From trauma to transformation: what compels leadership?

Francesca Raoelison founded her work on personal experience. This is not unusual in the nonprofit sector. Many founders have some life changing event or journey that compels them to act. To address the issue that caused the event. To change the journey so others might have a different path.

What makes Francesca’s story unique is that she did not fully understand her experience until later, after it happened. But once she understood, once she appreciated the damage that it caused her – and others – she didn’t let anything delay her start.

This is a story from the heart, which complements our earlier essay ‘from the head’ about key lessons from the nonprofit world – and what many businesses can learn from nonprofits (click here to read). Ultimately, the goal of this series is to share both perspectives – organizational and personal, from the head and heart – to provide a more complete understanding of how and why nonprofits and their leaders are able to succeed in the face of tremendous challenges.

Now, back to our story.

Francesca grew up in Madagascar in what, she assumed, was a fairly normal childhood. She went to school, did household chores and occasionally saw lemurs on class field trips. Eventually, she attended Virginia Community college before earning a scholarship at Brown University. When she first arrived in the U.S., she was struck by new foods, social media and a completely new perspective on what she assumed was ‘normal’ behavior.

Let’s hear from Francesca: “I never knew what emotional abuse was until I started my studies in psychology (at the community college)… When I learned about it, that’s when I realized that I grew up in an emotionally abusive household with my dad. But I never knew it because it is a way of life … not only in my own country but in [many] countries where emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and psychological abuse are normalized.”

Francesca decided to tell her father. She shared a video about emotional abuse and asked him what he thought. Her father agreed that emotional abuse was wrong … until Francesca asked him a question. She asked if her father knew he was “doing that to us, to my brothers and I.” Instead of compassion, “He lashed out and said, ‘What are you talking about? I don’t do that!”

Francesca was devastated. She felt that she should never have mentioned the issue, and that nothing would change. “But a month later, he came back to me and my mom, and my brothers, and he apologized. He said that his dad did the same thing to me. That was the only way that he knew.”

This is when the healing process began, for her dad and her family. Moreover, Francesca experienced an epiphany, which propelled her on her path.

“That’s when I realized that emotional abuse is a cycle. It didn’t start with us. And that’s what made me want to start this organization [Omena] because I knew that I was not the only one. Because I knew that this was a cycle that needed to be broken.”

(image source: twitter.com/francescaraoel – Copyright: Francesca Raoelison)

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 1 billion children worldwide have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse in the last year . Emotional abuse starts in the home, but has a spillover effect to every relationship. And it is passed on from generation to generation. Finally, there is a deep economic impact from such abuse. In the U.S alone, the CDC estimates the cost of emotional abuse to be $124 billion from hospital costs, criminal justice costs and productivity losses.
To address this problem, Omena now provides Emotional Abuse Prevention Training to many people in Madagascar and other countries. To date, Omena has engaged over 5,000 children and young adults in their programs, collaborated with 20 organizations, and reached over 1 million people through their online awareness campaign. Francesca has also led TEDx talks on the subject and was instrumental in UNICEF’s efforts to promote awareness of emotional abuse around the world.

Personal experience lies at the heart of so much of our approach to life. What makes Francesca different, like so many nonprofit leaders, is that she put this experience into action. Through her work, Omena is helping to break the “intergenerational traumas” that are so devastating to families and their communities. To hear the full story from Francesca, click here.

The next question is how do nonprofit leaders sustain their passion. And what can we learn in how they put experience into action – for the long term. Our next essay in the Social Profit series will address this.

Steve McCoy-Thompson

*Steve McCoy-Thompson has worked over 30 years at the nexus of business, government and the nonprofit sector – as a management consultant to and with Fortune 100 companies and government ministries and as executive director of nonprofits and a community foundation. He is currently the Executive Director of Gratitude Network, which helps nonprofits apply best practices and business principles to reach over 40 million children worldwide.