iwiw project

What Makes Incredible Women Incredible?


Interviews with Incredible Women (www.iwiwproject.com) is a series of thoughtful interviews with women who inspire me and the women who inspire them. I became interested in talking with incredible women after hearing some of the really cool stories about the lives of women I know, like the woman who owns an art studio or my friend, the geophysicist. At first, I just wanted to throw a giant party and invite all of these cool women, but I realized that they wouldn’t be able to hear each others stories unless it was written out. I had the skills to start the blog, so I did. After conducting and publishing 64+ interviews, I became curious about the themes that thread through the lives of “incredible women.” The research question was, “What makes incredible women incredible?”

I had some ideas about the themes that might emerge through a review of the data gathered through the Incredible Women interviews, but Brene Brown’s work made me wonder about the techniques of qualitative research. It was my good fortune that Dr. Heather Stuckey, from Penn State University, is a qualitative researcher who was willing to work with me to code and analyze the interviews, unearthing the themes that women mention as being intrinsic to an incredible life.

Women’s Studies, The Basics sets a good background for the complexities of the life women. But it’s The Evening Times of Glasgow where we find everyday women characterized as incredible. In the article “Six of the Best Who Inspired Our Voters,” The Evening Times talks about a woman with cancer who overcame long odds, women who wrestled with the death of their children, women who are passionate and compassionate about their work. It’s so interesting to see how the themes that I discovered throughout this research are relevant when you hear unrelated stories from other ordinary but incredible women.

One other inspiration for this project came from Composing A Life by Mary Catharine Bateson. Grove Press writes that this book is a “treatise on the improvisational lives of five extraordinary women. Using their personal stories as her framework, Dr. Bateson delves into the creative potential of the complex lives we live today, where ambitions are constantly refocused on new goals and possibilities. With balanced sympathy and a candid approach to what makes these women inspiring, examples of the newly fluid movement of adaptation–their relationships with spouses, children, and friends, their ever-evolving work, and their gender–Bateson shows us that life itself is a creative process.” (Bateson). For me, this inspired me to ask women about the creativity in their lives and work.


The interview data reported in this project were gathered over most of 2014. The plan is to continue collecting interviews to expand upon the stories of incredible women.

The Participants

The women held occupations that ranged from stay at home moms to Apache helicopter pilots, from attorneys to geophysicists. In line with snowball sampling, each participant was given an opportunity to recommend other incredible women. In general the participants were not limited to any particular demographic although, most of the participants were well-educated, predominantly white American women . The list of participants grow organically, without focusing on creating a representative sample.

The Interviews

Questions were tailored for each participant, based on the information that was available about them. The participants were identified using social media profiles including Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as personal websites to research participants prior to sending them an initial list of five or six questions. Topics centered around participants’ interests/passions, how they maintain balance, the role of pain in their life, and the lessons learned over a lifetime (what advice would you give a younger version of yourself, for example).

As the project progressed, the questions evolved to be more open ended. Instead of asking different questions for every participant, the questions were standardized and often included the following:

  • Q:  You’ve been identified by someone as being incredible.  What do people see in you that is incredible?
  • Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?
  • Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve done?
  • Q: Life is beauty and pain.  Tell me about pain in your life.
  • Q:  What question did I miss?  What else should I know about you?
  • Q: Finally, can you recommend another incredible woman for me to interview?  Can you facilitate an introduction?

Interview questions were provided to participants via email with some introductory text about Interviews with Incredible Women and links to interviews that had already been published online. It was clear from the email that the interview would be published online and, at that point, some women declined to participate. There was no promise of privacy, since interviews are published under participant’s real names with easily identifiable data.

Some participants preferred to be interviewed orally and in these cases I recorded the interview, transcribed it, and sent it back to them for their approval. This builds credibility through member checking (reference). Most participants wrote their own responses, which I read and lightly edited for clarity, spelling, and grammar, again providing them a version to review prior to publishing.

The social media analytics on most of the interviews showed that the interviewed reached an audience from a few hundred to a few thousand, at least on Facebook. The response that I got from the community was overwhelmingly positive. Many women had never thought of themselves as incredible and expressed that the process of thoughtfully answering the questions was insightful.


The Analysis

We developed an initial code book with recognizable themes from about 20% of the interviews and then used NVivo software to assist in coding. Saturation was reached when no new data was emerging, such as there were no new codes being added to the codebook. Initial codes included:

  • Approach to life (gratitude, learning and openness, passion, mindfulness)
  • Collaboration/Group Work (creative solutions)
  • Internal locus of control (trust your instincts)
  • Outward focused (work that benefits others)
  • Overcoming challenges (hard work, creativity
  • Self care (travel)

After an initial round of coding, we cleaned our codes to eliminate unnecessary ones and to merge codes that demonstrated the main themes.

Please note, we used the edited, published interviews as the source data, which may provide a limitation to our study. Although it would have been standard to use original transcripts of the interviews for the analysis, especially in cases where deeper, more revealing details had been removed, the summarized text were available. The study is also limited in generalizability based on the composition of white women who were mostly well educated.



We found several themes that women repeatedly mentioned in Interviews with Incredible Women. These themes included:

  • Incredible women are valued and supported by their family or their loved ones and they in turn value and support themselves.
  • This self care gives them resources to focus outward, working to benefit others.
  • These women respond to life with gratitude, mindfulness, learning/openness, and passion.


Theme: Incredible women are valued and supported by their family or their loved ones and they in turn value and support themselves.

Family/ Loved One Support

Participants reported that the support of their family and loved ones was essential to their success. These participants tended to have a support network of people that includes friends, family, and colleagues. For example, Anna Crider Sharp said, “my family and loved ones have supported me throughout my life both professionally and personally. I would be nowhere without them.”

This theme closely ties to Approach to Life – Participants expressed gratitude for the support of others: “my colleagues were really supportive and respected my ability to do this job in a flexible way, even if it wasn’t the way everyone else does it.” Although gratitude isn’t overtly expressed, the tenor throughout the interviews was that these women deeply appreciated the opportunities and support that came through the people they love.


Theme: This self care gives them resources to focus outward, working to benefit others.

Self Care

Many participants discussed self care in their response to “what advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?” One participant put it pretty clearly in her response: “Do not forget to take care of yourself.” But others talked about being an introvert and needing time to “decompress and relax.” Taking care of yourself is “the real secret of getting things done; you have to nourish yourself to take care of others.”

Self care, according to these interviews, includes yoga, rest, meditation, backpacking, exercise, caring for animals, climbing, hiking. It’s worth noting that many of these activities are solo ventures. These women express a need for spending time with themselves, to refresh their spirits.

Outwardly Focused

Although incredible women take time for themselves, they are also focused on work that benefits others. They are deeply passionate about empowering others – whether it’s first-graders or inspiring those around them. For example, a theater professor wrote that she’s “in theater because we all need to take all these tools from theater so that women can step into authorship. Somebody needs to write the story. If we can use theater to get women to step into that authorship role, those qualities will carry over into life and leadership.”

Participants volunteer, teach, work in orphanages, prisons, with prostitutes, as shamans, as environmental activists. Participants champion causes like infertility and mental illness, giving a compassionate face for people who struggle. And they express wonder and gratitude at these roles: “I still love every one of my students, flaws and all…I often learn more from my kids than they learn from me.”

One of the women was the co-founder of Haiti Babi, a non-profit that teaches Haitian women to knit and crochet baby blankets for an online webshop here in the States. Haiti Babi pays fair wages and gives the women a means to support their family, a win-win in social entrepreneurship. She said, ”The most inspiring part of working on Haiti Babi is watching the women and their children’s lives change. We have watched as their lives have transformed. We have witnessed their personalities begin to shine in a way that simply can’t come through when [they’re] living in extreme poverty.”

Finally, when asked what her message would be to the world, Amanda Oliver responded, that people “have value, self-worth. People don’t realize their worth, what they bring to the table. Everybody has something unique and special that they bring. That’s part of the point of people-who-matter. Yes, YOU have purpose and value.” Incredible women deeply believe in the value and worth of both themselves and others and are passionate about helping others see their value.


Theme: These women respond to life with gratitude, mindfulness, learning/openness, and passion.

 Approach to Life

How do incredible women approach their life? They do it mindfully, with a ton of gratitude and a willingness to learn. Incredible women approach their life with passion, figuring out creative ways to do that they love. Mindfulness, gratitude, passion, curiosity are all facets of an incredible life. To understand your passions, you have to be curious and mindful. Curiosity and mindfulness lead to gratitude.

One participant said that “I want my life to be daring, ambitious, and impactful. There’s a sweet spot of inspiration when I feel a little bit afraid of where I am headed. If I feel entirely comfortable, I’m not in the right spot.” Being passionate doesn’t always mean being comfortable. Sometimes it involves overcoming huge challenges or getting comfortable with pain, being so mindful that you even come to be grateful for the uncomfortable moments.

Because of this mindful approach, participants are always learning; “I was constantly learning about myself – My abilities, my faults, my strengths, my weaknesses.” Another participant mentioned, “I have always been wiling to grow and learn as a leader, a woman, a mom, and a friend.” And from Judy Dillon, “education is the key for advancement and a successful future.” Learning is one of the key approaches that incredible women have towards their life and those around them.

What do incredible women mean by mindfulness? The traditional definition from John Kabat-Zinn is that mindfulness is “the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment with openness, curiosity, and acceptance.” (reference). To sum it up in three words, one of the participants said, “LOVE. ACCEPTANCE. DISCIPLINE.” Participants often talked about enjoying the small things, because “nothing lasts, which makes it precious each and every moment. And that life is impermanence and change, and we must learn to accept the incredible gift of time and not waste it in pettiness and fear. Live with your heart set on love.”

What is more incredible than living with your heart set on love?

A yoga teacher in Richmond wrote, “in the moment, if I really pause and just hover in the moment, I find that the bliss is right there. I know that sounds really simple and, perhaps a little cliché, but I really, really have found it to be true. Trying to get into the moment can be full of effort, but when you arrive in the moment, it is effortless, struggle-less, bliss.” Incredible women keep working towards the present moment, where they only response is one of gratitude and love. Like one participant said, “I have learned that there is no greater moment than the present, because in that moment you have it all.” Another echoed her, “I fill my heart, soul and mind with awareness by paying attention. Truly paying attention, to whomever I am with, to whatever I am doing, to what I am feeling.”

How does mindfulness lead to gratitude? “There is no guarantee of another day, let alone another moment, so that moment you find yourself should be embraced and celebrated.” When you’re settled in the present, you have the opportunity for gratitude about the extreme blessings in your life.



It has been such an honor to work on Interviews With Incredible Women. I feel like I’ve learned some secrets to how to live an incredible life, like to take care of yourself so that you have an apply ample supply to give to others, like that mindfulness leads to gratitude leads to joy. I’ve seen that over and over in my own life.

I started this project from the premise that everyone is incredible, but I’m realizing that some women handle life with a grace that is really incredible. It’s been so inspiring to conduct these interviews and to hear the unique stories that each woman told, but it’s been incredibly interesting to see the themes that run through the data – and interesting to see how those trends apply to my own life.



Bateson, Mary Catherine. Composing A Life. Grove Press, 2001.

SIX OF THE BEST;The incredible women whose bravery and courage inspired our voters. Evening Times of Glasgow. June 4, 2004.

Smith, B. G. (2013). Women’s studies: The basics. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.


Liz Laribee

Liz Laribee

Liz Laribee is the Director of the MakeSpace, a collaborative arts organization she spearheaded the founding of in 2012. Through that position, she has helped mobilize a series of creative projects in the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  She is a freelance artist, specializing in reuse and alternative materials in the creation process. Liz has exhibited her work in Harrisburg, in national and international print media, and at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art. For the past six years, she has taught reuse methods of art-making in classrooms at the University level, in public and private schools, and in after-school programs. Some of her current collaborations include Sprocket Mural Works, a citywide initiative to generate and document public art, a children’s book series with poet July Westhale, and DCBA Lawyers for the Arts, a program to enable lawyers to assist fledgling artists with stabilizing their projects.

Born in Kansas, Liz’s father was an Episcopal priest and interim pastor at churches who were struggling. Because of his work, she moved 17 times before attending Messiah College in Harrisburg. Though she had been accepted into Savannah College of Art and Design, she focused instead of creative writing and graduated from Messiah College with an English degree.

Q: You are involved in some creative, community-oriented projects like MakeSpace and Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral.  What is your vision and how has that evolved?

LL: My avenue into Harrisburg was an intentional community called The Sycamore House. I helped start that when I was a Junior in college through The Episcopal Cathedral. The model back then was that people would live in community together, with a commitment to the surrounding city. Your rent and utilities were paid for in exchange for community service and teaching the youth group. I moved into the community and stayed for 2 years. It was impactful and informative. I entered the city with eyes open and the intention to learn about the City and to impact it positively.

Experiments around the idea of community and grassroots efforts to make things happen was really hammered into my head in college and so, when I moved into Harrisburg, it continued that way. In 2012, five years after graduation, it was a strange time in Harrisburg history—there was Occupy Harrisburg, David Unkovic had been appointed as the receiver and had a really quick turn around and then resigned. When that happened it was sort of like Batman quit.

My temperament is that when I get discouraged, I redirect my energy into making something. I was invited around that time to a community meeting at the Pancake Mansion and I met this vibrant community of people who were trying to establish the “next thing” in Harrisburg and trying to pool our diverse resources and talents to create something more constructive in Harrisburg.

Around the same time I was often coming to Little Amps, sketching a business plan for an arts collective. My art was selling better and I needed an established workspace, but I was really broke. I knew that to move forward, I needed to share space and share resources with other people. The people and process I encountered in those meetings really helped percolate the plan I was forming with a few others, and that boomeranged us into honing our vision statement

We became aware of the property that MakeSpace is now in when I called my landlord who had the property. The philosophy was to use what we had available to us, which was very little money, but a lot of resourcefulness and a lack of inhibition. It lends itself to the whole thing being an evolving art project.

As far as a larger vision that I have…this is a strange time of life to be talking about my vision! I feel like this is the year that I’m slowing down, in a good way, a purposeful, mindful way, but my vision is just trying to love where I live. Trying to figure out a way to make that possible for myself and the others around me.

Q: Can you explore that a little more. Do you love where you live? What are a few of the things you need to be happy?

LL: I DO love where I live. What I mean by trying to love where I live means trying to piece together the elements that go into a life that I can thrive with. I need friends, coffee, a means to make and sell what I love to make and sell, and I need to be in community with the people around me. If those elements are in place then that, to me, will equal a happy life.

I think my language has gotten more personal the longer I’ve done this. At the very beginning, it was about “saving Harrisburg”, but over time it has become a little less…arrogant. It’s more about living a mindful life and liking who I am and those around me.

Q: Has that always been possible for you? To lead a mindful life? How has that idea changed over your life?

LL: I think one of the biggest changes I’ve see in myself is trying to learn how to hone in on the most practical and most joyful way to lead a mindful life. You start off really unfocused and think you can do anything, like we all write that in each other’s yearbooks, but over time, that becomes less interesting. You become less interested in trying to be absurdly prolific—you start to focus on quality and quantifiable, measurable results.

Q: I cannot wait to check out MakeSpace (and to bring my tinker boyfriend over).  Tell me some of the stories from MakeSpace.

LL: There have been so many stories. I had met this guy once, maybe 15 years ago, and because of Facebook, he messaged me and said that “I met this Klezmer band while I was in Europe and they’re in the states and they want to play at MakeSpace.” It was one of the most incredible live performances I’ve ever seen and it was so emotional for me that it was happening in the MakeSpace. They performed and their stomping nearly brought the floor down. The next day I had to sweep a bunch of euros off the floor. They left euros in their wake!

We renovated the space with our own sweat equity and elbow grease. There was a room off the kitchen that was totally not insulated—you could almost see through the walls, so we left it vacant as a meanwhile space until a neighborhood artist named Stephen Michael Haas asked to experiment with an installation in that room. He spent three days with primer and India ink and turned it into this incredible piece of installation art. He did a mural on every bit of space. It’s this imitate autobiographical statement of his life and it’s become one of the staples of the experience at MakeSpace. It was an incredible way to redeem the space with nothing but a person’s resources, spirit, and time.

Q: How do you make time for yourself?  What gives you balance?

LL: What I love to do to get time away is to go away. I travel a lot—I take two big trips each year. It’s necessary for me; I have wanderlust. I like reminding myself of a larger world and contexts that are totally separate from my daily to-do list.. I don’t owe anyone in the Turkish airport any emails.

I also really love going to the River and sitting on the steps and not bringing my cell phone with me. And m y new house has a balcony off of my bedroom, so I spend a lot of time there.

Q: What is something that the world should know?  Maybe the best piece of advice that you ever received or the message you have for others.

LL: Be excellent to each other. I think that’s my best advice—it’s dependent on no resources other than yourself.

Q: What do you think is the capacity of someone’s internal resources?

LL: People are limited by expenditures of their own time and energy and the disadvantages that come from larger systems, but how you treat people is your choice.

Q: How has the way you treat people changed based on your experience?

LL: Well, I’m more interested in listening than speaking these days. Some arrogance is wearing off. I’m trying to be more cautious about what it is that I put into the world and how that happens.

Q: What question did I miss?

LL: It’s probably what is your name an anagram for! And the answer is LIBERALIZE.

LN Lurie

LN Lurie_iw

LN Lurie is an extremely interesting dynamo. She’s an audio engineer whose expertise is in gaming. According to LinkedIn, LN specializes in “picking a direction, putting out fires, and replacing [herself] with efficient pipelines.” Through our interview, I also saw a passionate leader, who is great at telling stories through podcasts and using sound as a medium to communicate. LN is a global volunteer and her work includes disaster relief in the Philippines during Typhoon Haiyan. Some of her past roles include “Queen of all things Audible” and “Super Audio Girl.” (Is it clear yet why I think LN is awesome?) Currently, LN is wanderlusting across Africa while the rest of us drool over her pictures.

Q:  How does telling the stories of others make you consider yourself and your story?

LL: I believe that when you re-tell a story, it becomes yours. Not the actions or experiences, but the story is yours. The takeaway is yours. With that said—I believe that ANYTHING I hear, I’m an audio person, after all, I try to relate that story to my life.

An example is hearing my grandmother talk about her life. She’s 90. She grew up during the depression where having a bit of string to tie up her hair was coveted. Hearing stories like hers, if anything, make me grateful for the things that we DO have in this world. When I retell this, I hope you become grateful or mindful as well.

Q: What role has music played in your life? Are there artists that you turn to time and time again?

LL: This is my favorite question. I was a music major—I’ve played the violin since age three and bassoon since seventh grade. I’ve played countless instruments because I originally wanted to become a band instructor. “What’s a bassoon?” you ask…don’t feel bad. My professors at Berklee, a Jazz school in Boston, didn’t know either. They actually called it a “wooden saxophone”.

But yes, music is incredibly important to my life. Because of school, I analyze music instead of simply listening to it. First I hear the melody, then the counter melody, the rhythm, the bass line, how everything works together, the chord progressions…and finally by the seventh or eight time I listen to a song, that’s when I’ll hear the words.

My mom was a piano pedagogy major. She didn’t allow me to listen to anything “unless they were dead.” She thought current music wasn’t really music. So I grew up listening to Beatles, Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven. When Kurt Cobain died, I was ecstatic! I ran home and said, “MOM!? CAN I LISTEN TO NIRVANA NOW?!” and she just looked at me and said “No. He’s not dead enough.”

A story I really wanted to share with you is about how music makes this weird thing happen in my brain, and probably everyone, where all of a sudden you hear a piece of music and you remember where you were when you first heard it, or how that piece has personal meaning for you.

I remember listening to Metallica’s One during a YMCA lock-up after a school dance. My High School Sweetheart Greg and I had just finished running up and down stairs, hyped up on Mountain Dew, and that song came on. We both stopped as if we were shot and drop down on the floor, mesmerized by the song, staring at the ceiling, trying to control our breath as we hold our planks. I get taken over by this almost trance-like guitar solo in the beginning. The music transports me to July 1999 and we are sitting on a wall listening to Metallica live. It’s pitch black except for a few joints and cigarettes. The guitar solo starts, I stare at the crowd, and it starts to rain. In real life, I snap out of my haze, realizing that I’ve been holding a plank for three minutes at the YMCA and I start to do Box Jumps.

It’s amazing how music can transport you and tells stories.

Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

LL: I would tell myself to think bigger. I could always think bigger. Also to think more simply….and don’t listen so much to my mother!

Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve done?

LL: Teaching my 90-yearr-old grandma how to use an iPad.

Seriously. Do you know how difficult that is?! I mean—I’ve worked in corporate America. I’ve dealt with sexual harassment. I’ve traveled solo around the world, I’ve moved to new countries, I’ve been poorly kidnapped in Ecuador, I’ve had my bag and all my belongings stolen in Panama, I finished a marathon, I’ve survived the world’s worst typhoon in history in the Philippines, I’ve been a first-responder on many incidents, I’ve been published countless times in video games. I’ve played Bassoon Porn Music! But my greatest achievement is teaching my 90-year-old grandma how to use an iPad.

How I measured my success was by writing her a message on Facebook. She “liked” it! That was it. That was the best day of my life!

Q: Life is beauty and pain.  Tell me about pain in your life.

LL: I sliced open my thumb with a machete in Guatemala. Where there is no clean running water and I had to wash out my hand with rum. Is that the type of pain you’re talking about?…I’m sure it’s not.

My other pain is my biggest challenge right now. I’m about to embark on a journey to Africa with $5,000, which seems like a lot and maybe it is, but I’m going to pretty touristy places. I like some amenities, so my biggest challenges is that I’m still unemployed, basically, but my finances are in a scary, unknown situation. On this trip, I’ve planned three weeks so far, but that’s all time with family. I used to be someone with a 10-year goal and 10-year plan, but I’ve found that I miss out by planning so much. I backpacked through Europe and found that I only had two good stories from those three weeks because I planned so much. I started planning less when I went around the world and I started finding better stories. For Africa, I’m not planning at all, which is a huge challenge because I’m such a planner and a control freak. So not having any finances and being a control freak, I have no idea how I’m going to do this. And I don’t know what will happen when I come back. All those things are pretty scary.

Denise VanBriggle

Photo credit: Erika Dupes, Bliss Images Photography

Photo credit: Erika Dupes, Bliss Images Photography

Denise VanBriggle is an expressive arts aficionado, reiki practitioner, and JourneyDance™ facilitator. She is a teacher, writer, dancer, and dreamer. Most of her days are spent exploring the power of the expressive arts to act as change agents, perspective shifters, and resilience builders. She owns Cityscape Consulting, which is devoted to writing, coaching, and integrative curriculum design. In 2014, Denise opened SHINE, a healing expressive arts studio sponsored by Cityscape. Her first book, Feeding the Roots of Self-Expression and Freedom – a collaborative venture with Jimmy Santiago Baca and Kym Sheehan – was just published by Cedar Tree Poetics, NM.

Q:  When I search for “Denise VanBriggle” I find both CityScape Consulting and JourneyDance/reiki.  Is all this you?  What is it that you do?

DVB: Yes, this is all me. I retired in July 2011 after a long career in education. When I was still employed—during the years 1997-2011—a series of auto-immune problems surfaced for me. First it was Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, next it was fibromyalgia, and finally Type 2 Diabetes. I’ve always trusted my intuition, and I had a strong sense that my high stress level played a major role in all of these health concerns. Yoga provided relief when I struggled to get my Hashi’s under control. Physical therapy literally cured my fibromyalgia. Exercising and making changes in my diet enabled me to get off many medications and lose the Type 2 Diabetes label. How fascinating for me to experience first-hand movement as medicine.

I’ve always been a writer and understood from a young age the transformational, healing power of writing.  Late in my career I enrolled in a doctoral program in Adult Education to conduct more formalized research, but when I decided to de-stress my life by retiring, I also decided to ditch my studies. What a tough moment for me. Up to that point, I don’t think I had quit anything. As difficult as it was, I truly believe it liberated me.

I know it sounds cliché’, but wonderful things began to happen to me once I let go of what was weighing me down. Poet Jimmy Santiago Baca invited me to collaborate on a book, Feeding the Roots of Self-Expression and Freedom, which was published this year. Simultaneously I rekindled my love of poetry and reconnected with a group of women I had written with over many years of our collective association with the National Writing Project.

Throughout the years of my health challenges, I read voraciously and became deeply interested in the connection between and among mind, body, and spirit. Along the way, I discovered many movement modalities, including JourneyDance™, which I loved so much I became a Certified Facilitator. I also explored a variety of healing modalities, including Reiki. I experienced such a positive benefit from understanding the movement of energy in my own body that I decided to become a Reiki Practitioner.  To me, the body, mind, and spirit represent a sacred trinity. Disturbing any aspect of the trinity is synonymous to an assault on my well-being.

Q: What gives you balance?  How do you find peace?

DVB: Personal balance comes through intentionally carving time in my schedule for embodied experiences like writing, dancing, painting, practicing yoga, and photographing nature’s wonders. I find peace through stillness, such as meditating, praying, stargazing, reading in the sunshine, sitting quietly on the patio with my husband and simply watching the clouds change formation, or catching a full moon rise. A strong sense of peaceful balance comes easily through helping others, whether my own family and friends or the complete strangers I assist as part of my work as an Official Visitor with the Pennsylvania Prison Society. I’ve learned that self-love isn’t selfish and I need to fill myself up so I have a reservoir of energy to give to others.

Q: What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

DVB: I’d tell myself to lighten up, already! I am an empath and always way too sensitive and serious for my own good. I always found it easy to forgive others and overlook all of their flaws, but I had a damned hard time doing the same for myself. I’d be kinder and gentler to my young self. I’d stroke my own hair and say, “You are a child of the universe and you are perfectly imperfect just the way you are, sweet girl. And don’t you ever forget it.

Q: Where does inspiration come from?  Who has inspired you?

DVB: Inspiration comes from silence—observing the amazing colors of the sunrise, watching the hummingbirds at my feeders, studying my grandchildrens’ faces, reading poetry. Inspiration comes from sound—enjoying early morning birdsong, drifting asleep to waves lapping the shoreline, listening to or singing my favorite tunes, hearing my family laughing, travelling to places I’ve never been before and experiencing each culture’s unique vibration and resonance. Inspiration comes from movement—dancing my body temple to music that stirs my soul, creating curricula to meet individual or group needs (ideas seemingly spring from a divine source and each idea inspires another), writing is a constant source of inspiration for me. And finally, inspiration comes from resilience—witnessing individuals rising above their own painful pasts, maneuvering around real or perceived obstacles, and ultimately finding their own joy.

I am blessed to have many inspiring men and women in my life, many of them still living and quite a few who have passed on, so this may prove to be the toughest question of all. How to choose? I decided to base my decision on two people whose lives reflect resilience: Poet Jimmy Santiago Baca and my own daughter, Erika Dupes. Jimmy was incarcerated for about 5 ½ years in the early 70’s and he has been a pivotal force in my life since the day we met in November of 2008. And my daughter has overcome some serious medical dilemmas but has not allowed them to define her. Both are a constant source of inspiration to me.


23 April 1977

          Jimmy Santiago Baca

It seems

prison confines and destroys

it does, I know, no need to argue

the point, just look at these

infamous edifices thrashing out,


human beings like bait sardines,

but I cannot stand on this.

Yes, the great iron hand of prison

crushes all in its grasp,

the mind and soul become

feeble sacks

filled with rotten fruits,

a gunnysack crumpled in a dark cell.

but to control your mind and soul

is to become a stronger hand,

embanking gently the loose clods

of ravaged and confused past

so the river of your heart

and clear streams of your soul

may pass,

full and freely, into rich fallow beds

of freedom, waiting for you

even in prison,

even in prison; many will not understand  this,

but I will say that we can


not today, tomorrow, or next month,

but at the very moment

one decides upon it.


Baca, J.  (2001).  A Place to Stand.  New York, Grove Press.  (poem appears on pp. 208-209).

In March of 2005 my daughter Erika lay in a hospital bed recuperating from lung surgery just a few months after the birth of her first child, Max. Around the same time, I had adopted a cell dog and started to correspond with the inmate who trained her. On my way to visit Erika in the hospital one day, a friend gave me Baca’s memoir proclaiming, “This book is a must read for anyone associated with the prison system!”  I thought reading might calm my fear as I sat steady watch over my firstborn.  This particular poem triggered a heart-opening, body-shaking cry, and I vowed to meet the man whose words precipitated such a powerful emotional purge.  You see, on 23 April 1977 while Baca penned this poem from his cell, I lay in a hospital bed cradling three-day-old Erika whose unlikely prison had been her own mother’s womb.  Who knew these wide hips of mine housed a pelvis too small to allow for safe passage through the birth canal!  After a 24-hour struggle, the doctor was forced to cut her free.

Since 2005 Erika has endured a second lung collapse and surgery followed by two high-risk pregnancies producing granddaughters Emma and Avery. Today, I am blessed with three healthy grandchildren and a beautiful, healthy, and active daughter who has not allowed her health challenges to dampen her positive spirit. I met Jimmy Santiago Baca back in 2008, just as I began to heal from the trauma of watching Erika suffer. Jimmy single-handedly reignited my social justice fire and my love of writing. In many ways, words saved me. And the double whammy in my life at that time?  My son was deployed to Iraq. It was definitely a “dark night of the soul” period for me, but I bounced back.

Through their daily resilience and courage, Erika and Jimmy model passionate, compassionate, and purposeful living.  They urge us all to

Be brave. 

Be fearless. 

Decide in this moment.

It’s never too late.


Q: Do you have any pet projects you’d like to share?

I do.

A few years ago Jimmy introduced me to a young film director, Daniel Glick, who wanted to make a documentary film based on Jimmy’s memoir A Place to Stand. I worked with Daniel from the early stages as he criss-crossed the country to learn from experts in the industry. I had the pleasure of introducing him to my dear friend Bill Isler, President of Family Communications (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) who introduced both of us to director Carl Kurlander (St. Elmo’s Fire). I also served on one of the fundraising teams through two successful Kickstarter campaigns. What a rush to know we raised enough money to see the film through to final cut! That milestone was reached on 5/25/14. I personally contributed more time and money to this effort than to any other charitable cause throughout my 59 years on the planet. I’m proud of the small role I played in this effort because I believe the Jimmy’s story holds the potential to change the course of other people’s lives, just as it has mine.

Jimmy also connected me to the phenomenal Penny Alsop when I visited Upaya Zen Center.  Penny was moving through the chaplaincy program there and asked me if I’d be a part of her web-based project www.greatbigcrazylove.com  How could I resist a project with such an awesome title? And so began some creative non-fiction writing that set me upon a serious path of self-discovery.

The final project is SHINE, a healing expressive arts studio for adults located at 4400 Linglestown Rd., Suite 101, Harrisburg, PA. It opens today (6/1/2014) and I’m thrilled to kick off the first summer season with three intimate day-long SHINEshops. The initial offering, Exploring Stillness and Finding YOUR Voice, happens on Saturday, June 28th, from 9:30 AM-3:30 PM. For further information, visitors to your site can hop over and visit me at Cityscape Consulting www.cityscape8.com

This is my consulting business and the place where I draw together all of my loves. I’ve given myself the title of Curator of Creativity rather than “owner,” which is a bit boring and doesn’t really doesn’t describe what I do.

Q: Now that the book is finished, what are you currently writing?

DVB: Well, I’ve been a closet poet for a long time, and within the last year I’ve decided to step out into the light. I’m learning to trust my own rhythm and cadence. I always felt pretty comfortable and confident with narrative writing, but less so with poetry. I’ve also learned that the only way to face my fear is to move straight through it. My next project is a collection of my own poetry. It’s a work in progress, so stay tuned.