There comes a time when a Founder just needs to walk away. Today is that day for me.
But first, I want to tell you a story. On June 21, 1979 an angel was born, and her name was Shannon Elizabeth McNamara.
Less than two weeks before her 22nd birthday, Shannon was murdered in her college apartment near Eastern Illinois University. Her killer was a 26 year old college student who lived right across the street.
She died that night, but boy did she fight. Scratching, clawing, kicking – the DNA evidence was devastating and overwhelming. Everyone in the apartment complex heard it, but no one called for help. Her acts of resistance later captured and convicted her killer.
And our angel simply spread her wings…and flew away.
The night before her funeral was the wake, and there were hundreds of people there. I waited my turn in line for hours, to pass her open casket and pay my respects. When I finally got there and knelt down, I felt nauseous.
As wrong as this sounds to say out loud, I remember praying that I wouldn’t vomit in her casket. The whole thing was just so sickening.
Then I saw Shannon’s mom Cindy, who was greeting people in line next to where Shannon lay. I had never met Cindy before, but we had an immediate connection.
It’s a tragically awkward situation – meeting a woman for the first time, over her daughter’s dead body.
I introduced myself, saying “Hi, I’m Erin Weed. I went to college with Shannon. I loved her. And I am so sorry.”
I forced myself to speak in past tense.
I’m not sure what I expected Cindy to say, but certainly not this. She smiled, clasped her hands while throwing her head back and said, “Oh, you’re WEED!”
We chatted briefly, both of us conscious of the hundreds of people in line behind me. And she said to me, “A child being murdered is a parent’s worst nightmare. But you know what? I’m still scared of something. I’m terrified that after all this is over, Shannon will be forgotten.”
<<record player screeches>>
I was dumbfounded at the idea there is always something waiting in line for us to fear, even when the worst has transpired. It’s like that Sham Wow commercial: “But wait! There’s more!”
I didn’t say this out loud – but do you want to know my internal response to her concerns?
OH HELL NO. Not gonna happen. Not on my watch.
Friends, pay attention to the moment things become unacceptable to you. That’s when change happens.
After Shannon’s funeral, I sat down and drew the logo (a stick figure of a green girl). I had no idea what it meant at the time. I just knew it was important. Later I realized it was a logo for a company I’d start in Shannon’s memory, and it would be called Girls Fight Back.
Girls Fight Back (or GFB, for short) is a live presentation that’s been seen by over one million young women in high school and college since 2001. It addresses the topics of personal safety and self-protection with humor and style. It teaches the basics of trusting intuition, risk reduction and self-defense – but has an upbeat, pop culture twist that makes it relevant for young women.
It’s kinda like if Dane Cook hooked up with Ke$ha at a roller derby convention and they had a love child named Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Since starting GFB in 2001, I’ve traveled thousands of miles, won awards, published a book going into its third edition, been on countless media programs and stood on stage in front of so many young women over the past decade.
And you know what? I always got the best view in the house.
From the stage, I got to see the light in the eyes of a young woman in the audience, who suddenly replaces her deepest FEAR of being victimized, with the steadfast BELIEF she is worth fighting for, and that she alone can be her own best protector.
Not her daddy or her boyfriend or her brother or 911…just HERSELF.
Now in the early days of GFB, it was just me – living on airplanes, traveling thousands of miles doing speaking engagements. One day, I was on a flight having engine trouble. It was one of those aging little planes with propellers that make you say extra prayers and go to the potty one extra time before boarding.
I’ve been a passenger on many rough flights, but this one was different. It made me seriously consider untimely death by plane crash as a viable outcome.
Shaking, turning, banging, swerving, beeping – this literal white knuckle ride had some bald guy in the back screaming, “We’re all gonna die!”
Personally, I wasn’t scared of dying. I had lived a great life. And remember that movie Ghost with Patrick Swayze? Ever since seeing that, I’ve been fairly convinced death might actually be kinda awesome. I mean, who knew you could learn to make pottery after you’re dead?
What scared me on the airplane that day was the idea that all the content of Girls Fight Back was still locked in my brain – no written transcript or video footage existed. If I peaced out, the GFB initiative of creating a culture of dangerous damsels was over.
The idea of my crusade ending prematurely, simply because I didn’t take the time to grow the idea bigger than myself, felt selfish. And lazy. And I vowed if I lived through that flight, I’d figure out a way to scale our success and reach more girls than ever.
Hey, good news! We landed. I lived. And the bald guy? He went about his business and got off the plane pretending like he didn’t just completely lose his shit.
In his defense, it’s easy to have major realizations and to make epic proclamations in the midst of zero control. Then control returns, and we go back to our old patterns.
But for me, there was no going back. I kept that promise to scale, both to myself and the Tiny Infant Jesus I prayed to that day. I hired and trained a team of international speakers, and today my team conducts presentations in the USA, India and Pakistan.
GFB was always intended to be bigger than me and even bigger than Shannon, no matter what. Wanna know why?
The true gift GFB offers the world is not our story. The value is in our TRUTH.
And the same goes for you.
It’s easy to get trapped in stories. Maybe you grew up in poverty, or got a real bad perm once, or failed a class, or were issued a citation for public urination after a rowdy night on the town…
But these things don’t define you.
On the flip side, maybe you’re at the top of your class, or are a natural athlete with ridiculous good looks. Maybe you’ve got the girl or guy of your dreams and an internship to die for.
But these things don’t define you.
It’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s how we extract and apply what we learn from our experiences. Stories are teachers. Truth is the lesson.
Our story at GFB is one of a tragic murder, and a friend who found that unacceptable. Changes happened as a result.
But our truth is stronger.
Our truth is that you deserve to walk down the street without being assaulted. You deserve to live alone in your apartment without wondering if you’ll wake up to a rapist pinning you to the bed. You deserve to be in a relationship that doesn’t hurt you – visual bruises or not.
Our truth is that women everywhere should travel the world or live alone or walk home after dark – and be at peace in these situations. Each of us should lead the badass existence we were intended, and equip ourselves with whatever tools necessary in order to facilitate that.
And since we’re gettin’ all truthy up in here, here’s my personal confession.
I did not start GFB to end violence against women.
I did not start it because I love self defense.
I certainly didn’t get it going it because I hate men,
Not even the man who killed her. (I chose to forgive him, in order to set myself free.)
I started Girls Fight Back for a mom.
A mother looked me in the eyes and told me the worst part of your child being murdered isn’t the missed weddings or grandbabies. It’s the threat of the memory of your daughter – someone who is part of you – simply…disappearing.
That idea was unacceptable to me then, and it still is 12 years later.
People often say, “If I only help one person, it’s all worthwhile.” As much as I despise cliche in general, I believe this one is true. But not for the reason you might think.
It’s not about that one individual – it’s about the change wave that starts rolling the moment we are brave enough to act. With GFB, by helping one mom, we ended up teaching over a million other women not only how to fight – but that they are worth fighting for. (and this is the much harder thing to teach)
When you speak your truth, you really do change the world.
It’s this belief that led me to see that sometimes our greatest tragedies become the world’s greatest opportunities for growth and change.
Because each of you has a story and a truth the world needs to hear. (Even if you don’t know what it is yet, or you change your mind every other day!)
Now I’d like to leave you with this…
On June 21st of last year, Shannon Elizabeth McNamara would have turned 33 years old. And on that day, it was she who gave me the present. I gave birth to my first and only daughter, who we named Phoebe Elizabeth. She was 5 days late but right on time to share a summer solstice birthday with one of the most badass women who ever lived.
I’m the luckiest girl in the world, because every day I get to have an angel on my shoulder, and an angel in my arms.
I’m also lucky because the new owner/President of Girls Fight Back is just incredible. Her name is Gina Kirkland, and you can trust her. She’s amazing. And she will take what I’ve built and grow it ten-fold, I am quite certain.
I have a few wishes for you, as I walk away from GFB and move on to new adventures.
May you award yourself the job as CEO of your life.
May you never rely on someone else for your peace.
May you know how to change a flat tire and dine with royalty.
May you love a lover that loves you. (no matter what boy, girl or alien you fall for)
May you never apologize for crying in public.
May you always be able to pay your own way.
May you embrace your truth, and speak it with reckless abandon.
May you plant roots, grow wings,
And fly, fly, fly…