The greatest social movements in this world not only bring us together, they focus on what we can do as individuals to change something intrinsically wrong with the world. In short, they give us the power and authority — as individuals — to make our world a better place.
When a radical movement can harness each of us to dig deep into our power, it becomes a compelling, sustainable force of good in this world. The activist spirit must go beyond ourselves if we want to make any sort of an impact in this world.
That is why it is so vital to celebrate “The Body Is Not an Apology” — a thriving, global multimedia platform bringing millions of people together, changing the global narrative on body activism, all spearheaded by the incomparable Sonya Renee Taylor.
Investing in Every Body
Last October, the Change Creator team went to the world’s largest social impact funding conference, known as SOCAP conference, in San Francisco, California. As you can imagine, it was an eclectic mix of people from around the world, all there so we could discuss impact + money.
Many themes emerged from that conference — much more than a pure definition of what social impact investing is, what it could be, or how we measure impact. Themes of diversity in investment — or rather, the lack of diversity in investment — was a theme that kept popping up its head throughout the week.
At one of the mini-sessions that I attended, named Money Divas, the panel discussed the lack of support and funding for women-led companies. When the panel opened up questions to the audience, I got to meet the remarkable Sonya, whose commentary on the lack of female funding was:
“If we can accomplish so much with so little, imagine what we could do if someone truly invested in us and our ideas.”
At that moment, I knew I had to get to know this force of nature. At that time, I had yet to get the full backstory but I knew I wanted to invest in that kind of presence, that kind of commitment. The simple idea that we should amplify each other’s success really struck a chord with me.
I have thought about that idea of what impact investing really means. It’s not just enough to say we’re funding ideas that change the world if we are not funding all kinds of people changing the world — women, minorities, indigenous, disabled, trans. All people deserve investment.
(Sonya’s speech at SOCAP.)
A Formula Towards Radical Leadership
I think Sonya would be the first person to tell you that everything that has led her to where she is now is by accident. The formula for her immense success — there is none. Every choice she made, every new endeavor came to her because she was examining what it meant to be human because she was intensely curious, but also because she was also intensely outspoken.
Sonya’s journey to become the radical leader she is today started with a conversation. On tour, with her poetry troupe doing the National Poetry Slam Championship in Tennessee, Sonya first uttered the words that would change the trajectory of her life. She describes this intimate conversation in her book, “The Body Is Not An Apology”:
“We were complicated and honest with each other, and this is how I wound up in a conversation with my teammate Natasha, an early-thirtysomething living with cerebral palsy and fearful she might be pregnant. Natasha told me how her potential pregnancy was most assuredly by a guy who was just an occasional fling. All of life was up in the air for Natasha, but she was abundantly clear that she had no desire to have a baby and not by this person.”
As Sonya will tell you, her nosiness and openness made it easy for her to probe into the details of how her friend got pregnant in the first place.
“Instinctually, I asked Natasha why she had chosen not to use a condom with this casual sexual partner with whom she had no interest in procreating. Neither Natasha nor I knew that my honest question and her honest answer would be the catalyst for a movement. Natasha told me her truth: “My disability makes sex hard already, with positioning and stuff. I just didn’t feel like it was okay to make a big deal about using condoms.”
That is when Sonya, in a way to comfort her distraught friend uttered these words: “Natasha, your body is not an apology. It is not something you give to someone to say, ‘Sorry for my disability.’” Sometimes all you need to do to start something is to speak it into existence. When Sonya heard herself utter those words, something quite special stuck.
“Language has the power to create. As we speak a thing, we are literally allowing it to exist in this world.”
The truth that Sonya comforted her friend with would soon become the mantra by which she lived her life. Those words would stick with Sonya for quite some time. They would not only become a poem, but a Facebook page, then a thriving movement, then a company.
In the early days, Sonya might not have imagined where those words would lead her life, but she could sense she was on to something much larger than herself, which she alludes to in this early performance of the poem as she tells the audience of the Facebook Group they must like and support. “This is the poem that spawned the Facebook page that will spawn the movement. I’m claiming it.”
And, claim it she did.
Watch Sonya perform the poem that started it all in an early performance.
Radical Self Love as the Ultimate Activism
Let’s face it. From the moment we wake up, we are inundated with messages that tell us our bodies are not good enough. These messages are hard to quiet, even if you are Sonya, on the road, touring, performing “The Body Is Not An Apology” to a new audience every night.
Yes, she knew that she had to live in her own truth of radical body love, but that outside voice telling her that she was not good enough was still there. One day, Sonya came across some an Instagram account of a plus-sized model who had just booked a substantial lingerie client. Here was this beautiful woman, unabashedly flaunting her “juicy thighs” for all to see and admire. Plus, as Sonya recalls, “someone was paying her a lot of money, too.”
That one act of defying the system led Sonya to post her own picture on Facebook, as she encouraged others to share photos where they felt beautiful, too (no matter what the outside world says).
This one act of radical self-love would lead others to do the same. The next morning, Sonya woke up to 30 other brave souls sharing their photos, as the movement was quickly picking up steam. That’s the thing about radical self-love — it can be just as contagious as self-hate. It’s up to us to choose what lane we want to live in.
What does radical self-love have to do with social change, anyway?
So many messages in our world tell us that our bodies are not good enough. That we need constant improvement, that we should be more healthy, more thin, more white — the barrage of negative talk is fast and furious, and consistent. Persistently telling us that we are not the norm so we, therefore, are not worthy.
We live in a system of body-shame indoctrination. Every act of body terrorism has been designed to support the agenda and systems of greed and power in our world. Once you realize that all those messages of not good enough are actually supporting the social constructs of society that keep us pushed down and less than, you start to get a little pissed off (at least you should).
One of the first steps in any successful activist movement is to realize when you are being conditioned, how you are being conditioned, and to get pissed off about the damaging social constructs you have been sold all your life.
If you want to dismantle the systems of the world, you have to understand how they were first constructed. That’s what activism is. This kind of thinking is what should drive your social good business first. It’s not about profit, the right business model, or even finding that unique sales proposition that will make your company unlike any other. It’s about deconstructing the systems in this world of greed and power. That starts with you.
You. Taking back the messages that we are being sold every day and replacing these outside voices with our own inner voice that radically loves us is the first step in transforming the world.
We, as activists, as Change Creators must ask ourselves: Whose agenda is your self-hate? That criticism that you have of yourself — who is benefitting from it? It is not in our best interest to support those agendas.
“Radical self-love is contagious; just as body shame is contagious. We get to decide what it is that we want to spread. If we can radically love ourselves, we can radically love the world.”
Activism by Dismantling the Social Constructs
Sonya wants us to imagine the social constructs we can eliminate if only we radically loved our bodies. Take, for example, the history of racism, as Sonya explains:
“Race as a construct was created as a way to validate the exchange of human bodies as slaves. First, the system wanted to exploit people and get cheap labor. So, the system created a structure that said we could rationalize cheap labor, thus they needed to say that these people were sub-human, which rationalized this horrific structure.”
How quickly the construct of racism is dismantled when we don’t allow others to see any human being as less than. As Sonya’s Facebook group grew, she quickly realized how powerful this idea was. She started a national conversation, not about self-acceptance, or loving your size 16 self, or celebrating your red hair — no, it was always a much larger, much broader conversation. It had to be. As she explains:
“We have internalized those messages of hate, all those messages we’ve received about what bodies are bad and this conversation about radical self-love has to be more than just about accepting our bodies, it has to be a conversation about race. It has to be a conversation about disabilities. It has to be a conversation about fatness. It has to be a conversation about queerness. It has to be a conversation about transnesss. And all of the other ways our bodies exist on this planet.”
As the conversation grew larger, so did the role of TBINAA in the world. Change is a thinking, doing, being process. We have to be in touch with our thoughts intentionally as we create that shift in consciousness. Activism has to start from within.
“We can’t create outside in the world what we have not figured out how to access inside of us first.”
5 Steps to Building a Mission-Driven Company
The steps Sonya took to grow her company were just like the rest of her journey. Yes, she quickly saw that this thing she was doing had merit, had some legs, and could grow, but in a way she could never have imagined it would become what it is today.
Here are the steps that Sonya took to build her business:
Step 1: Build an Authentic Community
If you want to build a lasting movement, you quickly have to realize that you are going to have to get people on board. In the early days of TBINAA, Sonya just shared ideas on the Facebook group. She would curate content every single day that supported that radical self-love that she was out there preaching.
After so many months of connecting with others online and on tour, Sonya had to take another look at her own actions, her own insecurities and fears and do something radical herself.
Yes, sometimes building that authentic community starts with you.
Creating the 30-Day RUHCUS Project
Sometimes, building a movement means doing something completely terrifying and uncomfortable. Eventually, we all have to face what’s really holding us back from living our authentic truth. As leaders of a movement, you have to be willing to be vulnerable at times and to always access yourself — are you out there living what you are encouraging others to do?
When Sonya realized that she still hung onto some body shame about her hair, she decided to take her own radical step. Developing traction alopecia early in life, Sonya had relied on her wigs for over a decade. The scariest thing she thought she could do was be bald in this world because she had been conditioned to believe that she would no longer be beautiful without hair.
In typical Sonya fashion, she didn’t take this step alone. No, she created the first major project of TBINAA — called it a RUHCUS (Radically Unapologetic Healing Challenge for Us). Before she was done her own 30 days, she realized how many people had taken her up and started their own RUHCUS projects.
Sonya lived her work.
She kept touring the country, building her community and soon realized that she would need to find the right people to help keep this thing growing.
Step 2: Find the Right People
When the TBINAA Facebook group reached over 20,000 people, Sonya realized she’d have to start building a team of people to keep it going. She quickly got an intern on board to manage the daily posts, curate the content, and push the vision further. She also found early adapters and volunteers who wanted to help, brought ideas to the table, and could get on board building this out alongside her.
They would ask, “I really love these ideas, can I write something? I want to support this idea; can I start a support group?” For that, Sonya would answer with a resounding “yes.” The business was building itself with the support of its members. She gave people not only the “yes” they needed to get on board and help, but the permission to bring ideas to the table and follow through with them.
As she grew the company, she knew she’d only hire the people that stood alongside her. As she’ll tell you, “It’s easier to teach skills than it is to teach values.”
Step 3: Formalize the Structure and Protect Your Brand Equity
It became apparently clear early on that Sonya would have to formalize the movement to protect the integrity of TBINAA. She did not want to see other brands exploiting this idea of body activism and radical love to sell diet aids or t-shirts. Could you imagine?
Not only did she have to get the right team of writers, supporters, and business developers on board early, she needed money to invest and formalize this growing movement. Yet, as we already touched on early in this article, finding investment as a black woman wasn’t going to be as easy as a trip to Silicon Valley.
Step 4: Monetize the Movement Early
Knowing that she had already built a solid, authentic audience, she thought it would be a radically good idea to get funding through a crowdfunding campaign. Today, looking back, she might do things differently.
The amount of work to raise that first bit of capital — a little over $40,000 — was outrageously difficult, but that was the seed fund she needed to start www.thebodyisnotanapology.com.
That was the first step to monetizing her business and making this movement an established, structured thing.
She had to take ownership of this thing early on. If you don’t own it, somebody else will. It became clear that she needed to create some concrete organizational structure around this movement if she wanted to hold on to it and watch it grow.
Step 5: Grow the Vision of the Company (and Keep Making Money)
After trademarking her company and establishing her ownership of the company, it was time to create some deliberate growth and that takes vision.
At this point, TBINAA had a team, some initial startup funds, and a trademarked idea. Figuring out that monetization model would not be easy. It would take some tweaking to find that sweet spot and to explore ways to support the organic growth that was happening.
Today, their model is a subscription-supported model that provides their supporters (on all levels) to monetarily back the vision and growth of the company. Building out webinars, workshops and products is also an integral part of the business plan as value increases. They also have millions of visitors to their website each year and continue to grow as they continue to build out authentic, relevant content that people cling to.
Building a strong monetization model is so vital when growing your movement if you want to build long-lasting social change. Don’t be afraid to make money early. Money can continue to be the fuel that spreads your message and grows your community — it’s not only okay, but it’s vital to monetize as soon as you can!
How You Can Find Your Inner Activist
As we have seen from Sonya’s success, all great activism starts with the inner journey. All social change begins with radical self-love. Loving ourselves, not just accepting ourselves, can deconstruct the social systems that build oppression.
It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
If you want to change the world, start with yourself. But, as we have seen, that journey from the social constructs we’ve grown up with to that fiercely powerful, radical self-love is not linear. There will be times when we doubt our greatness, when we transfer that doubt to others, and when we fall flat on our faces.
Recognize that radical self-love is the first step. Do the hard work of looking at your own social constructs. What do you believe? What are your core values? Do the inner work first, before you begin to change the world.
Remember, you can begin today to speak into existence that which you hope to change.
Be your own Sonya. Live in your truth. Align your business to your values from the get-go; it’s the only way to build lasting results.
Get early supporters on board to help build your vision. Give them authority to make decisions, bring ideas to the table, and make it their mission, too.
Monetize your movement if you want to build a sustainable solution. Figure out the business stuff, too; don’t wait to start making money.