More Good Choices in a Row

Exploring identity with advocate and speaker Kara Burns

Depending on your perspective, a gloomy, cold winter’s day might be the best or worst time to think about your identity. I’ve been consumed with the notion of identity a lot recently. In our current political climate, knowing who you are and what you stand for matters more than at any other time in our recent history. In the last few years, I’ve seen people be more explicit in naming their identities.

That said, fully and honestly knowing ourselves is a life’s work, especially when our identities don’t fit neatly into one box. How do you make sense of yourself when you’ve experienced childhood poverty, addiction, the loss of custody of a child and federal incarceration? How do you see yourself as worthless and worthy? Stupid and capable? How do you become a motivator of others when you’ve had no motivation yourself?

I found out when I interviewed Kara Burns, Recruiting Partnership Coordinator at Equinox and alumni of the Dress for Success B-Strong Crisis Initiative. This program, delivered in collaboration with Skinny Girl entrepreneur, author and philanthropist Bethenny Frankel, supports women through personal crises. MindsOpen was the coaching partner for the initiative.

A few minutes into our conversation on that gloomy, cold winter’s day, Kara’s energy, compassion and honesty were evident, but it hasn’t always been that way, far from it.

“Growing up, I didn’t know we were poor but we were. Like a lot of kids, my childhood was not picture perfect. Mom had undiagnosed mental health challenges, so it was hard. I started drinking around 9th grade. My inner voice told me I wasn’t good enough or loveable enough. With the wisdom I have now, my today-self feels so heart heavy for my then-self. I just want to hug her and say that you’re loveable and amazing. Instead, I was influenced by my surroundings and a lack of direction. Please don’t get me wrong, my mother loved me very much. She just didn’t know how to show it in a maternal way. If it wasn’t for my step-dad, I am not sure what I would have done.”

Kara grew up in Irving, Texas, living with her mom and step-father. Education was not a priority in her household. Ideas of college or careers were not part of the dialogue. Making ends meet was tough. Shaped by her surroundings, Kara adopted a scarcity mindset from her early days.

“You value what your parents value. I was raised in an environment where no-one went to college. It was an unhealthy and negative environment. You manifest in your life what you believe. I started smoking at a young age. I don’t remember wanting to be anything as a kid, maybe a veterinarian, but I let go of that in middle school. I had no direction. I had no goal of college. I didn’t even really know what college was.”

I was interested to know Kara’s view of herself in those early days. We talked about how she saw herself as a child and what I would have seen of her in the schoolyard and at home.

“I was funny, outgoing and engaged with people. I’m a connector. I’m an encourager. That’s my authentic self. When I started using substances in high school all that changed. I was very insecure of my upbringing. I didn’t know how to set my identity apart from my family.”

It was at this point in our conversation I became deeply curious about the polarities I was hearing in Kara’s story. Human beings are complex. We can operate at both ends of personality dimensions. We can be calm and anxious, playful and disciplined, adventurous and conservative. The picture of Kara that was emerging was someone who was extroverted, vibrant and engaging yet lacking confidence, directionless and ashamed. I wondered if there was a mentor that had contributed to her growth or whether the strengths I was detecting in her were innate? It turned out her biological father played a crucial role in her life.

“I spent summers with my dad and step-mom. They lived in Colorado. They were the polar opposite of my mom. That’s what saved my ass. My dad valued education, he was extremely intelligent, he taught at a university and he did other things that line up with who I am today. He was a runner. He took care of himself. He didn’t smoke. He ate healthy. When I went to my dad’s, basic needs got met like going to the doctor and the dentist. My dad was my hero.”

A treasured memento, a photo of Kara with her dad.

Having experienced these paradoxes, these two different lives based on two different value sets, how did Kara reconcile them?

“When I was 16, my mom sent me to live with my dad and step-mom. That lasted approximately eight months until they sent me back to live with my mom. It was traumatizing because I thought so highly of my dad and I wanted to be part of that family and lifestyle so badly; the healthy, the good, the positive. There was lightness and darkness and I wanted to be a part of the light. I then spent 18 years fulfilling the destiny that I wasn’t good enough or loveable enough to keep. It took me that long to realize, “No girl, that ain’t you.”

When Kara returned to live with her mom, she started drinking heavily. As well as drinking, she began taking prescription drugs. That was the beginning of her drug use. It progressed to cocaine and by 21 she was taking methamphetamine. At 22, she was using it intravenously. Kara sees her addiction as part of her DNA.

“I was listening to a story on NPR of a dad talking to his son about his alcoholism. When the son asked, “Why do you keep doing this to yourself?” the dad responded, “It’s inevitable.” That really resonated with me. There is something inside of me that’s broken and they call it addiction. Add in some trauma and boom, off to the races you go. I am the perfect example of that.”

Losing custody of her daughter wasn’t quite rock bottom in Kara’s addiction. Living in agony, she continued her drug use until she was federally indicted for a drug-related offense in 2011. Since that day, she has been sober. She went through rehab in prison and continued therapy after her release. I wanted to know what happened to Kara’s sense of self during her time in prison.

“A big part of my progress was being stripped down to nothing. I know people who haven’t been able to recover. They make a ton of money and have an inability to lose it all. There is something that happens when you lose everything. When I got indicted and lost everything, I got stripped down to zero. My confidence, my self-esteem, my understanding of my identity in prison was at a 1 out of 10. There was little belief in myself. I’d ruined my life. I’d lost my daughter. I clearly couldn’t make good choices. I’d screwed everything up for 18 years. My identity was very shattered.”

One of the most powerful moments in our conversation was when Kara talked about her evolution from the day she went into prison to the day she was released, two and a half years later. I’ve worked with leaders for over 20 years and often ask them questions about their evolution starting and finishing college or beginning and leaving jobs. Maybe 1% of executives answer with the depth of insight and honesty that Kara shared.

“The day I went into prison I was an indignant criminal. The day I left I was a humble fighter. Vulnerability is my superpower. I’m not sure where that comes from. It’s just this knowing that I have to finally be real with myself and there is power in sharing the truth.”

Despite her resounding self-awareness, coming out of prison was a dark, lonely, testing time for Kara.

“It was horrible. I had no friends. My dad was still alive then and I had very little support except for him and my step-mom. I hung onto them as an example. I couldn’t find a job and I didn’t have any money. I was living in a halfway house that was filthy and overcrowded. Now I volunteer there and share my story. If anyone needs to hear my story it’s those women. There is no hope there. Statistically, over half of the people there will go back to prison for a bunch of reasons, including the gaps in services.”

“It was such a fight not to go back to my old ways. Maybe I needed that fight as the springboard for making change. I could have sold meth again and made decent money and I wouldn’t have been struggling but I didn’t. I took a narrower, rockier path. I didn’t know where that path would lead but I did know where the other path would lead.”

It struck me that of all the experiences Kara had shared, this was a pivotal moment in her journey, given the rate of reoffending, the stigmas faced by the justice-involved population and the lack of support and services. It seemed to me that her life was hanging in the balance. What made her persevere where others have fallen?

“I still made mistakes during that time. I pride myself on running a really clean program. I’m very careful with my sobriety and my associations. In my previous life I’d made more bad choices than good. Now, I have more good choices in a row and so when I make a mistake, the consequences aren’t as bad. What motivated me was that I didn’t want to live the same raggedy, tired, hard life that I had lived.”

The big game-changer for Kara was getting introduced to Dress for Success through her referral agency. In Kara’s words, “That organization changed my life.” She received her first interview outfit, got a job and went back for five more outfits. When Kara discovered that Dress for Success also had a professional women’s group that could get her out of the halfway house once a month, she jumped at the opportunity. She built close relationships with the staff and was invited to speak at a fundraising breakfast about her experiences. Unknown to Kara, there happened to be a dentist at that breakfast that was so inspired by her story, she offered to fix her teeth. That wasn’t all. An executive from the non-profit organization, Work Options for Women, was also at the breakfast and they needed a catering manager. Kara got the job. Her life was starting to move in a positive direction.

In 2018, Kara spoke to 250 of her fellow Skirt Sports ambassadors about self-worth at their annual ambassadors’ retreat. Kara is a fierce advocate for inclusivity and the body positive moment, as is Skirt Sports.

What’s remarkable about Kara is her drive and her zest for grabbing opportunities. She does this despite everything she’s been through and despite having seen herself as stupid, lazy and unworthy. When other people can’t or won’t capitalize on the chances that come their way, Kara does. I asked her if she attributes those qualities to anything or anyone?

“Oh gosh. I can attribute it to something alright! After I got indicted, I’m going to go spiritual on you for a second, I had my first conversation with God. “Is this what your purpose is for me?” It was this overwhelming message of “No, I have so much more for you, start listening to me.”

As Kara and everyone in recovery know, you are only sober for today. In the summer of 2017, Kara was at risk of relapsing. She had overcome so much but intimate relationships remained a vulnerability for her. At the time, she had just ended a two-year, toxic relationship that brought her to her knees. Kara was determined not to go down without a fight. It was a moment in her addiction when she knew she had to battle for her sobriety. She reached out to Dress for Success, who had just launched the B-Strong Crisis Initiative. This was Kara’s crisis. She was accepted into the program and was connected with a therapist. This gave Kara the tools she needed to be a psychologically healthier person.

What about the work she did with her coach, Sherri Sacco?

“I remember my first conversation or two with my coach Sherri and saying to her, “Can I just be honest with you?” I didn’t want to share with her that I was on my knees. Once I let go of that and told myself, “This woman is here to support me” it helped a lot. When I hooked up with Sherri, I still had this mindset that she had never heard a story like mine and she wasn’t going to want to deal with a felon. I had so much negative self-talk like “I’m the only one who has these relationship problems” and “she’s just going to think I’m a drug addict who makes bad choices in relationships.” I had all these thoughts about Sherri and her thoughts about me. I projected this defense mechanism back then. It’s taken two years of therapy to get me out of that. ”

Kara completing the 2018 Chicago Marathon. Running is a big part of her recovery, sobriety and well-being

“One of the first things we worked on was that I was trying to prove my worth through my achievements. If I serve on a board it’s going to make me worthy, if I’m in school with a 4.0 GPA it will make me worthy. Consequently, I always have a full plate. On this side of success, I am very aware when things keep me busy running in a circle not going anywhere. I’m aware when I need to get rid of stuff that’s not propelling me forward. Sherri taught me that. When I am giving all my time to achievements rooted in creating worthiness and I see I’m not moving forward, I can snap back to my conversations with Sherri and prioritize and restructure. That’s been one of the greatest gifts she has brought to my life. What sets Sherri apart is her ability to be caring and guide me in such a rational way.”

“Sherri saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself. That is the number one way she transformed my life through coaching. There is something emotional about that. When someone can see something in you that you can’t see for yourself, that’s life-changing. Sherri has played a huge, instrumental role in building me back up.”

Given Kara’s astounding self-insight, it’s no surprise that she could so eloquently describe who she is today.

“Today I am a fighter first and foremost, I am humble, I have a spirit of hope and a spirit of encouragement.”

Through seizing another one of those opportunities, being the Be Bold keynote speaker in front of 800 guests at the Dress for Success Gala dinner in 2018, Kara was hired by Equinox as their Recruiting Partnership Coordinator.

Dress for Success CEO Joi Gordon congratulating Kara on her Be Bold keynote speech at the 2018 Gala dinner

“My path to Equinox wasn’t a traditional one much like most of my life. I was speaking last year at a fundraising gala for Dress for Success in New York City and the COO was impressed with my grit, positivity, and determination. Our interaction that day inspired him to offer me a position where I develop partnerships with non-profits and create a unique sourcing and recruiting pipeline for people like me; people who have what it takes but just need the chance to prove it. It’s mind-blowingly exciting to be a part of social change in our communities by developing employment pathways for people who need a second chance.”

“In everything we do, we create the possibility for people to maximize their potential, themselves.” That is Equinox’s mission statement and I stare at it every day on my screen saver. It reminds me of where I came from and where I am going. It motivates me to advocate for others and always keep reaching higher. I am further today than I ever dreamed, and I am just getting started.”

As we start to wrap up our conversation, I think of all Kara’s accomplishments and wonder what’s next for her?

“I applied for a TedX this past year and I didn’t get in, which is perfect because my story is still developing. I’m working on my website and a book. The purpose is spreading that message of hope. I’m also part of the National Speakers Association in Colorado so I can propel my speaking career.

My last question for Kara, by which point we are both emotional, “In 30 years’ time when you look back on your life, what will you be most proud of?”

“Oh man, two things. As a woman, our greatest gift is being a mother and I set a very bad example for my daughter in my previous life. I carried shame for many years because she deserved better. If I can inspire my daughter to one day say, “I want to do better and that change is possible because I watched my mother completely change her life.” then that will be a win.”

Kara today with her daughter

“Also, I will be most proud of making a way for felons and drug addicts to have less of a stigma than we do now. It’s hard to get employed, find a place that will rent to you and the way people treat when you have prison and addiction in your background is like you are less than them. “

“I advocate and openly share my past to make life a little easier for the woman behind me who was just released from prison, has nothing including little self-worth and hopes she can somehow make it out of the hell hole called her past without so many barriers from the community. I have been trusted with the opportunity to serve, influence and encourage others. If people one day say, “Kara challenged stereotypes and normalized conversations about being a felon and it’s because of her story, I had the confidence to push forward, ask for help and not give up” then I won.”

You can follow Kara’s ongoing journey on Instagram and Facebook