The year was 1989, and neon colors, MTV and The Little Mermaid were all the rage. I was just 6 years old and barely beginning my educational journey at Bellaire Elementary in Texas.
I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but there was something about Ariel and her fully realized character who thought and acted independently, even rebelliously, that sincerely resonated with the core of who I was — or at least who I aspired to be.
If you’re an 1980s baby, perhaps you know exactly what I mean? Picture with me, if you will, the scene showing Ariel down in her cavern with Flounder, Sebastian and her worldly collection of things. She gently places her prized dinglehopper at the center of a candle holder right between the knife and spoon, then sings beautifully that she has everything. But somehow she wants more than what her father, King Triton, and her sea community says she’s supposed to have and be.
Maybe you’re wondering what that is, exactly?
I promise to get there, but first travel with me momentarily back to Bellaire Elementary. Much like Ariel, I was outspoken and often rebelled against American societal norms. To find an example, we need to look no further than my very first report card. Under all the E’s that stood for “excellence” was this big square box where my teacher filled in her thoughts about the character she knew named Audrey. (That’s me!)
She wrote, “Audrey is an excellent student and doing wonderful in her academics, if I could only get her to stop bossing her classmates around, that would be great!”
She even added a scratch-and-sniff sticker shaped like a strawberry, as if to seal my fate as a young girl destined to live a lifetime of silence and compliance. I’ll bet when my mom read that comment, she thought, “How dare that lady!”
Anybody remember the Bossy campaign? In case you don’t, allow me to bring you up to speed. Ban Bossy was a campaign created in 2014 to ban the word “bossy,” which was often used to describe assertive girls and women, proposing that the word was stigmatizing and might have discouraged girls and women from seeking leadership positions. Any open-minded teacher who sought to scratch more than the surface of a sticker would have seen that I wasn’t being bossy, I was expressing early signs of leadership.
Much like me, Ariel wanted to move beyond any perceived limitations her friends and family placed on her. For as long as I can recall, I’ve had a passionate — yet somewhat forbidden — admiration for collaborating with others and empowering them to shine in their talents. Even at the age of 6, I longed to experience a life of leadership. And similar to the little yet empowered mermaid, Ursula the sea witch and my teacher understood the truth about the power of our voices and therefore challenged us to attempt to achieve our dreams completely voicelessly.
Ariel’s risk in the deal she made with Ursula was that if she couldn’t get Prince Eric to fall for her in time, then she would be silenced indefinitely and become the sea witch’s property for all of eternity. (Can we just take note of Ariel’s bravery for a moment? Because that was a huge risk.) As in any Disney movie, Ariel completed her mission just in the nick of time and there was a happy ending, of course, fully complete with a wedding to her perfect Prince Charming. (We’ll save that dichotomy of ideas for another time.)
Little did I know that two decades after my kindergarten teacher tried to persuade me to just keep quiet and stay in my respective lane, another woman would encourage me to use my voice for the good of women on every continent, many of whom I will never know or meet. What I also didn’t know is that decision would prove so powerful that it would inspire others to do the same, thus sparking a movement that has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands. (To God/Elohim be the full glory.)
Imagine if I had listened to that teacher who attempted to suppress my voice or if Ariel had never expressed her desire for a life beyond the ocean? The lives of thousands of women and children wouldn’t have been positively impacted and Ariel would have never experienced what it was like to walk on the sand or dance at her wedding.
What I know for sure is that somebody needs to hear what you have to say, too. However, whether you decide to use your voice or not is completely up to you.
P.S. I would like to dedicate this column to my mother, Lisa Brown, who always taught me to speak up for what I believe in, and to every leader who has chosen to use their voice to advocate differently.