By Michaela Cisney (2015 Byron Fellow) and Jasmine Hamilton (2014 Byron Fellow)
“The Byron Fellowship has transformed my life in lasting ways”, reflects Michaela Cisney, 2015 Byron Fellow and founder of Priyam Global, an international nonprofit organization based in Chennai, India. The work of Priyam Global is focused on improving the lives of children with disabilities and their families. Michaela’s vision is that every child, in Chennai and beyond, would see the full and beautiful realization of her rights and dreams, experience a family that loves her without limits, a body and mind that are cared for and well, and have the opportunities to explore her interests and thrive using her strengths. Michaela recently returned from a trip to India and shared via telephone interview, the impact that the Byron Fellowship has had on her leadership at Priyam Global. Below are some highlights of our conversation.
Jasmine: How would you describe your state of being when you arrived at the Byron Fellowship?
Michaela: When I arrived at Byron, I was carrying a tentative discouragement about Priyam Global. My discouragement largely stemmed from the many challenges that I was facing in finding mentorship and support. Before founding Priyam, I went back to school to complete a Master’s in Public Health, focusing on maternal and child health, and nutrition and disease interactions. I sought guidance from my professors in academia and did everything that I could to get support. I reached out to several people who I thought would be able to walk with me along the journey, but most of them did not respond to my e-mails. The only person who did respond pointed out a list of reasons why Priyam would not be successful; including the fact that I did not know anything and that the community that I intended to work with had perceptions that would impede progress. I began to internalize these experiences and comments to the point that I traded carrying my vision with carrying the challenges that Priyam Global faced. I was steeped in the issues that the children were facing, the fact that no one talked about them and the fact that very few people thought that Priyam could be successful.
This became clear to me during one of our exercises at Byron when Harry, a Byron Fellowship Mentor, asked us to talk about our vision in 3 different scenarios. During this exercise, I realized that every time I talked about Priyam, discouragement would permeate my tone and body language.
Jasmine: What did you take away from the Byron Fellowship that has had a tangible effect on the way that you now carry your vision for Priyam Global?
Michaela: Realizing the importance of carrying my vision is definitely the most important thing that I took away from Byron. Byron shifted my focus and way of being from discouragement, back to my original vision; a world in which every child is healthy, protected, and loved. I realized that it is less important to control the conversation about these issues, or people’s responses to them. Instead, I carry the excitement of my vision. So, from my conversations with my family to my very large projects, I now try to approach everything in my life with a sense of vision.
Jasmine: At Byron, much emphasis was placed upon conversation and the way that conversations can shape our relationships, communities and daily lives. How has this impacted the way that you work?
Michaela: If vision is what shapes my approach to life, vulnerability is what shapes my conversation. While at Byron I promised that I would bring the gift of sweet honesty (how I describe vulnerability) back to my communities. But I had to go through a hard phase after Byron; a phase in which I had to learn how to share honestly without following up a difficult conversation with a text or e-mail that would protect me. In the context of work, this has enabled me to have a simpler approach. I learned that I had to be OK with not having control but I can commit to bringing what I have to the conversation and trust that my vision and ideas are strong enough to produce an impact, regardless of the consequences.
I recently experienced this when I was invited to sit on a panel on health issues for children in Global Health at my Alma Mater. I was given the option of using a PowerPoint presentation but chose not to because I did not think that it was best option for me. Instead, I thought that it would be best to trust myself enough to tell the story of Priyam Global and carry my vision to those in the audience. I had done extensive research for many years, I had been actively involved in the lives of many of these children in Chennai and had gotten to know their families. This should enable me to tell the story. But, at the moment of the panel I realized that I was the only presenter without a PowerPoint presentation. I felt somewhat vulnerable initially. I thought “oh no, I’m the only one without a PowerPoint! Maybe I should have done one.” But I started to remind myself of why I did not make a PowerPoint when given the option. I did not believe that it was best. I did not want to use it to hide and most importantly, I thought that it was best if I shared simply and honestly from my experience. So, I told my story, without a PowerPoint.
Jasmine: What was the result?
Michaela: The result was really encouraging. It turned out that the audience engaged very well with my presentation and that experience helped me to see that it does not matter where I think people are, they are still people and they still honestly want vision.
In addition to bringing vision and vulnerability to my conversation and work, Byron also helps me to work more organically. Although I keep track of my goals and tasks that should be done to move me forward, I don’t have a to-do list per se, which surprisingly has translated to higher productivity for me. Instead, my vision pulls me forward, rather than me feeling as though I have to pull it forward. I still have to do the hard things. For example, I am currently writing grants and having to get funding always puts me, the children and the families that I work with, in a vulnerable position. I think, what if I don’t get funded? What will the end results look like? When discouraged and not knowing what the future is like, I find that having a vision is a reminder of what I am doing, why it matters, and the expanse of what could be possible beyond where I am now. The president of a foundation whom I greatly admire recently told me that as someone with a vision who now must lead others forward, I am “the great cheerleader, the fire maker.” The vision is the fire. It will change the world and bring light and hope where there was darkness. My responsibility is to show up, with matches.