Vanessa Osage: “Be authentic and imperfect ”

Be authentic and imperfect — I understand by now that inspiring people is more effective when I also take the risk to name my own weak spots. We need to maintain boundaries on what we share and how to offer up tender things. Yet, sharing only the courage or bravery leaves people on the outside of a […]

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Be authentic and imperfect — I understand by now that inspiring people is more effective when I also take the risk to name my own weak spots. We need to maintain boundaries on what we share and how to offer up tender things. Yet, sharing only the courage or bravery leaves people on the outside of a message, since we all struggle. One reader told me she most appreciated my courage in writing on the ways I’d suffered after hardship. Then, she was more invested in the story and compelled to keep reading. I’m learning it’s more of a gift when we honor the full spectrum of our authentic experience.

As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the great pleasure of interviewing Vanessa Osage.

Vanessa Osage is on a mission to leave this world better than she found it. She is a Certified Sexuality Educator, Consultant & Professional Coach. A two-time Nonprofit Founder, Vanessa Osage is President of The Amends Project, with a mission to “mend the loophole”, and creator of The Justice CORPS Initiative. In 2017, she won the Kickass Single Mom Award for her work in sexuality education and youth rites of passage. Her essays have been featured in Circles on the Mountain, The Confluence Journal, Role Reboot & more. “Can’t Stop the Sunrise” is her first book.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?

So, I grew up north of Boston in the 1980s, one of five kids, in a small New England town. I was a tomboy among my three brothers, into climbing trees, horseback riding, and playing in the dirt. There was a Catholic Church in our small town, and most people there knew my family. I eventually attended Catholic grade school, and later, an elite college-prep boarding school in rural Massachusetts. It was there I had an early insight into the inner-workings of corruption at the institutional level. This became my entry-point for affecting positive change in the world.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story?

I do remember the day I discovered the joy of writing. I’d spent the afternoon working at the horse barn a few miles from our house. I came home at dusk, sat down at an actual typewriter (it was steely blue and made clacking sounds). I was facing out my bedroom window as I wrote about what I’d experienced and felt the transformation that happens when you allow words and wisdom to move through you. I was ten years old that day, and I can still remember the transcendent feeling of realizing you could create like that…

I’d titled the page when I first sat down. Then, what came through me had its own life and outcome. So, I had to title it again. It was also when I learned my most enduring lesson in my writing: always write the title last. That held true for Can’t Stop the Sunrise.

As for books, I recently rediscovered The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter, which I first read as a young teenager. Oh, my goodness, I love that book. It was an affirmation and a reminder of the knowing we are all born with, and have to protect. That small book captured a whole world-view, and how that view struggled to stay vibrant in a civilization that sought to stomp it out. Those stories also showed love-in- action among the characters, which was so moving.

I’m sure feeling the power and honesty in that book opened me up to knowing what was possible in writing.

What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely. Since the book is Memoir/Social Change, I traced those moments in my lifetime as waves of reckoning that I didn’t even realize I was riding. While doing research for Can’t Stop the Sunrise, I learned so much more about how my seemingly solitary efforts as a young person were echoing in the larger culture around me…

At 16, I confronted an abusive employee on my high school’s campus. Then, I truly believed that would mark the end of it. Only, administrators kept him on staff, and removed me by taking away my financial aid.

Then, at 23, I returned to Massachusetts from the west coast (after I’d run away to California at 18) to give a speech in the auditorium that finally got the man off-campus. It was seven years later that I was able to finally prevent those harms from happening again.

At 40, it all resurfaced when The Boston Globe released their Spotlight Investigation into New England boarding schools, in 2016. The school issued a statement asking people to come forward. I had to make a very conscious decision to take this on in a more adult way, to get the kind of results that would last. Ultimately, I decided I was up for it.

In the course of seeking an alternate resolution, I met the old pressure-to-be-silent from current school leaders. So, I went public with the story in 2018. Nearly a dozen people contacted me after that, revealing that a cover-up problem had persisted to modern-day. Then, I knew it was time for real, systemic change.

Each wave was larger than the previous. And I trust in those rhythms, that there is often a build-up to the process that brings forth buried truths or tolerated injustices. The truth always has a way of rising up. I’m actually relieved to understand this corruption more completely now, so I can effectively bring about institutional reform.

What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?

I wrote the book to articulate the wave I was already riding, so we could all see it clearly — and embrace the solution. I tell the story of creating the Justice CORPS Initiative, the Committee to Oversee the Rights & Protections of Students, and how naturally it arose as I insisted on honesty from my former school. There is an intricate picture I see through my lived experience of confronting corruption. I believe people deserve to see it too, so we can transform it.

With Can’t Stop the Sunrise, I also wanted to connect deeply with readers and encourage them to rebalance power in their own lives. I needed to name the social disease that brought us here, and then contribute a story that rewrites our value system as a nation. The biggest impact, I hope, will be to help evolve us away from punishment and hiding — toward honesty, transparency, and true repair. On so many levels.

Did the actual results align with your expectations? Can you explain?

This is all still playing out… I have already heard from a class representative who recognizes the importance of honoring this process. There is a shift already in the willingness of people to not pretend things are ok anymore. In just a few weeks post- release, that feels like huge progress. Yet, I sense it will keep unfolding, possibly in ways I can’t imagine.

What moment let you know that your book had started a movement? Please share a story.

The moment that seemed to really light the spark was released from the feature article in The Lowell Sun in May 2018. In the months that followed, I recognized a movement had begun by hearing the voices of total strangers gratefully sharing such tender, personal things with me. It was the #MeToo of institutional silencing and bullying. It was hours and hours of phone calls that all essentially echoed, “Yes, keep going!”. They had relief and most of all, hope. I knew then that doors were opening.

What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?

Inspiring. Empowering. These are the most consistent gut-level reactions I hear. What I love is how different elements in the long story touch people in different ways. Some say they appreciate that I wrote Can’t Stop the Sunrise as a guide — as more than a personal story. It’s interactive through teaching and encouraging. Older readers say they enjoy seeing the historical context of the issue. Some value sharing the process of choosing for health in your relationships. Most say they speak up more often now, for their rights, and for justice.

What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book? Can you share a story?

Again, this is a story that happened before releasing the book. It’s all captured in the “Open House” chapter. When I showed up to advance positive reform on campus, school officials attempted to arrest me at an Open House event. There, I met a woman named Jamie Baker who played an important role in the effort. The many stories from that chapter come up when I think of the most fulfilling and moving moments so far.

Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?

This story challenges a status-quo that has allowed men-in-power to do harmful things without consequence. So, of course there may be some who have a strong reaction. I am suggesting that we redistribute power to protect the rights of all. You can read my “Useful Skills ~ Willing to Piss People Off” chapter for more on that; we always take that risk with social change. So far, I’ve had only positive feedback from the book. I like to believe that signifies a collective willingness to face what has not been working, and finally set a new course.

I’m also aware of the ethical responsibility of directing a movement; we need to write with an energy that is balanced and tempered. While I’m passionate about positive change, there is nothing demonizing or shaming in how the story is told. It reveals the truth of a situation, which is crucial for growth. But, it’s spoken with compassion. If anything, I devote a whole chapter to the importance of humanizing as the ultimate point of transformation in social change movements. It’s not about making any one person or even one institution wrong or bad; it’s about fiercely, lovingly insisting we can all do better.

Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?

It’s the intimacy. The medium can be enjoyed in private, allowing the reader (or listener, with the audiobook) to explore emotional places in themselves as they take in a work… Whenever we can reach someone on those levels, we inspire more active engagement in their lives.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Sleep deprivation. (laugh) Again, I’m partly kidding. As I reflect on those months of writing, I remember how I would play with the structure of the day, and write when the spirit moved me. There were many nights of savoring quiet writing from 1–3 am; I love the sacred, wee-hours of night for creativity. That has a healthy limit, though. So, with the task of writing a whole book by a deadline, I also embraced the consistency of a work-day. I set a schedule for each day and stuck to it. Different kinds of tasks fit different times of the day for me. So, I learned to work with that. A balance of structure and spontaneity for inspiration served me well.

What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career? Can you share the lesson(s) that you learned?

I wrote Can’t Stop the Sunrise in less than six months. Washington state governor, Jay Inslee, announced “Stay Home, Stay Safe” orders on March 23, and I began writing in earnest by April 1. I rushed release of the book to coincide with my presentation of The Justice CORPS Initiative to the Association of Title IX Administrators, ATIXA East Coast Conference in October 2020.

The opportunity to reach people actively advancing equality in education was a big motivator. We did get the first buy link live that evening of October 7, and the remaining outlets soon followed. Yet, while recording the audiobook (yes, I narrated the story), we found a handful of mistakes in the text. That was tough.

It meant the most eager buyers received ‘imperfect’ copies, and those who purchased after the second upload a week later had a smoother story, start-to-finish. Of course, I had to regard my own humanity, and remember it was still 447 pages of clear, polished writing. It’s hard to both love your craft, and be compelled by the urgency of a timely message. I knew that confronting corruption was going to be highly relevant surrounding this election, too. There were many reasons to stay on task, even during a pandemic.

So, the lesson was about the value of deadlines, and the wisdom in accounting for flexibility. I’m definitely grateful for print-on-demand in todays’ book industry. In the future, I would add two weeks onto all deadlines, to budget for overflow and the unexpected.

Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers need to know if they want to spark a movement with a book? (please include a story or example for each)

  1. Dare to speak the previously unspeakable — anytime we name what people already know in their hearts, yet have been afraid to say out loud, it lights a spark. My revealing school officials’ choices in a way that suggested, “we all deserve better than this” lit a fire for people. The ones who called me were so energized by the audacity to say, “This is wrong”, that it changed them. People told me they quit jobs with abusive bosses, wrote letters to business owners about their policies around masks during COVID; some renegotiated their closest relationships. I got to hear the pain of many, then, I got to hear the tales of liberation from so many others.
  2. Share the deeply personal, and then go global — when my neighbor saw me out on the porch writing during the months of lockdown, she asked what my book was about. I told her, “it’s part memoir — part roadmap for healing — part guide to confronting corruption”. Her response then really stayed with me, “Well, I think it’s important that people feel a connection to you”. I had six readers for the book before going to print, and one offered, “You’re very relatable”. So, I knew I’d achieved that goal. I’ve heard it said that, paradoxically, sharing the deeply personal is how we touch on the universal. I am finding that to be true. I started the book with honest sharing, and then evolved into philosophy on accountability and reform.
  3. Speak with compassion for all sides of an issue — passion is a force that needs to be harnessed well to direct the energy people will likely feel in response. I consider this kind of writing to be like skillful fire-building. I watched some people bring an anger that sought to destroy in 2018. So, I had to respond with guidance toward a larger vision. When we light a spark, we have to be responsible for how we fan the flames. I kept people focused on the long-term goals, what I call the “core tenets” of how The Amends Project operates. That meant the fire could warm hearts, and ultimately, energize us.
  4. Affirm the rights of all as you advance social change — the most evocative message seems to be, “you have the right to better”. A status quo of silencing in these schools had lulled some people into complacency — of believing, “Well, that’s just the way it is”. My speaking to those universal human rights was empowering for people. This also meant I had to call out men-in-power who tried to exercise liberties that were not theirs to take. I’m thinking of when the head of school violated our Confidentiality Agreement behind my back. So, I had to forcefully speak to what he had no right to do. In a world of many imbalances, these stories need to lift up the rights of some, while keeping others in check. We know it’s a universal human right when it doesn’t cancel out the rights of anyone else.
  5. Be authentic and imperfect — I understand by now that inspiring people is more effective when I also take the risk to name my own weak spots. We need to maintain boundaries on what we share and how to offer up tender things. Yet, sharing only the courage or bravery leaves people on the outside of a message, since we all struggle. One reader told me she most appreciated my courage in writing on the ways I’d suffered after hardship. Then, she was more invested in the story and compelled to keep reading. I’m learning it’s more of a gift when we honor the full spectrum of our authentic experience.

The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next? Can you explain why that is so important?

Wow, what a fantastic question… I will celebrate the day when essential, under-paid workers, especially Latinx and other migrant farm workers, take their more rightful place in our country — for pay, respect, and equal opportunity. This is important because we have to grow in respect for what we depend on. Whether it’s the earth’s natural systems, women and their reproductive health, or the people who literally sustain us. Embracing our interdependence on each other, I believe, is part of our growth as a society… Viva Justicia!

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