I am a master’s student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. There I am a Global Policy Studies major with a concentration in Security, Law and Diplomacy. Under this umbrella, I am focused on Women, Peace & Security. I have a fascination for helping to end regional conflict and to build lasting peace, particularly in areas that are most fragile. Currently, I am interning at an NGO in Benin, West Africa, which focuses on defending women’s human rights, peacebuilding, and political activism. (I already have a lot to say about all that I am learning!)
How I Got Here
Before being accepted to LBJ, I worked in two different departments of the Texas Government, first in Education then at the Attorney General’s Office. These were my first professional jobs after graduating college (2017). I did my undergrad at Cornell University and majored in Development Sociology. And before college, like virtually all others without degrees, I worked at odd jobs, like cafes, restaurants, and bars.
What took me so long to get my degree?
In fact, I got there as fast as I could. When I was twenty, I was “released into the wild”, after having grown up in a Mormon fundamentalist cult. At age twenty-two I had my awakening to the suffering of the rural poor in Mexico. (The Universe wastes no time!) I began writing, researching, and talking to anyone who would listen to me. Then I met some distant cousins who gave me a stack of books to read. They were survivor stories of the genocides carried out in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s and a few Zapatisa books. The stories hurt to the bone. They enraged me. I vowed to end this type of brutality.
At twenty-four I was on my way to join the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Sight unseen and with no contacts; it was my wild cold call. I stayed for almost a year. While there, the massive shift for me was the realization that I had grown up in a real cult. This awakening edged its way in, then collapsed my reality from the inside. The most vivid feeling was the sense of being inside a zero-gravity tank, because nothing I had grown up to believe was true anymore. Up until that point I either thought I would have to go back one day, or I didn’t think of it at all.
The cult, in fact, was a story of abuse, child marriages, and every form of violence, including murder. My father, Ervil LeBaron, was the leader of it. I was born at the height of its intensity and experienced nothing else in life until I was brought to Texas by US law enforcement at age seventeen. I then lived in semi-isolation for about three years before I was set free to join my siblings in Phoenix to attend college. I was now twenty. For the first semester, I was given a babysitting job and told which courses to take. I had babysat my whole life and yearned to experience something new, so I quit that job and was on my own ever after. There was no older person to guide me, no financial support, and no legal status to get a job. (More then ten years later, INS declared that I am a “citizen from birth”.) Help came through some undocumented immigrants who hooked me up with a job and helped me out in many other ways.
Now twenty-five I started a healing process that would both lighten my sorrow load from cult trauma and give me tools for dealing with an unsafe world. At that point, I was completely on my own, constantly falling ill from PTSD symptoms, not able to hold a job, not able to finish college, and always feeling terrible about myself for not doing better. This chapter was immensely difficult and lasted about ten years.
During that time, I fought both to improve my life and to find a way to help change the world. I took mental notes of everything I experienced and witnessed, telling myself that I would get myself to good and come back and change the system. I would change the things that drive people to despair, make them take drugs, join gangs, or incite violence (among many other things).
During those ten years, I also mentored people who came in my path. They were all women who had also experienced extreme trauma. One of them grew up in a KKK family and had nightmares of her own mother. Another attempted suicide several times and kept finding herself in rehab. I walked with them many extra miles until I knew they were safe (and they still are). Those are just two stories to provide perspective.
Early on after returning to the US from Chiapas, I began painting, using oils on canvas. Fortunately, I began selling art almost right out of the gate! This was a huge energy boost which helped me in so many ways. Not only did I need the money to buy groceries and pay my phone bill, I also needed the status of being an artist as a cloak to hide under. Why? Because no one at the time had any understanding of PTSD recovery nor of what it is like to grow up in a cult. This meant instead of getting support, I was often made to feel bad for my situation. But, art has a magical power that causes society to forgive all social errors and waywardness, so I kept being invited to fancy parties (and they always bought my alcohol 😊).
Finally, in 2014, it was time to go back to school and this time, finish. I was accepted to Cornell University and given a free ride (it is a need-blind university).