Finding Your Footing: Our Saturday Night Stroll with Flynn Coleman
Flynn Coleman is the embodiment of a global citizen. Whether tackling projects across different industries to sparking conversation through her educational lectures, the international human rights attorney and entrepreneur is a skilled multitasker. Always one step ahead, it may be hard to catch this globetrotter in one place for too long - even still, Flynn's many endeavors are tied together by a common theme: slow living. From growing her ethical fashion business to giving talks on social justice, Flynn has built her profession around living, working, and creating with intention. On a warm July night, we took a slow stroll through Dumbo, Brooklyn with Flynn who shared how to find your footing in life along with the causes that continue to inspire her life’s work.
Hello! I'm an international human rights attorney, an educator, an author, a public speaker, a former competitive athlete, a social entrepreneur and innovator, the founding Grunin fellow at New York University School of Law, and a founder and CEO. I have a background in innovation and design for social impact, artificial intelligence, economic development, behavioral economics, international trade, war crimes, political reconciliation, humanitarian law, social enterprise, and improving access to justice through innovation and technology.
My heart lives in Paris, and I have a love affair with books on everything from physics to magical surrealism, along with Japanese bookbinding, s'mores around crackling campfires, and impromptu dance parties. I love to wander the world and have meandering conversations with people all along the way. I’m also passionate about creative approaches to enhancing access to justice and opportunity for all humans, and I love writing, speaking, and teaching on these topics. We all have a story to tell, and we are all equally and intrinsically valuable, and we all deserve to have our basic human rights protected, with the freedom to make our own choices about our lives and futures. Everyone should be able to live with dignity and joy, and we all have a voice that deserves to be heard, which is at the foundation of all that I do.
Finding Your Footing
The first time I lived abroad was when I moved to a tiny town in Italy at 13 years old to play soccer. I lived with a host family who taught me so much about the person I wanted to be, and I saw that our diversity makes us beautiful and that we’re all the same underneath it all. I saw that we’re all in this together.
Go where the love is. Invest in those who invest in you. Choose love over fear whenever possible. Only you have your voice and your unique perspective, and you have a story to tell and a voice that deserves to be heard. Find your community and find out what matters to you, and live your life in accordance with your deepest values and the causes that make you feel most alive. The most important thing is to be kind, always, and to remember that your team, your village, your community, are everything, so treat them accordingly.
Social Media, Social Justice
We’re always just one conversation, one smile, one laugh, one “thank you,” one “hello” away from connecting with anybody else. And we may disagree, or there might be things that separate us, but there’s so much more that connects us. We’re all essentially tiny little ants floating on a wet ball in the dark. That is really scary, but it’s also so freeing because when you think of the fact that one day all of us and everyone we know will be gone, it liberates us to be who we want to be and to follow our dreams. We are so small, yet so powerful when we come together, and we have all of that vulnerability and fear, but we have a fire within each of us, for greatness and aliveness and magic.
Social media is a great tool for connection or disconnection, depending on which path you take. However, as someone who loves technology but also loves to creatively unplug from it, I always tell my students, that whether you love it or hate it, tech is here to stay, so the only question is: how can we use it for good?
You can be right next to someone and be completely distracted from truly being with them, or you can be oceans away and with one Instagram comment find a friend for life. You can tweet at a farmer in Ghana and learn all about her life and wisdom; you can learn so much from people thousands of miles away, that’s the gift of the modern age. Use social media to immerse yourself in what you love, whether that's watercolor painting or comic book collecting or cooking or wildlife photography or stand-up comedy, and then take what you find and what inspires you, and bring those moments of illumination into the world and make real life connections. If you do, you will find invaluable ways to raise your voice for what you believe in and to also listen to others out there, as there are so many amazing people we can all learn from in the technology age, and in ways never before possible. There was a time when the only people you could connect with where the ones you met face to face, and now we have a whole world that is buzzing with connection, literature, knowledge, imaginative adventures, brilliant ideas, just waiting to be discovered. In fact, I'm currently writing about what the next era in human history after the Information Age will be...
A Global Citizen
Ultimately, we’re all human beings first. It’s so important to celebrate our diversity, but also to realize that we all bleed the same blood and that we’re all the same underneath it all. As Hans Christian Andersen said, “to travel is to live.” Adventure, wandering, and traveling are a way of life, a metaphor for our intersecting paths as human beings, a road to connecting with ourselves and others, a way to learn about our common humanity, how to support and empathize with others, and how to widen our own lens and move beyond the filters that cloud how we see the world. If we can always travel with that childlike sense of wonder and curiosity, and remember what MLK said, that “life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” that will help to lead the way. Every time we make a decision we are making a difference, and so we should always be aware of what difference that is. Every step we take leaves a footprint. So whether it’s supporting a local organization or community in some way, sharing the stories of people you meet along the way, marinating in the beauty of a place and then telling about it later, you can always be an ambassador and an advocate for the stories and people and places all around you.
As for slow living and traveling, try learning “thank you” and “hello” in every language you can think of, and dole these out generously everywhere you go. And bring small gifts to share with the people you meet. Put your phone away as much as possible. Look up and all around you. I have learned many languages by navigating far off places without any devices to assist me. Ask a stranger for directions and make conversation with someone that you meet. Try a tiny bistro that a local recommends, or explore a tucked away library, gallery, or hiking trail. Support local social impact and human and animal rights organizations that align with your values; bring them donations, volunteer your time, or visit and spread the word about how they are making the world a better place. Respect the local customs, and always have an open mind and heart wherever you go, near or far. And when you get home you’ll have memories and experiences to bask in for a lifetime, and coming home never feels so sacred than when interspersed with adventure. Your life is ultimately lived in a million tiny moments, a warm cup of tea with someone you love, a sunset, a belly laugh filled conversation, and whether near or far, that's where home really is.
On Ethical Fashion
My life’s work revolves around my belief that we all deserve to have our basic human rights protected and to have a life of dignity, freedom, and agency. I have seen that can we can truly support people when we can facilitate their own agency, creativity, and autonomy so that they can invest in themselves and their local communities. That may mean advocating for trade policy changes, breaking down barriers for entrepreneurs in the developing world, creating more transparent supply chains, using technology to empower people, upholding an artistic tradition passed down from generations or bringing local goods to new markets so that community members can better afford healthcare and education for their children, so those children can go on to choose among yet more opportunities. Malena is a reflection of what I believe in and the values I want to live in the world, and I strive to make all of my decisions in alignment with these core beliefs.
The seed of the idea for Malena began years ago, when I was living, studying and writing my thesis in Chile. I happened upon a cooperative of women who had gathered as a community after a time of great turmoil in the country, and everyone had lost at least one loved one. They banded together to created beautiful tapestries and to also learn financial and business skills, and to come together to heal. I see every day in my work that lack of opportunity, agency, and access to global markets are the critical issues that sustain poverty and marginalization, and these are issues that Malena is addressing. For example, artisans are the keepers and innovators of cultural heritage and should be able to generate a sustainable income. However, in much of the world today, they face many barriers to a dignified livelihood, from lack of access to tools and training to poor working conditions, lack of bargaining power, and lack of enforcement of their rights. When these artisans and entrepreneurs are economically empowered, poverty decreases, they have more resources to provide what their families need, their vulnerability to abuse diminishes, and they have access to better technologies to support their entrepreneurship, leadership, business opportunities, and futures. This is also the idea behind what I do in my role as the inaugural Grunin fellow at NYU Law's new Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship.
My definition of ethical fashion and sourcing hasn't changed, but just as I tell my students in my workshop on Changing the World, there is no one way to make a difference. This is why social enterprise is so important. You can marry ethics and economics, purpose and profits. It's all about staying true to your values and seeing that we are all interconnected. Essentially, it’s critical to get curious and to ask questions about where what you eat, wear, use, and buy comes from, and at what cost. As Rainer Maria Rilke says, you have to “live the questions.” Because regarding supply chain transparency and ethical fashion, ultimately we are not talking about “labor” or “consumerism” or “supply chains” in the abstract, we are talking about people, just like us, and we all deserve the same rights to freedom, dignity, opportunity, equality, and justice.
These experiences, along with having conversations with people around the world, have shown me that we can have a huge impact on people’s well-being by supporting their economic agency so that they can make their own choices about their lives. We all want the same things – health, something to believe in, to belong, and a better future for ourselves and our children. And everyone has a story to tell.
I am a collector of memories and objects that represent stories, people, and places, so I have spent a lifetime relishing these items and talismans, and also giving them away. And as is foundational to Coclico, I believe that each tells the story of the people, values, and places behind it. I've gathered many treasures over the years, feathers and love notes and journals filled with photos and musings, books that I've loved and then written little notes in and left for others to find. A collection of scarves and textiles from around the globe, jewelry my mother has made for me, and vintage maps from every corner of the world...
A forever item that is close to my heart is an old, weathered, gold gilded, mini U.S. Constitution that my mom gave me years ago. I keep it with me always. And it reminds me that change doesn’t happen later or at some other time, or if someone else is willing to take up the cause. That it’s up to us to do the best we can every day to make the world a better place, brick by brick. That our values and morals and ethics are the road maps that guide us wherever we go, and we should always stay true to them. That human rights, the inherent worth and intrinsic value of every living being, are not negotiable or contingent on anything. This is worth fighting for, every day. The rules for how to treat others are written in the code of our humanity, and they can never be lost if we know how to find them, and they are to be protected at all costs. And if just one other living being is more joyful, more inspired, braver, because you have lived, then that is enough.
Photos by Bridget Badore for Coclico