People 29 November 2018
The picture book was a product of Sheth's own findings, or lack thereof when she was pregnant with her first child. As she prepared to welcome her daughter into the world, an Indian-American, she searched for picture books that offered characters of culture, who would introduce her child to inclusivity at a young age. "I would go into the bookstore and see, 'here's the shelf of diversity,'" shares Sheth. “That's the epitome of marginalization. Why isn't that book, with the lead character who is someone of color, placed with all the others?"
In addition to her full-time role as an actor and mother, Sheth comes from a background in both children's literacy and gender equality, working at organizations such as AmeriCorps, Equality Now, and Representation Project. Sheth remembers a constant interest in contributing to both genres in a larger way. Therefore, when she recognized the lack of characters of color in children's books, she took action to create her own series, with “Always Anjali" as her starting point.
"I thought of everything I dealt with growing up and with acting, and I channeled it into this idea of having a picture book series, with a little, Indian-American girl dealing with things from her perspective, but also just living life," says Sheth. “For someone to feel like they are fully accepted into society, then we need to have stories about the mundane."
Always Anjali portrays the mundane as the lead character, Anjali, celebrates her seventh birthday and receives a bicycle, like all the other kids at school. When she gets her bicycle, she joins her best friends in looking for matching license plates, but she isn't able to find her name. “Anyone with a name that isn't common has experienced this," says Sheth, noting Anjali's friends, Mary and Courtney, find their names right away.
From this experience to being teased by classmates, the reader follows Anjali's journey to accepting her unique name, something that Sheth came to understand herself as she entered the acting world. "I've been in rooms where I was up for big parts, and the casting director looked me right in the eye and said, listen, they love you for this, but the producer is uncomfortable with someone of your name playing this part. It's appalling, really," says Sheth.
Even though Sheth considered changing her name as a child, she never did as she matured in her auditions, choosing to turn down roles rather than change her name. "All of those things were rushing back to me when I was writing. You think we've grown up, but then you think about hate crimes, and the racism, and the bullying, and the big truth that's happening ten-fold more in the last few years," says Sheth.
"I kept thinking for a kid to feel less than who they are is unacceptable. So, this series is an attempt to put something positive in the world and hopefully start a conversation in a way that's accessible to kids. I don't think you're too young to talk about anything--as long as it's done the right way-- and there's no better way to do that than in the lap of someone who loves you."
Aside from addressing racism and bullying, Sheth also subtly touches on gender roles as she worked with the illustrator, Jessica Blank, to create images that flip gender biases. “You see Anjali's dad with the towel on his shoulder in the kitchen, taking more of the domestic role," she says. It's subtleties like this that she hopes parents and educators can “unpack" together with her parent-teacher guide.
Within this guide, Sheth poses the question of individuality and dissects what it means to have a unique trait, and that it's okay to embrace it, saying, "The thing that makes you special is generally what makes you stand out when you're older. It's your superhero quality." Sheth also encourages children to think about how they would treat Anjali, adding, “I want kids to be engaged and have empathy. To not just be allies, but accomplices in these moments."
Since Sheth published “Always Anjali" last May, she has seen an overwhelming response from educators, parents, and children sending videos of their love for Anjali. Of the positive response, boys are relating to Anjali, which Sheth couldn't be happier about, as she further explains, “I never like labeling a book, or anything for that matter, a 'girl' book or a 'boy' book. I like to let them make their own choices without shame."
This ties back to Sheth's overall mission to create constructive conversation around inclusivity, concluding, “If we're going to live in a society where everyone relates to each other, it's important to talk about it."
Purchase your own copy here.
Following are excerpts from "Unleash the Girls, The Untold Story of the Invention of the Sports Bra and How It Changed the World (And Me)" By Lisa Z. Lindahl
There is an idea that has popped up everywhere from Chaos Theory to Science Fiction and New Age memes known popularly as the "Butterfly Effect." Simply put, it is the notion that one very small thing—the movement of a butterfly's wing say, or the ripple in a lake caused by a pebble being thrown into it—can cause tremendous effect far away: the butterfly's wing a tornado, the ripple a large wave on a distant shore. Cause and effect, does it have limits? The field of physics is telling us that it takes only observation to bring a thing into being. We cannot consider these areas of investigation and not acknowledge that everything—everything—is in relationship in some way or another with everything else.
So, it is evident to me that commerce of any kind is, also, just about relationships. It all boils down, on every level to this simplicity. While we usually think of relationships as occurring between people—it is far more than that.
I used to teach a course in entrepreneurship specifically for women in The Women's Small Business Program at Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont. I made this concept of relationship and its importance central in how I taught the marketing thought process. I would stress that for a product or service to be successful, it had to meet a perceived need. There is a need, and it wants to be met; or it may be thought of as a problem to be solved. Or there may be an existing solution that is less than adequate.
For example: In my universe as a runner there already were a plethora of bras available, but they were inadequate for my purpose. The relationship between my breasts, my running body, and my bra was creating discomfort and distraction. A new solution had to be found, the relationship occurring when all these things came together had to be fixed. Utilizing this point of view, one sees a set of issues that need to be addressed—they are in relationship with each other and their environment in a way that needs to be changed, adjusted.
Nowhere is this viewpoint truer than in business, as we enter into more and more relationships with people to address all the needs of the organization. Whether designing a product or a service or communicating with others about it—we are in relationship. And meanwhile, how about maintaining a healthy relationship with ourselves? All the issues we know about stress in the workplace can boil down to an internal balancing act around our relationships: to the work itself, to those we work with, to home life, friends and lovers. So quickly those ripples can become waves.
Because Jogbra was growing so quickly, relationships were being discovered, created, ending, expanding and changing at a pace that makes my head spin to recall. And truly challenged my spirit. Not to mention how I handled dealing with my seizure disorder.
"My Lifelong Partner"
Let me tell you a bit about my old friend, Epilepsy. Having Epilepsy does not make any sort of money-making endeavor easy or reliable, yet it is my other "partner" in life. Husbands and business partners have come and gone, but Epilepsy has always been with me. It was my first experience of having a "shadow teacher."
While a child who isn't feeling she has power over her world may have a tantrum, as we grow older, most of us find other more subtle ways to express our powerfulness or powerlessness. We adapt, learn coping mechanisms, how to persuade, manipulate, or capitulate when necessary. These tools, these learned adaptations, give a sense of control. They make us feel more in charge of our destiny. As a result, our maturing self generally feels indestructible, immortal. Life is a long, golden road of futures for the young.
This was not the case for me. I learned very early on when I started having seizures that I was not fully in charge of the world, my world, specifically of my body. There are many different types of epileptic seizures. Often a person with the illness may have more than one type. That has been the case for me. I was diagnosed with Epilepsy—with a seizure type now referred to as "Absence seizures"—when I was four years old. I have seen neurologists and taken medications ever since. As often happens, the condition worsened when I entered puberty and I started having convulsions as well—what most people think of when they think of epileptic seizures. The clinical name is generalized "Tonic-clonic" seizures.
In such a seizure the entire brain is involved, rather like an electrical circuit that has gone out as a result of a power surge. I lose consciousness, my whole body becomes rigid, the muscles start jerking uncontrollably, and I fall. Tonic-clonic seizures, also known as "grand mal" seizures, may or may not be preceded by an aura, a type of perceptual disturbance, which for me can act as a warning of what is coming. The seizure usually only lasts for a few minutes, but I feel its draining effects for a day or two afterwards. Although I would prefer to sleep all day after such a physically and emotionally taxing event, I have often just gotten up off the floor and, within hours, gone back to work. It was necessary sometimes, though definitely not medically advised. I'm fond of saying that having a grand mal seizure is rather like being struck by a Mack truck and living to tell the tale.
Having Epilepsy has forced me to be dependent on others throughout my life. While we are all dependent upon others to some degree—independent, interdependent, dependent—in my case a deep level of dependency was decreed and ingrained very early on. This enforced dependency did not sit well with my native self. I bucked and rebelled. At the same time, a part of me also feared the next fall, the next post-convulsive fugue. And so I recognized, I acquiesced to the need to depend on others.
The silver lining of having Epilepsy is that it has introduced me to and taught me a bit about the nature of being powerless—and experiencing betrayal. I could not trust that my body would always operate as it should. Routinely, it suddenly quits. I experience this as betrayal by my brain and body. It results in my complete powerlessness throughout the convulsion. Not to mention an inconvenient interruption of any activities or plans I might have made.
Hence, I am the recipient of two important life lessons—and I was blessed to have this very specific and graphic experience at a young age. It made me observant and reflective, giving me the opportunity to consider what/where/who "I" was. I knew I was not "just" my body, or even my brain.
So, who or what did that leave? Who, what am I? Much has been written about trauma, and about near-death experiences, both of which seizures have been classified or described as. I won't delve into that here except to say that experiencing recurrent seizures and the attendant altered states of consciousness that sometimes accompany an episode (the euphemism for a seizure) changes one. It deeply affects you. It is both illuminating and frightening. It opens you up in some ways and can close you way down in others. For me it made it easy to consider the possibility of other ways to perceive, of other realms. And as an adult I became interested in quantum physics, where Science is pushing and challenging our long-held perceptual assumptions. Me, who was poor in math and disinterested in Science while in school! So if not merely body and brain, who am I? Spirit. And with Epilepsy's tutelage, I was encouraged to question, seek, try to understand what lies beyond.
Living with Epilepsy has also given me great strength. In realizing the futile nature of trying to have "power over" Epilepsy, I developed a deep well of "power within"—that inner strength that comes in the acceptance of that which one cannot change—and looking beyond it.
Through my experience building the business of Jogbra with the unique lens afforded me by my Epilepsy partner, I came to understand more fully the nature of power and what it means to be truly powerful.
Specifically, that having power and exercising it is not simply a manifestation of the ego. It need not be "power-tripping." It is how I wield my power that matters, making the all-important distinction between creating a situation of power over, power with, or empowering and having and creating strength in oneself and others.
Being powerful is a big responsibility.
To put all this another way: do I choose to create situations in which I am able to wield power over others? Or do I choose to empower others, sharing my strengths with them, while nurturing their strengths as well? The first is not true power. It is control. The second I believe to be the essence of true and positive power: strength. And integral to creating a more harmonious world, oh by the way.
While this may be apparent, even basic to others, it was an "aha!" moment for me. Too often in the years ahead I would give away my power and question my own strengths,. Time and again, however, my inner strength, my shadow teacher's gift, helped me survive and thrive until I could take responsibility for and embrace more fully my own power.
© Lisa Z. Lindahl 2019