This week: How can you honor your parents and radically choose your own path?
Mali’s parents were intense, devoted political activists who worked tirelessly alongside the American labor leader Cesar Chavez in the 1960s and 70s. Mali continued her parents’ legacy by co-founding a non-profit in California called Encinitas4Equality to disassemble structural racism. Her story, though, is not about farmers’ rights or racism. It’s about a universal question many women face: how can I pursue my own ambitions in life and also devote time to becoming and being a mother? Even if you don’t dream of motherhood, the question remains: What do we do when we are faced with two competing desires? Can we make space for both of them?
This week’s story is entitled “Deciding Between Motherhood and Personal Ambition”
Content: activism, farm workers’ rights, motherhood, ambition, alcoholism, recovery
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Jamie Yuenger and Piet Hurkmans
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Host Jamie: Hi, it's Jamie. This is If You Knew Me, a show where we share stories from the inner lives of women. Stories about things that women feel, think, believe, and want, but almost never take the time to tell themselves, let alone their close friends or lovers.
Before we dive in today, I wanna thank all of our supporters on Patreon. Truly, thank you so much for supporting the show. It costs $3 or more a month. You can submit ideas for guests and get behind the scenes extras. That's at patreon.com/ifyouknewme. There's a link in the show notes. Thanks to everyone who has been subscribing, rating and reviewing the show. We read every single one that you submit, including this recent one from Dawn who wrote:
'Jamie Yuenger is a seasoned interviewer who approaches her subjects with great respect, compassion, and curiosity. Turning her lens to the myriad female stories out there is a wonderful development. I genuinely look forward to upcoming episodes and highly recommend adding this podcast to your cue.'
Thanks so much for the kind words, Dawn.
So this week we hear a story from Mali Woods-Drake. Mali is spelled m a l i, and that is her real name. Mali's early life was heavily influenced by her parents' political activism. Her mom and dad worked tirelessly alongside the famous labor activist Cesar Chavez, pushing for farm worker's rights in the 1960s and seventies. Mali has continued her parents' legacy. She co-founded and leads a nonprofit in California That works to disassemble structural racism.
Her story for this podcast though is not about rights or racism. It's about a universal question that so many of us face. How can I pursue my own ambitions and also devote time to becoming a parent? And even if you don't wanna become a mom yourself, the question remains, what do we do when we are faced with two competing desires?
Can we make space for both of them? Is it possible, realistic and recommended? Mali's story is entitled 'Deciding Between Motherhood and Personal Ambition'.
Mali: I can say. At this point in my life, and I'm 40, soon to be 41 at the end of the year. and a recently married woman, I got married in August, and
I'm in a place of a lot of fear and uncertainty in my life, which I actually thought. After many, many years of looking for a partner that that was something that would kind of go away once I do happened. But, in many ways it seems to have magnified some other fears and decisions to be made. so I'm in a place of really trying to figure out what comes next, both with starting a family and with decisions that.
Need to or will be made in my personal and professional life. and so I think it's helpful to give a little backstory to my upbringing and, my childhood and the history of my family, that plays into where I'm at now and why there's heaviness or a lot of indecision. So I'm the daughter of two community and labor organizers.
My dad, his name was Jim Drake. He was one of the founders of the United Farm Workers Movement with Cesar Chavez, and my mom met him while she also went to go work as an organizer with the farm workers. Believe in the sixties is when they met and or were working together. And I was born in 81 in Jackson, Mississippi.
My parents had both left the farm workers together and moved to Mississippi to organize the first black wood cutters into credit unions so that they would have some independence, and financial freedom within their work there in Mississippi. And I was born shortly after my parents had been evicted from their house in Mississippi for having a black friend over for dinner.
And my mom made the decision that she was going to fight back against this, and it went all the way to the fifth Circuit where she won a case there. , and I share that, just, you know, it's like these are the people that I was raised by. Like my mom was extremely strong-willed and both of my parents had a strong sense of justice.
And morality and values of equity and fairness and fighting for people that might not otherwise have, a voice of their own or didn't know that they had a voice of their own unless somebody empowered them to find it
so eventually we would move to Texas where my dad was organizing in the Rio Grande Valley, and my mom was pretty much raising my brother and I on her own.
And we were there for about two and a half years, and then moved to Northern New Jersey when my dad took a job in the South Bronx. And my mom in the beginning was a stay at home mom, which. I you know, having got to know her as adult, know is a really, really difficult thing for her to do. She suffered from some postpartum depression in losing her own identity as much as she wanted to be a mom.
I don't think she was willing to do it at the expense of losing who she was, and that was largely someone who was an advocate for justice. But it kind of took second stage to my dad and his work.
And so my dad was doing community organizing in the South Bronx. My mom was a stay at home mom and somewhere around eight or nine years old, I think my mom realized she had very much lost who she was and asked or told my dad that she wanted to get a divorce, and that happened around nine years old.
at which point my parents had joint custody. I was with them one week on, one week off. And for the most part it was a pretty. amicable divorce, and it didn't feel earth shattering to me as a child. It was more when I got to high school and my mom took a job in Washington DC I was, we were living in New Jersey, and so she would commute Monday to Friday.
Mali: To live and work in Washington DC and I would be with my dad and then she would come home Friday night and be with us until Monday morning. And as a teenage girl, I really struggled with the absence of my mom, who was working all of the time. And my dad tried the best he could to be present and be home at 5:00 PM and be at my sporting events, but I took it personally. I took it as I wasn't enough and their work was more important and the cause was all consuming and I started searching for solace, I'd say, or you know, a respite from some of the pain, in alcohol.
And so the first time I drank, I was 13 and a freshman in high school and I ended up in the hospital for alcohol poisoning.
I was dropped off unconscious on my mom's couch and she would call my dad and together they brought me to the hospital
Should have been alarming. I sort of found identity in being that girl. Everyone at school knew who I was, what happened, and I was grounded for several months, but as soon as I was allowed out, again, it was every Friday I would go out, get drunk, come home, be grounded on Saturday, Sunday would be a good day with my mom.
She'd go back to work and I'd repeat the behavior, throughout my entire high school career.
And then I would go and apply to college at Arizona State, University of Arizona, UC Boulder, and Rutgers, which were all notorious party schools. And I attended Arizona State where my drinking escalated as soon as I got there, to a three, four day a week binge, blackout drinker.
My drinking, and what came with it, was absolutely riddled with wreckage. I crashed cars. I stole money from my parents. I was the victim of multiple sexual assaults and rape, and eventually what brought me to the end of my drinking was the absolute loss of my own mind. I was having panic attacks all of the time. I was suicidally depressed. I didn't go to school.
I was drinking every day. And I woke up one morning. It was the day after my mom's 50th birthday trying to make the decision to either kill myself or ask for help. And fortunately, I picked up the phone and my mom happened to be in town. And told her that I was sick and she asked if I had been drinking and I said 'yes'.
And she said 'pack your stuff. I'm coming to get you'. And I said 'good cuz I need help'. And I think that was probably the first time that I could remember since being a child, that I asked for real help from my parents and believed that they were gonna show up, which they did. Absolutely. And I checked into a rehab facility, but before that happened, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer and he basically just said to me like, I'm gonna do my treatment. You go and do your treatment and we'll both get better and we'll make it to the other side. And I was really fortunate to be in an inpatient facility that had a family week, so I could.
Share all my pain with my parents and the resentments and vice versa. And we did a lot of healing, because unfortunately six months after I got sober, my dad did not survive, from cancer. And he died on Labor Day in 2001. And I was able to be there. And the last thing my dad said to me before he died was 'are you going to be okay?'
and I just think of, you know, my dad was dying and he knew it, and his biggest fear was his only daughter and his youngest child was six months sober, still suicidally depressed and suffering from horrible anxiety. And he knew like he couldn't hold on. But I also knew, like when I said it, I was just like, you have to say yes so he can let go.
And I kind of believed it, you know, that I was gonna be okay. And he passed away and eight days later was September 11th. Um, and so that was my 19th year, which everything kind of seemed to fall apart, but it was also the time in my life where I, finally asked for help. My mom showed up in ways that she'd never shown up before, and she has every day since then.
and I made a decision then. You know, I realized with my dad dying so quickly and unexpectedly, and also with my whole life changing, leaving college, getting sober at 19, battling depression, that I didn't know the length of my life or what was happened, but I was gonna make the most of it and, do everything I could to value life in a way that I hadn't before.
And so I went back to college, didn't know really what I wanted to do, was an English major and still felt like I was sort of floundering as far as what, you know, my friends were all graduating from college faster than I was because they didn't have a stint in rehab or, you know, several years of depression.
And so I felt a bit lost, I was finishing school right around the time that in 2008. , Barack Obama was running for president. And I, like many young people and many old people was swept up with the idea of change in what was possible. And I started volunteering for his campaign. And when he won, I realized that this fire or this foundation that my parents had built in me, just by being who they were, of believing in justice, fighting for justice, fighting for the person who might not have a voice, was rekindled during this election and this campaign time and that that was what I wanted to do.
And so at that point, I applied to work for SEIU, which is one of the largest labor unions in the country, and it's where my mom had already was working. And so I became an organizer and my first assignment was in Northern California.
And so I moved from New Jersey to Northern California with no idea what I was doing in this career or where I was going, but it ultimately ended up being one of the best decisions of my life, and I've worked, for SEIU for the last 12 years, and had the opportunity to work on incredible campaigns and fight alongside workers who believed that they deserved a better wage, that they deserved better working conditions, that if they're in hospitals, the patients that they cared for deserved a better quality of care and.
I began to understand my parents in a way that I never did before, and I understood the cause, and I understood how difficult the decision was for them sometimes between being there when I was getting ready for my prom. Or being at a campaign and fighting for workers that didn't even have the ability to get bathroom breaks.
and throughout all of this, I also met so many people that I'd worked with my dad. And so it felt like I had this unique opportunity to get to know my father in a way that I never knew him before. And so this role in this work was such a blessing to understand my parents well, at the same time, trying not to make the same decisions.
Mali: I don't wanna say they were mistakes because you know, that was their choices. But for me it was always about how do I balance a personal life and these deep desires and dreams I have about falling in love, getting married, starting a family with doing the work of social justice, racial justice, fighting for human rights.
So when you work in the labor movement, people don't talk about it as a job or a career.
Mali: They talk about it as a cause, and you have to be committed to the cause at all costs. And for the first five years of working for SEIU, that meant that I was all over the country living in hotels, working on organizing campaigns, and had no real personal life of my own. It seemed impossible to me that I would ever meet someone if I was living in hotels in Pennsylvania.
But I had a home in California. And so after six years, I let my boss know that I was either going to leave or I needed to be in a position that was gonna be a stable position. And so at that point, I transferred within my organization to have a job that I represented workers at one specific hospital in Northern San Diego.
it was a hard decision because it meant in many ways, feeling like I can't live up to the legacy of my parents who dedicated their life to organizing and responding to the cause in the calls. but it also was the decision I knew that I had to make if I wanted to have this life that I envisioned for myself with a husband and a family.
Mali: The other thing is when my dad died, he had been working on a book and one of the things he wrote towards the end of his life was, He called it 'why I organize', and he talked a lot about the regret he had of not showing up. I have half brothers, that were raised by my dad and his wife prior to my mom and how he wasn't present in their life, and then how he tried to do things very differently with myself and my brother, and he said, If he organizes and it's at the expense of the Drake network, which is our family, then he's no longer organizing for the right reasons and that he would have to figure out a way to do it where he was not, putting his family on the back burner.
And that's something that has always stuck with me, that I was never going to organize or do this work at the expense of my family. And I was able to do that for a long time, right up until Covid happened. And then George Floyd was murdered. And after the murder of George Floyd, I started holding a series of protests in my town with some other women.
it wasn't planned. It just, you know, organically, like many of the protests, it started happening. And I live. Community that's about 85 to 90% white, and we have 0.8% black people that live here. But hundreds of people would come out to these protests and they would ask, what do we do next? What do we do next?
And in many ways, I felt like this was the culmination of so much of my life work, And from that we formed a nonprofit called Encinitas for Equality, which was entirely and has always, um, for the last two and a half years, been volunteer led. And I was one of the co-founders and became the president of the non-profit.
and I absolutely lost myself for about a year, a year and a half. In this work,
I, know there is so much anger of seeing a black man murdered. by the police. And for me it was just so hard to believe that in all of the ways we thought we had come so far, we really hadn't come very far at all when it came to racial justice and I was full of anger, not just towards the people who
devalued the life of black communities and black individuals and police and our criminal justice system, but I was also full of anger towards people who were very apathetic for so long and I didn't really know how to harness that anger in a way that wasn't volatile. Again, I lived in a very white wealthy community where there was so much privilege and I was angry at people all the time about it, and I was trying to run a non-profit to educate people, but in many ways, doing it in a way that was divisive. it was divisive in my own home, for me, it was a hard time to be married to a white man and not be angry at white men all the time.
But I didn't know this.
To me. I was simply doing the good work of fighting for racial justice and I was volunteering probably 60 hours a week while also doing my job. it was so much work, I was just drowning in trying to make things better while not realizing that I had totally shut out my partner at that time.
again, as someone. Has suffered from addiction, it can surface in many ways. Work had never been one of those ways, and it was absolutely something that I became addicted to. it wasn't like you could see with alcohol where you were causing harm in all of this pain. It was something that felt noble and important and necessary and it was happening all over the country.
Mali: And so it really wasn't until. Shortly after my partner and I got engaged that, he really just didn't seem present and seemed to withdraw more than he had before. And we were coming up on our wedding and I realized we might not get married. he might not marry me because he has a lot of resentment and I've caused a lot of pain.
And so, this summer leading up to our wedding, I made the decision that I really needed to work a program around everything that was happening. And so I started going back to AA meetings, um, really diving into my spiritual practice and. . I read a book called 'See no Stranger' by Valarie Kaur that talked about revolutionary love during these times.
Mali: And I think that book was a pivotal moment for me in realizing that I was never going to create the sort of change I wanted to both out in the world and within myself if I couldn't find a way to do it with kindness and compassion and curiosity for people that might feel different than I do.
over the last six months, I've really tried to transform how I practice this work of justice, and I took three months off entirely of doing the work with my non-profit.
And so I largely thought that I was gonna step away for a while from a lot of this work and focus on just my marriage and starting a family. And then I got swept back up in the elections and all that was at stake and. I realized that is so much who I am as well and that I can't step away fully without feeling like I'm abandoning who I really am.
Mali: I guess that's really my truth around this work is I don't know how not to care about Others who have less or who are being oppressed and so that's just really. part of who I am at my core,
and so now I'm at this point where things are better in our marriage, and I think it's a combination of me stepping back from some of this work as well as me returning to my 12 step meetings. trying to be a softer, kinder person in how I enter into this work.
And I have an opportunity to apply for an appointment to an open seat on our town city council, and it's very likely if I do it that I would be the one to get the appointment.
, if I were single, I know that I would. and being married and knowing that we will likely have children in the year changes that decision of fear of not showing up for a new child the way that I would like to or fear of.
Destroying my marriage if I decide to do this and it takes up more time again, or I lose myself again.
so when I say I'm, you know, I'm happily married now, and I thought all of the fear and the indecision would go away with that. It feels like. A life of just making decisions for myself has changed where the simple, easy, obvious decision for me isn't so simple and obvious anymore, cuz it's not just about me, but I also worry that if I don't make the decisions for myself, that I'll carry resentment into.
Mali: Marriage, which was ultimately toxic as well.
I'm really afraid of abandoning myself,
and I'm also really terrified of being alone and.
Three months into a marriage feeling like I could blow it up and be a failure at that. And more than anything, I'm afraid of not having children and.
Not just being like my parents who didn't show up in all of the right ways for their children, but making the wrong decision that I don't have that opportunity at all.
and you know, there's parts of me that are still. Angry because I feel like these are decisions that women largely have to make the decisions between family and motherhood and personal ambition, and
it just seems. Really unfair at times that
I do believe more women in places of decision making and power is ultimately what our world needs. While at the same time, our world is set up to.
Women from being able to do all of those things. And
then sometimes I'm just hard on myself because I just think that maybe I'm just a woman that hasn't figured out how to do it all.
Host Jamie: Thanks so much for listening to this week's episode. If you enjoyed Mali's story, take a moment and share it with someone you love.
Mali is the president of Encinitas for Equality, a nonprofit with a mission to disassemble structural racism and systemic oppression through solidarity and service. She works full-time as a union organizer for S E I U, and she lives in Northern San Diego with her husband.
Host Jamie: You can follow Mali on Instagram at Mali Wood. That's m.a.l.i wood. I'll put the link in the show notes and why not be bold? Just go find Mali and tell her what her story meant to you. We are on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn at ifyouknewme.show and I'm on Instagram at Jamie underscore Yuenger. You can look at the show notes to find the crazy spelling of my name.
And last but not least, I want to thank our League of Women. At the end of 2022, we invited a select group of women leaders to help us expand and elevate this podcast with their time, talent, and resources. Our league members include Fredda Hertz Brown, Carrie Ahern, Christine Shook, Sister Monica Clare, Dawn Roode, Elizabeth Doerr, Bekah Kepple, and Karen McNeill.
Host Jamie: This podcast is produced by me, Jamie Younger, and my husband Pete Hermans. Thanks so much for listening to if you knew me. We'll be back with you next week. We're rolling.
Thanks so much for listening to this week's episode. If you enjoyed Molly's story, take a moment and share it with someone you love. Molly is the president of Encinitas for Equality, a nonprofit with a mission to disassemble structural racism and systemic oppression through solidarity and service. She works full-time as a union organizer for S se IU and lives in Northern San Diego with her husband.
You can. You can follow Mali on Instagram at Molly Wood. I'll put the link in the show notes and why not be bold, just go find Molly and tell her what her story meant to you. We are on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn at If you knew me and at if you knew me, dot show I am on Instagram at Jamie underscore younger.
Just look at the show notes to find the. Merch is available on our website at If You Knew Me, dot Show. And last but not least, I want to thank our League of Women at the end of 2022, we invited a select group of women leaders to help us expand and elevate this podcast using their time, talent, and resources.
Our League members include Fredda Herz Brown, Carrie Ahern, Christine Shook, Sister Monica Claire, Dawn Roode, Elizabeth Doerr, Kara Garner Pass and Karen McNeil.
This podcast is produced by me, Jamie Yuenger, and my husband Piet Hurkmans. Thanks so much for listening to If You Knew Me. We'll be back with you next week,