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Resisting Gender Definitions: Alok Leads the Trans Community in Social Change

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Alok, a social justice writer and performing artist, sits in a chair in front of a blue background with flowers, while wearing multicolored clothing surrounded with books, and other items.
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Alok is a gender nonconforming writer and performance artist who identifies as nonbinary. Alok uses they/them pronouns, believing that their gender resists definition and continues in a fluid motion.

Alok’s work is focused on gender and racial justice. They also write about trauma, healing, and belonging. Alok has performed in over 40 countries and 500 venues across the world, speaking from their personal experience with social inequalities.

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Alok just released a book titled “Beyond the Gender Binary” that speaks about gender fluidity and ways readers can stand up for gender equality. Alok’s book is a life-changing account of the arguments that are used to delegitimize trans people, and it offers tools that people can use to respond to those attacks on the transgender community. The book can be purchased on Alok’s website; proceeds will be used to support Alok and partnering community organizations that work with LGBTQ youth.

“It is a handbook so that people can advocate for themselves,” said Alok.

Alok identifies as gender nonconforming and is defying what society thinks a man or a woman should look like. Alok exudes both feminine and masculine characteristics. Alok explains that they identify as neither a man nor a woman, but rather a person with their own unique gender. According to Alok, gender nonconformity is a political critique in that it does not support the political system that society has established when it comes to self-identity.

Alok often feels pressured to represent all transgender people who are currently facing pain, trauma, and violence caused by the lack of representation of minorities. According to Alok, no one person can represent an entire community and the groups within that community. According to Alok, generalizations are being made about the transgender community because of the lack of education about what is going on all over the world about the issues faced every day by people of the transgender community. Alok mentioned the pressure to meet stereotypical expectations that many trans people face in society.

“Strength doesn’t actually come from perfection. Strength comes from interdependence.”

Alok grew up in the small town of College Station, Texas. The community there was predominantly White, Christian, and straight. As a minority, Alok grew up feeling polarized between the Indian community, being Alok’s family, and the predominantly White community, living in the surrounding area. Alok experienced a lot of homophobia and racism in both communities and felt that they had to hide their true identity and pretend to be someone they were not.

As a young child, Alok’s feminine style was seen as “cute” and was accepted as something that was just a “phase.” But when Alok began attending public school, bullying and harassment made Alok feel ashamed of who they were. Not knowing that they did not have to identify as either a man or a woman, Alok felt trapped and alone.

“Dividing billions of people into two genders is a cultural choice, not a biological fact.”

Alok’s parents were concerned about Alok’s safety because of the overwhelming cruelty they saw acting against Alok in the world. But they ultimately accepted Alok’s identity and now support Alok in whatever ways they can. Alok’s parents’ acceptance has led to Alok’s realization that identity is mainly about the mental health of the individual. If a person is not happy with who they are expected to be, they have the power to change it.

“There is no loneliness like having people see you after you have erased yourself.”

Alok attempted suicide at the age of 13. The amount of homophobia and harassment that Alok was enduring had gotten overwhelming to the point that they believed there was only one way to make it all stop. But Alok reminds us now that there is a way to find support.

Poetry remains a huge coping mechanism for Alok. It provides a medium in which Alok can process their past experiences. Years ago, writing began as a way of releasing the pain that Alok had suppressed for so long. That way of coping has now developed into the art that Alok creates.

“That practice of taking my pain and turning it into my art has been how I still survive today.”

Alok compares being an artist to being a sponge, in that they are constantly absorbing conversations, media, and culture. Experimentation with photography, makeup, and theatre, sparks Alok’s artistic creativity. Though the exposure of so many stimulants is a great motivator for Alok’s artistic ideas, the most inspirational experience Alok has had is simply people watching.

“On the one hand, we are so close to each other, but on the other hand, we are so distant. It creates this need to understand how people are living their lives. What they think about, what matters to them.”

Art is not just inspired by violence or discrimination. It is an integral part of each of our lives and it speaks about universal truths. Art is a tool that people can use to access their emotions.

“Pain and suffering inform but never define.”

During the current global pandemic, Alok feels that they have a more clarified understanding of their role as an artist. To speak out about the inequalities in the world and ways in which those can be overcome.

“We are seeing a legal onslaught against trans people that is unprecedented, and no one seems to care.”

Alok has developed their own fashion line, and they have had a loud voice in the movement of the gender-neutral fashion industry. Conventionally attractive fashion is not inclusive to members of the transgender community; it is alienating them from it. It is not enough to just show gender-neutral fashion on runways and in magazines. It must also be used to educate people about the many struggles faced daily by members of the transgender community. It should not be safer for a trans individual to wear a dress on a runway than it is for them to wear it on the street.

“Anyone should be able to wear any article of clothing that they want without fearing violence or persecution.”

People hold onto what is familiar to them. But there is nothing more natural than people having the choice to identify as who they are, not what society tells them they are. People need to relearn how to relate to one another. If people truly believe in the change that they are trying to make, then perseverance is possible.

“When you actually focus on your own life and ask yourself, ‘what do I actually want?’ you can unlock your own creative purpose.”

Having to deal with extreme discrimination and pushback with each social media post and performance has helped Alok develop the strength to persist through it all. Alok knows that continuing the legacy of trans peoples is their purpose, as well as supporting others in being their true selves.

“You are part of a sacred legacy of people who have been persecuted for the truth. They are making you think that your gender is a lie, but actually their gender norms are the lie.”

Alok understands the pressure people face to fit into the crowd. Alok has experienced the feeling of not belonging. Upon reflection of these experiences, Alok advises others to live as their true selves. The parts of us that don’t fit into any ready-made mold are the parts of us that create connections with those who deserve us and love us for who we are. It is not our job to fit a stereotype while hiding the parts of ourselves that don’t.

“There is so much love waiting for you. Don’t give up.”

Alok celebrates who they are every day because that is how they find joy in life. Be yourself, and you may reach your own jubilation.

Credits:
Host & Producer: Cielo
Lead Producer: Alla Issa
Developer: Samuel Holtzman
Editor & Writer: Sydney Murphy

MYVOS Talks

How Johnny Ward Made Millions Travelling Around the World And Inspiring People Through His Travel Blog

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A portrait of Johnny Ward

Johnny Ward is a famous travel blogger that has traveled to every single country on the planet. 

He has built an empire blogging with his site, “One Step 4Ward.” After growing up on welfare in Ireland, attending university and moving to the United States after graduation, Ward dreamed of traveling the world country by country. 

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“I wanted to show people from around the world that you can still do what you want to do even without the proper financial support in the beginning, said Ward” 

Ward found different ways to earn his own funds to financially support his dream. In the end, he became an English teacher in Thailand, traveled around Asia, and landed jobs teaching English in other countries such as South Korea. In Australia, he realized that he wanted to share with others his experience stepping into the world. 

Johnny Ward leaning against a blow-up globe

Ward created a blog in order to teach others what he had done and how he was still able to achieve his dream of traveling the world. While traveling from Cape Town to Syria using public transport, he blogged many of his traveling days. When Ward began to earn money for the posts he was creating, he realized how much his work was appreciated by viewers and decided to continue blogging full time. Traveling came with amazing experiences and baffling stories that Ward now shares with people all over the world. 

Ward has made over 2 million blog posts, and throughout his journey, he overcame many challenges and learned how to work through trial and error. It took him a lot of self-motivation to realize that his upbringing did not have to define the rest of his life or his success. 

“People think that victimhood is some sort of currency. They argue about who’s had it hard rather than getting on with it. There is nothing stopping you from being a success.” 

After Ward grew to love each community he visited, he created a way to give back to those communities that had given him so much joy. He created Mudita Adventures, a nonprofit organization to help others take opportunities to participate in service projects all over the world. Ward’s favorite place in the world is Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he is now building a villa to celebrate his success.

A portrait of Johnny Ward.

Ward has learned a lot about the media market and has shared many of his findings with his supporters. Ward advises listeners and readers to steer clear from the idea that the marketplace is saturated. There is space for any quality product. Believe in the success that you will have in your venture. 

“Don’t get hung up on your shortcomings.”
Ward has also written an e-book, which he is offering for free on his blog website. Blogging Brought Me Here is a first-hand account of how blogging and traveling changed Ward’s life and how they can change yours as well. It even includes tips on how to start your own blog!

Credits:
Host & Producer & Editor: Cielo
Developer: Mark Starbinski
Editor & Writer: Sydney Murphy

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MYVOS Talks

Meet Grace Strobel-The Down Syndrome Model Elevating Empathy In the Modeling World

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Grace Strobel wearing a white shirt and jeans smiling.
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Grace Strobel is a Down syndrome model taking the modeling industry by storm.  At 24, she has signed with three modeling agencies and recently became the first American model with Down syndrome to represent a skincare line. Grace, through her career, strives to promote acceptance and the illumination of gifts and talents of all people. She is also committed to being a light for people with disabilities

The Grace Effect is a 45-minute presentation that Grace created in 2017 to educate others on what it is like for her to live with Down syndrome, and the importance of practicing kindness, respect, and overcoming struggles. When Strobel was working in the lunchroom, other kids made fun of her for not being able to do certain tasks at school. Through the victimization, Strobel realized that the other kids didn’t understand what it was like for her to live with Down syndrome, especially through the lack of fine motor skills that make her syndrome more apparent. Her mother, Linda Strobel, has been incredibly supportive throughout her daughter’s journey of launching The Grace Effect

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“Sometimes people fear what they don’t understand,” said Linda 

Through her projects and her modeling career, Strobel has been given a voice and a chance to change peoples’ understanding of disabilities. Strobel began by posting photos on her Instagram and Facebook accounts, and she was soon discovered by a modeling agency. She has now walked the runway in St. Luis and Atlantic City, N.J., and virtually in Runway of Dreams and New York Fashion Week. Strobel’s parents are proud of how much she has been able to accomplish this early in her career and how strong she has been in getting over her challenges. 

“Our biggest triumphs are our biggest struggles,” said Linda.

Strobel’s father, Jeff, appreciates all of the kindness people have shown his daughter and family. He has also supported her in her career. Strobel is now just 24 years old, and has paved the way for many other people to step into the spotlight and break more barriers in the fashion industry, and many other industries with limited career opportunities for those with disabilities. 

“I knew she was beautiful and I always knew that she had value and worth to the world,” said Linda

Strobel believes that she was called to advocate for herself and others. When speaking to others who feel ostracized, or feel that they don’t have the worth to be in the spotlight, Strobel encourages them to “speak for themselves, be confident, work hard, and never give up.” 

“I’m a model, I’m a speaker, I’m an advocate,” said Grace

Confidence is an important factor in modeling and Strobel has practiced positive affirmations and body positivity to build up her confidence. Everyone has their own insecurities, and the message that Strobel is spreading shows people that no matter who you are or what you are living with, no one deserves negative judgment.

The Grace Effect also addresses the danger of cyberbullying and the importance of kids hiding behind computer screens putting themselves in the shoes of the kids they are attacking. She is not only helping those who are victims of bullying, but she is also helping bullies see the harm that they are inflicting. 

“I know she is changing minds and hearts one speech at a time. She is helping people see others in a valued way,” said Linda

Strobel is overcoming the standards of the modeling world. She is part of the movement that is breaking down race, body image, accessibility, and many other stereotypes of the modeling/fashion industry. The world still has a long way to go with its acceptance of disabilities. Strobel has learned of the importance of surrounding herself with a support system.

Credits:
Host & Producer & Editor: Cielo
Developer: Mark Starbinski
Editor & Writer: Sydney Murphy

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MYVOS Talks

Outliving Cancer and Changing Lives Through Exploration-Meet Angelina Mangiardi

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Angelina Mangiardi sitting outside, laughing

Angelina Mangiardi (aka “Katniss”) grew up in Western Massachusetts on a farm where she grew to love nature and thrived in the open countryside. At just nineteen, her life completely turned upside down after she was diagnosed with bone cancer. At the time of her diagnosis, she was attending the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in NYC to pursue her dream of entering the fashion industry as a stylist but she had to put her dreams on hold to start chemo treatment.

Mangiardi’s battle with cancer was a tough one but she never lost hope. Mangiardi’s treatment plan involved six 21-day cycles of chemotherapy, with a 96-hour infusion and five-day hospital stay required with each treatment. After finishing chemo, Mangiardi completed nineteen grueling rounds of radiation. After six painful months of treatment, the cancer was gone.

“Everything happened so quickly that I just went into survival mode,” explains Mangiardi. 

While in the hospital, Angelina started researching cancer resources, and she stumbled upon First Descents, an outdoors program for cancer patients that completely changed her life. She got to experience the healing power of spending time outdoors, and she formed a passion for bringing people closer to nature. With her shifting dreams, Mangiardi studied environmental science and worked as the Environmental Education Program Assistant at Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) in Fairbanks, Alaska.

After experiencing many adventures in Alaska, she went to work as the Farm-to-School Coordinator for Mālama Kaua’i, a non-profit organization working for sustainability across Kaua’i. Mangiardi kept up with her leadership responsibilities and later on, decided to continue where she had left off with her passion for introducing others to the natural world. She returned to First Descents after her first year in remission and joined the team as the Program Coordinator to help introduce others to the power of adventure that she had discovered while she was a participant in the program. 

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Mangiardi’s motto is, “outliving it” because she has connected with the importance of surviving cancer and going outside of her comfort zone to live whatever life she wants for herself no matter what may challenge her along the way. 

“Everything in my life, the career path, and things that fulfill me all stem from the lessons I learned from surviving cancer.”

As Mangiardi reflects on what it was like in the moment of being told that she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, she remembers how she needed to understand how to cope. That she did not need to stay perfectly strong the entire time. She needed to live positively, but also accept that there would be times when it was okay to not be okay. When she did need to break down and let out the negative emotions that she may try to hold in. Mangiardi has gotten to meet and connect with many other young adults dealing with similar challenges as she has. 

“There is this unspoken bond and instant connection between us. Everyone in the cancer community understands it.”

First Descents is one of the ways Mangiardi has felt this bond with others. She has gotten to go climbing, boating, surfing, and reclaim her life through the First Descents program. She has transitioned from a participant to a Program Coordinator. 

Discovering the rock climbing program at First Descents changed Mangiardi’s perspective on the challenges she faced. She focuses on accessibility and adaptability at First Descents to make sure that no matter the medical situation people are in, they are welcome in the program. First Descents offers outdoor experiential programming, skill development, and aims to improve the long-term survivorship of young adults living with serious health conditions. Mangiardi sees the importance of keeping nature in our daily lives and the impact it can have on our mental health. 

“Find ways to connect with your environment and what is around you.” 

The power that this program has had on so many young peoples’ lives is being spread through social media for others to discover. Check out their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter and share about this amazing opportunity with anyone you know who may appreciate this program as much as Mangiardi. Help more people discover the beauty of nature and outlive their own challenges. 

Credits:
Host & Producer: Cielo
Editor & Writer: Sydney Murphy

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