Ayla Schlosser makes a great first impression. What you see is an intelligent, articulate, confident young woman. What you don’t see is the story she has kept buried, an experience that will resonate with almost every young woman.
It happened when Ayla was studying abroad in Spain. But it can happen to anyone, anywhere, even close to home. What happened was that Ayla fell in love; at least, she thought that’s what it was.
“I was in a new culture, a new place with the kind of new opportunities that allow people to redefine themselves. It’s also a dangerous time for women because you are vulnerable in those positions.“
Ayla had grown up in a small town with expectations that she absorbed from both her community and society.
“I was smart and good in school. I was used to doing things correctly, not wanting to let people down. But, as a result, I was terrified of doing anything wrong. Society often gives us a message of what it means to be a good girl: to stay in line, to take care of others, to do what has to be done.”
With her family and close friends thousands of miles away, Ayla was on her own in Spain, with very little experience in navigating the sometimes turbulent waters of an intimate relationship. Her new boyfriend was 10 years older and, as time would tell, very manipulative and controlling.
“I think I cared deeply for him but for the wrong reasons. He would share things with me about injustice and abuses he had faced. And he said I was the only person he could tell and that he couldn’t go on without my love and support.”
As their relationship continued, Ayla became caught in the trap of being the “good girl.”
“He identified something in me that wanted to please people. My desire to connect with and support others is a part of me that I really like. But it also made it possible for me to be manipulated. I didn’t realize that I was the one being taken advantage of. I knew that there was something about our relationship that was wrong but I couldn’t figure a way out.”
When she tried to leave, her boyfriend threatened to kill himself, so she stayed.
“I think it was partially embarrassment about the situation I had gotten myself into and partially fear of what might happen if I left. I thought I couldn’t tell people because of how that might reflect on me. And I was scared and felt an obligation to protect him.”
For nearly two years, Ayla stayed in the relationship, blaming herself for shying away from the physical intimacy that, over time, he demanded.
“I would plan my day around how to make an excuse, how not to have sex. Or, if I couldn’t get around it, I’d just get it over with and try not to think about it the rest of the day.”
The secrecy and guilt that shadowed the relationship was one of the things that made it so dangerous. Ayla felt isolated, and it wasn’t until she left Spain to finish her last year of college that she was once again surrounded by a community of friends where she found the strength and support to end the demeaning relationship for good.
After university, Ayla worked as a community organizer and began to truly understand the power that comes from being part of a network of people who share values and a vision. This was her first introduction to the Storytelling for Leadership framework, and the beginning of a journey of forgiving herself and recognizing her own power and worth that would lead her, ultimately, to share her own story.
“I considered myself strong and in control, yet I was unable to recognize or admit to myself or others that I was in an abusive relationship during college until almost 7 years after it ended.
It took me years to recognize that love and sex were not supposed to feel like shackles; that they weren’t supposed to make you feel guilty, and wrong, and broken, and not enough. Despite my comfortable upbringing and feminist values, as a 20-year-old I didn’t have the ability to stand up for myself.”
Relationship abuse is defined as a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over an intimate partner. Like Ayla, many girls and women go through it feeling confused, alone and ashamed.
Ayla hopes that by sharing her story now for the first time, she can show that it can happen to anyone. She is sharing it even though she is scared of how it might make people think of her or view her work differently. But she knows it is important and she wants to turn her negative experience into positive action.
In 2013, Ayla took a big step in that direction, founding Resonate, a non-profit organization in East Africa designed to empower women by building self-confidence and leadership skills.
A centerpiece of Resonate’s training is storytelling because Ayla has seen that when women open up about their personal stories it frees them from the pain of the past and empowers them for the future.
“The women we work with, prior to joining our training, don’t usually think of themselves as leaders. Yet Resonate’s alumnae start businesses, join the workforce or improve their pay, join or start savings groups, and take on leadership at all levels in their households and communities.
“I want women to feel free to be who they are and have the ability to stand up for themselves. It was through hearing their stories and watching the transformation of these women that I finally found the courage to share my own story.”
Since its founding, Resonate has helped foster leadership and economic opportunity for over 2,500 participants through partnerships with more than 40 organizations. Resonate is also mapping out a growth trajectory to reach thousands more women throughout East Africa in the next few years.
“Ultimately individuals form communities, and communities shape the structure of society, so understanding how we can move from the world we have to the world we want, in my opinion, starts with connecting to and understanding other individuals.”
Ayla was awarded the 2014 Brimstone Award for Applied Storytelling for her work with Resonate and was named one of Conscious Company Magazine’s 17 Rising Social Entrepreneurs in 2015. She is a 2015 Unreasonable Institute Global Fellow and a 2016 recipient of the Cordes Fellowship. She is representing Resonate in the SPRING Accelerator and the GSBI Accelerator 2017 cohorts. Ayla serves as an International Grant Advisor for The Pollination Project, and as a member of the Global Advisory Board for the Women’s Global Leadership Initiative. She is an honors graduate of Smith College.
If you would like to find out more about opportunities to work with Resonate, go to resonateworkshops.org.