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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

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How Brett Hagler is Building Homes With 3D Printer to End Global Homelessness

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Brett Hagler with short grey hair wearing a grey sweater with the collar slightly opened smiling in front of the camera outside by the lake.
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Brett Hagler is the CEO and co-founder of New Story, one of the most innovative companies in the world. New Story is working on finding sustainable solutions to end global homelessness. The company pioneers community solutions and is passionate about social impact. It builds homes and communities for families all over the world that need shelter, which has positively impacted many people and has changed each of their lives for the better.

Hagler is a Y Combinator graduate and a cancer survivor. He has been recognized on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, named one of the Top 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs by Goldman Sachs, and his company was named among Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies in the World” in 2017, 2019, and 2020.

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Y Combinator is a prestigious start-up accelerator that has provided financial support to companies such as Stripe, Airbnb, and Doordash. Hagler is a 2015 graduate of Y Combinator, where he learned how to raise funds for his company. New Story raised $27 million by December 2018. This gave the company the ability to get started with developing ways to complete its mission and activating its network.

“Life is a gift, not a gain,” said Hagler.

Hagler’s passion for helping others in need grew when he was in college. He realized that he had grown up with the wrong idea of what he wanted to accomplish in life. He began college living by the “three G’s,” which he described as “girls, gold, and glory.”

According to Hagler, it is important to have fun in college, but it is also about so much more than just worrying about popularity. Many students are pressured to strive for goals that they are not truly passionate about. It’s time to move away from those pressures and break out of the shell expectations can form. And this is exactly what Hagler did.

“Don’t do what everybody else does.” 

Hagler began exploring his Christian faith, and he had a realization that redirected what he felt ambitious about. It changed from personal ambitions centered around his personal status to outreach and community impact.

Hagler traveled to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake destroyed many communities there. Hagler had created a for-profit start-up and was looking for a non-profit organization to give money to. He wanted to help families living without some of life’s most basic human needs, like shelter and safety.

After he came back to America from Haiti, he wanted to try to do something with his new mindset and perspective regarding his own life and the lives of others.

Life has not been easy for Hagler, but this has strengthened his sympathy for others who are also living with challenges. Surviving cancer when he was young taught him to appreciate and live life to its fullest.

He began to think in the long term because the short term didn’t give him the hope he needed. By doing so, he gained a vision and a desire to make a difference. These experiences were fundamental reasons why he wanted to start New Story.

“You need to really believe in what you are doing. It’s up to you to keep going.”

It’s hard to wrap your mind around how many people there are without homes. According to Hagler, anyone can help decrease the number by realizing their own privilege and educating themselves on different initiatives. This is the best time for you to have the courage to do something that you believe in.

“You are starting from the bottom, and that is the journey. It’s a step-by-step process, and each milestone is going to be hard. Start small.”

New Story has built about three thousand homes, and the team has learned a lot about how to improve the building process. Hagler wants to change how things have been done in the past.

Phase one was learning and making a direct impact. Phase two was trying to understand why it takes so long to build a house and why homes are so expensive. Phase three, the current phase, is establishing ways to lower the homeless population by building homes in an efficient way.

A man with a black hat with the letter 'N' on it, while pointing to his black ,'New Story' T shirt, while standing on the dirt, while two other men are looking at their phones on the deck.
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“We have earned the right to start testing new innovations. I love the challenges, and I love being on a team that will fight through the challenges together.”

New Story has been continuously working on building homes for some of the poorest people in the world and has even given them ownership of the land on which these homes are built, which is something essential that we often don’t see.

A 3D printer is now being used to print cement, which is then used to make the walls of homes. This machine has helped save money and allowed New Story to develop homes more efficiently.

“It is not just an idea, it is not just a proof of concept; they are actually building homes.”

Hagler is passionate about creating a team culture of innovation, speaking about leadership, helping other social entrepreneurs, and partnering with companies to give their team members the opportunity to make a direct life-changing impact through New Story. Hagler spoke in his own TED Talk in 2019, describing his involvement in New Story and the strides the company has made in changing the world.

When you have a small goal that is achievable, all excuses are off of the table because it is up to you to make it happen.”

A program that has recently developed through New Story is Founders Lab. Founders Lab is a one-month accelerator program that is working to help undergrads learn how to think and act like a founder. Having the mindset to challenge the status quo will serve students well in their future goals. Founders Lab will be completely digital and interactive beginning this October.

“We are learning to be more effective and more efficient and bringing in more resources to help us be more innovative. We are really passionate about ending global homelessness, and it is a long journey to come.”

With the goal of eradicating global homelessness, New Story strives to create a platform to elevate people by not only building them homes, but also by creating social change.

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Meet Elena Breese-The Boston Marathon Terror Attack Survivor Helping Other Trauma Victims Bloom

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Elena Breese with dark brown long hair wearing a bright pink sweater, while standing outside in the sun.
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Elena Breese was at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon waiting for her husband Jeff, who was running that year, when both bombs exploded. She was in the bleachers directly across the street from the first bomb and witnessed the devastating scene. She wasn’t able to reunite with her husband until a few hours later.

Breese, a mother of two beautiful children and a supporter of her dear husband Jeff, shares her story of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the tragic bombing in Boston.

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She began a blog after the devastating event in order to help others deal with trauma and PTSD. On her blog, Breese writes about her journey, struggles, and support for others through her dedication and commitment to spreading awareness about PTSD.

The terrorist attack on April 15th, 2013 killed three spectators and wounded more than 260 other people, including 17 who lost limbs. Talking about the horrific events that she witnessed never gets easy for Breese; it feels as though she is reopening a wound that she has worked hard to heal. But, talking about such trauma is a way to eventually heal and deal with PTSD.

“Though I didn’t lose a limb or my life, I lost my ability to be in public places and feel safe,” said Elena.

It is possible for signs and symptoms of PTSD to show up in a person as many as three years after they experience a traumatic occurrence. This can cause anxiety because there is no way to predict if it will affect you or not.

This is what Breese experienced. She began having panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. After dealing with such painful symptoms, Breese voluntarily hospitalized herself.

“I found myself leaving the grocery store, cart completely full, and my kids in tow, in a complete panic. I was having nightmares. My mind just couldn’t erase that day.” 

After Breese was able to recognize that she needed help, she was able to continue treating her PTSD and strengthening her support system. The three modes of treatment that helped Breese the most were EMDR therapy, acupuncture, and natural supplements.

According to Breese, these treatments helped drastically reduce her symptoms. After experiencing such an emotional low, Breese was motivated to take care of herself and soon others as well.

Aside from managing her own website, Breese has contributed to various blogs, podcasts, and speaks publicly about her healing process. Her message to others is that though not all injuries are physical, with work you can heal. 

“It ignited a fire within me to fight for myself and advocate for my own health.” 

Over the past three years, Breese and her husband have connected with other terrorist attack survivors all over the world and have supported others through her blog, “Still Blooming Me,” which is full of PTSD resources. Breese wants to help others heal this so-called “invisible injury.”

A feature on the blog site called “Still Blooming Me Wellness” helps people find therapists and counselors for any sort of struggles they are facing. Breese realized the importance of building connections with people who don’t know where to start on their journey of recovery. Breese also posts uplifting pictures on her Instagram account: @stillbloomingme. 

Breese’s husband, Jeff, ran the Boston Marathon again a few years after the 2013 attack. Returning to the source of her PTSD was terrifying for Breese, but it was an important step for her to take.

It helped her begin to move on from the terror that she still lived with ever since that horrifying day a few years prior. Breese and her husband hope to continue inspiring their children with their strength and pursuit of living life to the fullest.

Though what Breese went through is something she will never forget, she continues to keep positive energy that uplifts her followers and blog readers. She is helping survivors see through their pain so they can bloom and live a beautiful and fulfilling life.

Credits:
Host & Producer & Editor: Cielo
Lead Producer: Sahar Mithani
Writer: Sydney Murphy
Editor: Olivia Sun
Developer: Samuel Holtzman

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How Devika and Swati Bhise Created the First Hollywood Action Film in History with a Brown Female Lead

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Devika Bhise wearing a colorful red and black shirt with designs on it, while standing next to a foot stool carrying a tool.
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Two amazing women are disrupting Hollywood with their movie, “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi.” Actress Devika and director Swathi Bhise decided to co-write and produce a film that empowers women through the story of Rani, a woman standing up to make a difference using her own female strength and independence in an epic true story.

“The Warrior Queen of Jhansi” is the first Hollywood action film in history with a brown female lead.

Rani represents an icon that women can look up to. Devika learned how to ride horseback and practiced her skills in martial arts to prepare for her role as the main character, Rani, in the film.

The two languages of Hindi and Marathi are spoken by Rani, which were both challenges that Devika was determined to perfect. The tenacious character of Rani was especially important for Bhise to portray because her impartial passion positively influenced Jhansi society. Rani is selfless and preeminent in the freedom movement of the people of India. 

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“What makes her special in a way is that she isn’t special. Everything she had, she created for herself, and she worked very hard to get to where she was and to fight for her country,” said Devika.

The process of creating the film left the producers enriched through overcoming the challenges of Hollywood production. The challenges that Swati & Devika faced while filming “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi,” included extreme weather in Morocco and London, a tight budget, and being the first film to feature an Indian woman as a superhero. 

“Challenges are not so much in a story or how it is told. Your critics are your challenge,” said Swati. 

Though the film, “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi” is a story about a young feminist and fearless freedom fighter in Jhansi, India, during the years after 1857. Women across all cultures are raving about their ability to connect with Rani’s character. The character, Rani, is an inspirational woman who led her people into battle for their freedom.

“She is not just Indian, she is every woman. It is her soul that has no boundaries, no culture, no caste, no creed, no religion,” said Swati.

Though the film industry of today has been making more of an effort to include more ethnic groups into movie scripts, the casting has become more stereotyped than ever. Hollywood is constantly changing, but it is challenging to successfully pivot the interpretation of future films when the leaders in the industry are still older caucasian male figures. 

Women have been making an effort to be more proactive in promoting more ethnically diverse content in Hollywood, but this effort can still be improved. The promotion of ethnically diverse films, can be achieved by making individual choices when finding movies to support.

Not everything is going to be politically correct all the time. The change needs to come from the consumers if the industry is not leading the change.

Devika and Swati provided advice for current college students about finding their own power in communication and living with the mindset that nothing is impossible. It is important to have your own thoughts and opinions in life that you maintain and not be negatively influenced by others.

“Don’t get beaten down by conflicting preferences of others. Anyone can do what they put their mind to, and if you work tremendously hard, you can achieve your goals.”

These two amazing women are breaking the boundaries set by society about the film industry. It is now up to others to continue to promote ethnically diverse content in Hollywood.

“The Warrior Queen of Jhansi” is now available on Amazon. Check it out today.

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

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