Avoiding controversy for the sake of comfort is not an option for you as you lead, do life, and rumble with all the big and little decisions before you.
Sure, you do not want to contribute to the noise.
You are not looking for a fight (or, like me, you try not to get scrappy just to offload some stress), or to be right just for the sake of being right.
No. You value the big picture. You value the mission. You value the greater impact.
These days, people try to shock us just so they can manipulate our feelings. They use hyperbole to exercise power over us. The polarization we are living with internally and in our culture leads to many having serious controversy fatigue.
Unburdened leaders get the nuance of standing up. They also understand the sacrifices. They would rather step up for what is true than play it safe.
We all need to do a better job of respecting this kind of leadership by supporting those who are willing to and able to take the heat when the status quo threatens the integrity of important work and fosters dehumanization.
That’s why I’m thrilled to introduce you to today’s guest, Blythe Hill.
Blythe is the CEO and Founder of the Dressember Foundation, an anti-trafficking nonprofit organization. Through their annual campaign, thousands of people across the world commit to wearing dresses or ties for the month of December as a way to raise awareness and funding for anti-trafficking work. Since 2013, Dressember advocates have raised $10MM USD and resourced dozens of anti-trafficking programs across the US and the world.
Please note: In this episode, we discuss matters around sexual abuse. Take good care of you and know your well-being is more important than pushing through this episode.
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Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:
Blythe Hill: Over and over on this journey I have had to choose between my own comfort or the weight of this issue and the urgency of the issue and lay aside my ego in order to engage in the work in ways that are not always comfortable.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: Controversy is inevitable for leaders who stay true to their values, their boundaries, and their mission. To intentionally avoid ever being controversial is to deliberately choose to tap out and play it safe. Keeping the peace, making everyone happy, staying away from controversy may feel easier and seem like the best path, but that's not leadership. It’s just placating, appeasing, and complacency.
But you know you can't please everyone, and you also know it can feel scary leading your life and your business in the age of cancel culture, doxing, and the blood sport of online critics always circling looking for their next attack. That in the end, the path of least resistance is not as appealing as leading through the edges of controversy, not to enflame or attack or offload pain, or definitely not collude with fear, but instead in support of the greater good and freedom for all. Sure, it can have a cost, but not as great as the cost of playing it safe and small on the sidelines.
I’m Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with leaders whose burdens have inspired their life’s work. Our goal is to learn how they've addressed these burdens, how they rise from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
Avoiding controversy for the sake of comfort is not an option for you as you lead, do life, and rumble with all the big and little decisions before you these days. Sure, you don't want to contribute to the noise. You're not looking for a fight or, like me, trying not to get scrappy just to offload some stress, or you're not looking to be right just for the sake of being right. You value the big picture. You value the mission. You value the greater impact.
These days, people try to shock us so they can manipulate our feelings. They use hyperbole to exercise power over. The polarizations we’re living with internally and in our culture lead to many having serious controversy fatigue, but unburdened leaders get the nuance of standing up. They also understand the sacrifices, and they would rather step up for what is true then play it safe. We all need to do a better job of respecting this kind of leadership by supporting those who are willing and able to take the heat when the status quo threatens the integrity of important work and fosters dehumanization, which is why I am really happy to introduce you to today’s Unburdened Leader guest, Blythe Hill.
Blythe is the CEO and founder of Dressember Foundation, an anti-trafficking nonprofit organization. Through their annual campaign, thousands of people across the world commit to wearing dresses or ties for a month of December as a way to raise awareness and funding for anti-trafficking work. I’m so excited for you to hear the backstory behind this. Since 2013, Dressember advocates have raised over ten million US dollars and resourced dozens of anti-trafficking programs across the US and the world. Dressember has received press and attention from the likes of Forbes, Glamour, InStyle, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, The Today Show, among others. In 2019, Blythe was named one of InStyle’s 50 Badass Women (how cool is that?) alongside powerhouse ladies like Michelle Obama, Christine Blasey Ford, Angela Davis, and Gayle King.
Blythe currently lives in Seattle with her husband, son, and their dog Friday. She loves a good red wine, a good cheese, and clearly a good pun. Listen to how Blythe connected the dots with her passion for decreasing human trafficking with her own story. Pay attention to how Blythe developed her skills as a leader while growing a nonprofit from scratch. Notice how Blythe approached a controversial issue while staying true to her expertise and pushing through her own growth edges in the process.
This episode has a trigger warning as we discuss matters around sexual abuse. Take good care of you and know that your wellbeing is way more important than pushing through this episode. Now, please welcome Blythe Hill to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
I am so excited to welcome Blythe Hill to the show today. Blythe, welcome!
Blythe Hill: Thanks, Rebecca! Thanks for having me.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, I cannot wait for this conversation. My goodness, we are recording this during such a pinnacle point in our history, and I’m really looking forward to getting your thoughts on things. So I want to jump in and maybe start a little bit about history. I want our listeners to know a little bit about you and this important work you're doing.
So, 15 years ago, you had your own personal reckoning around your eyes opening up to the devastation of human trafficking, which led to the beginning of Dressember, which is your nonprofit. I’d love for you to share what was going on in your life at the time and what was your offhand idea that led to this really important and expansive movement?
Blythe Hill: Yeah, so 15 years ago I was in college, and I don't even know how I came across the article. It wasn't in a class, but I really just stumbled on an article about sex trafficking in India, and it just stopped me in my tracks.
I was just horrified and felt a sense of urgency to do something that I had never felt before. I wondered why I hadn’t heard about it yet and why no one that I was watching or listening to was talking about it. I sort of felt like if people knew this was happening, they would feel the way that I felt, which was that urgency. It was pretty immediate after feeling this sense of urgency and like, “Okay, what can I do?” I immediately kind of looked at my options of how I might engage in this issue, and then that's where I pretty much immediately kind of hit a wall because it felt like, “Okay, there are about five clear pathways, vocationally, to engage,” and none of them really felt true to who I am and how I’m wired and my skill set. Those pathways were social work, psychology, criminal justice, law enforcement.
So, as passionate as I felt, I felt this immediate sense of powerlessness. What really kind of added insult to injury on the whole thing is it wasn't just that my skills and personality didn't seem to line up with those pathways, but they also felt kind of shallow by comparison. When I looked at the things that I’m interested in (writing, blogging, fashion, trend analysis, wordplay), it felt really inconsequential, and it felt very much like, “Well, how would I even use these things to begin to tackle something so enormous?”
Then, meanwhile or within a couple of years from that, I was in grad school getting my master’s in English and just buried in books and academia and had no time for anything but schoolwork and feeling kind of creatively stifled as a result, like, “Oh, I don't have any time for my normal creative outlets.” So I sort of thought, “Okay, well, I have to get dressed every day, and maybe that is my chance, in this season, to be creative.” So I came up with the idea just totally on a whim like I’ll try wearing a dress every day for a month, and it happened to be November, and so, I decided, “Okay, I’ll wear only dresses in the month of December.” Because I love puns, I came up with a name for this little challenge called Dressember and then did it, and it was just a quirky, fun challenge I was doing. There was no fundraising or cause element at all to it.
But then, the next year, some of my friends brought it up in the fall. They were like, “Hey, are you gonna do that again? We want to do that with you,” and then the next year after that, my friends' friends were bringing it up to them, and that’s when I started to dream about, “Oh, people like this. Maybe there’s something I can do with this,” and I started to dream about the possibility of using it, turning it into an anti-trafficking campaign, seeing if we could raise a few thousand dollars for an anti-trafficking organization.
So that’s kind of the genesis of the organization, then, because it was the fifth year of Dressember (so 2013) that I made what felt like a really bold move to turn my light, fun challenge into an anti-trafficking campaign, hoped we could try to raise $25,000.
That was my huge, ambitious goal. We ended up hitting that in 3 days and then raised $165,000 by the end of the month.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, wow.
Blythe Hill: Yeah, that really was just like, “Oh, my gosh! This is a much better idea than I realized.” That’s when I began the process to turn it into a 501-(c)(3) and take steps to really build it into a foundation.
Rebecca Ching: That's a lot of work. That’s a lot of work to take an idea to a legit, grown-up, adulting nonprofit. So way to go on that!
I want to circle back on something you said at the beginning of our conversation that I suspect just about everyone I know can relate to at some point in their life, if not continuing to do so. You came upon this article reading about sex trafficking in India, mind blown. Maybe your heart was crushed recognizing the devastation of this. You did an inventory of, “How can I have an impact on this? What can I do about this?” You looked at these vocations and careers and went, “This isn't a fit with me. This isn’t true.” You jumped us forward to grad school and got to your creative expression around wearing a dress every day.
Can you talk a little bit about the time in between then, what you did with this awareness around sex trafficking, your desire to do something, and feeling like where your gifts were laid and just your abilities laid. How were you rumbling with that? Can you talk a little bit about the tension you were holding there and how you were navigating this issue between when you first discovered it to when you started playing around with supporting this issue through Dressember?
Blythe Hill: Yeah, it was really frustrating for several years there. Just that tension of feeling so passionate but so powerless. There wasn't really a mainstream conversation about the issue, and at that point, the conversation that was happening was about the issue internationally. You know, when I was learning about it in these years leading up to Dressember turning into a campaign, it was perceived as a third world country issue, sex tourism in Cambodia and Thailand. And so, that sort of added to my frustration as not only do I need to reroute my career, but I need to move across the world in order to engage in it.
And so, it just felt really frustrating to really want to do something about it, but again feel pretty powerless. I really was honestly taking a hard look at could I go down one of those pathways. That’s how passionately I felt about it. I just tried to learn as much as I could, followed a few organizations during that time and tried to just keep my eye open for ways to be involved other than donating, which I did my $20 here and there.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely. Issues like this can feel so big, and sometimes there’s this belief that the only way or the best way to support this is by going on the frontlines. I also want to just bring us back to where you started playing around with your own creativity as a way to navigate the grind of grad school with fashion. That’s something I think I’ve been waking up to myself is that it is a creative expression. It’s not something superfluous or superficial. And it actually is a way to be creative.
Tell me about the leap of connecting the dots with the interest of people doing this Dressember challenge for fun.
Blythe Hill: Yeah, you know, I had a blog at the time on Blogspot, and it was just for fun, and I would post my Dressember pictures on there mainly to just prove that I was doing it. And so, I think hashtags were a thing back then. I’m trying to remember -- but on a blog, how I was able to kind of see other bloggers that were participating. But I was seeing engagement from more and more people that I didn't know personally and just saw, okay, yeah, people like this. I joke that I have a lot of bad ideas that never go anywhere. And so, seeing one move past my immediate network, I was like, “Oh, this one’s movin’! This is a good one.”
And then a friend suggested turning it into a fundraiser, and I’m pretty sure I just laughed that off because I was like, “You know, this is not hard. We’re not running a marathon. We’re not biking across the country. We are just getting dressed,” and I was really dubious about the idea of people feeling compelled to donate to us for this difficult challenge we’re taking on. As a side note, I know it is hard for some people, and I have days in the month that are hard as well. But overall, it’s not a grueling physical challenge.
Then I caught onto -- I had heard of the Movember campaign, which is the month-long campaign where men grow mustaches in November to raise money for men’s health issues. I had heard of that but didn't realize it was a fundraiser until around 2011 or 2012. So then realizing, “Oh, they're raising money? How much have they raised?” At that point, they're raising millions of dollars. I sort of stopped and couldn't believe that and thought, “If a bunch of men can raise millions of dollars by growing facial hair, then there’s a good chance that a group of women can raise some money for this issue of anti-trafficking.” That’s kind of what gave me proof of concept to go for it.
Rebecca Ching: I love that. I love how, too, you had talked about feeling so passionate about this issue yet powerless, and you kept wrestling with it, writing about it, reading about it, tithing some of your resources, talking about it with your peers, and I think sometimes it’s just such a great example of those seeds have planted that wake us up, that move us, that we don't have to act right away. Sometimes they need to percolate and mature, as you probably grew up into the issue too. And this is just a great lesson that we don't always just have to leap into something.
Blythe Hill: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: But to stay curious about it, follow those passions, and you weren't totally powerless. You were still taking action. It just didn't feel enough. Scarcity can really shut down action, right?
Blythe Hill: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And you were still internalizing and rumbling with that. And so, I really appreciate that.
I want to also just shift gears looking back because, what, you're at seven years of it being a formal nonprofit? Looking back at the beginnings of Dressember in that capacity, what has leading Dressember taught you about leadership and even leading? Any lessons or key insights that you have looking back at the beginnings to where you're at today as a leader?
Blythe Hill: Yeah, that’s been a wild journey --
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Blythe Hill: -- and a big growth curve. Before all this, I would not have called myself a leader. I thought I’m a great supporter. I’m a great number two in executing someone else’s vision. But I had led small things like high school youth groups and small groups, submission work type stuff. But I never was setting out to lead an organization or a business or a movement.
So there was a lot to learn. When Dressember began growing, and when I was able to come on staff and then knew that soon I’d be able to start hiring staff as well, I really took that responsibility seriously. I have had good bosses, and I have had bad bosses. And so, I really started setting up meetings and conversations with leaders in my life who I respected and tried to learn from them, “Okay, what makes a good leader, and how do you sustain good leadership, and what are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as a leader?” And that was really helpful.
I think now, in retrospect, something I’m really passionate about is this idea of a leader. I think a lot of us -- I know that I, for a long time, thought that some people are just born leaders. They have the personality of a leader, and people want to follow them. That’s true. But I think most leaders, and some of the best leaders that I’ve seen, are people who grow into leadership and people who may even start as reluctant leaders, but they see a void, and they feel a calling to meet a need.
Some of the leaders I respect most and the leadership that I try to emulate is one that models ongoing curiosity and learning, and I try to be a leader who listens to our community and certainly to my staff, a leader who doesn't, hopefully -- I really try not to be a leader who gets in the way of my team doing their best work.
I really want to empower people. I am not a manager. I don't want to manage people. I want to really empower them to own the work in front of them. So that’s the kind of leader that I try to be, and it is an ongoing journey, and there were certainly growing pains, but it’s been a good journey.
Rebecca Ching: I appreciate you reaching out to the leaders that you admire and respect and learn. I know that’s been a great resource for me. It’s a lifelong practice, and I also appreciate the phrase of growing into leadership. I think these days there’s such an expectation of, “Do you have it or do you not?” Often the folks that aren't leading could sit there and toss in their opinions or criticisms and like, “Oh, I don't know if they’ve really got --.” I hear that stuff all the time, not just in between my ears, but I hear the critic section and I’m like, “Well, what are you doing? Are you getting in there? Are you getting scrappy? Or are you just gonna comment on it?” We don't give a lot of grace to folks that, like you said, are reluctant leaders that are responding to a need. I loved that, and to say, “Well, what are you doing about it?” and then to navigate the uncertainty of that. Frankly, the leaders I respect the most started off as reluctant leaders. The leaders that scare me the most are the ones that are hungry for it, and we’re living that right now too.
Blythe Hill: [Laughs] Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: So thank you so much for sharing that. One of the other things that struck me about you and your work (in many ways, it’s the passion of this show) is talking about how the burdens we carry from our story inspire our life’s work.
Getting to know you and your work and your story, it was like, “Yes! Wow!” You gave a TEDx Talk in 2015, and you boldly shared the parts of your story that fuels the why for Dressember. So I’d love for you to share what is the why you discovered that fuels your deep commitment to your work at Dressember.
Blythe Hill: Yeah, you know, like I said, I took for granted that passion that I felt early on and really universalized it. I thought, “Okay, if people knew about this issue, they would feel what I’m feeling.” It took me a few years to really make the connection of why I feel so passionate, so drawn to this issue, and such a sense of urgency to fight for specifically women and girls who are currently an exploitation. For me, it’s because of my own experience of sexual abuse as a child.
I was four or five the first time I was molested by someone I knew, someone I trusted, someone I should have been able to trust. And for years, decades really, I carried this heaviness of that experience and a sense of shame and a really distorted perspective of myself and my identity as a human, as a woman and really carried and sifted through these questions about my worth and lovability and purity. It felt like a whole web of questions and the weightiness that I was just snagged by for years.
I feel really grateful that I had the resources to access support. Therapy was the best investment I’ve ever made in myself. Years of therapy, unpacking that and then finding safe people to process it with. And really the thing that still just surprises me and angers me about shame is how we are complicit in hiding this abuse as people who’ve experienced it because it’s so shameful to us. But then as soon as you shine a light on it, as soon as you bring it into the light and expose it, it loses so much of its power, and it’s like the more I talk about my experience, the less power it has over me. In a weird way, I almost feel empowered now talking about it because I know what my talking about it will do for other people listening who’ve experienced similar things. When you hear someone else share their shame, it makes you begin to wonder if you should bring yours to the light as well, especially this sort of sexual abuse and the shame that comes with it.
In the weirdest, wildest way, I am not grateful for the abuse in itself, but now looking back on the path that it has launched me on and the passion that it’s stirred in me for women and girls, in the craziest way, I am grateful for my whole story and that that is being used for such good or launched me into this path that’s really redemptive.
Rebecca Ching: Redemptive is a powerful word for that, and I think I’m coming up on 18 years as a trauma therapist and several years now as a trauma-informed leadership coach, and one of the most important tools to healing is meaningful work. The other part of that is sharing your story with those who’ve earned the right to hear it (the wisdom of Brené Brown, who shares that a lot). And I just am so grateful (I feel myself tearing up) because I know every time someone’s gonna hear you talk and share what you just shared, lives are saved, dreams are saved, hope is fueled, and more light is shining on the planet because you chose to not stay in the darkness of that shame. But I also acknowledge that I want to be very clear that took, from what you just said, several years of work, very deeply private, sacred work and to come into your own. But, man, I just find it never ceases to amaze me what really lights us up and really makes us excited about how we want to spend our waking hours is, more often than not, connected to some of the darkest times of our life.
Blythe Hill: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I mean, find me a therapist or someone who does trauma-informed anything that doesn't have a little something in their story. [Laughs] And for me, that’s totally redemptive to me doing this work. And so, thank you so much.
What impact would you say leading Dressember has had on your own trauma healing journey?
Blythe Hill: It’s been really -- it just continues to kind of redeem that part of my story.
I think when things were first starting and Dressember was so successful initially and I made the connection, I sort of thought, “Oh, isn't that great that I’ve healed from this and now it’s compelled me to this?” It was a very past tense and now present tense. Then a few years into it, I realized, “No, this is an ongoing, redemptive experience for me,” because I realized at a certain point that in order for me to continuously declare that the sexual abuse of women and girls around the world is wrong and evil and not their fault or their shame to carry. I have to continuously declare that for myself and my own experience. So many people who participate are also, whether knowingly or unknowingly, doing the same thing, who may have also experienced abuse.
So there are tangible and intangible, redemptive forces at work in a very ongoing way that’s really rewarding.
Rebecca Ching: Hearing you share that, I just get this sense of the echoes of Dressember and the other women that participate. Knowing that a number of them are inspired like you, and the echoes of courage, the echoes of solidarity and even just the echoes of taking action to do something because trauma freezes us up. It shuts down. It freezes. It locks up in the action. And then the beauty of even drawing attention to creatively dressing our bodies, especially when shame has said, “No, no, no. Don't be seen.” So, like you said, the layers of this to me are so powerful. I’m really seeing that even more as I hear you share about it.
One of the things I’ve had many people say to me, even in my own work, as I joke I can clear a room, especially at my kids’ drop off or pick up, they're like, “What’d you do today?” And I’m like, “I led a shame resilience workshop.” “Have a good one!” They're like, “What’re you doing?” I’m like, “I’m doing a talk on trauma-informed leadership.” They're like, “Ah, good luck! See ya!” you know? I can clear a room when I drop shame or trauma in a second, but I get why. I mean, at first I was confused, and then I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, duh,” right? I mean, depending on where people are at.
But I also often hear, “How can you talk about this and listen to these things day in and day out? I couldn't handle that. I couldn't handle that.” I know, for me, when someone shares a story that to me actually -- even when I’m hearing horrific things, there’s something that excites me because I know that they're speaking light. That’s something that’s helped me navigate over the years.
But when I think about your work and the level of work and also the nuance of human trafficking in our country and around the globe, I don't believe that there are levels of abuse, right? But there’s an insidiousness that it’s hard to even think about these things, right? It’s hard to even grasp what humans are doing to other humans. In light of that, you work with nonprofits who are also on the frontlines and talking about statistics day in and day out -- I guess there’s also the therapist in me that’s like how are you taking care of yourself and your own trauma story in the face of so much trauma as you fight to help heal and bring awareness to in your work in Dressember?
Blythe Hill: You know, I am still a huge advocate for counseling ongoing. I think everyone could use counseling all the time. [Laughs] Access is something I would love for more people.
Rebecca Ching: Totally.
Blythe Hill: I think, for whatever reason, the way I’m wired, as heavy as some of the stories are and some of the work and some of the programs that we are directly involved with, hearing how well or some of the obstacles that Dressember network partners face in that work, for the most part it’s invigorating to me hearing the individual stories or the case-by-case. What overwhelms me is if I zoom out to the scale of the issue and the magnitude, and fortunately, I’m not really a numbers person, so I don't get caught in that too often, but it’s usually when I make a visit to the field to see the work in person and to meet survivors and hear more about the large-scale obstacles and the systemic obstacles that perpetuate systems of trafficking, which usually I do once or twice a year in a non-pandemic world.
We were supposed to go to India last June, and I had gone to India a couple of summers ago. That was a really, really hard trip because I really did feel like I came face to face with just the reality of this overwhelming cultural and systemic misogyny that to be born a woman is worse than being born a cow. There are all these sorts of cultural expressions or phrases: “when you have a son, you celebrate, and when you have a daughter, you cry.” There is a Hindu phrase: “my husband is my God.” So it’s this super patriarchy, and to just be confronted with it so in your face is what I felt with the places I was and the people and the organizations I was engaging with.
And also the colorism (racism within a race) that 90% of the clients at Dressember Network partners work with are darker-skinned, lower-caste Indians, and that traffickers in India justify trafficking people, either because they're female or because they're lower caste. These sort of systemic reinforcements of, “This is okay. It’s okay that I’m doing this to this person because they're nothing. They're worth nothing,” that was super overwhelming. It took me several weeks, months after that trip to really recalibrate because I just felt super overwhelmed. It felt like we were putting a Band-Aid in a gushing artery.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Blythe Hill: It felt like we were treating a symptom of something much worse and much bigger. When I felt that and when I feel hints of that feeling, that overwhelm, I have to keep coming back to this very simple idea, a bit cliche, of, “Okay, no one can help everyone. I can't help everyone. Dressember cannot help everyone. But we can help some people. We can help one person, and that matters. That’s important, and that’s beautiful.”
So I think it’s normal and I think it’s actually healthy to stay tender enough to be a bit devastated by this work.
Rebecca Ching: Mm. Wow.
Blythe Hill: And my counselor said to me coming back from India, “It is okay that this breaks your heart. But don't let it break your spirit.”
Rebecca Ching: I really appreciate that. I’m just even thinking, from a leadership perspective, as you share all of that, I remember when I was sharing I went through an executive leadership coach program, and I was with dear colleagues from Intuit and McKinsey and Google and Corporate Health Care and all these folks. We were sharing about what we wanted to do, and I said, “I want to do some trauma-informed leadership work,” and their eyes got all big, and they were like, “Uh, you can't say that word.” And I’m like, “Why?” They're like, “It’s just too much. It’s the workplace. You can't,” you know? And I’m like, “Okay, then what word would you use?” They said, “Compassionate leadership and caring leadership.” I played around with it, and I’m like, “Just the reason why y’all reacted is why I’m gonna be doing this.”
I think this is exactly what you said. We have to stay tender enough to be devastated by this, but so many organizations, whether it’s corporate, whether it’s nonprofit, whether it’s education, you name it, we protect ourselves so much that we’ve lost our capacity. We’re afraid of being devastated because, most often, people have their own burdens they're carrying that they don't want to hijack them. But I think, my gosh, if we led from that place where we want to stay tender enough to be devastated and maybe have our hearts broken but, what did your therapist say, your spirit broken?
Blythe Hill: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and to trust that we can handle that, I think that’s trauma-informed leadership. That’s unburdened leadership. And so, thank you for putting some more words to that.
All right. So I have a question. I want to dig into this question. This is a big reason why I brought you on today. Of course, I’ve been following your work since I first saw you speak at a conference and have really admired everything about you and how you do it.
So last summer, maybe even before then, I woke up to this. There was a surge in, what some would say, sensational allegations from the online space about major online businesses using their companies as fronts for trafficking children and laundering money. This was popping up with my clients, and there’s all this stuff. I’m like, “What is going on?” And so, you did an Instagram story that I was like, “Oh, okay, I want to hear what Blythe has to say,” because, as the founder of Dressember, you are an expert truly in this space dedicated to eliminating human trafficking. How did you address the polarizing claim to those who dismissed it and those who also deeply believed it? Because I thought you handled this beautifully.
Blythe Hill: Thank you.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Blythe Hill: Yeah, it was a weird summer.
Rebecca Ching: That’s one word for it, yes. [Laughs]
Blythe Hill: Yeah, I mean just adding why not this year.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Yeah.
Blythe Hill: You know, yeah, it was so suddenly controversial, which human trafficking has never been controversial. It has never been political. And so, all of a sudden, it is. That’s pretty interesting. And so, to see so many people fired up on both sides of the argument about Wayfair, which is the company I assume you’re talking about here because that was the big one this summer, I wanted to talk about it in a way where both sides could hear me, you know? I think people want to have their opinions confirmed.
We’re all crawling around social media looking for people to confirm our opinions, and so, I don't think that when you simply argue about why you think you're right you're gonna convince anyone.
So when I did that video, I really was trying to explain to both sides, like, “Okay, here is why people think this is true, and here is why people think this is bananas.” And then kind of talked about why I thought, based off what I’ve seen and even partners I had talked to in those weeks when all this was happening, why it was pretty unlikely, and yet, anything is always possible.
So that was kind of how I approached all of that. Yeah, I think because of the sudden controversy surrounding human trafficking and all the theories, I’ve gotten a little more bold in some of my opinions, but in general, I’m not interested in arguing over the internet, you know?
Rebecca Ching: But for the sake of our conversation, I would love to hear your bold reflections. What are some of your bold beliefs and thoughts around this issue?
Blythe Hill: I think zooming out, I have mixed feelings because, on the one hand, the work that we do has a lot to do with awareness and education. And so, seeing the conversation become a bit more mainstream is exciting to me because it’s finally we’re talking about this and awareness is spreading. At the same time, anytime there is kind of a new topic that people are new to and want to talk about, there’s a lot of misinformation, and I see it as an opportunity to educate and provide reliable resources and data. I know pretty much all of our partners and friends in this space have also been jumping to provide accurate information. It’s super surprising to get pushback on that.
There’s even, in some of the wildest instances, I’ve seen an anti-trafficking organization be accused of somehow trafficking people because they shut down these ideas of a basement of a pizza place being a place that children are being trafficked and murdered. Because they shut down that theory, they must somehow be complicit in that method of trafficking. That’s wild to me. You don't see that very often, but I’ve seen it.
That was my hesitation with bringing Dressember, as an organization, into the conversation because when you’re dealing with a group of really passionate, semi-radical theorists who don't adhere to a set of facts that we can agree on, things get a little crazy. It then becomes, well anyone -- all facts are under question. And so, anyone can come up with facts or opinions that are just as viable as others.
So I don't know if that answered your question.
Rebecca Ching: No, I appreciate that. I think what you kind of laid out, though, we can talk about for many subjects, right? It’s like, “If you don't agree with my facts, then you must be a part of what I’m against.” But I think what I was rumbling with on this particular issue, and what Dressember’s all about, is we are dealing with an issue of individuals and families and systems and culture, all of this, of exploitation and dehumanization and abuse and hurt, and to have this gaslighting approach poured on it is like we can debate the color of the sky, you know, fine.
Whatever. I see blue, you see purple, okay. But this? I felt protective and I felt some parts of me, more than reactive, deeply -- I felt that protective rage that comes up, that mama bear rage come up around this issue. So when I saw you talk and then lay out, “Here’s what we know about the majority of the people who are trafficked is from someone they know,” and that because you're in the business of seeing all the things and knowing the darkness of humans, you're not gonna rule anything out. You went through everything I know in my training is like that all landed with me.
And so, I think I was just really appreciative of your voice, and it calmed down like, “Okay, Blythe’s talking about this.” [Deep breath] But it’s definitely grieved me, more than just, “Oh, my gosh, I can't believe they don't see this or that.” It’s exploitation upon exploitation upon exploitation. There’s something extra layered dark about it, and I’m curious how was your response received? I don't know if I can still do that with Instagram. I’m gonna do my best to link your response to our show notes because I believe it’s still on IGTV. But how did people respond to that response where you tried to say, “Okay, those who see this, those who see that, I’ll share here’s how we at Dressember are viewing this and what we’re worried about and what we’re not.” How did people respond to that?
Blythe Hill: Yeah, the feedback to that particular post was pretty positive. I don't know that I got a lot of pushback on that. I’m trying to think back. That was over the summer.
The one that we got a lot of pushback on was when we posted on Dressember and specifically addressed QAnon because we felt, like you were saying, the added layer of exploitation where there’s sort of this exploiting of people’s fears and anxieties like, “Oh, my children are gonna get kidnapped and trafficked,” or, “800,000 missing children who are being trafficked,” or just all of these sensational statistics and stories that I think were really gathered to drive people to respond out of fear instead of facts and really understanding the situation and still having compassion for the fact that it’s probably not your own white, upper-middle-class kids who are at risk, who you have contact with all the time. I mean, absolutely they could be and teach them internet safety and stranger safety and healthy relationships with other adults, but the majority of people trafficked in the US are people of color. It’s disproportionately Black and brown communities, Indigenous communities, huge overlap with the foster care system, LGBTQ youth, runaways, homeless youth.
So again, it does, of course, happen to white children, but my hope is that, okay, will all these people who are so passionate about it now thinking that 800,000 children every year are being trafficked, and probably assuming they're white children, because my hope is that, okay, well, when they learn the facts, they will still be compassionate and be led to action.
Rebecca Ching: So you're saying even once they realize that maybe they're understanding and conceptualization of this issue is a lot broader and more diverse, then maybe their understanding that they’ll still stay engaged and still stay active and care as deeply?
Blythe Hill: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Is that what I’m hearing? Yeah, the layers of this are bringing up a lot of privilege, a lot of power over. That’s why, yeah, you helped me get words around something that I was feeling that was different than a lot of some of the misinformation stuff because it felt like, still, people were remaining invisible even as the firestorm was happening.
So you even mentioned that when you posted on Dressember you got some heat there, and you talk about being an introvert, and a lot of people I know and a lot of people that listen to this show are introverted. What has the emotional impact of this online storm and increased interest around human trafficking and, again, often the misinformation or responses, how has that all been on you? What impact has that had on you?
Blythe Hill: To some degree, I think it’s been a good stretch for me.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Blythe Hill: Making that video about a controversial issue, it was not in my comfort zone, you know? It was like, okay, well, over and over on this journey, I have a had to choose between my own comfort or the weight of this issue and the urgency of the issue and kind of lay aside my ego in order to engage in the work in ways that are not always comfortable.
So yeah, with that specific pushback, it was interesting. Something we do often is we value feedback and especially feedback that comes from our advocates, our supporters, our community. And so, we’ll look people up. You wouldn't believe how many people come on really vocal and they're like, “I’m never donating to you again!” And then you look them up and they’ve never had any interaction with the organization. So people will kind of talk a big talk. But if there is valid feedback that comes in from someone who has been a part of our community, we really listen to that and we take that seriously.
With the QAnon stuff, we had a lot of negative comments come in from people who are not part of the community, and it was really apparent that they weren't. And so, it was almost like people were reposting it on their story and just encouraging people to go trash us, I guess, or troll us. I have to just limit the amount of time I spend scrolling. You can kind of feel when it shifts from curiosity to a heaviness.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Blythe Hill: But yeah, I mean, the whole journey, early on, there’s always been an element of learning to manage the feedback and deciding or kind of filtering what I’m gonna let in, you know? And so, again, it’s like who is it coming from, how is it packaged. Is it good feedback that’s poorly packaged, is it just mean feedback that’s also poorly packaged (like that stuff), I just let it slide, but if it’s valid feedback that’s maybe not communicated well, that’s the sort of stuff I try to sift through. We want to be getting better at what we’re doing, and so, we do wade through the valid feedback.
Rebecca Ching: I appreciate the process, right? It sounds like a core value of the organization is feedback and listening to feedback from your community and your members and partners. That means staying open, but it also is a lot of emotional labor to vet the feedback too, and it sounds like that’s part of the gig. It sounds like you have support. Am I hearing that correctly? It’s not just you weeding through everything. You’ve got a team to help you.
Blythe Hill: Yeah, and that was a big game changer for me. I think it was 2015 when I first brought on an intern just to manage the general inbox, and that was just huge because, I mean, now a lot of people are communicating through Instagram DMs but that was less common back then. So it was mainly the email inbox felt like the frontlines. And so, when I could remove myself even one step from that front gate, that really helped my mental health a lot. Now, yeah, having a team who manages social media and the inbox, of course, they really only escalate to me the things that are valid or time sensitive.
Rebecca Ching: That’s great. I think that, too. Feedback is a part of leadership. Especially in this culture, having some systems of support is essential. So I was worried about that for you. I was like, “How’s she doing?” Because it’s brutal out there sometimes in the online space. [Laughs]
Blythe Hill: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Actually not sometimes. Often it is, and especially around an issue that’s so tender yet so essential that we talk more about it. So I’m so grateful to hear a little bit more about the story behind Dressember today, that you shared it, and how you lead through it, lead yourself and leading this organization. Dressember’s coming up! You're in pregame mode right now. You decided to do Dressember in November to kind of warm us all up for it. But I want you to share why should people consider getting involved in this year’s Dressember campaign?
Blythe Hill: You know, I have been thinking for months that this year is a hard year to ask people to do this because there’s a lot going on and we’re all feeling overwhelmed and kind of retreating into our pajamas. But it struck me a couple days ago that maybe this year is actually a really easy year to do it because we’re home all the time anyway, you know? If you live in a place that has real weather, you don't need to go outside in your dress very often. I’ve been having a lot of fun with a tripod and my phone doing these Instagram Reels.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, you have! Oh, they've been fun. You are dropping joy bombs right now, so thank you. [Laughs]
Blythe Hill: Yeah, well, and that is another part of it is like, no, I think people really need this right now. We need a distraction. We need something light and fun that is still making a great impact. And so, yeah, anyone listening, I just personally invite you to jump onboard. I think it’s such a fun month. It’s such a fun month, and there’s a great community and a lot of fun mini challenges within the challenge. And then I think it’s an amazing opportunity to be surprised by how your community shows up for you and supports something you're passionate about. I’m always surprised by who donates to my page. It’s a great time of year for it, and I think entering the new year with a sense of hope and ending 2020 by making an impact on a community that desperately needs it right now because that’s to something we talked about, but the urgency is absolutely there for victims and survivors of trafficking right now and the impact of COVID on trafficking.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, yes, you're absolutely right. I really value how you toggle something that is so dark and insidious with joy and light and creativity. You do it with such intention, it doesn't feel like -- we’re not getting hustled. And Brené Brown talks about why the joy and the light in the dark, they kind of toggle together. I feel like you really live that in how you lead your organization so thank you.
One final question. What do you say to those who feel like this is not their issue, or maybe just how you felt at the beginning, that they can't make a difference?
Blythe Hill: If this is not your issue, I would challenge you to read more about it because it overlaps with so many other issues, you know? It overlaps with racial justice. It overlaps with homelessness, with foster care, with incarceration, with drug addiction. So many issues are not single-problem issues, you know?
Rebecca Ching: Nailed it. Yes.
Blythe Hill: So, that’s how I’d respond to that. Then the second part of your question was about someone who might think that they can't have an impact. You know, we talked about, a little bit earlier, the idea of wanting to make the big leap, you know? I think so many of us just want to wake up tomorrow and make a big impact, and that’s not usually how it happens. It’s a series of small yesses, and big impact is really made up of a lot of small-impact moments. I mean, looking at the Dressember community overall, the average advocate, which is what we call our fundraisers, raises about $250, which isn't a huge amount.
Rebecca Ching: Really? Wow.
Blythe Hill: Yeah, it’s not a huge amount, but when you put together this army of people who are unified in this, last year we raised $2.5 million dollars through our community, and so, I think --
Rebecca Ching: Congratulations. Thank you for that. Wow.
Blythe Hill: Yeah, so even if you raise zero dollars but you’re having a lot of conversations, and you're spreading awareness, and you're sharing the resources that we provide -- you know, we provide 31 days of statistics and 31 social-media-ready graphics that you can post and all sorts of other resources at www.dressember.org/resources to really make things easy for you, make it easy, give you a language to talk about this issue. Yeah, even if you raise zero dollars but you are spreading awareness and providing education to people who may not have ever heard of this issue or think that it looks like a child being kidnapped by a man (which it can but it usually doesn't), spreading accurate information is important, and we certainly don't discount the importance of awareness as step one to any other sort of impact.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and I also just forgot to mention too that if you are not the dress-wearing type, and I know that can expand a lot, you also can wear a tie.
Blythe Hill: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I’m kind of curious about that one. To me, I’m playing around with that. Do I do ties or do I do dresses. So there are some options.
So where can people find you and learn more about Dressember and how to get involved? Where can they find all that stuff?
Blythe Hill: Yeah, Instagram’s probably our main channel. So @dressember on Instagram. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter, and we’re figuring out TikTok as well as a new place for Dressember. And then I’m on Instagram, Facebook as well.
Then our website is a great resource. It’s where you can sign up for the campaign, where you can donate either to the general campaign or specific advocates. You can go to our blog to look up keywords, stories. We probably have thousands of articles at this point on our blog, or the resources page that I mentioned, or we also have an ethical fashion directory on our site.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, right.
Blythe Hill: So there are a lot of resources on the Dressember website.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, it’s a gorgeous website. You’ve done a great job with that. Blythe, thank you. Thank you, not only for what you do, for who you are, for how you show up. Thank you for this conversation today. I am not sure how I’m participating in Dressember yet, but I will be supporting it, and I cannot wait to get more people involved myself, and I look forward to seeing how it folds out this year. Thank you for your light and for your heart. Really grateful for this time.
Blythe Hill: Thanks, Rebecca. Thanks for having me!
Rebecca Ching: Leading is hard, especially when controversy is stirred up. When you stand up, speak up, and dare to rock the boat in the name of staying aligned to your values, it can also shake your confidence. It can also fuel your inner courage and compassion. The attacks, the pushback, the feelings of being misunderstood never get easier. But it does build fortitude and deepens your commitment to your life’s work.
Take some time to connect your life’s work with your story. What connections do you notice? Where are you avoiding controversy and sacrificing your boundaries, your energy, your values as a result? I have a feeling a lot of you are gonna see some key learnings here. And what are your biggest fears around leading through controversy, and what support do you need to move through these big fears?
I’m so thankful for Blythe’s example of daring to take a stand in a way that convicts and inspires instead of defaulting to using fear, othering, or bullying.
She calls us all up on how to lead through the controversy without compromising our own integrity or life’s work. Here’s to not backing down. Here’s to expanding our bandwidth and leading through controversy in a way that informs, respects, and stands above the noise.
Leading is hard. Leading is also controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, and your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence and clarity and calm. You do not mind making the hard decisions, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan of action.
Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that can keep you playing at safe and small. Leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights. It is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up.
Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is actionable and aligned. When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo.
To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!
[Inspirational Outro Music]
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me www.rebeccaching.com.