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Sisterhood, #TED & #ShiftCon

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Sisterhood TED ShiftCon


Sisterhood, #TED & #ShiftCon: A special guest post by Penelope Jagessar Chaffer

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” – Madeleine Albright

I was lucky enough to speak at the inaugural TEDWomen conference in Washington DC and be present when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the above statement to an auditorium full of the most influential women in the United States.

This was where Sheryl Sandberg first invoked the concept of “leaning in,” where Naomi Klein lamented the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, and where Hillary Clinton waxed lyrically on female politics.  Onstage, we looked out to an audience that included Christy Turlington and Donna Karan, a veritable smorgasbord of top flight estrogen. Out of all the talks and conversations I heard and had over those four days it was Madame Secretary Albright’s thoughts that stuck with me. Over the years I have increasingly reflected on them.

In essence, it is the concept that we women need to be there for each other. That our networks, our sisterhood, exist as a tightly woven web that can launch us when we are ready to fly and cradle us when we fall.

Nowhere is this truer than when we are mothers and it’s especially true when we parent in a non-toxic way.  So few of us have a willing network cheering us on as we double the weekly grocery bill by insisting on feeding our kids organic food and throw out the mountain of bleeping and flashing plastic the grandparents insisted on giving. For many of us, myself included, our shift to a less toxic life came with a significant amount of resistance and opposition.  It would seem that not many partners and parents embraced us and our changed perspectives with loving, open arms. If we were lucky, we had a grudging acceptance.

If you ever heard, “well I didn’t have all this organic stuff and you turned out fine,” I’m talking to you…

For me, it was an isolating experience. It was only finding my “people,” my tribe, that allowed me to flourish and live a truly less toxic life in what is one of the busiest, most toxic cities in the world.

“What needs to happen is we need to help each other.” – Madeleine Albright, first female US Secretary of State

When Mrs. Albright said that, I saw many famous heads nodding in agreement. Her words resonated with me again when I attended ShiftCon, the social media conference that took place in Los Angeles in early October, 2014. I had been asked to take part in a panel sponsored by Healthy Child Healthy World, discussing ways to detox your child’s life; and the moderator would be Robyn O’Brien.

THE Robyn O’Brien.

Penelope Jagessar Chaffer with Robyn O'Brien at ShiftCon

Penelope Jagessar Chaffer with Robyn O’Brien at ShiftCon 2014

When I first came to the United States, one name was whispered to me from coast to coast. “Robyn O’Brien, Robyn O’Brien… you’ve got to meet Robyn O’Brien!”  Over time, Robyn, with her beauty and long flowing blonde mane attained near legendary, mystical unicornesque status in my mind.  Even just before I flew to LA, while chatting with my dear friend, the scientist Pete Myers, her name popped up.

Robyn is a big, big deal.

The idea that I would ever meet Robyn O’Brien and even less likely idea that she would know about me and my work felt ridiculous.  Back when I moved to Brooklyn, I was only a couple of years into a fully detoxed-as-possible life.  I had few friends to walk the road with, to lean on, to share with.  I had few life cheats to help the transition, and was learning everything through trial and error.  The loneliness of those early years was brutal and isolating. However, slowly but surely I found my tribe: a noisy rabble of incredible women, some with shared ideals and politics, others so different from my background that we could be from completely different interplanetary systems.  What I found was that it didn’t matter. We hugged each other and bickered and moaned, joked and giggled, screeched and disrupted our various worlds.

And all the while, Robyn shimmered in the distance, a beautiful beacon of accomplishment .

So, when I found out we would meet at ShiftCon, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I knew as an experience of shared female perspectives, ShiftCon was going to hit it out of the park. Mamavation businesswoman Leah Segedie had created a first-of-its kind eco-wellness conference that smartly leveraged her influence with that of nonprofits and new media leaders.  Many of my favorite female environmentalists were heading there.  It was going to be a rare opportunity to meet up again with great friends in the green space and the even rarer opportunity to meet those in person that I only knew online.  The great delight was that I would forge even deeper connections with these women and others I had never connected with before.

When I finally met Robyn, I felt sucked into that time warp of shared experiences and mystical connections.  I knew she “got” me and I “got” her.  I knew I had met a kindred spirit and fellow warrior.  When she announced on the panel that she wasn’t going to bother with her notes and instead go with the flow, I knew we were dealing with a woman confident in herself and us and powerful in her instinctiveness.  When she likened my journey through a toxic landscape to hers, tears pricked my eyes and I was tempted to run out into the audience with a pair of pompons to lead the half time “let’s love up Robyn O’Brien” show!

Thankfully, my fellow panelists, the awesome Andrea Donsky of Naturally Savvy and Tamara Ruben of Lead Safe America, kept me on track with their honest and thoughtful conversation, while I tried to keep myself from melting into a ball of total fangirlism!  It was also great to know that some of my favorite nonprofits and brands had some awesome, AWESOME! women on board: Meredith from Healthy Child, who did such a sterling job navigating the four of us on the panel (across three time zones and two countries), Linda from Way Better snacks, Vivian from Earth Friendly cleaning products and Heidi from Naturepedic, with whom I spent over an hour discussing flame retardants and children.  Only people like us could have such an incredible time speaking about things like that.

And yes, by the way, Robyn was as beautiful and magical as that mystical unicorn.

Lightning struck twice for me at that conference when I met Cheryl Greene, the powerhouse wife of Dr. Greene.  Even though we met for only five minutes, we had such an awesome and immediate connection I was struck by it.  There was a clarity and conscientiousness that shone out of her and I sensed an incredible (an innate) empathy and desire to help women navigate this space.  For days afterwards, that five-minute moment would pop into my head and it still resonates almost a week later.  To say I’m a huge fan is a massive understatemen. She is the living embodiment of that saying “Behind every great man is a stupendously awesome, kick ass manifestation of total woman power!” (I took some liberties with that quote.)

My experience at ShiftCon was positive all around!  When I think about female relationships though, there is one other significant part of Madeleine Albright’s speech that rings through.

“It doesn’t mean that the whole world would be a lot better if it were totally run by women.  If you think that, you’ve forgotten high school.” – Madeleine Albright

Not every woman will support you and sometimes we women are our own worst enemies.  At every turn we have the power to either support or tear down each other.  I felt this, too that ShiftCon weekend.  Stephanie from Good Girl Gone Green, Plastic Free Beth, Paige from Spit That Out, Brenna of Almost All The Truth, Green-4-U’s Leigh Ann, Alicia of Earth Mama Angel Baby, Lori of Groovy Green Livin’,  Miessence lady Erin, cloth diaper maven Janice, the Conscientious Jenny, Miss Mamavation herself Leah and of course Anne, the Flour Sack Mama.  These women and many others present at ShiftCon nurtured the indelible bonds between us.

When self-doubt clouds our brightest thoughts, it’s often a sisterhood that can help us see sharply again.  I too have felt frustrated at times, and my sisters understand that.  We can share, not judge, and encourage one another.  I appreciate those awesome women picking me up through the tide of my tears and sending me back out into the world with their cheers ringing in my ears and new connections bolstering my sense that in my own small way, I too am changing the world.

So trust me on this one.  Watch Madeleine and take in her words.  Find your peeps and hold them close.  Cherish those connections and watch them grow.  As women, it’s one of the most incredible experiences we will ever have; and in this space of a clean, green life they can make the difference between success and failure.

You go, girl!


1          Seek out like-minded people.  When you encounter a mom in the playground feeding her kid organic cheese or stumble across a similar voice in the social media world, reach out and connect.  Don’t be shy and don’t think you are being judged.  Making new friendships often feels like being back at school. But this time around you are you know you have better hair, which helps no end! Never hesitate to reach out to women who are leaders in your field.

2          Try not to boast when you achieve great heights (or little heights like swapping out vinegar for the nasty regular cleaners).  Mention it and be proud, but don’t harp on about it and don’t judge anyone if they aren’t making the decisions you are. We are all traveling the same paths in our different ways.  Whilst inciting guilt feels like an unavoidable rite of menstruation — it doesn’t have to be.

“We have a tendency to make each other feel guilty.” – Madeleine Albright

3          I have a follow up to that which is conversely try not to feel envious or guilty about your friends’ achievements and actions.  Be happy for them and what they are doing.  You have no idea what it took to get there or what it’s like to walk in their shoes.  No one makes you feel guilty ultimately, even if it’s their intention.  YOU allow yourself to feel guilty.  This isn’t about you and your insecurities or your time of the month.  If you can’t be happy for your friends you need to go live under a rock. Period (pun definitely intended).

4          Support and celebrate your friends.  Find ways to lift them up.  Whether it’s a public shout-out on Facebook, a handwritten note, taking time to support a petition they have created or just a 5-minute cross-country phone call while you wait to park the car.  Find stolen moments to let them know you are there and think they are awesome.

5          Make a commitment to try and meet up in person on a regular basis, even if it means an “every couple of years” reunion.  Grab your gaggle of gal pals and take time out to connect in person.  Nothing beats real life face time.

Now go out and change the world!

Have you found your tribe and what advice would you give to your fellow women?  Leave a comment below.

Penelope Jagessar Chaffer is a multi award winning filmmaker, artist, writer, children’s environmental health advocate and global environmentalist.  She is the creator of Toxic Baby, the documentary that looks at how chemicals in our environment affect the health and development of babies and children, which is being developed as the first ever interactive documentary app for the iPad. She is the first black, female director to be nominated for a British Academy award, earning over 10 awards over the course of her career and has been named one of the top 100 Green Online Influencers.   She is Healthy Child, Healthy World’s “Mom On A Mission 2010”  and her TEDTalk with Professor Tyrone Hayes “The Toxic Baby” based on her film has been viewed over 300,000 times. Penelope is the mother of two incredible children and lives in New York City.

Article copyright with photos used with permission by, TedTalks shared per Creative Commons.

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2 Responses to Sisterhood, #TED & #ShiftCon

  1. Brenna October 13, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    What can I say to this really other than yes, exactly this! We must have a support system in place for all those times we put ourselves out there for the world.
    Brenna recently posted…ShiftCon: Inspiring ChangeMy Profile

  2. Esther October 12, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    Thank you for writing this. I love every single word. I was not able to attend Shiftcon this year, so I missed the tribe talk and appreciate being able to read this. I agree wholeheartedly. We need to support each other and hold each other up. Life is already hard enough, why not take the burden off of each other, if we can.

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