, and that makes it even more important that we look to our neighbors, friends, and family members who we’ve built trusting relationships with already, to bridge that divide. At the end of the day, everyone is striving for a better life for ourselves and our family, security, and equal opportunity, which is the common ground where we can start these conversations.
- Don’t stand on the sidelines: We’re often looking to a small portion of the population, being our politicians and local leaders, to fix the problems that afflict our country. Clearly that’s not working. We need to have real life conversations at home and with our friends first, because that is where we have the strongest connections. We cannot allow relationships to be torn apart simply over political disagreements. Just because someone supports a different political candidate, it doesn’t make them your enemy. We will all have varying beliefs about an infinite amount of topics, but to allow political affiliation to fracture our bonds with those we care for can only lead us down a dangerous and lonely path. Embrace all that life has to offer beyond politics, and even if someone has different beliefs, it’s vital that we maintain those connections. But to do that, it’s up to each of us to take the first step
- Don’t wait to change: Through all these ideas of how we can all help unite our country, I urge you to take action today. Don’t put off finding the best version of yourself. I lost my best friend and only brother, Marine 1st Lieutenant Travis Manion on April 29th, 2007, when he was killed by an enemy sniper in Iraq while pulling his wounded teammates to safety. In the years following Travis’ death, I channeled my grief through countless actions I had never imagined I could do, like running a marathon, building homes in underserved communities, and now leading one of the nation’s leading veteran nonprofits, which bears his name. There are so many things I wish Travis and I could have done together, because I am definitely not the same woman he knew when he was alive. I’m better. I’m stronger. I’m more purpose driven. But I wish I didn’t wait for him to disappear before I became the woman I wanted to be. Every day I set out to be a positive force, because that’s what Travis and all our fallen military members sacrificed their lives doing. So to carry on their legacies, I challenge you to be the change today that takes another step towards uniting this country which they loved enough to give their lives for.
Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?
Start with one action. Say a kind word to someone or perform an act of kindness. If you live in the northeast (or Texas), go shovel your elderly neighbor’s driveway. Hold the door open for a stranger. Smile and greet people as you walk by. Be big in the small things and they will add up to big change.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’m an eternal optimist. Of course this issue can be resolved but it relies on each of us being the change that we seek. Don’t wait for others to do it for us. Political leaders won’t fix our problems. Before my brother left for his final deployment to Iraq, he stated “If Not, Me Then Who…” when asked why he had to return for a dangerous deployment. Each of us has the opportunity to have an “If Not Me, Then Who…” moment every day. If we each adopt this ethos, we will be fine.
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
When I speak with young adults, I share the stories of this generation of fallen heroes who stepped up when our country needed them and bravely sacrificed their lives for us. Now it’s our turn to pay it forward and serve others.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have a private lunch with Reese Witherspoon. She is such an incredible role model for young females. Many may see her as just an actress, where in reality she has changed the landscape for what it means to be a female in business. From her book club to her media company, she elevates stories of women across the globe. I also love how in the face of all the divide in our country she has managed to maintain a balance of sharing her thoughts and opinions, but not alienating others that may think differently than her.
How can our readers follow you online?
Travis Manion Foundation’s social media handles are @travismanionfoundation on Instagram and Facebook, and @TMFoundation on Twitter. You can also find more information on our website, www.travismanion.org. My personal social media handles are @rmanion on Instagram and Twitter and @rmanionTMF on Facebook. My website is ryanmanion.com, and I also host a podcast called “The Resilient Life” that can be found on all streaming platforms.
This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!