The Importance of Self Interest (An International Women's Day Call to Action for Everyone)

On the week that holds International Women’s Day (and every day) there are more women to honor than I can possibly mention. This year, in particular, I have found myself wanting to be face down, in near trembling honor of many incredible women who are making the world better with every one of their breaths and blinks. There are Kathie and Caitlyn who inspire and nurture me even amidst their own profound grief. There’s Tawanda, Louise, and Stephanie who all lost sons to gun violence in Chicago and who have opened their hearts and stories to me so that I might learn to be a better human. Louise also introduced me to the restorative justice court in Lawndale where she strives to help people have richer and freer lives. There’s Sister Donna at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation who hosts healing circles in some of the most challenging spaces I’ve witnessed. There are all the women involved in Mom’s Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (Emily, Lisa, Leah, Erica, Ava, Abigail, Cheryl, Andrea, Jill, and countless, countless others) as well as Penny who have taught me and helped me find a new version of my voice and who have born witness to the women I lost years ago. There’s Antionette who holds space for all manner of social services, law enforcement, and community members with tenacity and fierceness in an effort to reduce violence and there are Anneliese, Rashida, and Sarina who do the same in their civic and vocational roles. There's Vana who is the therapist I've looked for my entire life and finally been fortunate enough to find and Ruthie, without whom there would be no book in production. And there are more…more than I can mention…who are, in their circles and spheres of influence, contributing to a more equitable and loving world. It is my wish that we could all do the same.

An important motto of mine is expressed on a dog tag I’ve had on my key ring for years that says, simply, “Woman Up.” I referenced it once, while on stage, and asserted that it was time for the audience to “have the ovaries to take on the challenges before them.” I meant this. Having been raised in a large Finnish family by women (and men) who celebrate being sturdy and having SISU*, I believe that we are, inherently, capable and that our voices are desperately needed at the table (and in the classroom and the warehouse and the pulpit and the assembly line and the athletic field and the board room and in the state house and white house).

What I find sad about my own experience, as well as the experience of many other women, is that we have too often burdened by a cultural (possibly worldwide) expectation that we will default to doing whatever it is we do for the benefit of, or in support of, others. Don’t get me wrong. If you know me you know that service is foundational to who I am and what I value. I believe that, while we may not be our sister’s keeper, per se, we are certainly their neighbor and, as such, we must reach out, support, listen, offer ourselves, comfort, and protect them. Even when Especially when it is costly and uncomfortable.

Even still, it is important that we validate and own the fact that there are also elements of self interest in what we do and why we do it. These elements exist even in how we live into who we are. Somehow, however, I feel like a vast majority of us never got this memo. Or, if we did, we got it in such a way that taught us that self interest is bad, shameful, selfish, and wrong. This leads us to be other centric in ways that can easily morph into feelings of resentment or realities of abuse. If we only do things for others, without taking care to ensure that we, ourselves, are healthy, grounded, aware of our needs, and able to get our needs met (even if it means asking for things), we can easily end up in oddly narcissistic spirals, using other’s thoughts about, feelings regarding, and neediness of us as the source of our worth.

It is time to step fully into ownership of what each one of us has to offer and to do so with a full awareness of how doing so benefits our communities which, by the way, include our selves. The world needs every single one of us to be our fullest version of ourselves so that we can contribute what we were meant to contribute and thrive while doing so.

At a recent training I was asked why I choose to engage in volunteerism around ending gun violence. Not surprisingly my answers had to do with everyone but myself. I want to honor the family members I lost as well as those taken from my friends. I want to make the world safer and to help children feel safe at school. I bristled when the instructor (Alysa Friedrich) suggested that, perhaps, these reasons were only a part of the picture and that I likely was driven by a certain level of self interest. It felt narcissistic to think that I was working for my own benefit. I squirmed at the thought. Then she went on and I was spurred to some important insights. Turns out, it is true that there is self interest involved in my work and that clarifying this has actually spurred me to greater engagement with my work and deeper understanding of the specifics of my “call” in not only my volunteer work but also my vocation and life. While it seems obvious now it certainly wasn’t comfortable to own the fact that understanding how my actions (as well as thoughts, values, drives) benefit and cost me actually makes me a healthier person with whom to engage and attach.

Our own needs, experiences, temperaments, and preferences create a thick pair of glasses through which we look every day.  This means that all relationships are formed on the foundation of our own relationship with our self. We can’t see our friends, partners, children, or, even, God for who they genuinely are if we don’t have a clear set of lenses from which to look. Being aware of what drives us to behave and connect in the ways that we do is like cleaning our glasses. It not only helps us to see better but it helps us to make better choices about how to serve others while also making sure our needs are met. 

At a time when we need women’s voices more than ever, it would behoove us to move past our prior conditioning and get serious about owning the reality of what we were brought here to do and how it will benefit even our selves in doing it. If we are going to make the changes that need to be made, if we are going to get our voices heard, if we are going to do anything of importance, we need resilience and determination and the kind of strength of will must be rooted in a deep and abiding sense of who we are and what we are to do. Until we are honest about all the reasons we do what we do/are who we are, including those that benefit us, we cannot live from this centered place.

Alysa provided a template for how to create a self interest statement and the one I created in the training is rocking my world and driving me forward with newfound purpose. I’ve made a few tweaks to the one she offered and want to encourage you to put down whatever device you are reading this on, grab a pen and paper, copy down the prompts, and get to work. We need you in this world and we need you to be BOLD even when it’s scary. My hope is that this will help you know your strength.

Template for a self interest statement ***:

Because I want (insert a change you are working to make in the world or a value/ideal you would like to advance), I am (insert actions you are taking to bring this about). To do this, my work is (insert things that are specific to your gifts and talents that you can do to advance this change or value/ideal) and my role in the bigger movement toward this change is (insert some roles that are befitting of who you uniquely are). I cannot do this without the help of (insert the people or institutions (and/or Dieties) who make up your support system). If I don’t do this, the consequence for me will be (insert personal consequences of not following through on this calling).

or, more simply:

Because I want ____________, I am ____________. To do this, my work is ____________ and my role in the bigger movement toward this change is ____________. I cannot do this without the help of ____________. If I don’t do this, the consequence for me will be ____________.

It’s time to Woman Up and determine the consequences of you not living into all that you were meant to be. I cannot stress the sense of empowerment and drive that this process has spurred me toward. For accountability sake, I’ll share my self interest statement at the end. If you so choose, I’d be honored to bear witness to yours. So that I can, please take a few moments to do this important work. Once you have, use it to spur you toward a greater curiosity about the self interest statements of those around you. This would make a better world!


* SISU is defined by in this way: To the Finnish people, SISU has a mystical, almost magical meaning. It is a Finnish term that can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. SISU is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage.

** We need men’s voices too…they’ve just been privileged for a while and it’s time to turn up the volume on those of the female/identified female persuasion.

*** Adapted from Alysa Friedrich and Josh Nussbaum’s MGMT 101 workshop for GSU - Moms Demand Action 2016 Annual Training.







My self interest statement:

Because I want a world where all people are esteemed and valued, I am building a relational reality free of emphasis on power, position, age, gender conformity, and/or strict morality over radical hospitality and grace. To do this, my work is to push against stereotypes that others may have about me and to be honest about my own racism, classism, sexism, and more as well as actively and passionately resist strong cultural norms. My role is to be human over doctor/leader/teacher. I can’t do this without the help of my family, a few core confidants, vana, and others who are willing to connect with me authentically in mutually respectful ways. If I don’t do this/actively work toward this the consequence to me will be feelings of defeat and a literal misuse of the power and privilege I have been given.