Today, I interview Michealene Cristini Risley who grew up in the midwest in an Italian Catholic family. From the start, she tells us that the pedestal men are put on in this culture makes women a little more hesitant to speak in their power. That, coupled with the typical idea that men leave the house but women must be married off, made Michealene want to rebel and live in her own way from a young age.
After a couple of situations that occurred in her childhood, she distinctly remembers the voice inside her saying, “I’m going away now”. She felt like she swallowed her voice and it was gone. She was afraid and intimidated, and she didn’t feel safe.
Michealene has worked in the field of human trafficking. She learned about the people involved in this process and has made it her life’s mission to be a force for good regarding this cause, among others. She hopes to educate people, build communication, and simply let people know that the issues we face don’t have to continue – that there are solutions out there.
Michealene has learned that a key to understanding her voice is in her ability to discern where, when, and how to use it. In her work advocating for abused and trafficked individuals, she has honed those skills, realizing that in some situations, speaking more than the bare minimum can put her or others in danger or compromise a situation. But there is also such beauty in the work she does, as she’s able to powerfully speak up on behalf of others, often becoming the agent who leads to their rescue. The takeaway she wants to leave us with is gratitude. She is grateful for her life and the opportunities she’s had to make a difference in this world.
Michealene Cristini Risley is an American writer, director, and human rights activist. She ran for the Americans Elect nomination for President of the United States in 2012 and is currently creating a new primetime live-action series based on her activism, called Warriors of the Light.
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Transcript of Interview
Transcript of Interview
Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast
Podcast Host: Dr. Doreen Downing
Free Guide to Fearless Speaking: Doreen7steps.com
Episode # 85 Michealene Cristini Risley
“Solving Difficult Problems and Making an Impact”
(00:36) Dr. Doreen Downing
Hi, this is Dr. Doreen Downing. I’m a psychologist and I have lots of curiosity. I invite people here that I want to talk to about their lives and what they encountered when it came to finding their voice. Some of them feel like they had some kind of trauma in the past, and that holds them back until they find the power, or sometimes people have no trouble speaking up in public, but maybe they got trapped in a corporate setting where they had to actually speak corporate and it really wasn’t true to who they are. We have lots and lots of stories. This is my 84th session today, and I am really happy to celebrate with my friend, Michealene. I would like to say hello to you first before I read your bio.
(01:31) Michealene Cristini Risley
Oh, hello, thank you for having me.
(01:35) Dr. Doreen Downing
I love your voice. It is so rare. People talk about my voice but I just went wow. I hear resonance. You know when the voice reaches your body and you feel like, “Oh.” It’s the difference between a dynamic speaker and a magnetic speaker. I’ve seen your videos, your TED Talks, and other YouTube videos of you speaking and you are so natural, so authentic.
(02:08) Michealene Cristini Risley
Thank you. That’s the good and the bad. I have always been authentic and that’s not always good.
(02:17) Dr. Doreen Downing
Well, it’s true to you, and that’s what I love. You sent me a little something here. Michealene Cristini Risley is an American writer, director, and human rights activist. She ran for the American’s first nomination for president of the United States in 2012 and has currently created a new primetime live action series based on her activism called, Warriors of the Light. Well, we could talk about that, but first, let me again say how pleased you found time to— I’m so touched that you found time to be with me today.
(03:01) Michealene Cristini Risley
Ah, thank you. Well, again, I’m honored to be here. I’m grateful.
(03:07) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes, my listeners are too. I guess, partly, I want to say that how I became introduced to you is through a group of women that we are all professionals and have accomplished much in our lives, and we get together and it’s called a mastermind and we share the truth about what it’s like to be who we are, and we also support each other. You talked in one of our groups about your work, your activism in Africa and had a video I think in 2010 or 2011. It was about girls in Africa that were raped because they were seen as medicine for men who had AIDS. I watched that video, and I think it was called Tapestries of Hope. Speaking of voice and finding your voice and then going out into various arenas, and speaking up about that, what kind of courage and what kind of strength that takes. I just wanted to say to my listeners, that’s how I got introduced to Michealene and have been following her. Hello.
(04:31) Michealene Cristini Risley
Hi. Thank you for those kind words.
(04:33) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes. When we talk about you, I always like to get a little head start about where did you grow up and what was a few details about your family situation.
(04:49) Michealene Cristini Risley
I grew up in the Midwest. I grew up in Michigan. Fifth of six children. We had three boys and three girls. I’m Italian Catholic. First generation on my mother’s side. My father was born here. We had lots of old Italian history, which I think when it comes to finding your voice, particularly as a female in an Italian Catholic family, challenging, because in the bones, I think culturally, there is this belief that the males are everything. I think that’s probably part of as a child, why I got so resistant to being “less than” because of being feminine. I think there’s also a cultural belief of the boys went out, and you just wanted to marry off your daughters like, just get it so somebody else has to take care of them. I rebelled against that from the day I was born.
(06:04) Dr. Doreen Downing
Well, that means you came into this world with a certain kind of spirit that is still alive today, which is wonderful to hear. Being rebellious, though, sometimes creates the counter in a family, so did you get some restrictions or in conflict a lot?
(06:27) Michealene Cristini Risley
Yeah. We had sexual abuse in our family and there were certainly other issues. I loved my family, we had lots of incredible times, but I remember one particular incident where my father— We were all sitting around the table. Of course, food was such a big part of our love language. I remember sitting at the table, my dad was telling one of his funny stories again, and how he came from a family of nine, and his mother didn’t have a washer, and she didn’t speak English and he’s stolen from school, and he tell all these hilarious stories. He said something about how he had run away from home a number of times by the time he was nine. I remember everyone laughing like they always do, because you hear the same stories over and over again. I remember sitting at the opposite end of the table from my dad, and I said, “Dad, was your home life that bad?” It was like, “Where did Michealene come from? Who is she and why did she ask these stupid questions?” But it just fascinated me. I brought things up probably no one want to hear about.
(07:51) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yeah, well, that seems to be your purpose in life, my dear, and it does take a voice.
(08:03) Michealene Cristini Risley
It’s funny. I think we find our voice and we lose them and gain them again, depending on the situation, or the trauma or whatever it is. I remember, as a little kid, I literally remember the day I lost my voice. We were up at our cottage and my dad had run over a blue ray, so it was a type of snake. It was dead, and he came running down, and my brother grabbed it from him, and they threw it on the clothesline this dead snake and everyone starts screaming and running around. I remember this little voice in my head said, “I’m leaving you. I’m going away.” At first, I was a kid, I was like, “What the heck? What’s that voice? Am I going crazy?” I think it was a part of me saying that I couldn’t be here right now, and you’re going to have to find your way back to me and it took me a long time to find my way back to my voice.
(09:08) Dr. Doreen Downing
Are you saying that it was because you didn’t really fit and you wanted to fit or there was the abuse or what was..
(09:19) Michealene Cristini Risley
I think it was a combination of things. I think it was a combination of if I wanted to survive in the environment I was in, I would not be able to be truly authentic.
(09:33) Dr. Doreen Downing
Okay, so that story you just told is one of creating fear, just being dangerous. Even though it was a dead snake, it feels like it was meant to scare people.
(09:50) Michealene Cristini Risley
Right, but it’s possible. I mean, a very masculine perspective. Brother and my dad and a snake. I literally remember myself saying it. This voice saying, “I’m leaving you now. I’m going away.” And I swallowed it.
(10:11) Dr. Doreen Downing
There’s something about what you just said too about the listening. You heard something inside of you. There was a voice inside of you and you listen to that. It was obviously something about protection, so to me, it feels like a wise voice in there.
(10:33) Michealene Cristini Risley
Well, that voice has saved me a lot. I’m talking in dangerous situations, that voice has saved me a lot. Even when I was thrown in prison in Zimbabwe for my film, Tapestries of Hope. It was that voice, that instinct— We had gotten thrown into a prison. I guess I’d call it that instinct, that mechanism that you have to listen to. My assistant, when we got arrested, she had actually gone into shock, and she started to shake. I had the decision to make. There was one of the guys, so there was a central intelligence organization and the police force. One of the guys in the police force had never seen her blue eyes before. He’d never experienced a human with blue eyes, so I thought I could get him to take her outside and get into the sun, but I also run the risk of, “Is he going to rape her.” I have no control. I had to pay very close attention to that voice to stay alive and to keep my assistant safe. The funny thing too is the same people who would certainly put our life at risk. In a quiet moment, if I was with one of them by myself, they would hand me their phone number, and their name, and say, “Please help me get out of here,” in their desperation. These would be the very same people who would put me at risk for death for handing me a piece of paper, saying, “Please, if you get out of here, save me.”
(12:40) Dr. Doreen Downing
So that listening I just picked up on inside of you, somebody else has felt that that they would then say, “Listen, help.”
(12:51) Michealene Cristini Risley
(12:55) Dr. Doreen Downing
You’re giving me little chills here today already. Knowing you and how you’ve faced adversity and difficult situations, and this whole idea about a voice inside that speaks to you, speaks to us. It’s about a guidance, I guess. What you said is sometimes you speak up and sometimes you don’t.
(13:22) Michealene Cristini Risley
Well, I’ve had situations where I knew if I would speak up, I would be in danger. I sometimes didn’t have a choice. I’ll give you an example. I live in Silicon Valley, and many people believe that human trafficking is always in that country over there. Rape, abuse, and human trafficking. Well, we are the largest user of human trafficking in the world, the United States. Places like Silicon Valley are the epicenters of some of the human trafficking issues.
(13:57) Dr. Doreen Downing
Oh, my goodness, there you go. Pointing to situations. Great. Thank you, Michealene. Wow. That must be the new documentary or what your new film is about.
(14:15) Michealene Cristini Risley
No, actually— Oh, you mean the—
(14:19) Dr. Doreen Downing
Layers of the [crosstalk 13:20].
(14:22) Michealene Cristini Risley
I hate to do this. My dog is scratching at the door and he’s going to scratch for the next five minutes, do you mind if I just go let him in?
(14:31) Dr. Doreen Downing
Let’s include him.
(14:33) Michealene Cristini Risley
Oh, really? Okay. Well, Jaxx. Come on, Jaxx. Come here. Oh, he’s not coming in. He’s like, “No, you let me in…”
(14:49) Dr. Doreen Downing
A little shy. Did you say his name was Jazz, J-A-Z-Z?
(14:55) Dr. Doreen Downing
Okay. X. My cat was Jazz, J-A-Z-Z. Oh, okay, so anyway, let me just wind back a little bit because we’re talking about the inner voice, and sometimes you speak up, and sometimes you don’t. Then you started talking about human trafficking. My goodness. Something that, you’re right, that even most of us think is somewhere else, and yet here it’s—
(15:20) Michealene Cristini Risley
The Super Bowl is the largest human trafficked event in the United States, probably globally. I was going to tell you a quick story about using my voice. I was in Palo Alto, which is a couple towns over. I was trying to find a vitamin store at Town and Country village, a little strip mall. I went in and I have my GPS on my phone, and I couldn’t figure out where the store was. This young girl suddenly appeared in front of me. She’s beautiful, probably 14, dark hair, and she had this blue tattoo on her face, almost like a burn. She spoke to me in a very high voice, it was like, “Hello!” The first thing that went through my mind is, “This person’s disconnected from their body.” Then I look again, I go, “Oh, my God.” This is all going through my brain, and very quick, like, “Oh, my God. She is trafficked.” The markings on her body are the tattoos from her gang. That is how they keep track of her. Again, being human, I go, “Oh, my God. I just wanted to get some vitamins.” I just wanted to get some vitamins. Then I said, “Oh, she’s trafficked. Michealene, you can’t leave her.” So, we sat down in front of Trader Joe’s. I had her sit next to me, and we started talking, and she started— So, I don’t know if it’ll bore you with the whole story, but basically, the voice— I had two voices, one was saying to me, “Michealene, go get your vitamins and go home.” Okay. And the other one was, “I can’t leave her there because she’s trafficked, and she needs some help.”
I literally had this incredible conversation with her, where at one point, she was crying because the Palo Alto police had come over and had gotten a call from Trader Joe’s and wanted to know if she was high. They were so poorly trained that all they want to know was if she was doing drugs in front of Trader Joe’s. I said to her, “I want you to know that I do a lot of this work for a living and I can help you.” I said, “Can you tell me if you are trafficked?” In that very high voice, she said, “I don’t know you well enough to tell you that.” Then she proceeded to start crying. I think the point of it is you can have a voice and you can try to help, but at some point, you have to stop. I don’t know how to explain it. I tried to help her get to the right organization. I went to the next town over at the police station. I said, “You guys are missing it. She’s not high, she’s trafficked. You need to go help her.” In the past, I probably would have brought her home, and then gotten in trouble with some human traffickers, so I’ve learned. I guess I tried to moderate my voice if that makes sense.
(18:55) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes. But just the story you just told about listening in the moment to what was needed to happen, at least you listened, and you took a step is what I’m getting. It’s a choice, and each situation that you’re coming into, Michealene, feels like, especially with what you’re talking about—and I don’t need to put air quotes, but I happen to be— “Danger.” That’s part of what we, as people who have some activist spirit need to also moderate ourselves as we’re moving. What is the best individually, but what’s the best for the cause, and what’s the best for ourselves?
(19:47) Michealene Cristini Risley
Yes, well, I think that’s part of why I shifted to writing a TV series as opposed to doing documentaries or films. Because I felt how could I— The question I asked myself is how can I use my voice and my knowledge to impact the largest group of people. If we look at human trafficking, or rape, or climate or privacy, all of these issues are truly solvable. Every single one of them. I thought the only way to do that is to write a show where we can show how easily they’re solved.
(20:28) Dr. Doreen Downing
What you just said there to me is a powerful message. What you just said, “hey, folks, it’s solvable. It is, and I have some experience, and I can show you how.” It’s not necessarily being at the front lines rescuing and fighting that which is danger, but I can find other ways. How creative. Wow. Thank you for all of your experience, and your willingness to point to what so many people ignore or don’t even know about. So, thank you.
(21:09) Michealene Cristini Risley
Well, I don’t know that I had a choice anymore because I think I’ve been close to death too many times. I think, in this last bout when I had been picked up in a vehicle by a human trafficking group, I went into PTSD and a couple other things. I was at a crossroads. I said, “I want to be here for my family.” When you think about the problem, just this problem alone, there is more money made per year in human trafficking than there are human beings on the planet, so will little old me going to fight that? No, not anymore.
(22:00) Dr. Doreen Downing
But we could use a different word or a different connotation of fight.
(22:07) Michealene Cristini Risley
(22:08) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes. Use your voice to educate.
(22:13) Michealene Cristini Risley
You know what the thing is, and it’s a funny thing, the traffickers, if you sat down with the trafficker and a trafficked victim, you’re not going to see much difference in how they were raised. I say this coming from abuse, so trust me, I say this very gently. There is sympathy and empathy for the trafficker too because it’s also a trap, and so we have to figure out a way. How do we find work, meaningful work in ways for people to take care of their families that don’t sell other human beings doing? But if you didn’t have someone purchasing, they wouldn’t be a business.
(23:13) Dr. Doreen Downing
You’re right. It is a business. Big business, apparently. Well, already so much that you’ve shared today is not only about voice but about educating us about something that at least most people so far on my podcast have not heard. This is fabulous that you get some airtime for your voice. Before we finish, I always like to open up to see what might you want to— If you’re listening to yourself now, Michealene, what do you feel based on whatever this moment is for you that you would like to say. What words come through?
(24:01) Michealene Cristini Risley
I think gratitude comes through very loud. Grateful. Gratitude. I’m so grateful to be here. Being still alive and with the ability and the knowledge to impact in a much safer way. Does that make sense?
(24:28) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes. The learning that you’ve had from an experience in life has led to a choice that you’ve made to not sacrifice yourself for what you believe in but to use in a more creative way, and live both your values as well is what you’re committed to. That’s what you’re saying is your voice is valuable to you. It comes from experience. You can make choices and that’s what you’re doing. I love gratitude. To me, you actually epitomize gratitude because you’re so relaxed and you helped me see what people see in me when they say how calm I am.
(25:29) Michealene Cristini Risley
You are so calm. You’re so grounded and centered.
(25:34) Dr. Doreen Downing
Both of us. It’s like, “Hi, sister.”
(25:38) Michealene Cristini Risley
I know, and by the way, I can’t believe it’s already over. That was so quick. No, it can’t be over already.
(25:45) Dr. Doreen Downing
Well, you’re not too far away from where I live in Larkspur. I did grow up down in Palo Alto, so I do know the area very well. I know Town and Country Village, so I feel like we will— I just really look forward to more time with you down the line here. Thank you so much.
(26:05) Michealene Cristini Risley
I look forward it to. Thank you.
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Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.
Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.