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Sunday, February 12, 2012

7 Different Dresses: Thoughts on TEDMED and Girl's State

Recently, I was invited to attend TEDMED. TEDMED is an annual conference focused on overcoming problems within healthcare. This year it will be hosted in April at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Often described as a “gathering of geniuses,” it is an invitation only vetted event with a $5,000 per attendee registration charge.  Due to this, it is an economic challenge to attend if you are a patient advocate.

I was so excited to have a chance to go. I would be allowed to paint onsite and present the patient view. This was a really big deal. After being invited, I was reminded of an opportunity I had in my youth to attend Oklahoma Girl’s State. You see, I had been in this position before as a girl.  I been invited to an invitation-only event where most attendees where economically far above my station in life.  I knew that the individual voice you bring to such an event can shine far above any preconceived standing within society.  You may be no one of importance when you walk through that door, but the event is created and informed by the voices that attend.

It was spring of 1990. I was a junior in high school and it had been a very hard year. Earlier in the fall, I took my sister and we fled an alcoholic and abusive father. We spent two weeks in a county-run youth home while still attending our high school classes. The other students would look upon us in the crowded hallways not sure of what to say. My mother agreed to divorce our father and a restraining order was placed upon him.

We were poor. Both my sister and I worked part time to pay for our clothes and school extras. Our mother would give as much as she could but she was a hospital housekeeper working at minimum wage, so every dollar was dear. Things were tight and we were scraping by. That spring, I was called to the school counselor’s office. 

“You and Heather Pray have been selected to represent Sapulpa High School at Oklahoma Girl’s State,” the counselor said. I looked at her with surprise as she continued, “Girl’s State is a week of student congress hosted at a university. Girls who have good citizenship skills are selected from every high school in the state of Oklahoma to represent their schools. It is an honor to be selected.”

I left the counselors office filled with joy, clutching the registration paperwork in my hands. Girl’s State! I was so happy, but then I began to read the papers and grew concerned. How could I afford to go? I would need to find transportation to a university many miles away, and according to the paper work I would need a wardrobe consisting of 7 different dresses. Girls wore dresses all week at Girl State.

I had been in Speech and Debate for a year so I owned two performance dresses. Our family attended Church, so I had a very nice Church dress. I could not afford to go shopping for more. What would I do? I was feeling very like Meg in Little Women with no gown for the ball. Fortunately, I was blessed and several of my friends offered to let me borrow their best outfits. Heather Pray and her parents offered to transport us to the college for the week. 

All the economic barriers were surmounted!  I was going to Girl State!

It was quite the culture shock when I got there. Most of the ladies running Girl State had been part of sororities and we were taught an equal mix of student government and etiquette such as the proper way to sit and place one’s feet while seated on a dais in a dress. We were also taught quite a few songs that felt straight out of the 1950’s such as “You got to be a Girl State Gal to Amount to Anything!” and “A Boy and A Girl In a Little Canoe.” The mornings were filled with pep assemblies with camp fire songs and the afternoons were lessons in government. In order to learn about the political process, we created a two party system: the Boomer party and the Sooner party. Soon campaigning began for Sooner and Boomer candidates for governor.

I decided to run. With the help of my campaign manager Jammie Kimmel from Lawton, Oklahoma, I won the Sooner party nomination for governor. We then began the fierce campaign of trying to win governor of Girl’s State. We made campaign posters until late into the night.  Things were going well and then the time came for a debate in front of hundreds of girls. I had never presented before so many people in my life. 

I remember staring into the endless crowd as I answered policy question after policy question. This would be the deciding debate. Then they asked the hardest question of them all: “What is your stance on abortion?”

I paused for a few seconds, while thoughts roared within my mind. Time spun through years of my life. I was a girl who could not afford to be here, wearing borrowed dresses. I was a child who had never had insurance coverage and dreaded every sickness. I was a daughter who fought off rape at the age of nine.  My heart swelled within my chest and I answered: “Regardless, of what I would choose to do within my own personal life, I firmly support the right of a woman to choose medically what happens to her own body.” It seemed the silence that followed lasted for years as blood rushed within my ears. 

I lost the race for the governor, but I had discovered something very important about myself. No matter what the venue, I will be true to my beliefs in supporting rights of those who are oppressed. I will be that poor, abused girl. I will be the patient who suffers while wondering how to pay the rent. I will be the caregiver who watches her loved one die.

I will be all of those things while listening and painting at TEDMED.


  1. great post. but, while you may often feel like you're on the outside looking in, your gift as a storyteller puts you on a different kind of inside. Most don't have the ability or comfort-level to share such personal and intimate stories so easily/willfully and powerfully. many look "in" at you and see what they couldn't do. i know i couldn't.

  2. Regina, you are flat-out transformational. Powerful, powerful, powerful. Heck, you changed how *I* look at the event. Thank you so much - the way you tell stories brings out the best in me, and, I imagine, the best in all of us.

    And BOY do you illustrate the power of an individual to rise above their circumstances.

  3. Dear Regina,

    You did a great job with this post. It's very accessible to me as someone who also went through this program, but didn't experience an economic barrier, I experienced a discrimination barrier. The organization that operates this program to this day chooses to love certain humans more based on their biological characteristics. It's unfortunate and it will likely diminish their chances of survival in the end (love always wins...).

    It was especially challenging because as you recall, we were bussed up to a remote location and there was nowhere to go and no one to call. I think my roommate was probably in the same situation - he actually left midway through, never to be seen again.

    To add to Dave's comment, the circumstances are many that put all of us in a position to feel less than normal/equal, and feeling unequal is a very powerful motivator to end inequality.

    I had a very cool chapter 2 that same summer - I also got accepted to a program that was essentially a 180 degree of Boys State ( taught by a diverse faculty that challenged all of us on a humane and life-changing level. It basically wiped the Boys State clean for me in terms of what "normal" should be.

    I think that's what you're doing in your work, and all the future Ted's and Regina's are most grateful,


  4. Sock it to 'em, Regina.

    "Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy." Psalm 126, verse 5.