Meet the Rising Stars — With Drew Gurley
I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Dalton-Bradford, an author of books, essays and poetry, and a “global citizen,” who presents professionally on refugee relief and intercultural integration, a subject she has mastered after nearly 28 years of raising four children across nine countries and six languages.
Melissa and her husband currently reside outside of Frankfurt, Germany, from where Melissa devotes her energy and time as co-founder of two thriving international non-profits, including Their Story is Our Story (TSOS), an organization devoted to documenting and disseminating through multimedia first-hand accounts of refugee stories.
Thank you so much for joining us! Let’s show everyone you’re a normal human being. What are your hobbies, favorite places to visit, pet peeves? Tell us about YOU when you’re not at the office.
“Hobbies: For me, there’s almost nothing as therapeutically addictive as walking and hiking in nature. Gratefully, I live right on the edge of beautiful German forests with some elevation, and I have one of the most high-energy dogs known to man (a male Magyar Viszla named Finn), so I walk every day, sometimes when work permits for a few hours. I talk out loud, rail to the pines, preach, and just ask Finn, I also sing. I need that daily solitude because my other great hobby is people.
“Favorite Places: I love to travel anywhere and everywhere and get steeped in history and connect with others who are quite different from myself. We try to return regularly to the many places we have lived, but there are special little-known crannies in Paris and remote islands in Norway that hold meaning for us. That said, no place is really significant for me without a human experience associated with it. There are simple street corners and park benches that are more significant to me than many of the most famous monuments and museums we used to live right next to.
“Pet Peeves: Why do we English-speakers lumber into a yurt in Mongolia (or a cafe in Portugal, or a hotel in Croatia) and, without even trying to greet in the foreign language, launch right into our barking directives — -all in English? Why do we do that? Why?! Grrrrrr……”
Can you tell us something about you that few people know?
“I’m am so afraid of heights, I can hardly climb a ladder. And, I’m pretty sure I could live on nothing but water and homemade Syrian baklava.”
Do you have any exciting projects going on right now?
“The non-profit I helped found, Their Story is Our Story, is publishing Let Me Tell You My Story this October. I can honestly say it’s a ‘life-changing’ volume because all of us who have worked for two years to collect, transcribe, translate, photograph, paint, film and write these first-hand refugee stories have been permanently changed by the experience.
“We gathered these inspiring accounts of tragedy and survival, hope and courage during our team trips to camps and the streets in Greece, Italy, France and Germany. Also, in the book are uplifting profiles of volunteers from around the world who have invested their time and talents to help fellow human beings find their way in a new and foreign world. Brandon Stanton (of Humans of NY fame) has endorsed the book, saying it is a “meaningful and important collection.”
Many people say success correlates with the people you meet in your life. Can you describe two that most impacted your success and why?
“Ali is a young Afghan refugee I’m blessed to call a friend. Our TSOS team interviewed him first in a camp in Greece where he was known for his gentle disposition and care of others, despite the fact that he had lost his leg to a car bomb when he was a teen, was an orphan, had buried most of his village when they were slaughtered by the Taliban, and had fled Afghanistan to Greece (the distance from NYC to Seattle) on foot and an old prosthetic held together with duct tape, only to end up stuck north of Athens when politics shifted and borders closed.
“He didn’t rage. He didn’t take out his despair on others. He remained kind, soft-spoken, good-humored, and above all, resourceful. Desperate, he hid on the cross beam under a tractor trailer that drove 36 hours and dropped him in Paris. Ali lived and slept on the streets with hundreds of other refugees for weeks during the winter, then we tracked him down, brought him a new prosthetic, and friends helped him find an apartment and French language courses.
“He and I now converse in French, and he supports other young refugees who are also trying to survive in terrible circumstances. Tenacity alone is admirable. But tenacity coupled with good cheer and brotherly kindness is a rarity in our world. That is character. And to me, character equals success.
“Parker is my eldest son. He would have been 29 years old by now, but eleven years ago from this very day, he was sucked into a deadly and invisible undertow while trying to save a drowning college classmate’s life. The other student survived.
“This son of mine and the lessons from grief have had a greater impact on me than anything I’ve experienced. With everything going for him, including the option to stay on solid ground and not go back into the water a second time to help a boy he’d only known a week, my star athlete son made a split-second decision to risk his life for someone else’s.
“And, in my worldview, there’s no better indication of substance or character than what we are willing to sacrifice for someone else. Again, that’s character. And again, character equals success.”
Leaders always seem to find ways to overcome their weaknesses. Can you share one or two examples of how you work outside of your comfort zone to achieve success?
“I’m a woman of words. In a former life I worked as a stage actress. I also taught literature and writing; I write books, essays and poetry, and I speak for a living. So, for me to give up the power of words time and time again when I’m immersed in a new language means leaving my comfort zone. Learning language means being willing to look completely stupid — -imbecilic — -for a long while, and risking credibility, control, and status in others’ eyes.
“Learning a new language late in life means being reduced to a child’s level, exactly when you’re supposed to command respect. I’ve discovered, however, that there is tremendous power in being reduced, and any leader who hopes to inspire others toward growth must be willing to show she is ready to be reduced in order to grow. No growth comes without reduction. No success comes without failure. There is power in being thrown from your comfort zone.
“Speaking of humiliation… I accept invitations all the time with little or no notice to stand on stages and present to large groups on a variety of subjects and in a variety of languages. Some people think that’s careless or, okay, utter nuts. After all, it’s live, it’s extemporaneous, and that means total exposure. But, I don’t want a perfectly scripted presentation. I want connection. And, one needs a little room for improvising, for reshaping ideas and tone to meet an audience’s needs. I’ve gotten comfy with forfeiting a veneer and script for spontaneity and warmth.”
The concept of mind over matter has been around for years. A contemporary description of this is having mental toughness. Can you give us an example (or two) of obstacles you’ve overcome by getting your mind in the right place (some might call this reframing the situation)?
“I was writing a book entitled Global Mom: A Memoir which was about raising a family all round the world, and then in the middle of the narrative, our eldest son lost his life in a terrible, cataclysmic tragedy. Instead of that experience obliterating our story — which it certainly could have — — it became the hot, beating heart of our story. In a real way, loss is the hinge on which all of life swings.
“Everyone will experience some iteration (or many) of it. And, relatively few will escape tragic loss. Will our lives after loss swing into smaller, perpetually injured, darker spheres? Or will they swing into larger, perpetually life-giving, brighter expanses? My experience has been that we can make deliberate micro-choices along our trajectory. We will choose which way our lives will swing on that hinge of loss.
“How do I know this is true? I’d written a follow-up book to Global Mom entitled On Loss and Living Onward, in which I speak authoritatively about the journey through loss. But in the middle of promoting that book, I met hundreds of refugees who fled into central Germany, where I live. Suddenly, and through them, my own story of loss (and global mobility) was reframed.
“I had moved from country to country, sure, but with airplanes, per diems, hotels and a moving crew. These people had come with backpacks and on foot, fleeing death and trauma. I could only pinch my eyes closed to begin to imagine.
“And, I have buried my son, yes. It almost killed me. But I had lost him to heroism, not to terrorism, be that a suicide bomb in Kabul or a Taliban raid in Mosul or Russian gas attacks in Damascus. We’d held a beautiful funeral. We erected a gravestone. We have annual memorials. Some of these refugee parents I interviewed had lost many children, some to slaughter, some to collapsed buildings. And then they fled.
“Funerals? Gravestones? Memorials? These parents can’t dream of the luxury. They are still clawing for survival.”
What are your “3 Lessons I Learned from My Most Memorable Failure”
“Failure is never final. Success is slippery. Don’t read the comment thread! (Let your best friend filter the reviews).”
What unfiltered advice can you give aspiring stars regarding how to avoid common mis-fires in starting their career?
“We bond on our broken edges. As writers, like as speakers, we will make the deepest and most authentic connection with our readers or audiences at the nexus of loss.
“Our blessings are not rewards but responsibilities. Whenever and wherever we experience success, instead of just sitting on that as something earned, we can convert that into a means of encouraging and promoting others. Mentoring, serving, and bridging the gap for others is a way of paying forward and multiplying our good fortune.
“The more successful we are, the more invisible we ought to become. I picked up this one from Glenn Keyne, a foremost Disney animator, the nicest, least pretentious or self-referential guy I’ve heard speak in a long time. He said, ‘We will live through our creations, not through the attention drawn to us as their creators.’”
What is one “efficiency hack” you use consistently in your life to keep your time and mind free to focus on your strengths and passions?
“I carry my iPhone with me on my long dog walks in the forest and I dictate to-do lists, speech ideas, strong turns of phrases or poetic concepts that come to me.
“I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and dictate to unload my mind. My dictation device on my laptop is also a life saver. I prefer dictation and voicemail over typing messages, for efficiency’s sake and, also, to capture inflection, tone, and tempo. Dictate (and voicemail and phone and meet face-to-face) whenever possible!
All actors or musicians have sleepless nights. We have a term we use with our clients called the “2 a.m. moment.” It’s when you’re wide awake and thinking not-so-positive thoughts about your business choices and future. Can you describe a 2 a.m. moment (or moments) you’ve had and how you overcame the challenges?
“Usually, authors write their memoirs at the end of their careers, not as their first publication, as I did. And authors — -at least the old-fashioned ones — -were hermits whose creative process and private lives were the stuff of myths and legends. I thought, ‘“Okay, I’ll throw this extremely intimate book about our family out into the world and then retreat into hiding,” only to be told by my publisher that that isn’t the way publishing works anymore. I had to start a blog. I had to ramp up (read: create) my social media presence. I had to hang myself out there for all the world. This. Terrified. Me. I don’t want to be misunderstood as self-promoting, and so the exposure and the potential for being misunderstood was deep, sometimes paralyzing.
“The cost of public scrutiny was too high for me at times, and I have to admit that I pulled back into my cave more than once. Dropped totally out of social media for months on end. Stopped writing on my blog. Vowed never to step on another stage. Deleted my YouTube channel. Cowered feral-like in a corner for a little while.
“Then I listened to my dearest supporters (husband, family, fellow writers, key readers) and regained trust in my own judgement and motivations, when to listen to critique that had credence and when some critique was just a reader having a bad day. I dipped back into my creative well, turned my back on nay-sayers, spent more time with my trusted confidantes, and took up the task again. That’s called being an adult, a professional.
“You have to champion your cause by stepping back into the spotlight, knowing that the light is not a searchlight on you, per se, but a magnifying light for something far bigger than you ever will be. Know your cause. Know your vision. Nail it to your sternum and stride out there again and again and again.”
Nobody likes to fail, and we sure don’t like to admit we failed. Can you describe a moment when you confided your most closely-held business issues/problems to someone close to you, and how the conversation(s) helped you work through the issue?
“My greatest fan is my wonderful husband.
“My second greatest fans are my marvelous treasures, my four children.
“My third greatest fan is my lifelong friend, a writer and mother and muse.
I’ve had to have sit-downs with all of the above more than once to remind myself that writing and speaking, including about causes that might not be intimate but might trigger political responses like refugee advocacy, are right and necessary and worthy of our best efforts.”
What’s on the drawing board for your next venture?
“TSOS is expanding exponentially and planning trips to the U.S. border and other concentrations of refugees throughout Europe (including Serbia and Turkey), in Africa, in Bangladesh, and we are building a team in Jordan. Our team is truly global and is enlisting the energy and capacities of more and more professional media and video experts, especially millennials, who are all over this kind of social entrepreneurship.
“With all these structural changes, we are still fulfilling that original calling to locate, interview, record, transcribe, translate, paint, photograph, film and disseminate first-hand eyewitnesses of refugees’ lives. We share these stories through social media, public presentations, exhibitions, and as mentioned, coming this October, we publish Let Me Tell You My Story, the first of what we hope will be many books.
What did we miss? Feel free to share any other thoughts or advice on overcoming failure, initiatives you’re currently supporting, any other relevant information you would like to share with the readers.
“Remember: We are one human family. As such, we are looking collectively toward a horizon when close to 70 million of our displaced sisters and brothers are seeking safety from mortal danger. The refugee crisis is no passing headline, regardless of how the news cycle might fool us.
“This crisis is the very shape of the future of our shared humanity for as far as the eye can possibly see, and beyond. The extent of our compassion and wisdom has never been more challenged, nor more relevant. My experience has been that we bond with these people on our broken edges, that our blessings are responsibilities to bear their burdens. And that sometimes, all ‘lifting’ requires is sitting down for a moment and listening with open hearts and soft spirits to their story.”
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
My FB pages:
Global Mom:A Memoir
On Loss and Living Onward
For TSOS: Visit our website. https://tsosrefugees.org/
Follow our stories on social media. Read the stories. Share the stories. Educate yourself. Make friends with refugees. Listen to them. Learn from them. Invite them into your homes, your lives, your schools, your culture, your heart. Pre-order our book.
This was great, Melissa! Thank you so much for joining us!
Originally published at medium.com