Lori Vance - Queendom

With Lori Vance at Express Yourself Milwaukee Studio Photo- Katy Rowe

With Lori Vance at Express Yourself Milwaukee Studio Photo- Katy Rowe

Lori Vance - Queendom

Lori Vance, Executive Director of “Express Yourself Milwaukee” and psychotherapist with Eastlake Counseling Consulting, is an autumnal queen who has just turned 60. “Express Yourself” is an organization built on the belief that art can be used to build on going relationships with at risk youth with life changing results. Currently, more than 1,100 youth participate annually in the program in the greater Milwaukee area.

What does it means to live life to the fullest according to Lori?

I think what that means to me is constantly realigning with myself in response and reaction to what what my experiences are in the world. It means finding ways to return to myself when I’m off balance, and ways that remind me what’s important. Also, I realign with what I have to offer that’s in harmony with who I am. 

What are the top five things that are important to you?

My family is really top of the list. Actually, yesterday, I came home from a pretty intense day and was working to let it go. I received a video my daughter had filmed of my granddaughter (pause...) pushing her dad around on a piece of playground equipment. She is two years old. We had just been on the playground with her, on Memorial Day. I thought, “Oh, okay, thank you.”  It was this beautiful marker of her growth and change. I witnessed the joy in her and in her dad. Later, my son stopped over... That was enough for me to shift out of the intensity I had been feeling from work. 

My next priority is kindness and care in the world. I believe everyone deserves to have kindness when they interact with others. Being supportive and believing in what people have to offer each other is really important to me.

Art is important to me as well. I know that art can help us move through challenging times. It has helped me know who I am in my life. It is always a source of depth, inspiration and connection. I like to think that having fun is important to me although I don’t know that i spend enough time having fun.

What’s important to me is understanding the connection of a bigger story and finding my place in that. You know there are forces in the universe that we are a part of (both our significance and insignificance). It’s really important to me to help guide choices for others.

In guiding choices, what’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned?

It has to do with keeping it real. There are ideas, concepts, and images that are important for inspiration, but there is something about walking my talk and being authentic and having integrity.

I remember a time that we took the kids to “Canyonlands”. I remember sitting on the edge of a canyon, and you could see the river below and the greenery. It was summer, I could tell that it was cooler there. Across the way, I could see the layers of the oceans. It was a moment when I wasn’t worried about things because I felt the insignificance and the significance of myself and everything out there.

You’ve you’ve been the anchor at Express Yourself Milwaukee and you started it here in Milwaukee. How did that come about? 

When my kids were in Milwaukee Public Schools, it was a challenged school district. At that time, I was working as a psychotherapist. Then September eleventh happened and there was a rise to patriotism in our country. I thought, “Wait a minute! My kids are going to school and it felt felt like it a war zone right here in Milwaukee.” I thought, “What can I do?” My private practice was with working with people who could afford psychotherapy (for profit). I began entertaining the idea of starting a nonprofit for kids. In my private work, I had been working on a national conference and talking with the director of “Express Yourself” in Boston. I thought, “Wouldn’t that be fun?” I loved the model. So, I spoke to my uncle who is somewhat of a soul connection for me and he said, “Do it!” It seemed like a way to activate after 9-11 because I felt like there was a very powerful shift in our country. Creating a safe space has always been a core element in my practice and I felt like I could expand that into the non-profit setting. Then, I spoke to the director in Boston. We had a very synergistic way of relating to each other. So we did a pilot program and it took off from there.

How does it feel this eighteen years later?

Hmmm…... I don’t often give myself time to reflect on that.

I feel really proud of what we do. I think we consistently provide high quality care and a positive presence to kids. I feel that we have also consistently grown and that feels good to me. We are in a new space now.  We’ve just  moved into a larger facility. It feels good to know that we could be here for a long time and the program can exist beyond my lifetime. It’s been one of my goals to find a space for it to grow. I  also want to find the leadership to carry it forward with integrity. I have pulled out of direct service for a number of years. Maintaining a level of quality of service is something that I watch carefully. We have done a good job of that overall. It is challenging for me because I have to trust people who have complicated lives and may not have the same vision or understanding as I do.

Living in the leap with some of the staff at EXYO Milwaukee Photo by Katy Rowe.

Living in the leap with some of the staff at EXYO Milwaukee Photo by Katy Rowe.

So tell me about trust.

(Laughter) The thing about “Express Yourself” is that I always have to live in the leap. It just keeps me there. It is about trust. If I listened to the accountant, we wouldn’t exist. If I had to have everything buttoned up, we wouldn’t exist. Right now, for example, there is a lot of uncertainty. We ask ourselves  who is going to pay for what we are doing so that I can pay artists. This requires a lot of trust. The vision was that artists would have a salary that was steady so that they could then do their art which is less steady -- they are juggling too. Then, there is a dependence in the agencies that support us. More and more these agencies are really chaotic. So, trust is the core. It’s stressful to hold that and to live in the uncertainty of it all….the leap!.

Then, there is faith. The faith and knowledge that comes from within is what I see in you, as the one who has been the anchor for “Express Yourself”. It is so very important to have faith in the vision and the trust to know that all is going to fall into place. That’s very powerful!

I know and I believe that anything can be figured out. If I can understand the pieces enough to understand that they can shift is very important. For example, we can contract if we need to contract or we can expand if we need to expand. We can figure it out as long as we understand  the pieces that are in play. If I can see how the problem can be solved, then I’m not afraid, and I can trust more and guide the path. Trust is a process and when I’m not afraid, I have more capacity to trust.

Courage and fearlessness, how much has that played into your experience?

I know that I’m courageous, but I not always conscious of that. I feel more vulnerable and tender than I seem... Inside I don’t feel that strong. And it makes me emotional.

It’s a theme that comes up with women. It’s knowing strength and power but also knowing it looks different and feels different from the perspective of a woman who has created her world with such care and intention.

I think creating connections is part of the power that women possess. I know that I don’t have to have the answer. I can bring others to the table and together we can come up with solutions.

Connection and recognizing others’ skills and talents and moving away from the lone wolf way of interacting is important.

It can be frustrating too. I work with artists and sometimes it seems I have to put on the hat of authority. And, then I have push-back. I think my biggest frustration is having to play that role. Decisions have to be made and sometimes there needs to be someone driving. I would prefer that accountability and responsibility to be more present naturally among the ones I work with. I would like to be able to come to the table and just play my role…

(Lori reflects) I like being connected to doing things in the community. I think I am in transition and it’s a bit confusing to me right now. I wonder though if is necessary for me to be the one doing it, being the authority? To keep the organization going strong does it need me? Sometimes, I question my relevance. I just turned sixty, and I feel that yes, I am still relevant.

I have to say, that I see you are not only relevant and necessary you are invaluable. However, it’s relevant for you to want to be able to move on if you are ready. You’ve earned it. You’ve done amazing things. So, the reason I’m interviewing you is you are so damn awesome, and I really respect and highly regard that. I want to illuminate that for the rest of us because your character is so admirable. And, I would absolutely support you if you felt like you were ready to move on and lift up the next on to take the position at “ Express Yourself” whenever you feel it’s time.

Coming back to that feminine wisdom that you carry and anchor so beautifully. What about the physical transition -- stepping from the age of being a mother to watching the kids grow up, get married, and becoming a grandmother. What’s is it you know having gotten to that place.

The thing about the being a grandmother that is so wonderful is that I get to feel the depth of life  and joy in them. I look at what my daughter is doing and I’m in awe of her patience and her kindness and her attention. I know that is totally Emily, yet I know that that comes from how Emily was mothered and fathered.

I also know that my grandmothers were very important people throughout my life, (lori smiles remembering). There is a desire to live on so I can be there for my granddaughter. It’s been such an experience of joy from a place of recognizing how hard it is to be a parent. It’s being able to see both the pain and suffering in life and the joy and wonder in life. I think that is where the tears come from… For example, I don’t want anything to happen to her (Lori’s granddaughter) yet, I know life is going to do her…

Another thing is that I’m really aware of is my hardiness as a person. I feel like that is an important thing, and I don’t see it as much in the world. I see it in my children, so that feels good, but it seems there are more people who are more willing to let go or move on or change instead of stick with stuff. I guess that makes me wonder about the impact of change. It takes a lot to stay in there in parenting and in other committments.

At this time, it’s also kind of fun to look back...

In college, I was part of the women’s movement and I started the women’s caucus at UWM (University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee). I introduced Bella Abzug (U.S. representative) when she came as a guest speaker. I think about how far women have come and also need to continue going.

How do you take care of your spiritual self?

I grew up in a very religious family but I never fit into the religious model. I remember in eighth grade we changed from a Fundamentalist Baptist Church to a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, a very conservative church. I had to go through confirmation. I remember having to sit with the pastor so I could get confirmed. In his office, he had these geodes. He was a rock collector. (laughs) I remember having a conversation with him. I told him I thought I couldn’t get confirmed because I couldn’t believe that if somebody didn’t know Jesus that they would go to hell. That just didn’t make sense to me. There I was... a twelve year old kid arguing with this huge pastor in his robes and asking him about his crystals. There was something very spiritually rooted in me but I couldn’t follow the “normal” path. Instead, I do yoga and I meditate. I like to spend time in nature -- it also nurtures my soul.

What can you say about Menopause?

I remember being the last one in my neighborhood circle to get my period. I thought something was wrong with me, and I was afraid to talk about it. It was awkward. In my twenties, I had horrible migraines that I always thought that were hormonally related. My doctor said that he didn’t think that was the case. I always questioned that. That went on throughout my child-bearing years. Then, allergies and asthma came on. I always thought those too had something to do with my hormonal changes as I went into peri-menopausal years. And the blood was so heavy. That, together with the migraines made me feel out of control. I would be in the middle of something and it would affect my sight and and my speech and I had this weird relationship to light and pressure. That was hard.

I remember talking to my husband’s aunt and my feet were itching. She said, “Oh, that’s perimenopause.” I said, “Really, no one ever told me that!” I just thought, “Oh, there is another thing...”

Wow, I’ve never heard of that one…

You haven’t? It’s true. When she said it, I knew it was true. I used to just have these itchy feet in the middle of the night and there was nothing wrong, nothing allergic, but it was this nerve thing. When she said that, it  helped me calm to down about it.

That’s a great example of why I’m compelled to ask these questions. We have experiences going through menopause and often don’t share about it among women.  I think hearing someone else has a similar experience is very valuable.  Thank you! And I interrupted you -- back menopause.

I loved being in my forties. Life was full but in balance and I could sense that perimenopause started for me then. In my fifties, hot flashes were were an interesting experience. This “inner heat” was kind of hard to describe. At that time, I felt like my body weight changed. I had always been on the slighter side throughout my life and always did exercise. I felt that no matter what I did, it wouldn’t really matter because I was couldn’t get rid of the weight in my center. That was hard to accept. And, I see that my sisters are pretty much the same. Now at sixty, I am just less worried about it. I like to eat tasty things, I’m careful about it, but I don’t like to restrict myself.

Being postmenopausal, and I have been for some time, is a relief. Not having to think about contraception is wonderful! You know orgasms are not as, you know -- they are different, but they are still lovely...

I think menstruation really was a process that kept me connected with my body in a way that I probably wouldn’t be if I didn’t have that.

Can you tell me how that’s important -- being connected to your body?

Well, it’s the vehicle for which I get to express myself. It’s what allows my spirit to live and feel life. I like being in my body, I like to dance and do yoga and being postmenopausal is very freeing, not to mention I don’t have to worry about getting pregnant anymore.

We don’t have periods anymore, and we don’t have to worry about getting pregnant anymore. Do you think that sense of freedom extends beyond those basic biological changes? Is there a greater sense of freedom at this age?

You know, I remember when I was going from the childbearing to non-childbearing years. I didn’t feel a loss of not being able to bear children. I remember my friend going through grieving about it. I never felt that.

I have talked to other women that have this freedom -  this sense of not having to be so responsible for children, for example. I don’t think I have reached that yet. I think ”Express Yourself” is part of that feeling because I feel so responsible like the dependency of the organization still feels like it’s on me. It is my life work and I carry it that way… I take it home with me. I think when I’m with my granddaughter, I do feel that greater sense of freedom.

So, interesting! This autumnal season is an energetic sensation. When it comes to “Express Yourself”, it’s as if you are on the cusp of summer into autumn and you are waiting for the adolescent to grow up.

Yes, right, that’s true. And it’s not quite in alignment with my age.

Right, it’s all about the energetic of it and so you are still in your summer season in regard to this, and it’s lovely. It feels like it is in transition. You are autumnal maybe in in other areas of your life, however.

Shifting now to Beauty, I know you talked a little bit about body image, I wondering if you can talk a little bit about inner beauty, the core beauty?

I think vitality as another word for beauty. I think vitality is beautiful.

For me, I feel that my work has been about inner beauty.

Yes! The work has always been the beauty.  

"The work has always been the beauty." Lori Vance  Photo by Katy Rowe

"The work has always been the beauty." Lori Vance

Photo by Katy Rowe