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“Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things that may not be taken from you.”

-Oscar Wilde

My mother recently found the above quote, written by my grandmother, on the back of a greeting card while she was going through old family photos. I don’t know when she wrote it, or why, but I think it captures her spirit. These words really hit me and have made me reflect on the lessons I learned from my grandmother, a formidable woman in her own right. She was strong, funny, kind, flawed, and I think she was amazing. I also credit her with, basically, giving me no choice but to become a true, unapologetic feminist and embedding in me a sense of confidence that my voice matters.

Many people have asked me when I realized that I was a feminist. The answer is, I never had that “moment.” I came to it honestly. I’m homegrown. I didn’t have a choice, and I’m glad I didn’t. Hillary Clinton (our next president?) said that women’s rights are human rights. It’s a no-brainer and it’s something I never had to learn. I guess I just looked around and knew. Thank you, Nana.

To really understand this story, we have to take a trip back about 85 years. We arrive in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania and the year is 1930. That’s the year my grandmother, Anne Gaffney, was born to a very blue-collar family. Her dad worked for the railroads and money was tight. When Nana was about 13, the house burned down, and she lost her youngest brother, the baby, Larry. She was thirteen years old.

Not long after, the family moved to Albany, New York. Nana graduated from Albany High School. As the eldest girl, the responsibility often fell to her to help take care of her siblings. For many years she was the primary caregiver to my great Uncle Ed, who is developmentally disabled.

By the time she met my grandfather, Jack Gaffney, Nana was a single mother with three children. They got married and had six more of their own: Dan, George, Patty, Jackie (my mom), Kate, and Meg. Nana attended Schenectady Community College and Russell Sage, but was never able to graduate. She didn’t let this stop her. She was PTA president and worked for the state legislator for many years. She was also an active member of the Albany Democratic Women’s Club.

hannahgrandma

In the late 1970s, Anne Gaffney was elected to the Albany County Legislature. In my grandparent’s house in Guilderland, I walked by a campaign poster that proclaimed her “Anne Gaffney: A Woman of her Word in the 33rd,” almost every day. In her position, she was a tireless advocate for the disadvantaged. One of the biggest battles that she fought, the cost of which was her political career, was to protect the Pine Bush Nature Preserve and stop the construction of Crossgates Mall. Suspiciously, before her reelection she was redistricted and forced to run in Colonie against a long-time incumbent. The Democratic Party refused to nominate her, so she ran as an independent. She also had a stroke during this period and published a letter in the local paper to her constituency from her hospital bed. She lost the election.

Life went on for the Gaffney family, but something shifted fundamentally after this experience. I ultimately think that it is a testament to her absolute unwillingness to bend, to sacrifice her beliefs, even in the face of insurmountable obstacles. I try to carry a little bit of that unwavering commitment to my beliefs with me.

I recently graduated from college and am hoping to begin a career in public policy. I often try to evoke my grandmother when I make decisions and even when I read the news. I wonder about her reactions; I imagine what her advice would be. She taught me that a woman, a mother, a wife, could also be a career woman, a politician, a leader. We should all look to these role models; whether they are family, someone who inspires us academically, or even someone we have only seen on TV. In 2015, being a woman, or being a young person in general, during uncertain times, is hard and scary. Let’s all look to those who helped us understand the importance of our own voice for motivation to reach our goals, and, if possible, advice to help us get there. Mr. Wilde would say that this is something that can never be taken from us.

Images: Courtesy of Hannah Cohen

SpotlightYouth Spotlight

There aren’t a lot of twenty-one-year-olds who can say that they’ve found their life’s passion. But luckily Carpe had the opportunity to sit down over a plate of pancakes with with somebody who knows exactly what gets them up in the morning. Meet Alex Kummert, currently a Communication student at Saint Mary’s College of California, and comedian at heart and on stage. As a young and upcoming performer, Alex had a lot to share with us about mixing pursuit with practicality and never giving up on a good thing. From his first 2011 TedX talk to an ongoing Podcast he shares with his Grandma, Alex inspires us to get up off the couch and pursue our passion!

Name: Alex Kummert
Age: 21
Education: Communication student at Saint Mary’s College of California
Follow: Twitter | Website | YouTube

How would you define seizing your youth?

Seizing your youth is the understanding that while our life is a tangible thing, our youth is even more so. Seizing your youth is pursuing your passions in life with no regard for what you are expected to be doing at your age. It’s seizing the opportunity of time and passion, and furthering progress towards achieving goals while still getting to understand the world around you.

When did you begin with comedy?

The first time I did standup was when I was 14, I was at church camp, and I did it on a dare for the talent show. I wasn’t that funny but I was funny enough that I wanted to keep doing it. I only started taking it seriously around 16 or 17, and from 16 on I’ve been doing it very consistently. At this point – six years later – I’m performing almost once a week, so it has been pretty heavily engrained into my daily life.

How do you come up with material?

Material can come from anywhere. I’ve never been one to sit down and decide to write jokes for an hour. It’s something that just kind of comes to me and I think “Oh that could work, that could be a joke,” and then I sit down and I write the whole thing long form. It’s about being in a mind set than necessarily having to block out time to do it. I’m a much more free-range sort of thinker when it comes to jokes. I pull material from my life and daily occurrences, and sometimes from conversations I have with my friends.

Did you ever have stage fright and how did you over come it?

I had stage fright when I was younger but not in comedy – I did a lot of theater when I was a kid. That’s where the performance bug came from. I had stage fright then, and its kind of been “cured” now. I’m a little nervous when I go up onstage and before shows I’m kind of a wreck and I have a lot of butterflies because I just want to do it. But stage fright isn’t something I’ve had an issue with in my comedy experiences because of that past theater experience.  In terms of how to get over stage fright, I would say allow yourself to have fun. Don’t allow that experience to become stressful because the people that are in the audience are usually there to have fun.

What advice would you give to yourself right before your first day of college?

Leave the things that you thought were important home behind. Allow yourself to get involved in your new community and immediately ease in the new lifestyle rather than letting the things at home eat away at you or affect what you do. Explore and make more mistakes. Allow yourself to make mistakes. That something I didn’t let myself do early on but valued so highly when I went to college. There were so many things at home that I was worried about and they really didn’t matter.

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You have a podcast with your Grandma called “Lazy Susan” – where did that come from and can you tell me about it?

It all started from a love of Chinese food, which came from my grandmother. My grandma was born in Shanghai, spent a lot of her life there, and still very heavily identifies with that culture. The podcast idea was something I had been kicking around for a while but I didn’t know what I wanted it to be, and then it just sort of opened up [to do this with] my grandmother. To me, my grandmother is the funniest person I know and it’s going to be very hard for someone to top her in my mind. I knew that people on the Internet would think she would be funny too, so that’s where it was inspired.

You also run a radio show at St. Mary’s. How has your informal work with the podcast helped you in a more professional setting?

In college radio you need to be able to improvise and think on the fly very quickly. With Lazy Susan it was about generating a conversation for 45 minutes to an hour every week, so I never felt super uncomfortable with that [impromptu work]. It’s actually allowed me to not have to be as professional because I know how to handle the things that a radio show will throw at you.

Has humor/comedy helped you in your daily life?

Definitely. 100%. Comedy gave me more of an identity. I don’t really know what I’m going to do what my life after I graduate, but I know something that I’m good at and something that I like to do. That reassurance has given me a lot more self-confidence in everything else I approach in life.

What about following a passion?

I would say that following that passion has allowed me to stay more grounded in what I want to do and it has allowed me to develop my own understanding of who I am. And even with the uncertainties in life I have something that is a foundation for when I go out into the unknown.

What advice would you give to someone who has not figured out what his or her passion is yet?

Don’t do things for the sake of finding the passion. It will find you the more that you experience life and are open to opportunities. It will become apparent what you want to do. That’s what happened to me, I just seized an opportunity. I didn’t automatically know “this is what my passion is,” it just developed that way.

What about someone who has discovered his or her passion?

To the person who has found their passion, I would say don’t lose it. Don’t associate your passion with money. That’s something that I struggle with also – you want your passion to be seen as a profession – and that’s great if that works out, pursue that, but don’t let the fact that it doesn’t become that disvalue what you do. It should be something that’s always going to be part of your life even if it’s not how you make money. That’s still what you should live for.

Where do you see yourself taking comedy in the future?

I also addressed this question in my TedX talk. Through the learning experiences I’ve had through pursuing comedy, the lessons I’ve learned will always affect me even if I’m not doing it anymore. Now I’ve had a couple of years where I’ve realized that ill always be doing this until I physically can’t. It might no be professionally, but it’s always going to be a part of my life.  The lessons I’ve learned are more about how I learn, and who I am as a person and how I understand the world.

Could you touch on your work with social media?

I got into social media not for comedy reasons, but the more I got involved and the more I started meeting people online the more I realized it’s a very powerful tool. It’s developed into something that is a very professional tool to me. And it’s opened up an incredible amount of doors to me that I probably wouldn’t have had access to before. That’s how I got on Good Morning America last year; it really was generated from a social media interaction. It allowed me to broaden my horizons personally and personally. I’ve seen nothing but positives in my social media interactions, and I highly recommend it for anyone.

What advice would you give to 15-year-old Alex?

Don’t take things so seriously. I was very over dramatic when I was younger and everything was important to me and I didn’t allow myself to have too much fun. I was wound up. I would tell 14, 15 year old me to relax and that the things that mattered then won’t necessarily matter now.