Where do they come from—the world’s great peacemakers, the Nobel Laureates, those of the ilk of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malala Yousafzai?
In truth, they’re as diverse as a group can be. They don’t originate from a common place, but they do share a singular devotion—to change minds and hearts through peace, compassion and love.
Into this backdrop comes 20-year-old Angela Shipman. We know where she comes from—the University of Houston—where she is a sophomore chemistry student with a passion similar to that of the world’s great purveyors of peace. She says she’s seen bullying and ostracizing go too far, so far in fact that she thinks society needs to be rewired. And so she created Rewire Society to fight insecurity and change the way people interact with each other.
No Small Task
“We are wired and conditioned to judge people and label each other,” said Shipman. She quotes a study that reveals judgments and labels are created in only one-tenth of a second. “We’re inundated with what society tells us beauty or strength are, with advertisements of ‘flawless’ and intimidating models, so we’re led to believe if we’re not like that we’re ugly or different. I’d like to rewire or recondition how we judge each other and ourselves and turn the one-tenth of a second of judgment to one-tenth of a second of empathy.”
“After all,” Shipman said, “we complain about society’s flaws, but we are society. So let’s change it for something good. Because everyone is fighting his or her own battles, and we’re stronger when we fight together.”
Experienced at 20
Shipman knows something about fighting. In middle school, her height made her stand tall among her peers and was a source of teasing. To someone who described herself as quiet and insecure already, bullies hit hard.
“I felt like the Hulk compared to other kids, and that resulted in a lot of name calling, like ‘giraffe,’” said Shipman, who ended up in physical fights with some of her tormentors. As a self-preservation method, she became tough on others. She thought it her best chance of surviving a time in her life she says was “really dark.”
Unhappy with the spiral her life was taking, as a high school sophomore Shipman decided that tearing herself down was no longer an option. She found a way forward after reading Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,” which speaks about letting go of the ego, mental pain and anguish.
“I realized I will always have the choice to change,” she said. “Each morning I would wake up and look into the mirror, and instead of the self-doubt, I would practice self-acceptance and remind myself ‘You’re doing the best you can,’ or ‘You’re going to do good today.’”
Shipman said once she started practicing self-acceptance, there was more meaning in her life. It was almost like she rewired herself.
“It really started a cycle of empathy, and once I had empathy for myself, I could have empathy for people that I generally wouldn’t,” said Shipman. She remembers first extending that empathy to fellow motorists.
“Now, when someone does something in traffic, like slamming on the brakes or cutting me off, I don’t get mad; I just remind myself that I don’t know what’s going on in that car, what those people are going through.”
Practicing that with her family and friends, Shipman said she began to see the “beautiful cycle” continue.
On a Bigger Scale
A couple years later Shipman was ready to tackle the Girl Scout Gold Award. Lesser known than the Eagle rank for Boy Scouts, the gold is its equal, the highest achievement in scouting for girls. Shipman had been thinking of increasing the reach of the acceptance cycle online with photographs and videos, and it seemed a perfect time.
“I envisioned a movement starting with the image of a girl Photoshopped with perfect lips, hair and flawless skin and comparing it side-by-side with an unedited image, where she’s true to herself and happy, with a question at the bottom, ‘How do you define beauty?’ That way we could let people discover for themselves what we want for society.”
And discover they did. After taking 300 pictures of participants, Shipman readied the first photo exhibit, “Beauty,” for its debut at Pearland’s Tom Reid Library, challenging viewers to look at the images without judgment. Their final challenge was hidden behind a set of curtains, with instructions emphasized again—look at this work of art with no judgment and practice empathy and acceptance when you see it. It scared some people.
The curtain opened to reveal a mirror. The participants were looking at themselves, learning (some of them for the first time, said Shipman) to treat others well by first treating themselves well.
From that inaugural project, new ones have grown. Each season Shipman asks a new question of the world regarding what they would change about society. When the answers come in, she and her models get to work.
“Then we flood the Internet with these photographs and films inspired by your dreams,” said Shipman. The films have inspired Shipman’s own dreams, too. Now she says she’d like to be a filmmaker telling people’s stories.
Not only did Shipman’s Gold Award project do well, it earned her the title as one of the 2017 National Young Women of Distinction, given to only 10 young women annually who travel the country to inspire others with their projects.
Her Own Mirror
Shipman allows her experiences to continue shaping her life, and that shape holds plenty of room for understanding and forgiveness.
“Bullies more than likely have their own domestic problems. It’s an endless, vicious cycle that’s been passed on from generation to generation. The questions I ask young people today are, ‘When will we make the decision to break the vicious cycle of bullying—of depression—of self-degradation? What will it take for us to make the choice and put forth an effort to change the way things have been forever?’”
She hopes Rewire Society will bring the change to one person at a time, as she recites a favorite quote by 13th century poet Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”