I chose this month’s grant winner because her mission is so very apropos of this chapter of women’s empowerment. The Harvey Weinstein accusers, and the web of silent compliance around this powerful man is really just the result of millennia of women’s pent up silent suffering, marginalization, and separation from their sexual power. Weinstein is just the tip of this iceberg, and it is a painful process for the change that must — and is — happening.
In private conversations with feminist women I know, and in these shared #metoos and pride in the victims’ bravery in coming forward, we ask ourselves: How do we raise our daughters to have a different experience? And more to the point: How can we talk about empowering women, without victim shaming?
Which is exactly why I was drawn to Vanessa Osage’s work. Vanessa is a Bellingham, Wash., sexuality educator with her consulting business, and nonprofit, Rooted Emerging. Pay attention, there. She teaches young people about sexuality, expressing and sharing and owning their sensual natures (not the nuts and bolts of biology).
In her Kickass Single Mom Grant application, Vanessa wrote me:
I am a woman on a mission. I always knew I would do something meaningful in my life, and I have found it. I also always knew I would be a mother. I didn’t know I would be divorced in my 30’s, but that’s besides the point. My journey has brought me to the ideal ripening of my life’s work and I am passionately forging ahead.
I am a sexuality educator and Founder/Executive Director of the nonprofit Rooted Emerging. We have been celebrating youth rites of passage since 2010, empowering young people through a healthy sexual maturity and celebrating the new life phase to come. As a sexuality educator, I reach people of all ages; children to elders. As culture changes, our intimate relationships are the places where either unhealthy patterns are perpetuated – or new, enlightened ways of relating may bravely be forged. This is my life’s work.
Vanessa has brought her Planned Parenthood-certified sexuality and rites of passage programs to schools, groups including Girl Scouts, and 4-H.
Related Like a Mother podcast episodes:
Mama Gena, her new book PUSSY: A Reclamation, and the power of PJ
Naama Bloom: Periods, panty crust and other puberty realities girls need to hear
Cindy Gallup wants you to be a great lover
The entire transcript of the Like a Mother interview with Kickass Single Mom Grant winner, sexuality educator Vanessa Osage:
Emma: Okay ladies, it is a full moon as I’m recording this, and it’s my favorite time of the month when I give out my Kickass Single Mom Grant, which is for amazing women, doing incredible things. Maybe these winners have been running non-profits, they’re building awesome businesses in their community, they’re serving, they’re just living their big full lives and they happen to be single moms, and I give away $1,000 of my own dollars, this is not a 501c3, this is just my cash. Part of the big project I’m learning as I’m developing this program is helping women tell their stories publicly, which can be transformative for them, and then it’s transformative for the rest of us. We are all inspired and affected, and sometimes shifted by hearing these other women’s journeys.
Today’s winner, our guest, and our celebrity queen is Vanessa Osage and she is a Bellingham Washington single mom, of course. She is the founder of a non-profit called Rooted Emerging, which is a collection of services that celebrates youth rights of passage. I will let her explain what that is. She is also an entrepreneur that offers workshops in youth sexuality. I’m fascinated by this.
Thank you so much for joining me here, Vanessa. How are you?
Vanessa: Thank you, Emma. I’m excited to be with you.
Emma: First of all, tell me what a youth right of passage is.
Vanessa: Okay, so a right of passage has an academic definition and then it’s also just an ancient passage that a lot of folks are working to revitalize in today’s world. A right of passage has three phases, which is that you have severed, you’re leaving behind something you’ve known. We’ve all experienced these throughout our lives if we’re adults. You leave something behind that you’ve known, that’s the severance. Then there’s the threshold, the crossing over into a new place. Then there’s incorporation, which is a really crucial piece in our culture, which is where we are formally welcomed into your new stage of life. I always put a celebratory spin on this in artwork.
My acknowledgment of this for puberty is that itself is a right of passage. You go from a child’s body to a sexually matured being. It’s a big deal. It should be acknowledged. Rooted Emerging has that mission of supporting and celebrating that transition, and really giving a different message about what that means for people and what it can mean.
Emma: Because throughout history, rights of passage have been an integral part of cultures and societies. We’ve really lost that. We get our periods, we celebrate that but not really. It’s really lost. There’s this new movement which you’re part of that is trying to bring that back. Talk about that. First of all, why were these rights of passage lost? Why is that so bad? Why do we need to focus on bringing them back?
When rites of passages are lost
Vanessa: Those are great questions. My understanding of why these were lost, we’ve been a really mobile society for better or worse. We’ve got a lot of people immigrating to different countries and we’ve got that freedom of movement. People come from other lands and we’ve got this diversity of histories and traditions, we’re all doing our best to coexist with that. Finding a collective experience that can speak to everybody personally and they’re cultural, ancestry and history, it’s a beautiful and unique challenge now. My sense of why those were lost is essentially the mobility of people over time. You’re talking many, many generations.
Why that’s bad is because there is something lost there. I refer often to this concept that may seem vague, but it’s really important and the title of the organization speaks to is Rooted, or to have a sense of place. Basically, to have that feeling of being held by a community larger than your immediate circle it seems to me, and kind of knowing where you are in place, geographically, ecologically. Then also where you are in your journey. I think it’s pretty crucial. If you don’t know where you stand, there’s this natural uneasiness, anxiety. If someone can come in and say you’ve been a child, you acknowledge these changes are happening, here’s where you are now, let’s make it official, and now you’re an adolescent. It really gives this sense of centering and getting your bearings a little bit. In the geography and of course in your life.
Emma: What does that look like? A young woman gets her period for the first time. Historically, what might have that looked like in let’s say, a Native American community 500 years ago. Now, if a mom is listening to this today and she says, “Wow, that sounds really important. I want to do something.” Talk to me. I’m living in a co-op in New York City, in Queens. My friends are all pretty progressive, but they are not going to get in a drum circle and celebrate my kid’s period. That’s just not part of my social culture. Talk to me about what that has looked like historically and then what we can do today to give something back like this to our kids.
Vanessa: To talk about it historically would be this huge retrospective and around the world, I want to get the right person but I believe it was Margaret Mead, I’m a little nervous, I might have gotten that wrong. Coming of Age in Samoa is a pretty classic book if someone wants cultural reference. Another book I love is Long Life, Honey in the Heart; Martín Prechtel is the man’s name, and that’s based in Guatemala. People are doing their best to record old traditions, I think just to fill the essence of it. Like, what is the heart of this experience?
Emma: Just illustrate that. What is Coming of Age in Samoa? Literally, I have not read that book. What happens when a girl gets her period. Just give me that one little example, one of millions of examples culturally and historically that it has looked like.
The elements of a coming of age rite of passage
Vanessa: I think what I can do is speak to some of the motifs. There’s kind of a separation time, being removed from the day to day life, focus, education. I think these are the things that can translate. Like you’re saying, how does this look in New York? Culturally appropriate, is the term that gets thrown around, but some of these motifs that can be universal is removal for a time from the day to day life. In our program that can look like, every Sunday for a number of months, just a little bit of time out of your everyday life. Then some education. Focused teaching and guiding on these subjects. Really, in the wisdom of what’s happening in the body, I feel like that’s a potent thing that can be claimed. Some guidance and recognizing that the real wisdom in your body and now that it’s changing there’s an enhanced wisdom, putting this spin on it.
I was talking about how there’s these three phases. The threshold is a testing. This is appropriate culturally as well. A lot of these ideas is that if we don’t initiate, which is that word, but if we don’t initiate the youth, they will initiate themselves. I was saying about how you need to know where you are in your place, the other part is social, kids need to know where they stand socially. They’ll start testing themselves, so what you can do is a focused challenge. What we’ve done is after the many months of workshops and experiences, education around sexuality and our bodies, we have a blessing from those parents, this kind of severance thing where they write a letter of gratitude to parent for bringing them so far and they’re getting ready to make a shift. Then, we take them out to wilderness and they sleep overnight without a tent. That’s enough of an edge that they really have to draw on their own courage and strength and face something without their parents protecting them. Of course, us as mentors are keeping really careful watch, but we craft this experience that feels like an edge that they have to meet on their own, and that’s the testing.
When they come through that, and that looked different culturally over millennia, once they come through that then there’s the acknowledgment of, you’ve arrived and you’re in a new place. The idea that as adults we can step up into this role and say, let’s create this really safe and structured experience that challenges you, to satisfy that urge to satisfy where you stand and what you can handle, then we celebrate that you’ve arrived in a new place.
Emma: What has happened? It’s interesting, and I’ve made the assumption and I bet we’re both right, is that we’ve lost these rights of passage because at least in Western, and North American culture, we’re so puritanical and it’s all about body, sex, and gender, which are all our least favorite topics and lead to all kinds of social ills. In your opinion, this is completely subjective, in your opinion the fact that we have lost this habit that you’re bringing back, what was the price that we collectively paid for that?
Vanessa: That’s so huge, and thank you for bringing that up. That’s really where the other side of my vision like I was saying before when we spoke, my life’s work can really be identified as a new healthy experience of sexual maturity for young people and their families. That finds expression in the non-profit Rooted Emerging, and it also finds expression in my business VEO; my initials are VEO like the Spanish IC, VEO Consulting is the name I’ve given it. The sexual maturity piece and actually Rooted Emerging is unique in the right of passage movement in that I’m not working with people to mark the beginning of adulthood. We’re saying we’re marking sexual maturity, the end of childhood and the beginning of adolescence.
I’m a sexuality educator and the joke that my daughter and I have put together is someone asks me, “What do you do for a living?” and I say, “I embarrass kids. I’m a sexuality educator. I’m a professional embarrasser.”
Emma: Definitely for your daughter.
Vanessa: Right. Well, she’s grown up with it, so she’s got some comfort there. I think that’s the essence of it. When you talk puberty, a lot of people will recoil and turn away from that and be like, “Oh God, that’s so terrible and so hard.” They don’t want to talk about it. That’s the revolution that I want to see and that I want to be a part of. Instead of pulling away from that, let’s come into that and say, how can we deeply and meaningfully address what’s going on with our bodies and sexuality. The message I think we’re trying to convey with those programs is that this is happening, here’s some guidance and tools, and “Horay for this! This is great. This can mean all sorts of powerful things.” That’s what I want to be a part of is bringing that truth to a comfortable place, and the whole embarrassment part is that we have to normalize it by continuing to talk about it in a meaningful way. Starting young.
We all know that there’s a lot of other voices, intentional or unintentional in the media. There’s a lot of messaging around it that’ not supporting us. Not supporting kids, not supporting adults. We need to have another conversation about what this is and what this can mean. What do you want it to mean?
Emma: And own it and take control of it. Not be victims to these other messages that are out there. This is us, this is our families, our kids, our own personal adult sexuality.
Tell me a little bit more about yourself. Where did this passion for this come from?
Vanessa: I was a childbirth assistant in my 20s and got to witness that and really saw the connections of a woman’s experience in her sexuality and how that played out in her birthing and the beginning of a family. It was pretty profound to just see how directly that feeds into the beginning of families and then what goes on there. When I gave birth nine years ago, I was really educated, I had a ton of support. I had done this phantom birth class and all this reflective time, and these women gave me a mother blessing. I really met this with support and celebration, and I thought, “Wow, that’s the way to do these passages.”
Roots of a passion for sexuality
I’ve also talked about, as people as the question of how did you get into this, I start thinking more and more about my grandma. She was a really powerful force in my life and she really taught me that love. She lived into her 90 and she passed after my daughter was born, and something that she always modeled for me was late in life she just had this amazing sense of humor and amazing sense of sexuality. The way she could just kind of confide in me in this really classy way that this part of her was alive and she was loving it. She was so in love with my grandfather. The love and sex thing, she had embraced that in such a beautiful way.
Emma: That is so interesting. Did you feel like that was anomalis in your family? Was it like, everyone was really prudish and then your grandma was like this wildfire? How did that fit into the bigger experience that you had as a young woman and child?
Vanessa: I’m one of five kids right in a row, six years, five kids. I went to Catholic grade school, zero sex ed, zero conversation at home. It was in contrast, absolutely. I tell kids when I do workshops is that when I got the sex ed talk, it was sex before marriage is a sin. Sex before marriage is a sin, if you get too many sins you go to hell. Off to high school, you go, and it’s like, okay, figure it out. That doesn’t serve. I have to say too when you talk about the power of what you’re doing, I want to take a moment too to congratulate you again on the book, hallelujah, what you’ve done. Just this paradigm-shifting of telling these stories. What you were saying about you being able to tell more true stories about what this really means for women who happen to be people telling their stories. It’s remarkable to me, what I say as a sexuality educator is people instinctively go into, “Oh my God, what I had or didn’t have. Ooph!” It’s a pretty collective thing at this point. I met one guy in his 20s who was like, “I had a really good thing in Colorado.”
Emma: Right. I want to go back to your grandma though. What would she say? Tell me more about these conversations that you had with her about sex.
Vanessa: There was a subtlety in it. It was really more like she was such a warm and juicy person. It was more like what I picked up intuitively about what she was relaying in a subtle way. She was so in love with my grandfather, she would talk about that message kind of like, it is okay to have pleasure in sex. That’s an interesting one these days. She would just make little comments about how they still really enjoyed each other in that way. The quality of her expressions when she shared that with me, I thought, “Wow. Look at her embracing this in a way that has zero shame. It’s so rooted in love and just vitality of being human and celebrating the fact that we have a body.” There weren’t details specific so much, it’s just that she would meet friends of mine, she would meet my first love and she was like, “Well, he’s just yummy.”
Emma: She just recognized sexuality as a thing that is there all the time and she actually acknowledged it, and that was refreshing. I love that. That connected with you, because you maybe had four siblings that had similar experience being exposed to that, but you’re the one that went off and devoted your life to this work. Talk to me about that. I’ve had my astrological charts done a number of times, and I’m a super-duper Scorpio, and every time the very first thing the astrologer says is, “Oh man, you are super sexual.”
Vanessa: Lucky you, you’ve been given permission to embrace that.
Emma: It is. It is lucky me and here’s the thing, it’s been very freeing for me because I’m a victim of sexual abuse as a child and I always felt very sexual and I was like, well my big appetite and interest in sex is a negative thing because it’s a symptom of something negative. But having my charts done it was like, no, this is really who I am and all this enjoyment I get out of sex is just facets of me and not a symptom of something bad. I don’t know. That’s my experience, but I’m wondering about your own journey.
Vanessa: I guess that’s what I mean by lucky you. How else can we have that message of, oh because you were born under a lucky star you have permission to own this part of yourself in a way that’s just inherent. How can we give that to all of us? So I’m sorry, say again my question about what was my experience with that?
Emma: Well, it’s just interesting, because you really tapped into your grandma, you connected to her, but for example, you have four other siblings who I bet were not so enlightened by that same grandma. What is it that led you to this work do you think? Maybe you don’t know yet. Maybe you’re still figuring that out.
Vanessa: There are lots of spreads to this story. My place in my family is significant, as the oldest daughter of the five and my older brother he didn’t really bring that protective role as much. He brought what he brought, he’s a great man. I’ve just always throughout my life, with my siblings, with friends, there’s something that people have just come to me with this. My siblings would come to me for guidance on their relationships and things. When I was in high school I remember people would reach out, “Oh would you talk to my friend about negative messages she’s getting around sexuality, she’s really struggling.” I’ve always really cherished and I feel honored to hold that space with people. It’s very natural for me to hold the confidential space kind of guiding people through these things and the doula role felt very natural. There’s just kind of a thread there, of being willing to acknowledge what’s going on and just having sort of tendency to hold sort of a safe space and help people transform that.
Emma: Thank you for joining me, and thank you so much for the work you do.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.