Find what brings you joy. I wasn’t sure where to start. I knew there needed to be change in the world, but to look at starting on a grand scale is overwhelming and kind of impractical. Instead, I started by looking at what brings me the most joy, and that’s loving people, sharing my story, making people laugh, and being fully me as often as I can. So, I looked at that and just started there. I wrote my story down as a form of therapy for myself, and as a potential guide and a good laugh for others, and then it’s all blossomed from that point.
As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chelsea Montgomery-Duban Waechter, otherwise known as Chelsea Austin, writer, speaker and LGBTQ+ advocate from Malibu, California raised by two of the most incredible parents, her dads. Chelsea has taken her story of being raised by two gay men, and used it as a platform to spread love, tolerance and has advocated for the LGBTQ+ community since she was in high school. In 2010, she was voted one of the Top Fifteen LGBT Activists in the Los Angeles area and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Muhlenberg College in 2015 with a degree in theatre and dance. Chelsea has created a career out of sharing her experiences as the daughter of two gay men and a young woman navigating the world on her blog, “The Girl With Five Names,” her podcast, “Worthiness Warriors,” through speaking engagements, her upcoming course and as she prepares to release her first book surrounding her life, her beliefs and her wish to bring peace, self-love and joy to as many individuals as possible. Chelsea is actively pursuing her life coaching certification and resides in Los Angeles with her incredible husband, Dominic and sweet puppy, Moe. To learn more visit https://chelseaaustin.com/
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?
Thank you so much for including me! I always say that I grew up two doors down from normal. I grew up in Malibu, California with the two most incredible parents, my dads, who just celebrated their 39th anniversary. My dad, daddy and I are biologically connected in that my dad, Kevin, is my biological dad and my daddy, Dennis, is my biological uncle, since his sister, my Auntie, donated the egg in order for my parents to have me. But it doesn’t stop there! Since I would’ve been my aunt’s first born child, my dads thought that it might be too much pressure for her to actually carry me, so they asked my dad’s cousin Sandy to carry me (I know, it’s so complicated, feel free to draw out a diagram!).
At the end of the day, though, the most important takeaway is that I grew up with my dad and daddy by my side, molding me and encouraging me to be the best human I could possibly be. We were always the three musketeers, and they taught me to always change things from the inside out. For example, we initially weren’t big rainbow flag-wavers. Instead, we were more the type of family to become friends with people first, and then once they realized how much they liked us we could change their minds about potential prejudices they may have had formerly against same-sex couples.
However, that more private approach all changed when California’s Proposition 8 passed, banning gay marriage in the state. At that point, I wanted to take a stand for my parents who were, and are, the most incredible, loving, devoted parents I could ever imagine. I wanted the rest of the world to see them like I see them: two parents, who are doing their best, working hard on their relationship, and loving their child unconditionally. I did grow up with significant financial privilege and I wanted to make sure that I utilized that platform for good, so as a teenager I assumed a more vocal allyship in the California LGBTQ space. But beyond all of this, I was also just a little girl who loved dance and theater, who was shockingly mature for her age and had trouble relating to her peers, and more than anything, wanted to be loved.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I started attending the Human Rights Campaign Los Angeles Gala Dinners when I was twelve. My dads and I would get all dressed up in black tie attire and head off to some fancy hotel with giant chandeliers. We would sit amongst the hundreds of people in a big ballroom, listen to incredible stories from within the LGBTQ+ community and hear about how we could best make an impact. We would also hear allies of the community speak and perform. I always had this inkling that I would one day be sharing my story and working as an advocate to help shape hearts and minds around the issues specifically of same-sex marriage and love and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community.
Usually these dinners would put a twelve year-old to sleep, but they really inspired me. Every time we went, the more inspired I would become and the more I knew I deeply wanted to make an impact. I had a really hard time understanding why people didn’t see my family like I saw my family and I desperately wanted my dads to have access to the same rights that are afforded to all other American citizens. The Human Rights Campaign makes a massive impact in the political world, specifically on issues of LGBTQ+ rights, and I felt like I had a home there, especially as I began to see first-hand the work that still needed to be done.
I remember being about eleven or twelve years old and coming through customs and immigration after an international trip. When we got to the podium and presented our customs form the officer looked at us and looked at the form. He kept looking back and forth, trying to figure us out. He said, “You need two forms, you aren’t a family.” We looked at him, confused by what he meant. He then clarified for us that since my dads weren’t married, since they couldn’t be married legally, we were not considered a family and would need two forms. I was so upset by this that I started crying right there in the middle of customs and immigration at Los Angeles International Airport. I couldn’t imagine what right this immigration officer had to tell us that we weren’t a family. My dads knew I was devastated and tried everything to rectify the situation. They showed him my birth certificate, where they are both listed as parents, they told him that they’d been together for decades, but nothing would work. And then, as if a gift from the Universe, or God, or whatever higher power you want to insert here, I got the most massive nosebleed ever. The immigration officer was so uncomfortable he just waved us through. We may have come out unscathed, but mentally and emotionally that event really shook me. The fact that my parents weren’t married could potentially change the way they were seen in the eyes of the law and have a major impact on me as a minor. From that point forward I really saw how important it was to fight for equal rights, and I saw the Human Rights Campaign doing just that.
You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?
My greatest wish is that I leave this world having added more love than there was before. I wish for people to have more love for themselves and others. A lot of what I do is about building bridges between communities and individuals through storytelling, because I believe we are so much more similar than we are different at our very cores. By finding common ground and connection, we can foster love and tolerance between groups of people where previously that may not have existed. So much of this work starts with the work of learning to love oneself.
My podcast, blog, and forthcoming book and courses are all about finding self-worth and learning to redefine how we see ourselves in order to live the lives we’ve always dreamed of. Society and the mind love to put everything and everyone into pretty little boxes with pretty little bows, but we are so much more than what can fit into one singular box. I strive to show people that they have everything they need within. I specifically want to make an impact on young women and show them that you don’t have to wait until age 25 or 35 to start looking inwards. If we can work on our love for ourselves and understanding our “enoughness” at a younger age, we will lead more lives of ease and love.
Another part of my work is sharing my story so that those that may not have a window into the LGBTQ+ community can have a better understanding. I think understanding first comes from connection, and with understanding comes acceptance and even love. So, if we can work to build these connections across racial, economic, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religious divides we can bring about more acceptance and more love instead of hate.
I also focus heavily on diversity and inclusion in my work. I am the Executive Director and co-founder of Dance In Color, a non-profit organization that strives to give scholarships to young dancers of color in order to pursue their dreams through dance and ultimately create systemic change within the dance world. I believe when you see someone that looks like you teaching a ballet class, or in a ballet company, a traditionally very white-washed and Eurocentric community young dancers of color can finally exhale and just work on their technique and their art. We want to make sure that young dancers of color have access to the training they deserve, which can be so very costly and exclusive, so that they can ultimately be in positions of power in the dance world, or follow their dreams wherever that takes them from a place of feeling supported and empowered.
We need more people of all backgrounds in all spaces and at all tables to build these bridges I keep talking about. So, when you ask what do I hope to create? I guess the answer is bridges of love.
Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?
My dads. Plain and simple. Watching their bravery in being who they are every single day and not shying away from that. Watching their relationship and how deeply they love each other. They inspired me to be a good human and love people. They never asked me to be an advocate or expected me to make change, they just loved me unconditionally. As I grew up I started to see how uncommon it was to have been loved the way my parents loved me. I wanted to be able to be someone that could bring that love to others. My Auntie, who was my egg donor and passed away in 2017, also inspired me deeply. She was a fiercely loyal woman and she was so beyond supportive of everything I did. I always thought if everyone could have a cheerleader like my Auntie and my dads in their corner this world would look so much different. They showed me how to love myself and gave me oodles of opportunities to develop and foster my self-worth, so I want to pass on that gift to others.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I think my initial transition from real estate to my current projects has been full of interesting twists and turns, because I had no idea that writing a book would turn into the profession I have today. I left my career in real estate because I was unhappy and I knew I wanted to be doing something more creative. I had written a manuscript and I knew it was time to take it to the next level, but I didn’t really know where I would end up. I just kept picking up what I call “breadcrumbs.” I certainly didn’t imagine I was going to start a blog, have a podcast, get my life coaching certificate and create courses, I just kept doing the next thing that popped up and sounded interesting, even if it was also scary. I kept meeting people and saying yes to opportunities that felt good in my heart and in my gut. I didn’t think I was going to be creating a brand or founding a non-profit organization, I thought I was just going out there to share my voice. Now, this journey has turned into this beautiful life where I have the opportunity to share my story, to learn, and teach and listen. To write and speak and make an impact. The most interesting part of it is the synchronicity of it all and how one thing led to another, led to another, like the beginning of a love story. I started by calling my alma mater trying to plan a speaking engagement on the campus, and they basically told me I wasn’t ready and passed me off to someone else, who then passed me off to a branding coach and now here I am with a brand and a career that I had never envisioned and am so grateful for every day.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
About a year ago I got an Instagram message from one of my husband’s friends. I was shocked because he usually doesn’t write to me separately from my husband. He’s also a pretty quiet guy. Not one to say much and definitely not one to talk about his emotions. But he told me that my vulnerability on my blog and in social media and telling of my story made him want to be vulnerable too. I didn’t even know he was reading my blog. I had no idea that he was actually getting something out of my story. I was able then to hold space for him to tell a story he wasn’t comfortable sharing with the world, but also something that he deeply wanted to talk about. I was able to be a safe space for him and he told me that because I was willing to be vulnerable it gave him the strength to do that too and that’s honestly the greatest gift I could ask for. I was deeply moved and so grateful for his trust in me.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Oh yeah, that’s a good question. I think making a difference is any step you take to bring more of who you are and what you have to offer into the world. Making a difference doesn’t have to be on some grand scale. It can be a hug for a friend when they need it. It can be an unexpected compliment to someone you see on the street. Or it can be loving yourself and setting that example for others because when we love ourselves we start to show people around us that it’s also okay for them to love themselves too. That could be setting an example for a child, or any loved one. I believe being the most “you” that you can be is the greatest difference we can make in the world. Finding our joy and passions and giving those gifts to the world on whatever scale that may be because there is only one of each of us and we all have something special to offer.
Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.
- Find what brings you joy.
I wasn’t sure where to start. I knew there needed to be change in the world, but to look at starting on a grand scale is overwhelming and kind of impractical. Instead, I started by looking at what brings me the most joy, and that’s loving people, sharing my story, making people laugh, and being fully me as often as I can. So, I looked at that and just started there. I wrote my story down as a form of therapy for myself, and as a potential guide and a good laugh for others, and then it’s all blossomed from that point.
2. Surround yourself with honest, supportive people.
I often struggle with imposter syndrome and overcoming that can be a ton of work. So, I surround myself with people that support me and believe in me as much as I do, from my PR company, to my therapist, coaches, friends, and family. I also make sure that I have enough people in my life that are not just “yes” people. I want people to be honest with me and share their input so that I have the opportunity to make the largest impact possible. This is not asking for approval from people, but it’s asking your community of believers to also question you sometimes so you can see things from many angles and know that they still believe in you deeply.
3. Put it out there.
I wrote down what I wanted my career to look like and even more importantly how I wanted to feel every day doing the work I wanted to do. I manifested what I wanted by writing it and I know that I can revise it any time, but I wrote it out and believed in the words I had written. Then I started talking. If you want a publishing contract, start telling people you wrote a book. You’ll be surprised by how many people want to help you or will know someone who knows someone. This can work for anything. If you want it, talk about it and talk about it with confidence and belief.
4. Trust the timing.
We all have basically no attention span anymore and we want everything to happen RIGHT NOW! Me too. Trust me. But the timing is out of our hands, that’s the Universe’s job. It will all happen in its perfect time but we can’t force it one way or another. We can show up and continue to show up every day, take time to take care of ourselves and then continue to show up. If it’s what you want for yourself it will happen, but we have to let go of the idea that we can manipulate the timing to bend to what we want.
5. Have gratitude.
Be grateful for what you already have, the large and small. Each step is a part of a journey beyond checking boxes. There isn’t going to be a day where you wake up and think, “okay, I’ve made my difference, time to just go on living.” If you’re someone that wants to make an impact there will always be something else to achieve, and something else to work on or do, but we can be grateful for what we have now. Our health, our friends, a delicious breakfast, anything and everything. Then, when you notice these big milestones arriving, be grateful for all the time, energy and effort you put in to make that happen and celebrate them, but have gratitude along the way.
What are the values that drive your work?
Well, there’s no shocker here, a big one is love. I would also say, kindness, curiosity, gratitude and faith.
Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centered in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is about how to take care of myself. I thought I was doing a service by always pushing, pushing, pushing and never taking a break. When I say continue to show up, absolutely, I believe it, but a big part of how we show up is also how we show up for ourselves. We can’t give what we don’t fuel within us. So, I’ve learned to carve out time for myself and I’ve learned that on the days where I feel like I want to do nothing or I don’t have the energy to create that I need to listen to that and take a break. Take a bath, go for a walk, play with my puppy. Breathe. Watch TV. All of those things are self-care. And self-care is massive if you want to be able to continue doing what you’re doing for the long term and I learned that the hard way by completely depleting myself. So, stop and take a break before your body decides you have to for you.
I have also had a very strong sense of who I am since I was little. It’s hard, though, when the world comes crashing in and questioning everything you believe in. So, I journal a lot to try and sort out the noise from things I truly need to take into consideration. I journal without judgment for my words. I just let it all out onto the page and I notice that naturally the “noise” separates itself from things we truly need to take a second look at and see why they are coming up in our lives. And always…therapy.
In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!
The world I would love to see is one where we have curiosity about each other and our stories instead of judgment. I would love to feel an openness from everyone I meet to hear my story, and I want to hold space for everyone I encounter to tell me theirs. Every story and experience is valid no matter what we believe. Right now, that’s sometimes difficult for us to see,. but I want to live in a world that feels warmer, where people don’t automatically put up their guard as soon as they encounter someone that’s different from them, but see it as an opportunity to soften, listen and learn. A world where our emotions are our gifts and not our enemies. A world where no one should fear for their lives for being who they are, but instead are celebrated for choosing to live as their full self every day. I pray for a world where we are gentler to each other. Where we smile at each other on the street and wave and ask, “how are you?” and actually care about the answer. A world with more hugs. I love hugs. I wish for a world where we take time to really listen and hear each other. Where we put our devices down for just a minute to be present where we are. A world that is not we versus them, but us. That is the world I pray for and manifest every day.
We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?
I would first make sure that I could get in front of the audiences that need to hear my story most and those whom I most want to better understand — those that are deeply different from me. This could be a mom who’s struggling with her son coming out or someone who doesn’t understand why racial equity is so important. I think if we can work with those that seem so deeply different than we are we can start to close the divide.
I would also make sure that there is a safe space where anyone who feels unsafe being themselves can come to find comfort and community.
Finally, I would want to absolutely blast from the rooftops that the place where all of this work starts and ends is within us. It’s our job to understand our privilege, it’s our job to unpack that, and it’s also our job to learn that we have to love ourselves, our story and who we are first to start building bridges of love.
I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?
I would love for the education system to provide equal access to an incredible education for all students as a starting point. I also wish that we made it less about the individual achievements we have, and more about the effort, time and care we put in. I think we are so focused on checking boxes and being the best, instead of focusing on teaching our kids that what’s important isn’t everything you accomplish, but the time, energy, effort, and care you put into the journey. Yes, I think this requires rewiring for all of society, but I think we would live in a world less obsessed with resumes and more obsessed with who we are as humans. I grew up obsessed with being perfect and I think if instead what was most important was who I am as opposed to what I could do I would have been less stressed and actually more successful in the things I did. I think it would also create space for those that aren’t naturally inclined to traditional methods of testing and would allow for all students to feel successful. Who we are is more important than what we do and I hope to raise my children with the understanding that what you accomplish can certainly be impressive, but I care a heck of a lot more that you are a kind, loving, and giving person, and I wish that mentality could be extended in schools as well.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would say follow the spark in your heart and go that way. There is no one right way to make a positive impact, but you’ll certainly have the most impact if you go where your joy and passion is. If you aren’t sure where to start, pick something, anything that sounds fun or interesting or exciting, and give it a try. And if that doesn’t feel good to you, there is no shame in then trying another way to give back. You can also get creative. You think there’s no way to turn your passion into a way to make a positive impact? Look at me, what I do is not something crazy phenomenal. I don’t have any special degrees. I merely tell my story and that has a ripple effect that brings someone else joy or comfort or even just a giggle and that too is part of a larger positive impact I hope to make in the world. If you love Instagram, start sharing messages you believe in. If you love designing clothes, create some looks that you can donate to an organization in need. You can do so many things. I took my love for dance and that industry and found a space that needed a voice and brought my friends together to build a non-profit organization. You don’t have to fit your vision into the world’s vision of what a positive impact is. You live your vision and let the world come to you.
Is there a person in the world 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. 🙂
Oh my goodness. So many! Okay, I have to give two. One, hands down would be Michelle Obama. What I wouldn’t give to sit a table with her and just listen to her view of everything. She is an icon and one of the most phenomenal people of our time, or any time for that matter. I would just love to hear her stories and to laugh together.
The other would be Brené Brown. I have followed her work and her research and so much of what she’s done has inspired me. I would sit and watch her talks and take notes and do my best to learn everything she has to give and from the way she speaks I think she would be so much fun to talk to and swap stories with and just soak up knowledge from.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me at https://chelseaaustin.com, on Instagram @chelseaaustinmdw, Facebook Chelsea A. Montgomery-Duban Wächter, and my podcast, Worthiness Warriors anywhere you get your podcasts.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!