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Michealene Cristini Risley


Woodside, CA

Activism is about more than just personal passion; it’s about spreading the word and inspiring other people to lean in, too.

I am a woman, wife and mother of three, and I have survived and thrived after being sexually assaulted as a child. In my career I’ve been a corporate executive, serial entrepreneur, writer, author, national speaker, filmmaker and activist, leaning in to increase awareness of violence against women and kids. I spoke out, created a movie and curriculum on child sexual abuse and co-authored a book sharing my story in hopes that it would help others.

But after a catastrophic event during my last project, my perspective shifted and I decided I had to lean back in order to protect my family and to keep creating change.

I went to Zimbabwe, a South African country ravaged by HIV-AIDS to make a film called Tapestries of Hope, that debunks the myth that raping a virgin cures AIDS. Men, desperate to cure themselves, were raping younger and younger kids, including infants as young as one day old.

During our first week of filming, my assistant Lauren and I were arrested and sent to one of Robert Mugabe’s torture centers. Zimbabwe’s government was convinced I was a CIA spy. I would’ve laughed at the idea if I hadn’t been so terrified.

The prison itself was falling apart; I could see the floor above me through the gaping holes in the ceilings. It was co-ed and overcrowded with no food or water anywhere. In one corner I saw a simple metal stool surrounded by odd devices designed for torture; one looked like a string of old Christmas lights designed for shocking prisoners, another was a plank used for maiming. Once beaten, many of the victims were thrown into the crocodile-infested Zambezi River or worse: a pool of sulfuric acid, which makes even the bones disintegrate.

There is nothing more humbling to an activist than realizing you’ve leaned in too far and have put your family at risk. After three days we were released with the help of my husband and a stranger I met on Facebook. As we were being deported to South Africa, I clutched the raw footage in my arms, anxious to spread the word.

I have spent many years raising money, speaking out and pushing for change. Activism is about more than just personal passion; it’s about spreading the word and inspiring other people to lean in, too.

There are lots of things we can do every day: Take a friend who hasn’t voted to a polling location. Find the time to locate and volunteer at a women’s shelter. Deal with your own envy when another women gets a break; help her to get another break, and remind her to help you. Push someone to go out on a limb for you. Challenge traditional wisdom that perpetuates old ideas, and when you hear someone furthering a myth, call them out.

All of us need to lean in to truly change the world we live in.