“This might sound small, but because we all so hate to look silly, I think my biggest advice is to be willing to look silly. Be willing to try something and fail.” – Blythe Hill
If you’re a long time reader, you’ve probably caught on to the fact that fighting human trafficking is a cause close to my heart. It’s the issue that actually started my journey that became Charity Girl.
A few weeks ago, while at the Heart Series Conference, I received an alert: Blythe Hill wants to connect. My heart stopped for a minute. Or at least what felt like a minute. Blythe, the creative force behind Dressember, is someone I’ve been long time girl crushing on. And she wanted to connect. With me.
Not sure if you’re like me, but I always get a bit nervous meeting someone I’ve been crushing on from a far. You always H O P E they live up to the person you want them to be, but that’s not always the case. Luckily, Blythe is everything you’d hope a leader in the fight against human trafficking would be – kind, courageous, thoughtful, and empathetic.
As this week’s #WCW Spotlight, Blythe shares the story of how Dressember grew from a creative challenge to a Foundation that has raised millions of dollars to fund the fight against modern day slavery.
Me: Where did you come up with the idea for Dressember?
Blythe: I came up with the idea for a personal style challenge while I was in college, feeling in need of a creative outlet. I decided to try wearing only dresses for a month. The next, full month was December, and I came up with the name Dressember. Since I love puns, I became even more enthusiastic about the idea.
Me: I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but why a dress? Does it hold any special significance?
Blythe: Initially, I just chose dresses because I owned a lot of them and enjoy wearing them. Since there wasn’t initially a cause attached to Dressember, there wasn’t a ‘reason’ for choosing dresses aside from being fun. Later, when I aligned Dressember with anti-human trafficking, people began to read more into the symbol of the dress, and what it means. It means something different to different people — it can mean freedom to one person and oppression to another. It’s been fascinating to have conversations with people about what an item of clothing symbolizes to them. To us at the Dressember Foundation, it is less about the dress itself and more about finding a uniform to unite our movement.
Me: Why do you think Dressember and the challenge of wearing a dress every day for a month resonates with so many people?
Blythe: I often tell people, “this is the easiest, most fun way to engage in a horrific issue.” I think a big part of the appeal is how easy it is. Everyone has to get dressed in the morning, so no matter how busy you are, this is a part of your day. It is one small sacrifice to make in the grand scheme of things.
Me: Was there a catalyst that inspired you to turn this from a fun, creative challenge among friends to a fundraiser?
Blythe: As it grew, I began to dream more about what it could be. By year three, there were a bunch of people who didn’t know me personally who were joining in. Many of my ideas never get past my immediate circle, and so I knew this idea had legs when it was getting past that barrier. I saw what the Movember Campaign was doing (men grew mustaches in November to raise millions for prostate cancer research) and I thought, “if a bunch of men can raise that much money by growing facial hair, maybe I can use Dressember to raise some money for a cause.”
Me: Has giving back always been a major theme in your life? Or something that came about later in life?
Blythe: I was raised with a strong value (and example) of generosity. My dad modeled giving a portion of his income away to us, and raised us to see that everything we have is a gift, and we ought to give back ourselves. I find immense joy in giving.
Me: When people participate and fundraise during Dressember, who are participants raising money for?
Blythe: Currently, we have three grant partners: two international organizations (International Justice Mission and A21) and one US organization (McMahon Ryan Child Advocacy Center in Syracuse, NY). Our plan for the coming months is to add several domestic organizations to effectively blanket the US with our partnerships. We give targeted, strategic grants to move the needle forward in the anti-trafficking arena.
Me: Where did you first learn about human trafficking? Why do you think this cause resonates so deeply with you?
Blythe: I was 19 the first time I learned about human trafficking. I learned that women and girls are bought and sold for profit, against their will, in places like India, Cambodia, and Thailand.
The more I learned about human trafficking, the more I felt compelled to get involved. I was not merely interested; I felt a sense of personal urgency to do something to stop the exploitation of women internationally. People have asked why I care so much about this issue. The answer points back to my childhood.
I was four years old the first time I was molested. For years, I carried the weight of guilt and shame, and wrestled with questions no teenager is equipped to answer. “Am I lovable? Am I disposable?” It took years for me to process what had happened, release myself from the burden of shame, and ultimately forgive my abuser. I feel lucky to be able to say I have moved forward to a place where my abuse experience does not define who I am or who I will become; but to this day, when I hear the stories of women forced to perform sexual acts the fire inside me grows stronger.
Me: 2017 was your five-year anniversary of fundraising as part of the Dressember challenge. What is one of the biggest challenges you faced and overcame over the five-year journey? What about the most inspiring part of your adventure?
Blythe: I think the challenges were part of the adventure. We grew fast, but as a nonprofit I had to be really patient until we had the resources to grow operationally. I wasn’t able to come on staff full time until last summer. I made my first hire a few months later, and hope to make a few more hires this coming summer. We still don’t have an office, which offers its own set of challenges! We are scrappy and we have to be. But I think it makes me feel more grateful when we finally hit these milestones!
I think the most inspiring part of the adventure has probably been coming into my own as a female leader. I was not raised to lead, and no one really called out leadership traits in me until around the time Dressember started and surpassed everyone’s (including my) expectations. Suddenly I was a leader! I had to learn a lot, and relatively quickly. But it’s made me want to encourage other young women to lead; leaders are made, not born.
Me: When you did your first Dressember challenge, did you ever imagine it would turn into this?
Blythe: Never. In fact, it may have kept me from doing it! What is that expression? If we knew what we were doing, we would never do it? I think I butchered it, but the idea is that sometimes it’s better to be naive because if we had any idea what we were undertaking we’d never do it. My initial goal for the first Dressember campaign was $25,000, which felt HUGE and scary. Then we hit my huge, scary goal on day three. We ended up raising six times my goal, and I realized that something that started as a few girls in southern California wearing dresses for fun had become a global community of over 1,200 women in 32 countries raising tens of thousands of dollars to fight global human trafficking.
Me: This year you are expanding and adding an event in May as well. Can you share any details with us?
Blythe: We are hosting our inaugural You Can Do Anything in a Dress (or Tie) 5K Run on May 20th at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. We’re going to run in dresses and ties and raise money for a local anti-trafficking org here in LA! We’re also inviting all our non-local advocates to run the race virtually by plotting out a 3.1 mile course in their area, grabbing a few friends, and setting up a fundraising page and goal. At Dressember, we see our role as providing fun and meaningful ways to engage in the fight to end modern-day slavery. We also want people to think of us outside of December, so we are thrilled to host our first ever spring event.
Me: You confided in me that you’ve never run a 5k before. What inspired you to take on a challenge so far out of your comfort zone?
Blythe: First of all, I think growth only happens when we step out of our comfort zones, so there’s that! Secondly, we’d like to engage a new audience to participate in Dressember. Maybe wearing a dress or tie for a month isn’t your thing, but wearing one for a 5K is. We’re excited to see both new and familiar faces join us.
Me: Can you share with us what you’ll be listening to during your run?
Blythe: We are putting together a free downloadable podcast for people to listen to while they run. We’ll use it to share statistics, survivor stories, and more, which are sure to inspire you and remind you that you’re running for a purpose. This download will be available to non-local runners, as well!
Me: What is the one piece of advice you would want to share with someone who wants to follow in your footsteps of using their own unique talents and life experiences to give back?
Blythe: This might sound small, but because we all so hate to look silly, I think my biggest advice is to be willing to look silly. Be willing to try something and fail. When I started Dressember, I remember thinking, “this could totally flop, and I might end up looking really dumb. ‘Here’s a girl who thought she could end modern-day slavery by getting dressed.’” But I decided that if I could help even one person, it was worth looking like a fool to a thousand people. My advice is to find something you care about so much that those odds become worth it.
If you want to join us in the You Can Do Anything in a Dress (or Tie) 5K Run (yes, us – I’ll be running the 5k in LA with Blythe!) you can sign up using the code WeLoveCharityGirlProblems and get 10% off from when registering.
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