Bringing a message of hope to TEDxDayton event

IDEA PEOPLE: NORA STANGER

Nora Stanger grew up in very poor in Appalachian Ohio, and transcended that upbringing to become a successful educator and counselor in adulthood. She has made a name for herself in recent years as a motivational and inspirational speaker, drawing upon the lessons of her story. She will be one of the speakers at the first TEDxDayton conference on Nov. 15 at the Victoria Theatre in Dayton, a locally planned event based on the internationally famous “TED talks” about Tech, Entertainment, Design and more (view them at TED.com). In the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring other speakers who will share their stories and passions at TEDxDayton. To learn how to attend the event, visit www.TEDxDayton.com.

Q: What attracted you to being part of the TEDxDayton event?

A: I’ve always admired TED Talks — the variety of the speakers and the information that is given to people in such a concise and valuable way. I’m very excited, very honored to be allowed to do this — and I feel my story is a common part of all of our stories.

Q: How so?

A: Well, not everybody has had to live through extreme financial poverty the way I grew up, but everyone has struggled at one time or another with what I call “mind poverty” — where you question your value, or think that you somehow don’t measure up, or are fearful of trying new things that you might very well have the capacity to achieve.

Q: What will your TEDxDayton topic be?

A: Talking about my journey from extreme poverty as a child — the abandonment and shame that come with that, and overcoming it and having the ability to move up and beyond it. My story is a story of hope and becoming what you can become, in spite of thousands of voices that told me you never will, you never can, you will never measure up.

Q: Where did those voices come from? Who were they?

A: They were the many verbal and non-verbal voices from the community where we lived, that told us my family was meant to be at the bottom of the barrel. You know, we say in America that we don’t have a caste system, but if you were born into a low status, there are a lot of people who tell you you should stay at your level of society. And we often have low expectations for people there, and don’t allow them to climb higher.

Q: But you did it. How?

A: It was my mother’s doing. I like to say my mom’s greatest gift in life is her ability to deny reality. She was insistent that all her kids would go to college — even though we had no money, no resources, no indoor plumbing, even. And on top of that, I hated school. We had a lot of shame and baggage that came from our home.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: In Lawrence County, Ohio, in the foothills of Appalachia. My father abandoned the family when I was 8, and I was one of eight children. My mother was terrified the welfare system would take us all away from her, and so she begged, borrowed and scraped together $125 to buy a crumbling log cabin up in the holler, which was being used as a barn when we moved in. There was no running water, occasional electricity, a coal stove in the living room for heat. We were very destitute. It was very, very bad. Often we had no food, none of the basic necessities of life. But my mom was convinced we were all going to college.

Q: Did you?

A: Six of us got degrees; two chose not to go. Mom went back to college when she was 40. She’d hitch into town, because the car didn’t always work, and she would always take one of us kids with her because it was scary sometimes, and it felt safer with two. We’d wait outside while she went to class. But we were all we had. My mom was rejected by her siblings and was an outcast in the community, and so we were desperate to take care of each other.

Q: So, what did you learn from all that?

A: Three basic things, which I share in my talk. One is that education is a requirement, not an option. For a kid who hated school, that was a very hard one to learn. Second, we must be each other’s champion, or we will not survive. And by champion, I mean like ancient warriors who fought hand to hand — and when you’re wounded and left to die, your champion is the one who will link arms with you and fight until you can fight for yourself. Third and finally, we were all created for a purpose, and that purpose is good. I think, if I were just an accident that happened, what hope would there have been for someone like me? But I believe I had a good purpose — and everything you go through, even the most negative, is preparing the ground to fulfill my good purpose.

Q: What do you think that purpose is?

A: Oh, to touch the lives of other people. I’ve been able to touch thousands of people, both one on one, and also in groups, giving a lesson of hope and encouragement. That is my purpose, and it’s also my healing.

Q: What do you do today for a living?

A: I’m a full-time school counselor for Miami Valley Christian Academy in Cincinnati. I’ve got a master’s in clinical psychology, and I worked in the clinical field for 20-plus years before the job I have now.

Q: There’s a lot of misunderstanding of Appalachian culture. What would you like to tell people about it?

A: We’re a very rich people — very rich in family, in history, in compassion and generosity, even if we don’t have great financial resources. We’re not all poor, of course, but the majority of us still struggle. We’re not a people who historically value higher education; when people from other cultures, especially from higher socioeconomic levels, go to college, it tends to be for self-actualization and self-improvement. When we go, it tends to be to get a better job, and take care of our families. Our priorities are faith and family. Very much. We’re intelligent people, but we’ve been stereotyped as violent, lazy and ignorant — which couldn’t be further from the truth, but we’ve almost accepted it ourselves, because we’ve heard it so much from outside.

Q: So, how do you counter stereotypes?

A: We have to look at each other for the potential inside and the inherent value of human life. If we could just go in as blank slates with other people and just sit down and find their character, find their integrity, their dreams — you know, we all have similar dreams — then cultural differences wouldn’t matter. Now, we shouldn’t give up our culture, or water it down. We should embrace it. But we need to also learn to appreciate the gifts of other cultures.

Q: What are you looking forward to at the TEDxDayton conference?

A: Wow. Seeing the faces of the people as I give my talk. That’s my favorite part when I present. I love to connect. I love that contact.

Q: Just curious. Is your mom still around?

A: Yes. She’s 81 and still about as ornery as they get. That’s how she got through life. She has eight kids, 26 grandkids — there about 80 of us when we all get together. She still lives in Lawrence County near the old house. She and my sister built a new house about 15 years ago. She’s got a good life. She’s very involved with her grandkids, and she’s a real treasure to all of us.

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