Branden Harvey came bounding through the door of Powell’s as Joy and I finished up our interview.
That’s Branden in a word; bounding. Though it may have the connotation of a haphazard attempt at a goal, he is focused and intentional in his pursuits. What I want you to take away from this description is the energy vibrating off him. The curlie-cue of his bright blonde hair bobbed about as he wrapped me in a hug. If you have never experienced hope in human form, I hope you get a chance to meet Branden. His face reflects the sunniest of days when you’ve been squishing your toes in the white sands of salty seawater. I have never seen a spirit so expansive and embracing in its innocence and wisdom.
His youth surprised me. His accomplishments are many. Branden is a photographer who gained recognition on bothInstagram and Snapchat for his storytelling. He’s done photo shoots for everyone from Clif Bar to the Pope (yes, the head of the Catholic church) and was the first person to tell a Snapchat story inside the White House. He also gives large amounts of time to nonprofits. We crossed paths on various social medias and his heart impacted mine. It still impacts mine. When he took a seat across from me, he started with the story of how he reached this level of success at such a young age. It’s been written abouthere and here. Hard work, pursuit, and being open to the world and opportunities around him have led him down his current path. It’s also taken a willingness to say “no” to things which haven’t fit into his already busy schedule or weren’t in line with his personal mission.
He began to tell me about his trip to Uganda and Rwanda, one which had fit with his mission.
Brought in to shoot portraits for an organization called Beauty for Ashes, who works with thirty different communities in Uganda, his work was to be used to give supporters the chance to get to know the people of these villages. The area of Uganda which Branden visited was one the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) had come through ten years prior. In their destruction, they had kidnapped the young boys, raped the women and girls, and killed most of the men.
“It’s created a situation in the villages where emotionally and physically wounded women were left to care for all the young children. Most of the men who were left felt the pressure of being the only man in the village and turned to alcoholism or drugs.” A couple of women in the area, Akwango Anne Grace Elotu and Enu Rita, began to see to it that the others were taking care of themselves and built a relationship with a woman who had previously worked in Africa and now lived in Colorado, Brandi McElheny. They created an organization to help the villages work together as a community.
Branden’s eyes grew brighter as he talked about how they were brought together by the emotional support which few of them had previously experienced. “Many of them have never heard the words ‘me too.’ There’s power in someone saying, ‘yes, I feel that way too. I experienced that too.’ So, that has really helped them heal. These women are amazing. We just get to facilitate that healing. That’s our role.” Practically speaking this means helping with school fees or clean water or investing in them with livestock to help them run their own businesses.
I wondered if seeing so much pain had brought him sadness in the midst of his work.
It was obvious he felt things deeply and I asked if the pain of what they had experienced weighed on him. “I didn’t feel sad. I did feel heartbroken at times, hearing their stories. But I saw their hope…there was so much hope and I couldn’t help but feel that too. These women are hopeful beyond what I can even imagine. And I felt honored. Honored is what I mostly felt. I was able to be there and experience it. I didn’t feel like they needed me. Me showing up only empowers them more,” he paused and wrinkled his nose, “No. I don’t even like the words “empowers” because it sounds like I have something to give them.” I loved his genuine willingness to note he was still figuring things out. “I’m not sure what the right word is for it,” he continued, “I know that when I leave, those women are still feeling hopeful, whether I’m there or not. I think I’m just telling the story. I am just telling the story so that more people can experience what I have experienced.”
I sit back and hesitate to ask my next question considering what he has and is accomplishing, but it’s on the list so I ask it anyway. “What’s your big dream, Branden? Are you living it now? Is it something you’re in pursuit of? Will it happen in the future?” He doesn’t hesitate. There is no pause. He knows the answer without any thought.
“I’m a storyteller. That’s my big dream. Whether I’m writing or filming or doing a photo shoot. I tell story. All other dreams flow out of that.”
The simplicity of his understanding of where and who he is and where he is headed, left me pondering; would I ever be that sure? I had never known my exact calling. Bits and pieces of various things I was good at tugged at me for my entire life, but certainty had always been lacking. I have felt like a clumsy first draft, but I could finally see my story unfolding. When he said, “Storyteller,” I realized my dream looked similar. That evening on the plane to Austin, I messaged a friend, “I can feel the last vestiges of who I was coming off. I’m leaving the pieces behind in each city. They fall off on plane rides and as I race to reach the next gate for my flight. I am becoming. It is good.”
My friend, Cassi, says, “It is better to have someone fight with you, than for you.”
This is a lesson Branden has learned and is using his abilities and gifts to do. As I was writing this, I did some research on Beauty for Ashes. On the site, one of the founders, Brandi tells a piece of her story. “He [God] began to heal me from deep trauma and to show me how to love hurting people like me. At the time, I had no clue that He was preparing me to love deeply wounded people by allowing me to be deeply wounded. I had no clue that He was healing me so that I might speak and live healing in our hurting world.” The tears slid down my face as I read these words. Becoming is hard work; some of which we must do on our own. But we need others in the trenches with us, someone to help us dig deeper and hold our hands and say, “you got this.” Maybe you’re there. If so, you’re not alone. Brandi and Anne and Enu Rita and Branden and me, we’re all here and we have some words for you. “Me too.”