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Pearl #9: Your Past Doesn’t Define You

Throughout the year, our blog series “Pearls: 30 Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey” will be featuring lessons we’ve learned as an organization throughout the past three decades. These “pearls,” as we call them, illuminate how we’ve survived and thrived for 30 years.

Your past doesn’t define you

Or Your Future

Past experiences leave each of us with history, baggage, and knowledge. Unfortunately, for the women we serve, the history, baggage and knowledge often lead them to be held back by their pasts. By the time they arrive at our doors, they’ve been told they aren’t good enough or smart enough, that they’ve done things that can’t be overlooked or forgiven and that they will always be reminded of their mistakes. They’ve been without anyone to believe in them for so long that they’ve forgotten how to believe in themselves.  

One of our key lessons as an organization and one of the first steps each woman must absorb:  

Your past does not define you or your future.  

Our Histories Are Not Fundamentally Who We Are

Each of our histories inform who we are, how we act and what we think, but our histories are not fundamentally who we are. Mr. Rogers said, “Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.” Essential to that statement is the word “includes.”  

Early into her tenure at the Bean Project, Pam, who was still very fragile in her recovery and taking the excruciating steps toward regaining her family’s trust, said of her experience at WBP, “For the first time in my life, I have found a place where people are more concerned with my future than my past.” This simple statement illuminated for me the challenge that the women we serve face when they have decided they want to have different lives. How do they convince their families, prospective employers, or even society that they are not the sum of their mistakes and that their mistakes don’t define them? 

“For the first time in my life, I have found a place where people are more concerned with my future than my past.”

Previous Program Participant

What Matters is Where She is Going

To start, that’s our job at the Bean Project. We accept each woman’s past and don’t assume that it will determine her future. We work to help her realize that while her past informs her future, it does not define her or what she’s capable of becoming. So often, the people with whom the women interact are unable to move on from their past mistakes, and so how can we expect the women to?  

Every woman has a story to tell and wants to tell it without being judged. She is not the sum of her mistakes or experiences. Everyone comes to the Bean Project  for a reason and no one person’s reason is better or worse than another’s. What matters is where she is going, what her dedication to growth is and what seeking a new life means to her.  

Each Piece Creates a Larger Picture

I like to think of every woman we serve as a mosaic, each with beautiful, sharp, and worn-out pieces. Each piece within the mosaic represents a different experience or decision. Yet, individual pieces of the mosaic aren’t very helpful in seeing the beauty of the whole or even understanding the entire picture. By adding to the mosaic with new experiences and decisions, there is opportunity to change the appearance of the entire mosaic.  

We must continue to remind the women until they hear us:  

You are not the worst of your behaviors.  

You do not have to live in your failures. 

You have permission to focus on how to move from your past into a better future. 

Is this about overcoming adversity? Yes, partly, but I also think it’s about acknowledging the past then setting adversity aside and refusing to allow it to create the next chapter. During the program, each woman writes a Letter of Explanation that is added to her portfolio, which also consists of her resume, cover letter and references. This letter is meant to help prospective employers know that while she has a past, she is now focused on creating a different future. It outlines her plans and dreams for where she is going. It adds pieces to the mosaic. And mostly, we hope it creates the bridge to the next opportunity that she has begun to build at the Bean Project and helps the employer with whom she is interviewing know that they’d be lucky to be part of helping to create this woman’s future.  

Written by Tamra Ryan, CEO

Find the entire series of “Pearls: Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey” here.

Cover image by Samantha Hines Photography.

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