Success Talk: Jodie Patterson
Chair of Board of Directors for Human Rights Campaign Foundation, Social Activist, Entrepreneur, Writer
Jodie Patterson is a social activist, entrepreneur, and writer. She has been lauded for her activist work by Hillary Clinton, The Advocate, FamilyCircle, Essence, Cosmopolitan, and Yahoo!, among others. She sits on the board of a number of gender/family/human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, and is sought-after public speaker addressing a wide range of audiences about identity, gender, beauty, and entrepreneurship. Patterson was appointed by the United Nations as a Champion of Change and, perhaps most impressively, she is a former circus acrobat who performed in the Big Apple Circus. She lives in Brooklyn, where she co-parents her five children with love, education, and family solidarity.
Jodie, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today letting me into your world a bit. What inspired your life flip?
I've always been an entrepreneur. I was used to changing careers almost depending on what my seasonal mood was. When I was into music and nightlife, I did that. When I was into literature and writing and editing, I did that. I worked in fashion for a while as the director of PR for Zac Posen. When that sort of career wasn't suitable for a mother of multiple kids, I left that career and opened my own beauty business. It allowed me time with my children. I've always had an understanding that my work could be very flexible, and it should meet my needs. I was very happy in the last form of my entrepreneurial career, which was as a beauty entrepreneur. I was also very happy with the size of my family. I had five children. It was very robust. My third child felt very problematic. within the first and second year. When you’re a mom of five, you rely on schedule and repetition, but my third child was counter to that. Penelope never wanted to be on my schedule. Penelope never wanted to get dressed or allow me to change diapers, brush teeth, or brush hair. I thought “This is going to be a slight bump in the road from what I'm used to”. I assumed that it would progressively get better the more love and attention I paid to Penelope, but it became progressively worse. By the end of the second year, most of our days with Penelope were filled with fighting, screaming, recurring nightmares, nail biting until bloody and intense protests to everything. Then, Penelope started to become a bully,, a bully at home with siblings and a bully at the playground, pushing kids around. We as parents were trying to figure out how to “fix” this kid. Maybe longer naps, maybe more hugs. Penelope kept asking for a “haircut, like Papa's” into a Mohawk so we cut the hair. We used jeans instead of dresses - that seemed to make Penelope a little bit happier, but still nothing looked substantially different. Right before Penelope’s third birthday, I remember Penelope had been so difficult that day, so I picked up Penelope and we walked into Penelope’s room and we sat on the floor. I was thinking I'd give us both a time out because I was exhausted. I sat with Penelope on the floor and I just asked for the first time, “why are you so angry? What's really wrong?” I had never asked before. That question was very direct, and Penelope gave me a very direct response, which was, “because everyone thinks I'm a girl, mama and I'm not.” I had seen signs of what I thought might be a tomboy; Penelope wanting to wear brother's clothing and Penelope not wanting to wear dresses. Imitating everything that big brother did. I immediately wanted to show support of what I thought was this little girl declaring herself as equal to her brother. So, I said, “However you feel is fine, baby. If you feel like your brother and you act like a boy, it’s fine.” He said, “No, Mama, I don't feel like a boy. I am a boy.” That very simple statement, “I am a boy” confused me but it told me there was something much deeper going on than I had ever thought because Penelope was talking about being, not feeling but being. I was quiet and I just started listening to Penelope and Penelope told me everything that had been going on in Penelope’s mind for those early years. “I love you mama, but I don't want to be you. I want to be Papa. I don't want tomorrow to come because tomorrow I'll look like you. I want a doctor to make me a peanut.” Really intense. What I thought was very complex sentences and thoughts, but they were very simple in a sense. They came out of Penelope in pure peace, not anger, but just like a relief that I finally asked the question. I listened for a long time and I felt guilty that I still didn't understand. Basically, I thought that Penelope was a girl not wanting to be a girl. It took me many months of research after I left that room to try to understand what Penelope was expressing to me and he had asked me to help him in that room. I said “yes”, but I didn't know what yes meant. I said I would help, but I didn't know what help looked like. It took me about a year to really understand the analogy of a transgender boy. In that year, I let go of everything else. I let go of fashion, I let go of the beauty world. I let go of obligations to anything other than Penelope and saving Penelope. That was a difficult time because I had four other children. I had a husband, I had people who were depending on me, but I was isolated in this moment of time, which went on for many months to understand my son. That's really what changed me - the fact that I didn't know there was something out there. A big part of life that I didn't know and in that big part of life with my son. It took away the need to be in any other career. I just really examined my son and in doing that I was examining myself because obviously Penelope is human. And when I understood Penelope more, I got to understand myself more. That became the beginning of my activism - just wanting to understand and protect my own child. That blossomed into trying to explain it to other people and my family, trying to broaden Penelope community because for so many months, Penelope’s community was just me. I wanted the family to understand and I wanted the school to understand. It started moving even further to other schools and organizations and, um, and we're now eight years later. I'm Chair of the board of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which is our largest LGBT organization in America. What started off as activism within my own family became LGBT activism throughout the world. It really became the way I interact with life. The companies I do business with are LGBT friendly. The boards that I sit on deal with trans lives and black queer lives. It became something that changed my life, not just my outlook on life, but how I live and the things I do and the people I interact with.
Your devotion as a mother is very admirable, which then transformed into being an activist for your child, which speaks volumes for your character and the work that you're doing through your activism, especially as a mom that took this initiative to figure out how to support your son, but also figure out how to expand that support. The LGBTQ community sometimes run into issues with their parents because of their life. For you to have really taken the heart to take your personal relationship with your child and turn it into activism is quite a seed that you've planted. I would like to say “thank you.” I have a lot of friends in the community and I am an advocate of the community.
What is your secret weapon to balancing work family and yourself?
I have a very strong chosen family that I rely on. I've been married twice. The young boys’ father takes them every other week for an entire week. That really allows me to be with my children full on when they're with me and then the week that I'm off, I can travel and speak and do all things I do in the world. Having a really engaged father is very helpful. I have some friends that I rely on that live close by that help me with my kids or my car or my puppy. I'm traveling a lot. The territory that I want to cover is all over the world, so I have friends that really help me with that. I have people that I rely on that are older, trans adults and they have been helping me with the language, like just grasping it and growing into who I am. I would say relying on my community and finding a really strong community has been a part of the trick, like the life hack. I found something that really makes me feel great; prayer and running, and they feel very similar to me. I make sure I do that continuously. And love. I've been seeking love through my children and through the adult person in my life now that I love. Even though this journey has been very difficult - feeling unaccomplished as a mother, inadequate as a mother, losing a marriage during this process, the continuous search for love has been the part of the thing that has grounded me. I had to redefine things. I had to redefine what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a mother and what it means to be 49 and single. What does single mean? I started redefining the words, which is something that Penelope taught me to do. It made me happier. It really did.
I would love to share something with you. I sent this to a friend recently. It says, “my greatest challenge as a woman, unbecome my narrative, raise myself as my own child.” In this world, being a women of color, and being ambitious women that want to push the envelope forward, it requires a lot of redefining because we have been attached to so many labels and these labels came with preconceived definitions which we’ve tried our best to feel as comfortable as we could in them but we're learning that those definitions weren't for us. And that's okay because maybe the person that was handing out the definitions wasn't aware of who we were so they couldn't really define us for us. We have the awareness now to look up and say, “I am so much more than what I've been told that I am and what society has told me I should be. I'm going to figure that out for myself and I'll do the defining from here on out.”
I try to keep that for my children too. Take a word and then change it if it doesn't work for you.
What's the most valuable lesson that you've learned in your life or career so far?
So much of this journey has been about understanding the body and what it's there for. We all have this struggle with body. It's not just Penelope. It's not just a trans person. I've understood now that the body is not to be compared to someone else's. It's yours. It is to assist the spirit; it doesn't come before spirit. It is strong and powerful. It’s ours. It is strong, it is capable, but we have to put it in perspective with the spirit. I’ve also learned that we have to get up. The women in my family have been doing that for centuries - finding, falling, and getting back up. We are losers who have gotten back back up. Something bad happens all the time, over and over again; we have theses collisions in life, and we just have to get up and that makes a difference. I was thinking a lot about myself in this process and I see myself primarily as a mother. What does that mean? Does that mean that I make beds and cook food? I really started looking at “mother” as an architect and as a builder. There is this part of mothering that I really started to analyze, the creation part, the building part, the person who looks at the family as architecture. and what part, how do we build this and keep this with structure, sturdy and strong. That was one of the biggest lessons; mothering is building.
What's the greatest piece of advice you've ever received from another woman?
At my graduation from Spelman college, Dr. Maya Angelou gave our commencement speech and she said, “You have already been paid for so any room that you walk in, any space that you enter, you belong because we’ve paid for you already. When you enter an office or an interview or a board room, don’t be nervous. Bring all your people with you that came before you, that paid your way and bring them like into the room with you. Bring all your people with you and remember that we paid for you.” That kind of took the pressure off it. It gave me a sense of ownership. She also said, “stop and ponder about the women who came before you.” We have to just sit still for a minute and think about the history. The slogan “black girl magic”, I understand where it comes from. I don't use that because it's not magic. There's a history to it. The women who came before us taught us to do what we're doing so there's a reality to it. There's a history to it. There’s the practice, and if we continue the practice, we will be just as strong. If we abandon it and we just write it off as magic, we will lose out. This idea of the women before us paying for us and we own it because it's our inheritance.
Who is your female role model?
I've lived in many different homes and in each place, I set up a collage of women on my walls. I really study all of them. They're pictures from multiple generations back. My great, great, great grandmothers, my aunts, my cousins, my sisters. This wall of women has become “woman”. Singular. I have brought it all together. I haven't chosen one for her age or her wisdom or one for her youth and bravado. I've put them all together and I've looked at them as a woman. I don't have a role model that is embodied in one. I have a wall of women that I collectively use as a woman.
What’s been your most memorable or favorite moment in your career so far?
I was recently elected as Chair of the board of directors for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and it tickled me because just a few years ago, this was not my community, just a few years ago, I didn't understand gender variance. I wasn't even comfortable or confident enough to speak on the family. It was really powerful to see my community respect me and respect my leadership enough to place me as Chair of the Board of our largest LGBT organization, for me, that was an accomplishment. A lot of things have happened in my career that have been great. Oprah's written about me in her magazine. I did a TED Talk in Germany. Those things are amazing but this recognition of my thoughts, and my strategy, and my care, and my leadership will probably stay with me for a very long time.
What are three things that you do everyday to set yourself up for success?
I make my bed as soon as I get up and I make it in the same very crisp way. I love my bedroom to be well organized and make my bed less than five minutes after I wake up. I spend a really nice amount of time in my bathroom, adorning and bathing myself. I love lotions and oils. I try to run for an hour, sometimes a half an hour, then stretch. When I do those three things, my day is usually really good. I also try to get into a book. It always opens up my mind from new thoughts. I try to touch my kids, be interactive with my kids, make a phone call to my kids, think about my kids every day, even if they're with their father, even if they're across the miles away, that grounds me. I try to pray, honestly, to ask for the things that I need help with and be thankful for the things that I have seen and received. My days are never the same. They're never uniform but if I can get those elements in, the day, no matter what direction it goes in, feels accomplished.
What's your favorite thing to do for self-care?
Running and stretching. If I do that, I'm on a high. I like to run on the street. I don't like to run in a gym. I run with music, by myself, never with a partner. Then, I come into my house and I stretched with weights on and I do a lot of bar work and balancing.
What's your life's theme song?
I've been listening to a lot of Nina Simone. I got the name of the book from Simone, “Bird flying high, you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel.”
Thank you so much, Jodie, for taking the time out to speak with me today and share your truth.
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