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Meet Michelle Zive

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michelle Zive.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
In my mid-40s, I’d finally gotten to the point in my life where I was settled. After spending most of my life doing, running from here to there, compartmentalizing my life into my identities: wife, mother, daughter, project director, writer, friend, Crossfitter, and mentor, I was in the flow. I could sit and breathe. However, within one month, I had three colleagues, all women in their 50s, tell me, “Oh, just wait until you turn 50. You become invisible.” That’s ridiculous, I thought. As Dylan Thomas wrote in his poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” This was Thomas’ rally cry to go boldly and loudly through life, especially at the end. These women had prompted me to consider whether I would continue living my peaceful life or rage on. So, instead of resting on my laurels, walking into retirement, and buying a house in Taos, I decided to go back to college.

Twenty-five years after finishing my Master’s in 2012, I started the PhD leadership program at University of San Diego. It was one of the best and worst decisions of my life. Briefly, it was over four years of heart-wrenching work and reflection. It burst my bubble that if you worked hard, you would be rewarded. There are times when you work your butt off and you’re not rewarded because the system is rigged. There are politics and agendas that we are not conscious of. This was one of many lessons I learned at USD. For over thirty years at UC San Diego, I’d been sheltered. I worked off-campus in City Heights at the Center for Community Health. I started as a field evaluator and rose to a principal investigator and director. I worked mostly with women who had the same values, including inclusivity, equity and community, as I did. USD shone a light on injustice, disparity, hierarchy, patriarchy, and exclusion. These lessons came from both inside the classroom and outside in the halls. You know the saying, “You can’t be what you can’t see?” I looked around and I saw two other women in my cohort of 30 who were my age. In the classroom, I witnessed PowerPoint presentations filled with leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Theodore Roosevelt, and more contemporary examples such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Sir Richard Branson, and Bill Gates. I realized, according to our culture, I was the wrong gender.

I spent the next four years at USD trying to tell my story. I was met by a lukewarm audience. For my research, I was encouraged to examine post-colonialism in Algeria, Haiti, or Brazil or how women in communities of color are leading changes in their neighborhoods. I beg your pardon; I did not grow up in Algeria, Haiti, or Brazil, nor am I a woman of color. I am a middle-aged woman of Irish American descent. I vowed to tell my story and help other “invisible” middle-aged women tell theirs. In the literature, I discovered a methodology called photovoice. This revolutionary process is contrary to the way we’ve tried to change a community in the past. Instead of an expert, academic, or outsider coming into a community and telling them what they need to be informed, healthier, or more prosperous, the community members record and reflect their community’s strengths and challenges through images and critical dialogue around these images. Then the participants present suggestions and solutions to policymakers. The community members are empowered and become agents of change in their neighborhood.

My dissertation is entitled “An Exploration of Photovoice-inspired Techniques to Facilitate Narrative Leadership in a Small Group of Middle-Aged Women.” First, I recruited five diverse middle-aged women, including: a mixed-race woman who was married and had two children and then started a relationship with a woman; a lesbian who had never been married; an immigrant from Mexico who became a US citizen and was married and had two children; a black woman who was married, had three children and was a devout Christian, and a Catholic woman who’d been a stay-at-home mom to her two sons and had been married for 25 years. I was the sixth participant. Over three meetings, we attacked two issues: what does society think of middle-aged women and the second one was what is it like to be you in your own spaces and places? At the second meeting, we shared those photos of what society thought of us and discussed them. There were photographs of two middle-aged women in comfy slacks, flowered blouses and big straw hats walking in the park, an image of a chalk outline of a dead body with fashion and fitness magazines around the outline entitled, “Middle-aged Woman: Missing Presumed Dead,” and a foggy image of a tree on a lake.

At the next meeting, we shared photos of what it was like to be each one of us. There were photos of riding roller coasters, climbing Cowles Mountain, and playing a drinking game with red cups. Some common themes were family, friends, working out, and being present, thankful, and joyful. So what? Here’s what. By sharing images and stories and discussing them and listening in an open and honest way, empathy was created. I had no idea what it’s like to be a woman of mixed race, black, immigrant, lesbian, stay at home mom, but after sharing images and our stories, I felt empathy. We had all been transformed by empathy. Empathy matters. Mohsin Hamid says, “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” Love and empathy are the most important ways to change the world. Samantha Power says, “All advocacy is, at its core, an exercise in empathy.”

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
During my last year at USD, my chair left the university for another opportunity, my two friends from my program graduated, and I was sexually assaulted at USD by a visiting professor. I got shingles and busted my shin on an unsuccessful box jump. My 30-year career at UC San Diego was ending and I was forced to retire after bringing in millions of dollars and doing great work with my team in the community. I pushed all this down and soldiered on. In 2017, I received my PhD and retired from UC San Diego. What did I do? I slept for the next two years. I tried to practice self-care and didn’t keep a calendar. Then I got pissed. I was reminded of my dissertation defense. I stood in the front of the classroom before my three committee members while my family and friends sat in a u-shape behind them.

Before we got started, my dad said, “Who here told my daughter she couldn’t do this?” I thought, “Wait to say something, Pops, until they have signed off on the dissertation.” He went on and said, “All I’m saying is when you tell Michelle she can’t do something, she’s going to prove you wrong every time.”

I finally woke up and witnessed how COVID-19 impacted/impacts our mental health by keeping us isolated and fearful. COVID-19 highlighted our social issues like racism, sexism, socio-economic disparities, and a mental health crisis. Add to this a divisive political climate and you have a recipe for fearful, hateful, and isolated people. I believe in the power of sharing stories and images. I believe in the courage of those who can tell their stories and those who listen with their heart.

Representation Rebellion is a movement to encourage other women my age and our allies to tell their stories and to live their most badass and unapologetic lives. We want to change the narrative of the way society tells our stories of middle-aged women. We don’t accept that we should be put out to pasture once we are no longer are able to bear children or once we have wrinkles or sagging breasts. Look inward. Listen.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
When you asked me to categorize my “work,” I checked “other.” Representation Rebellion (RR) is more than work, an art project, or a business. It is my purpose. I am meant to lead, with other disruptors and allies, a movement that challenges how middle-aged women are represented (or not represented) in our culture. We will flood the world with images and stories that show us in all our glory and power. We will no longer be silenced or marginalized. The RR’s mission is “We resist the stories they sell about us by telling our own.” RR’s manifesto include seven things we know to be true including:

1. Women become more powerful as we grow older.
2. Women are the leaders and changemakers of the world.
3. We have been bullied into letting the world, the status quo, and popular culture tell our stories.
4. We are at life’s crossroads between the first half of our lives and the second half.
5. We are more than perky breasts, unlined skin, or wearing size two skirts and stilettos.
6. Dear world, stop looking at our outsides. Go inward.

By now, you have probably picked up on an undercurrent or current of rage, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Anger is a powerful motivator to create change. Love is too. I wear a t-shirt that says, “I am mostly love and light, and little go f*** yourself. I am a disruptor, social justice champion, an artist, an academic, a bridge between the old systems and new ones, a healer, a feminist, and a visionary. I know it’s a lot to put on a business card. The point is RR is bigger than a job; it’s my life’s work. It’s my purpose.

In terms of your work and the industry, what are some of the changes you are expecting to see over the next five to ten years?
When I first started RR, I wanted to disrupt all stereotypes. I wanted to help elevate stories and images of all of us who are misrepresented, silenced, and invisible. Then I realized that most of us are stereotyped, whether if we are a young black man, a transgender woman, a girl with depression, or an average-sized fitness model. That’s a lot to disrupt and too much for someone who is not any of these people to take on. Further, the heroine of my story is me, a middle-aged white woman, something I know a thing or two about. My hope is that in 5-10 years, you will see more of us. You will read our stories and see our images. You will listen. We will come in community [delete this and sisterhood] and welcome you to join us. I dream of a world that when you do an internet search for leaders, you will find women. I hope for the time when you search for pictures and photographs of women in midlife; you will discover images other than old women sitting in a corner. You will see us for the vibrant and powerful women we are.

Finally, I would love to see more Representation Rebellions supporting other communities. The world needs all of us to step up with courage and vulnerability to tell our stories and to listen, so we can live in an empathetic inclusive and just world.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
1. Bio photo (David Martin) 2. logo 3. RR merchandise (David Martin) 3. my family photo (David Martin) 4. Chalk outline (Michelle Zive) 5. Women squeezing head (Kat Jayne) 6. Side profile of laughing woman (Gabrielle Henderson) 7. Women leaning against wall (Nickolas Nikolic)

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  1. Monita Murphy

    June 28, 2021 at 3:02 pm

    Excellent article

  2. Jenna

    June 28, 2021 at 7:12 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story with us ❤️

    • Michelle Zive

      July 2, 2021 at 9:11 pm

      Dear Jenna-I’m so glad the story resonated with you. Thank you for your love and support.

  3. Kristin Contreras

    June 28, 2021 at 11:52 pm

    What an inspiration! As a fifty-something woman, I am working to be a vibrant change-maker… with a hopeful heart filled with love and empathy and a light that shines from the inside out!

    • Michelle Zive

      July 2, 2021 at 9:13 pm

      Dear Kristin–You are the light. I feel your light, empathy, and kindness emanate from you. ONWARD!

  4. David

    June 29, 2021 at 3:47 am

    Quite a list of accomplishments in spite of the obstacles, or because of them!

    • Michelle Zive

      July 2, 2021 at 9:17 pm

      Hi David-As my dad said, and I wrote in the article, “Don’t tell, Michelle, she can’t do it. She’ll do it every time.” I’d say my Irish stubbornness, resiliency, and perseverance served me well.

  5. Diane Waldman

    June 29, 2021 at 7:13 am

    Return of the Sabine Women!

    Congratulations on publishing this eye opening story. Michelle has hit the bullseye!
    I have passed from middle age to the latter part of life, but the rage still lives in a part of me.

    I hope more women join Michelle’s REPRESENTATIVE REBELLION, an organization bringing people together. Something we need now more than ever.

    • Michelle Zive

      July 2, 2021 at 9:26 pm

      Hello Diane, I am grateful that you read the article and it inspired you. While my rage has tempered, so I might be able to communicate with people, it still simmers, it galvanizes. Yes, we need as many women of a certain age and our allies to change the narrative told about this. Plus, we want to be leaders for younger women. ONWARD!

  6. Diane Waldman

    June 29, 2021 at 7:18 am

    Representation Rebellion is a return of the Sabine Women!
    Women coming together is where our strength lies.
    I congratulate you for your courage to speak out and for staying the course.

  7. Teresa

    June 29, 2021 at 8:40 pm

    Always love listening to your work. <3
    “Dear world, stop looking at our outsides. Go inward.”
    So much of this to think about and bring into the way we teach our children/ future generations

    • Michelle Zive

      July 2, 2021 at 9:36 pm

      Teresa, thank you for your support. I feel it. I’m humbled by your love of my words and other things I’ve done. You are spot on. This work is NOT about division, young versus older women or men versus women. This is about being a kind human. This is about coming together to change the story society tells about older women. When we do this, we empower middle-aged women and younger women and girls to come together and share our stories, raise our voices and fists, and stop buying the narrative that society tells about us. When women become empowered we can empower others including our sons. My hope is that their will be Representation Rebellions across the world. One of my favorite quotes is “In a world when you can be anything, be kind!” ONWARD!

  8. Lori Wilson

    June 30, 2021 at 3:45 am

    Michelle’s insight and understanding are simply amazing. Empathy is so very important in life, yet so few people understand or strive for it. As a 61 white woman I so relate to being set aside, sometimes invisible yet will not accept that as my lot in life. I’m pioneering for women to stand up, learn what you need to, be strong. We’ve still got a lot to accomplish!

    • Michelle Zive

      July 2, 2021 at 9:43 pm

      Dear Lori, thank you for your nice words about my story. I admire your strength, tenacity, and leadership with helping women to be strong and stand on their on two feet fiscally and emotionally. Yes, we need to stand together and stop others from being our storytellers and our leaders. ONWARD!

  9. Vicki Crow

    July 1, 2021 at 12:19 am

    Michelle…It was amazing reading your story!!! It was extremely inspirational and you should feel very proud of yourself !!!

    • Michelle Zive

      July 2, 2021 at 9:45 pm

      Thank you Vicki! I appreciate your words and your exclamation points. ONWARD!!!!!!

  10. Marty Murphy

    July 5, 2021 at 6:13 pm

    I am Dr. Michelle Zive’s proud father.

    When she decided to go for her doctorate at USD, a rather pricey, but respected University, I wondered why and asked Michelle what field of study she intended to pursue. She responded, “Leadership.” My response, as I recall was, “huh?” It seemed as though that the USD doctorate counselors had the same take and lack of enthusiasm. Nonetheless, Michelle toiled, largely on her own initiative, in the halls of academia, while holding a very important fund-raising position at UC San Diego, where she raised a ton of $.

    Her whole family attended her doctorate presentation. To say that we were proud would have grossly understated our esteem for her accomplishment.

    I watched her work @ USD on some very interesting projects, intending to bring attention to Middle-Aged women, not necessarily because of what they wrote or what great achievements they accomplished in the professional arena. Much of Michelle’s leadership came from photographs. For example, she would form a group of women of that age. They would be composed of various ethnicities, marital status, employment or lack thereof, sexual orientation, etc. Without much preparation, she would gather them in a room at someone’s house (usually hers). Without formal introduction, she would ask each woman to spend the next week taking photographs of things they saw. No rules or topics or photographic quality. Just take pictures.

    I personally was blown away by the project. The women met regularly and found a commonality and a power from those gatherings that convinced them that they could rebel against the dying of the feminine light, no matter what the cause or the source.

    Michelle has the website and other opportunities to contact her if you, like my Irish brother Dylan Thomas, agree, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

    Since I feel that women are stronger than men, perhaps they can lead us to world-repair.

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