My journey as a woman just trying to save the world.
I was 43 and my worst fears had been realised.
I was divorced, homeless, no savings, in debt and a single parent.
It seemed that every strategy I’d ever employed to avoid each of those things, let alone altogether, had eventually just only taken me to this point.
To add to the mix, I’d just been told by an oak tree to change my career in sustainable food to help and empower girls and women instead.
I had such a huge vision and optimism for my life and what it should be. However I suddenly felt stupid and disillusioned. I’d been working hard on personal development; visualising a soulmate and dream home and projecting confidence about what I was going to achieve.
Yet here I was. Over £30K in debt. I couldn’t get credit to start my new business as I wasn’t a homeowner. The 2 houses I’d once ‘owned’ with my ex-husband now seemed like a distant dream.
The idea of now being able to own my own home again, on my modest charity manager salary, would take a miracle. Also I’d recently decided to work for myself, as it felt like it was now or never.
However I literally had no assets or savings and was at the start of a long road to build the track record and capital I needed to own my home again.
In addition I’d just been given this life-changing message from an oak tree.
It was my birthday and as a present I’d been to see a shamanic healer. After a wonderful healing, with lots of support and insights for my life journey, the shaman gave me a final spirit message to go and ask an oak tree how I can also help others. To find out what I should be giving back to the world.
This obviously sounds completely bizarre, I get it, and I don’t normally talk to trees, or it wasn’t a regular activity at that point in my life.
So what got me here and what on earth was I doing exactly?
So what did I have going for me?
- I have a beautiful daughter and we have a great relationship.
- I have a great friends who are fun, fabulous and loyal.
- A loving, supportive family.
- I’m healthy, well and strong.
- I’ve had a successful purpose-led career with lots of transferable skills.
- Great work colleagues and networks I’ve built over the years.
Who am I?
My name is Traci Lewis. I live in Bristol in the UK with my teenage daughter. I am 49 years old.
I am a social entrepreneur. I run a social enterprise called Catalyse Change CIC which inspires, empowers and skills girls and young women as sustainability leaders and change makers.
I also now help other women who want to set-up and lead their own purpose-led businesses. My purpose is to empower women to take control of their destiny and live their best possible life.
What led me to this point?
One of the first women I truly admired, past pop stars like Debbie Harry and Madonna, was Anita Roddick. In the 1980’s she was a rock star to me.
She was a business woman, activist and campaigner. She founded the Body Shop – a chain of beauty shops which pioneered ethical consumerism – changing the face of bodycare and retailing.
As a teenager we used to take the train from Stratford-on-Avon to Birmingham, spending hours trying out their hair and body oils and creams, perfumes and make-up, all with exotic beautiful ingredients we’d never heard of before.
What was different about it were the stories about the products and people who made them and the shocking campaigns against animal testing and social justice. Massive posters of the women and children who made the products and their ingredients. This was a business with purpose. I wasn’t just buying a pot of jojoba body butter. I was empowering women to create their own livelihoods, to be in control of their own destiny.
It was the first time I’d even realised it was something I should be worried about. People around the world living in poverty while making the clothes and products we buy in UK High Streets. This was the first social enterprise I had ever heard of and I loved it, it fired up my passion for social justice and creating a better world for our people and planet.
This was a powerful realisation in the middle of my teenage years, as a passionate young woman growing up in the middle of the UK, doing my own mini rock star turn with sex, drugs, vintage clothes & Body Shop lipstick. I was vegetarian, I was pretty angry about ‘issues’ such as animal cruelty and corporate pollution, informed by Greenpeace campaigns and going to Glastonbury festival. However I was more concerned about my friends, parties and unsuitable boys who – in my head – all looked like my latest favourite rock star, think John Taylor, Bono and Ian McCulloch.
As soon as A-Levels were done, I worked until I bought a round the world ticket, I was off to explore and have the adventures I craved.
It was in Australia that I started to become more environmentally aware. I learnt about the mass deforestation of virgin rainforest and witnessed it first hand.
I lived in the desert and on tropical islands, which both had no drinking water, it had to be shipped in or sucked up from ancient reserves which weren’t being replenished any time soon.
In Asia I saw rivers clogged with plastic, which was used to sell everything, replacing the banana leaves used only years before. I saw whole mountains dug away in order to build new highrises and the resulting topsoil runoff clogging up and polluting the rivers.
I experienced air pollution so thick that you couldn’t see in front of you, they were wearing masks in Asia long before the coronavirus pandemic.
I studied Permaculture design in Australia with its founder and guru Bill Mollison to try and make sense of the environmental destruction and to try and find solutions for reversing it. Permaculture is a philosophy and design system which mimics nature to find the most sustainable ways of living. Organic gardening and farming are core activities, but it goes much further than that, into how communities are designed too.
I lived and worked on organic and biodynamic farms to learn more. Also to get a free bed and board in order to continue my travelling odyssey a bit longer. It all made me realise that the university place waiting for me at Swansea to study History wasn’t going to light my fire, in fact at that time in my life it would have been a bad thing. I would have mainly spent my time raving in the early 90’s. Much better to be exploring new parts of the world experiencing a totally new way of living and looking at the world.
Also I found my purpose, as it made me realise that I wanted to work in organic food and farming. As I realised that it provides hugely positive solutions to the massive problems facing our people and planet.
So when I returned to the UK and happily discovered my beloved Bristol. I asked the Soil Association – who are based here – for a job. It was 1997 and I started working for their social business – after 5 years travelling and working in Australia, NZ and Asia – which was a great fit for me as I knew that organic and sustainable food and farming was one of the best solutions around to help save the world. We helped farmers and food businesses to get the organic stamp of approval, growing quickly in size and impact the start of the new century, when all the supermarkets were clamouring to bring in organic product lines.
I always knew I would like to work for myself one day and it was interesting watching and helping so many different amazing new organic businesses. I remember dealing with the initial enquiry and application for Pukka Herbs which initially ran out of their founders home in Bristol, now a global brand owned by Unilever.
Also I worked with lots of farms and food businesses who also did great work but who didn’t manage to survive.
All of this time I was wondering how I could start my own social business but although I had many excellent skills and contacts I didn’t any capital and wasn’t totally sure of what I wanted to do. I was by then living in beautiful Totnes in Devon but had been given a strong intuitive steer to go back to Bristol, which I was currently debating…
Message from an Oak Tree
Then out of the blue I find myself talking to an oak tree. Who told me I needed to help and empower girls and women. I didn’t have a clue how but it came from a deep inner knowing and wasn’t something I could ignore.
From there I started to inform myself on the issues and gave money to women’s rights charities. However I had never been involved in this work before. Until now I’d been working with organic food producers, communities and the local Council etc. to grow sustainable food systems.
Empowering Girls & Young Women
So when I moved back to Bristol, I became a Trustee of youth-led charity Integrate UK, who campaign on gender rights issues. I also became a voluntary business advisor for a youth organisation.
However my interest and networks were all around sustainability and I remember one day thinking about Catalyse Change – for which I’d alredy registered the domain name and set up as a limited company – and realised that it needed to focus on empowering girls and young women as change agents for sustainable development.
I had already been talking to other women in my circles about this and I was delighted when three of these brilliant women; Jenna, Julie and Rhian, straight away said yes to helping me make the dream a reality.
We changed Catalyse Change to a CIC status and the four of us started to develop a vision and plan for what we were going to create. Today, five years later, we’ve now worked with over 500 young women and 100 mentors who are all excited about what we do and we are only just beginning, the possibilities for the impact we can have is limitless, I’m excited and full of hope for what we can achieve.
So I know it’s easy to laugh at things we don’t understand – it’s a natural reaction – but don’t underestimate the power of trusting your intuition.
And if you pass an oak one day, why not just sit down and have a chat? Who knows where it might lead 🙂
Traci Lewis, [email protected]