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Millcreek Journal

Local panelists speak on starting over, finding strength in hardship

Mar 09, 2020 11:46AM ● By Hannah LaFond

From left to right: Fatima Dirie, Kalani Tonga, Michelle Mooey and Kris Irvin. (Hannah LaFond/City Journals)

By Hannah LaFond | [email protected]

Kristen Hodges started the “We Brave Women” lecture series in Jan. 2017. It’s a free monthly series, usually taking place at the Millcreek Community Center, where different panelists are invited to speak on varying topics.

Hodges wanted to use this platform for as many people from as many backgrounds as possible to share their stories.

The series is “a place where women and marginalized genders can tell their stories of everyday bravery,” Hodges said.

The series has hosted a variety of topics over the years such as evolving identities, surviving of abuse and assault, and women in male-dominated fields. Hodges said she usually selects her topics because someone approaches her saying they have a story to tell. She then finds other panelists and builds the month's event around the topic. She tries to have a variety of panelists who can give different voices to the same general topic. The panelists range from those who are used to public speaking to those who have never told their story publicly before.

Hodges says listening to the stories every month has benefited her tremendously and hopes it will do the same for anyone who comes to listen.

“It gives us a chance to consider our own story and our own everyday bravery because we all have stories whether or not we get a chance to tell them,” Hodges said.

At one of the most recent events in the series on Jan. 29, four panelists spoke on their experiences starting over. This topic meant something deeply personal and different to each of them but carried similar themes throughout the evening. All the panelists told stories of hardships they eventually grew from.

Kalani Tonga told her story of moving states and raising five children by herself. When Tonga was a young mother, her husband went to prison and she was left to look after five young children on her own.

Taking care of all her children by herself felt like an impossible task until it was her only option. Tonga said, “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have a choice.”

Michelle Mooey described herself as perfect for the topic because she loves starting over. She’s always loved moving apartments or houses and said she switched majors many times in college. But that night she spoke about starting over as a young widow after her husband passed away in November 2010.

She moved from Northern Virginia to live with family in Centerville, Utah. Though it was a tragic time, Mooey said she was surrounded by a community who supported and loved her through it. “There is a strange confidence and power that comes from going through something really hard and keeping it together,” Mooey said.

The third panelist, Fatima Dirie, was born in Somalia but moved to Utah when she was 9. Once she moved here she had to learn English and attend school in a completely new culture. She put in the extra work she needed to graduate high school even earlier than anticipated.

“Here I am in a new country. I never thought I would go to school, I never thought I would have an education, but I quickly learned,” she said.

Now, Dirie works for the mayor's office as a refugee community liaison. One of her goals in this position is to help refugees coming to Utah acclimate without giving up their culture.

“You should never have to give up who you are to please other people. You shouldn’t have to give up your roots or your identity,” Dirie said. “As much of an American that I am, I’m also still a part of my people.”

The final speaker, Kris Irvin, came out as transgender toward the end of 2015. Since then, Irvin said they’ve essentially been “starting over every time I meet a new person.” Coming out also meant Irvin’s relationships changed with those already in their life.

“There are a few people that I’ve lost, and that’s hard,” Irvin said. “But I’ve gained so many connections.”

Hodges is planning more lectures on different topics in the future. If you’d like to attend the next one, follow the “We Brave Women Lecture Series” Facebook page for all updates.