Published February 26, 2017
Copyright © 2017, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published February 26, 2017
O, The Oprah Magazine was writing a piece in 2007 about women having difficult conversations and they called Dana Bristol-Smith. She’d been working in public speaking since 1993, first in student assemblies and teacher training workshops and later in training business professionals in public speaking. The magazine interview inspired her.
“I was also at a point in my life where I was feeling a strong desire to do something more meaningful and community-focused,” she says. “A few weeks later, in the middle of the night, I got out of bed and I wrote an outline for a 10-session program for women to build self-confidence.” That outline became the volunteer pilot program that was the start of Leap to Success, the non-profit she founded in 2008 that offers leadership and public speaking skills to women overcoming various challenges. They spend seven weeks in the Leap to Confidence program, with monthly follow-up classes in Vista and downtown San Diego, and then spend a year in the Transformation Leadership program with classes and public speaking.
Bristol-Smith, 58, lives in Oceanside with her husband Greg and they have a son who lives in Arizona. She works full-time as executive director of her organization, raising money and overseeing the programs, developing team members and recruiting board members and volunteers. She took some time to talk about Leap to Success, the women it serves and what they learn.
Q: You founded Leap to Success in 2008. Why?
A: In 2001, I started Speak for Success to provide public speaking training to business professionals. What I saw, particularly for women, was that as they got past their fears about public speaking, three things happened: First, they were able to break through other fears, like having difficult conversations, speaking up at meetings, or, asking for a raise; second, they garnered more respect from others; and third, new opportunities came their way. I was thrilled to see the changes they experienced. Leap to Success was born from working with these women.
We offer personal leadership skills building programs to help women who have overcome adversity become self-sufficient. Our first classes were with domestic violence survivors who needed the support and skills to believe in their own worth and value. We’ve since expanded to serve women who are overcoming homelessness, substance abuse, mental health challenges, and poverty. We raise funds from individuals, foundations and other (non-government) sponsors so that all of our programs are available at no cost.
Q: What was your goal for the organization when you started?
A: To help women find their voices, believe in their own worth and be inspiring role models for others who may be in abusive relationships, or experiencing other significant challenges.
Q: What are your goals today?
A: What is most important to me is building a community of women who are no longer victims, but empowered. Helping women transform life experiences where they felt powerless and watching them realize that their past is something they can learn from and not repeat gives me hope for their futures. Last year, we hit a huge milestone of having served 1,000 women and we plan to continue growing. We have two locations, plus we piloted a class at MiraCosta College. We’d like to serve more younger women and see the community colleges as a great venue.
Q: How do the women you help typically find you?
A: Each woman is referred by a case manager, therapist or employment specialist from more than 50 social service agencies. When a woman walks into our Leap to Confidence class, she’s in a class of 20 women and there is a lot of anxiety in the air. She meets others in similar situations and eventually feels safety and support. One of the instructors in every class is a program graduate (as are class assistants) who shares her own story. They show the women that change is possible and that what we are teaching works.
Q: How do you think public speaking helps women who are dealing with domestic violence, homelessness or similar issues?
A: Many of the women we serve hold a lot of secrets and carry a lot of shame. By taking the secrets out into the light, by sharing them out loud, they lose their power and strength. The women feel liberated, like a huge burden has been lifted off of their shoulders. When a woman feels safe enough to share out loud what she’s experienced, it helps her heal and move forward and inspires others.
Q: In your four areas of focus to help women (Self-sufficient, Transformed, Assertive, Role models and leaders), one is assertiveness. Why is assertiveness important?
A: When you believe that you don’t matter, others can take advantage of you. Learning assertive communication helps you identify your feelings and needs, validate them, and speak up. It also helps you set boundaries. Boundaries can foster respect.
Q: What do women learn in the program?
A: An array of personal leadership skills that include interpersonal communication, establishing healthy boundaries, reframing negative thinking, managing stress, dealing with difficult people, and presenting with confidence.
Q: How do you help them rebuild their self-esteem and confidence?
A: In the first class, we ask the women to imagine what having more confidence would allow them to do. We hear answers that include, “I could set goals. I’d stop procrastinating. Trust myself to make decisions. …” Leap to Confidence is forward-focused while therapy tends to be focused on past trauma, on understanding what happened, and the impacts. We teach skills to help women go from where they are today to where they want to be tomorrow and beyond.
Q: How does Leap to Success coach women to become successful public speakers?
A: Being a successful public speaker is a skill that is developed over time. You can’t expect to be good at it, or even comfortable, without education and practice. In our Transformation Leadership program, we start with the hardest exercise, which is standing in silence for 30 seconds. Building confidence to stand in front of others without words is one of the most difficult things someone may ever do! All of our thoughts about being judged come up — I’m too fat, what are they looking at, what do they think of me? We build comfort by making it an ongoing practice week after week.
Q: What differences do you see in women from when they first enter your program to when they finish?
A: As women walk into the first session of Leap to Confidence, some are unable to make eye contact, their heads are down and there are very few smiles. They don’t know if they can trust anyone and they don’t know if this is for them. Week by week, that changes as they feel safe in the classroom. On week five, the women come dressed as they would for an interview to meet employers who talk about how to get back in the workforce and what their companies are looking for. Week seven is graduation and the women stand tall, make eye contact, and smile as they give short speeches and receive applause from our guests.
Q: You started your public speaking work in 1993 with school assemblies and training teachers. Did you take to it right away?
A: I was terrified and I was terrible. My knees shook, my voice quavered and I talked way too fast. I learned on my feet how to talk to one person at a time no matter how large the audience (so I wouldn’t pass out). I loved the material that I was presenting in the schools and felt it was really important; more important than my nerves and anxiety. With lots of practice, I got better and more comfortable and even wrote a book about overcoming fears of public speaking.
Q: Tell us about some of the women from your program whose stories have stood out to you over the years.
A: I have been so inspired by our graduates’ courage and wisdom that I wanted them to help teach our classes. We’ve since trained several and employ them. Today, LaKesha, a 2008 graduate, is a minister and recently got her degree in health care administration. Ruth escaped an abusive partner and was living in a shelter when we first met in 2009. She now has her own business and volunteers cooking for and feeding the homeless. Mariel, from 2015, had a husband who didn’t allow her to work for 12 years. She has since reopened her business and does floral design for special events. Each of these ladies has rebuilt their lives using what they’ve learned through Leap to Success and inspires hope in our students.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: I try to remember this every day because fundraising is challenging: “People want to give, but you have to ask in order to give someone the opportunity to say yes.”
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I’ve come to realize that I am more of an introvert and I really need quiet time to recharge my batteries.
Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Brunch with Greg at the Potato Shack in Encinitas, where I’d have a delicious omelet with potatoes and homemade salsa, then walk to Self Realization Fellowship Gardens. I’d stand on the bluff top and see whale spouts in the ocean.