The "Narratorial Creators" Series is a space for radically creative teastained women to share ideas that inform their work and the resolutions they have for its impact on the world. My hope is that their offerings inspire us to Journey Soulfully, thinking differently about our humanity and creative continuance as we see what other stories are possible for us to tell with our gifts along the journey.
Michaela and I have been following each other in IG for a while now. I have always admired her photographic eye (all the images in this interview were taken by her!): how she can effectively summarize a place's narrative through the same minimalism she practices in her personal life without leaving gaps in the story.
It was in preparing to interview Michaela that I learned she's a non-profit founder and suddenly her focus, old-soul disposition, and unwavering vision made perfect sense. Michaela is a global thinker with a huge vision encased in a plain, but unbreakable shell. Her combination of art and humanitarianism makes her a Narratorial Creator.
Michaela is an artist who lives and leads creatively in the field of global and public health. Her greatest passion is wellness in all areas of life, for herself, for other people, and for the earth. She is the founder of Priyam Global, a nonprofit that invests in families of children with disabilities in India, and she has also worked as a global consultant in community health programming. Michaela writes and edits for Quiet Traveler, a website she launched in 2017 to explore and celebrate mindful travel and intentional living at home and around the world. Follow Michaela’s journey on Instagram: @saltwatermocha
Speak about your journey. Who are you becoming and what is your hope as you continue?
I hope that I am becoming, and continuing to become, a woman who lives gracefully in the balance between being at peace with herself and others in all their imperfections, while also gently challenging herself and others to continue to grow into the fullest, healthiest version of themselves that they can be. I also hope to never stop learning what it means to live simply, live lightly, live fully, and live purposefully.
Can you talk about Priyam Global? Why did you start this nonprofit?
Priyam Global is a movement to affirm the value of children affected by disability. We are a registered nonprofit with the mission of improving quality of life for children with disabilities in poverty by investing in the women who raise them. Currently, we work in Chennai, India, where we are running a comprehensive economic empowerment and family support program for mothers of children with disabilities.
From the beginning, Priyam Global's purpose has been to spark a conversation around the way the world views children and the value of every life. There is an incredible amount of momentum in the world right now to empower women and families, to safeguard maternal and child health, to reduce preventable deaths, and to celebrate and protect children. And yet, children affected by disabilities have been almost completely ignored.
Priyam exists to bring visibility to these children in a way that is honest, practical, and inviting to people who care about women and children but who may have had no experience or previous connection to anyone with a disability. That was my story, until I spent six weeks in 2009 with children affected by severe developmental disability in India. Spending time with those children dismantled my previous beliefs about “value” and “potential” of children who aren’t typically developing. I know that this topic can feel really uncomfortable, but those children taught me that, truly, it doesn’t have to be. A child is a child. I think we all believe that. Additionally, we all know what it is like to feel excluded simply because of who we are—whether we feel like we don’t measure up to society’s ideals of beauty or body shape or personality or interests—and so I think when people understand that so many children are excluded from global awareness simply because of who they are, they want to change that. So Priyam’s purpose is to invite people into this story, to give them a very tangible way to make this world a more accepting place.
You started Priyam Global in your early 20s. What was going through your head to elevate the urgency of your organization’s mission over any of your fears, personal doubts?
This question gets to the heart of why I started Priyam Global. I was full of doubt at being a very young American, with very little personal experience with disability, going into India to try to make a positive change in the lives of children affected by disability in extreme poverty there. I knew that there are so many families and grassroots leaders who have been working for this long before I was even born. So the question wasn’t about why no one was doing anything—they were, and still are—but the question was why isn’t the world paying attention? Why does no one outside of those directly involved know the realities that children with disabilities and their families must overcome? There is very, very little global support, interest, or funding for children with disabilities, which reflects how stigmatized they are around the world. The sense of urgency I felt, which ultimately pushed me to action, was that families and small community organizations around the world are pouring their entire energies into surviving every day in the face of very little resources. They don’t have the time, space, and energy that I have to fundraise, tell stories, maintain a website, and empower Americans to act. I still had my doubts, but when I understood that what I had to offer was complementary to local efforts, I decided to move forward.
Many people linger in the planning phase of their vision because it’s safer than taking the leap. Can you discuss this based on your personal experience?
This is not really a concept that I struggle with. I remember being very young and my dad telling me “look before you leap!” in relation to making decisions of any kind. I have always jumped headfirst into ideas. I think if something scares me I’m actually more likely to take the leap to soon—I’ve learned that I can basically trick my brain by doing something before I feel ready, and I circumvent fear that way. A very practical example: cliff jumping. If you stand there and think about it, you can physically feel the fear multiplying in your stomach. It’s very visceral. Eventually, if you wait too long, it will literally paralyze you. So you just have to fling yourself off that ledge. On the other hand, however, I’m also learning to slow down and sit with doubts and fears before making a premature action.
What does your work with Priyam Global celebrate, preserve, and deepen?
We celebrate the humanity and dignity of children affected by developmental disability, we preserve their rights as children by coming alongside their families to support the efforts of moms and dads in poverty to provide a safe and beautiful childhood for their child, and we deepen the connection between communities in material poverty and communities in more developed countries (who are often in deep social/communal poverty of relationships and connection with each other and the greater whole).
What have you had to overcome and heal of
so that you can be successful as a woman, artist, and CEO today?
by looking for and creating beauty in my own life, and by being patient with myself on both good and bad days, I overcame a crippling sense that my life wasn’t as good as others’ lives (or some imaginary future version of my life in which everything was “perfect.”)
perfectionism was, for a long time, my Achille’s heel, but no more. I now aim to just be “good enough,” and I definitely believe that “done is better than perfect.” I have learned that my inner drive for excellence doesn’t vanish in the face of grace and patience, like I suspected it might. Instead, I’ve simply learned when and where to apply that drive, rather than being controlled by it.
Fear of making mistakes:
Making mistakes is really very freeing, as anyone recovering from this fear can attest. It’s good to remember that I’m human. It’s also good to be reminded that the way I handle mistakes is infinitely more important than any perceived damage that could happen from a mistake.
Fear of what other people think of me: I overcome this primarily by faking it ‘til I made it, e.g. I just started telling myself that I don’t care what other people think of me. The more I told myself, the more I started to believe it. Now, one of my favorite mantras is: “On the one hand, so what? And on the other: who cares?”
What are 3 habits you’ve cultivated (knowingly or unknowingly) from your own experience to avail yourself to the insight of a moment, a place, a fleeting emotion of eudaemonia/inspiration?
being aware of what I’m doing, as I’m doing it, and paying attention to what my five senses are gathering and processing as I move through the world.
being aware of a certain balance between consuming or producing noise or entertainment, and just sitting in quiet with no intentional external stimuli.
allowing myself to laugh and smile and let the good things in life influence my state of being as much as the hard things in life seem to do so easily.
As a holistic entrepreneur in a world that’s constantly selling to us, how do you protect yourself the commercialization of EVERYTHING? How has this impacted your thought life, imagination?
Nature. Get outside, breathe, indulge all five senses, experience. When you get away from manmade spaces, you realize how small and petty our society really can be. More importantly, you realize that the earth is carrying us, not the other way around. We are not the greatest, biggest, thing on earth. Pursuing and renewing that kind of perspective is essential to my thought life and my ability to live with imagination.
What is the role of the imagination in your work?
To understand the lived experiences of families raising a child with disability in extreme poverty, and to try to develop solutions to their needs based on their collective thoughts, I would always ask families and grassroots leaders: what is, and—if anything were possible—what could be? We would ask this question over and over—it is the most essential question for our work. Structures and best practices and evidence-based programming are all important, but imagination must come first. To imagine is to try to set aside all of the “answers” and “solutions” that experience can program us to believe are the only, or best, way to do something. This is the dark side of experience: it gets more difficult to think outside of the box. At Priyam, we always try to push against that and go back to square one when confronted with any problem: what is, and what could be?
How do your frequent travels inform
how you adjust your lifestyle back in America?
I wrote this in 2014, after my second trip to India, and I recently rediscovered it:
in resuming usual thoughts.
forgot the usual,
doesn't seem worth the effort.
all my thoughts beat,
buy less things
save to learn
care less about things
delete your twitter
release your image
look less in mirrors
care less about clothing
break status quo
care most about love
How has embracing minimalism broadened your world?
Simplicity creates space for a lifestyle that is shaped by more than what you own.
I was first drawn to the simple but narrative imagery of your India travels on your instagram account. There’s a quiet power to your photographic eye that’s both insightfully empathetic and curiously archival. That’s not easy to do in India! What goes through your mind when composing imagery in general but especially when you go to India?
This is a great question. India, more than any place I have traveled, has taught me about calm and quiet. This, as anyone who has traveled to India would know, is really paradoxical. But I think it is precisely India’s chaos that provides the kind of contrast needed to really feel and cultivate calm.
My trips to India, always for work with Priyam Global, have always been incredibly exhausting and psychologically draining. Start-up work is difficult and full of uncertainty, these are multiplied exponentially in a foreign culture. But my saving grace has always been composing imagery. Noticing and collecting—archiving—moments of beauty has always been one of the most direct ways to recharge my creative energy. In India, I would find myself going out for walks to look for moments of calm and color amidst the constant noise and movement. It was my way of trying to understand the culture—I think a place’s details tell you more about that particular society than anything else. So on those walks in India, the more I looked for moments of calm in a city which, at first, seemed to have no quiet at all, the more I found. And that is how I learned that my ability to notice beauty and quiet directly reflects my ability to cultivate beauty and quiet in my mind. On some days, going out to look for quiet, beautiful moments is a way to calm my mind. On other days, I cannot find any at all until I calm my mind first. It’s a very connected relationship.