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Michelle Kinder’s Speech at 2019 Visionary Women Luncheon

Fowler Visionary Woman Remarks

May 3, 2019

15 min


I was overwhelmed – and overwhelmed with gratitude – when Ann called me to share the news of this honor.

That feeling grew a 1000-fold as I spent more time with Nicole, Ann, Ashley, Natalie and Mike, Abby and the entire Fowler community.

If you are looking for an oxytocin boost or a belly laugh – go hang out at Fowler. The way they embody their values is palpable and inspiring.

It’s a place that is truly co-create – by staff, residents, board and community.

Nobody describes themselves as visionary- at least nobody likable. But preparing for today really got me thinking about the twists and turns in life that fuel our capacity to stand in purpose and vision and fearlessness.

For me, it started by having a front row seat to the work my parents, Herb and Judy Billings, did as missionaries in Guatemala. They were both natural leaders who were more preoccupied with contribution than personal achievement. Their purpose-drive            fire in the belly, combined with a humility and curiosity, gave me a lot to be proud of and a lot to live up to.

Even as a young kid I noticed there was something very different in their approach. As you can imagine, as a missionary kid, I spent a lot of time in church – I saw the best of it and the worst of it. From some I heard all about fear, piety and judgement.

But from my parents – I heard about love, service and the power of relationship. My gentle giant of a dad – he was seven feet tall – would often preach about his mechanic, Don Miguel and his barber, Don Francis. He would talk about how over a period of years the lives of these two men changed and how that rippled in the community – but he would also talk about how our lives changed by virtue of knowing them.

Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian  artist is known for a quote that captures this perfectly and it’s a quote I think about almost every day, she says – “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Before I knew this quote – I knew this value – because my parents lived it.

Juliette Fowler’s personal liberation was tied up with her vision for the community. And present day, this organization is doing so much more than helping – they are nurturing thriving communities and thriving individuals and they are parlaying that mutual liberation into bold innovation.

Growing up in Guatemala in a white family from the United States, meant that from birth, most everywhere I looked, there were two or more ways to do just about everything. So – I grew up with an awareness of and appreciation for diversity and differences.

But it could also be confusing and got me thinking early about identity. When I was in Guatemala, I was at home, but I looked like a visitor.

When I was in the United States, I looked like I belonged, but I felt totally out of place. This made me acutely aware of how many assumptions we make about each other based on outer appearances and it fed in me an intense desire to better understand inner worlds – my own and other people’s. That’s almost certainly what led me to later study theatre and then psychology.

The belief that there isn’t one right way to do something was baked into me – which put me in a perpetual state of genuine curiosity, holding loosely what I defined as normal and appreciating the texture and richness of being at diverse tables.

Anais Nin said, “It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.”

My early years taught me to revel in and seek out, on the friendliest of terms, the unfamiliar.

As things in our world continue to get more complex and even scary, one instinct is to shrink who is at our tables – to hunker down with people who look like us and think like us. It can feel safer to only have voices in our ear that confirm our views and our choices.

But, I’ve noticed, when you dig a little deeper, that seems to be less a reflection of what people actually want and more a sign that we have put fear in charge. I’ve noticed that when fear is in charge, it crowds out love and it can blind us to our purpose and our impact.

When love is in charge, especially divine love, we tend to widen the circle and align around our common humanity.

Poet Danielle Dolby put it this way – “the way out of the darkness is when we can look across the table and find our face in another’s.”

I’d like to meet this honor today with courage and tell you something I don’t talk about very often. Not just to tell you – but because of how it connects with Juliette’s story and I’m imagining with many of you.

As it was true for Juliette Fowler – it has been true for me that grief and loss have served as a purifier of sorts. And as my greatest teachers.

When I was 16 my parents were in the states for just a month to drop us off at the boarding school we attended in high school. We were staying in a church’s missionary residence in Huntsville. Before my junior year officially started, I was scheduled for cheerleading camp – just down the road here at the SMU campus. Right before I left Huntsville to come to camp, my dad had what we all assumed was a cold and he asked me to bring him some hot tea – which in 16 year old fashion I did, but a little begrudgingly. While I was at camp, my larger than life, 58-year-old hero of a dad died suddenly of a heart attack.

Later I would think often about how glad I was that I took him that cup of tea.

My brother in law, Tim, came to tell me and pick me up and I remember repeating over and over again, ‘but he wasn’t done yet.” Even in that raw moment of grief, my first thought was what the world lost – because in everything he did, he taught me that we belong to the community.

Five years later, one month shy of my 21st birthday, my 24-year-old sister, Lisa, died suddenly of a heart attack. I was a college student at Baylor and for months, the only time I could breathe was if I was running – so I ran 8 miles a day.

In April of 2007, when Patrick and I were blissfully caring for our 5-year­ old daughter Maya and our 7-month-old Sophia – my 33-year-old brother, Marshall, died suddenly of a heart attack. It’s been 12 years now and I still like to pretend he’s just traveling.

Many of you have similar stories – we’re all touched by tragedy and grief.

And I’m not going to tie that up with a bow – my heart still breaks a little every day.

But – I’m convinced, that the more I dance with grief, the more capable I become of full-hearted joy and compassion. Now, I spend lots of time thinking about are the gifts of grief and the invitation to whole-hearted living and deep resolve that come from a well-felt sadness. Maybe the same was true for Juliette Fowler.

If it’s not too weird, I would like to read you a poem I published this year about the gifts of grief – it’s called – Generous River.


Generous River

Beneath a deep, felt sense of joy ,and peace runs a river of grief.


Hollowed out places in the heart, still raw from a parade of loses.


A generous river – giving life to outsized capacity for joy and for gratitude and for courage..


The opposite of something missing.


Bearing the fruit of texture, humor and

a life lived in memory of and in service of others.


A technicolor ‘awake’- tentatively, and then boldly, embodied

in the letting go of too many, too early.


A hunger for contribution fueled by beloveds

snatched from earth before they could do all

you imagined they were here to do.


An ease with the passing of time, with aging,

that only comes from intimacy with the alternative.


The generous river of grief that takes so much

and kindly leaves even more behind.



This beautiful organization that we are here to celebrate and support today – is a gift of the grief experienced by Juliette over 100 years ago.

Juliette is the quintessential example of someone who turned her grief into lasting good for the community – but I’m betting she wouldn’t have told it that way – I’m imagining she just did the next right thing over and over again and was not distracted by hurdles, or those who might dismiss her or minimize her.

Which is something we can all aspire to.  To #bejuliette