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Sitting down with one who stands up

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Outwardly, he is a charismatic and expressive voice; inwardly, a thoughtful dissident. Benjamin O’Keefe has touched many lives internationally with his testimony and was determined to reach many more through the speech he delivered at the University of the Fraser Valley on Sept. 15. Benjamin is an activist, not so much fighting for, but engaging directly in changing his world. Living his formative years poor and growing up out of bullying and low self-image, Benjamin has become an empathetic and sturdy role-model for anyone: we all at times experience invasive self-loathing and condemning thoughts. His message is that we all have a story and through our stories, through the connections we create, through the relationships we build we all have something intimately unique with which to change the world.

He is a speaker, a writer, an actor, an activist and Benjamin spoke to The Cascade about some of his experiences leading him to where he is now and the ones he hopes to see lead him to where he wants to be (Oprah). A deliberate and engaging conversationalist, this is some of what he had to say:

How would you describe your current role, because you’re sort of an instigator?
An instigator, a rabble rouser, and agitator, but a mentor more than anything. I have so many great mentors that have come into my life. I’ve done a lot on my own, but no one gets where they are by themselves. Sure, you have to have the tenacity to go forward and the drive to do it, but no one gets where they are by themselves and so being willing to accept help and being willing to give help without reward, that’s what really takes you to a different level

So you’re in a position where you have a great opportunity to speak to a mass of people and connect with large groups personally, but not one-on-one. Considering you have a lot of powerful mentors of your own, would you ever take on a role of mentoring individuals to be something greater?
Yeah, I mean, I help people now. I’m not audacious enough to think I have all the answers. I think that being a mentor isn’t giving people the answers, it’s just guiding them to the answers themselves. I do a lot of producing, I work at MoveOn and I have my associate producer and it’s really cool having the opportunity to help him navigate things that I’ve already navigated. That’s what a mentor does, right? They give you their story, and you use their story to influence your story. That’s why I say we all have a story and our stories have the power to change someone else’s and, if we give them the chance, to change the world. I’ve said that thousands of times by now but I say it because I actually mean it, that’s not bullshit. When you break it down and you take away the fancy words, what you’re saying is that you have the power to influence one person, that person has the power to influence someone else and all those different pages, all the different chapters that we’re writing can write a whole book that you never knew you were writing in the first place; that’s what’s so powerful. And this is all part of my journey of learning to appreciate the moment I’m in and enjoy and value the moment I’m in as opposed to always looking to the future. We should always be moving forward but we have to appreciate and understand what we have now before we can really do anything later.

You’re talking about how being in the moment is key, to acknowledge that the future does exist, but to be thoughtfully aware of where you are and how you got here and that there will be a future regardless. So if you do what you’re supposed to now, the future will align itself in a way that’s desirable, right?
Yeah, I think that your life can be good if you allow it. I had to will it to be and I had to fight for it to be, but I also had to allow myself to let go because I don’t have all the answers, and so why am I trying to create this future that I don’t have all the answers to yet? I have so much more to learn before I can create the future I really want to. And I’m going to create that future, but let me get all the tools that I can now to make it the best future later. That was really hard for me because I want to be Oprah tomorrow, or at least I wanted to be, and now I absolutely don’t want to.

Now you’re beginning to appreciate the journey, because it’s comprised of the necessary steps to get to the next thing?
Absolutely, I’m just finding little moments in my life to smile about that I would have never smiled about before, like a Snapchat. Little things that are like, oh my gosh this is great, I can be happy, I can smile, I can live my best life now, so that’s what I’m doing.

When you were on the journey of fighting Abercrombie, what kept you motivated?
Tens of thousands of people writing to me every day. In one day I got 10,000 emails from people who had similar experiences and stories. It was really hard because up until really recently, I never felt beautiful and I never felt worthy and I never felt like I’d ever be desired by anybody, like actually desired for anything other than the success that I was manifesting. So knowing that me speaking was helping other people feel better and feel loved and feel worthy, that’s crazy. I was 18 years old just living my life just trying to make a difference and it was really impactful to hear to voices of people being touched by the movement.

You’ve struggled with body image and you’re in the process of healing. What has really been one of the biggest influencers in that healing?
Truthfully, I think that I only really recently have felt like I don’t have body issues anymore. I put on 50 pounds last year because I was stressed and busy and working and I broke up with my boyfriend and was like, well I’m never going to find anyone else. And then I found my boyfriend Matt and he just wholeheartedly takes me for who I am. I think it’s sad because you shouldn’t rely on other people’s validation to find your own, but there was something special about someone authentically loving me and it took me time to realize that he did. That made me realize I can love myself. I was speaking at schools and talking about these things but I didn’t fully grasp it, and now I really do.

What was it that you grasped?
That someone could love me just the way I am without changing anything, with all my flaws, every stretch mark, and not even just that, because image isn’t only body image, it’s self image. And learning that my anxiety disorder didn’t upset him and when I get cluster headaches he sits there with me; realizing that I’m worthy of love and that we all are. It’s about finding the people who love you for who you are. I always wanted the love of people who never would love me and so I was fighting this battle that I would never be able to win. I was fighting a losing battle, trying to find love and affection from the wrong people instead of finding love and affection and acceptance from people who already loved me and accepted me without me having to change.

Would you say it was easier fighting Abercrombie than fighting that battle trying to find acceptance?
Oh my god, yeah. And I’ll be really honest with you, so much of it wasn’t real and I said what other people needed to hear, and there’s something really powerful about that. And you know, I’ve been speaking for four years now and I speak to tens of thousands of people a year, and I still wasn’t authentically sharing my story, I was afraid to be vulnerable. Every voice crack was planned, and that’s just not the case anymore. I wrote what I said tonight, tonight. I’ve never said it like this before and I’ve never done it like this before because I want to be authentic, I want to be real, and I want to live in this moment without censoring or changing myself for anyone.

Think small then scale big, because small ripples turn into huge splashes. So make a little ripple and you’ll be surprised to see the big splash you can make in the end.Benjamin O’Keefe

You obviously have great influence. What kind of encouragement or suggestions would you give to young people who are trying to do something but just don’t know how to break into the world of influence and activism?
I think here’s the key: you don’t have to start a viral movement to make a difference. Changing one person’s life means so much. Literally helping one person get through the day, that’s why I say open the door and smile, and you never know what that smile means or how that person is feeling today, or what they’ve been through yesterday or what they’ll be going through tomorrow. Think small then scale big, because small ripples turn into huge splashes. So make a little ripple and you’ll be surprised to see the big splash you can make in the end.

Why do you think so many people are disenfranchised with wanting to make change?
A lot of people don’t feel like they have the ability to make a difference. What can I do, what can one voice do? If my story can do anything, I hope that it does tell people that one voice can make a difference. One voice, when amplified by millions of other voices, can make a huge difference but it has to start somewhere, there’s always a beginning. Even if that beginning is small and feeble, having the audacity to lead, but the ability to know that you can’t do it yourself, that’s the key.

What is your favourite thing about yourself?
I really like to make people laugh, and I feel sometimes almost psychic. That sounds a bit weird but I have this ability to connect with people. I don’t think people stop and connect with people enough. It’s shocking what you can sense in someone if you open yourself up to them and they allow you to come in. And I think one of my greatest skills is the ability to connect with real, human people, have real human interaction that’s not staged or fake or inauthentic. You never know, like in the crowd you can always point out the person you need to talk to afterwards. I take pride in that, I really take pride in connecting with people. I think one of the reasons I take pride, because obviously it’s nice to make an impact, but selfishly it’s not to allow myself to be vulnerable enough, allow myself to be brave enough to be weak, to actually connect with someone like that.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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