First thing’s first, if you have not heard of ABLE, you need to stop what you’re doing and go visit livefashionable.com right now. I’ll wait. Ok, now that your life has just gotten better, get ready to meet one of the beautiful people behind ABLE. I met Jen Milam a few years ago when I was in grad school dreaming about The Duwa Project. Jen graciously agreed to be a part of my advising board. We talked through training models, product development, business structure, empowerment, and eventually became friends. Seriously, no questions asked, she would show up and just pour out her knowledge and wisdom. Salt of the earth, this girl. I am so excited for you to read some of Jen’s story!
Jen Milam was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and grew up in a suburb called West Chester. “(My childhood) was very ideal. I have a younger brother and sister and my mom stayed home. My dad is a really good guy and my parents are still married. I didn’t realize how privileged I was until I went to college and I learned about other people’s life experiences. My parents told me that I had been given a lot and that I should use it to make an impact.” To whom much is given, much is expected. Luke 12:48. Growing up, Jen was majorly impacted by her neighbor, Nanni, who was a survivor of the holocaust as a political prisoner. Nanni often shared her life experiences with Jen. “She taught me what resilience looked like as an adult, watching someone who went through so much.” Jen knew Nanni from ages 2-16. Jen also talked about being impacted by her parents. “My mom taught me to be joyful in all situations and to be grateful. My dad taught me to put my head down and work and that you’re not doing much in the world if you’re not helping someone.” (Can I get an amen?) She also credits much of what she learned growing up to her mom’s group of friends, “Which is funny when you think about where I work now,” Jen laughed. ABLE is primarily staffed by women and working for women’s equality, equity, and empowerment.
I asked Jen if there were any challenges or hardships she had to navigate while growing up. She said, “Faith has always been a challenge for me. I have thought a lot about faith. As a teenager, there were years I refused to go to church because I couldn’t understand. I’m glad I’ve questioned it because it enables me to be able to explain what I believe. On a family vacation, I had what I call a ‘lightning bolt moment’, when it became apparent that God had joined me at the top of the mountain I was on. While I’ve continued to learn about and question my faith and religion over time, I’ve never questioned God’s existence after that experience.”
Jen graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Miami of Ohio in 2012. Which by the way, has the most delightful sandwich place is near campus called Bagel and Deli. Holy yum! She and her husband met in Miami. “Jay Milam is the most surprising part of my life. Hands down. He is nothing I would have expected of who I’d be with if someone asked me when I was 18. (You ask someone at 18 and really, they just describe the parts of themselves they like.) But we need balance against ourselves. He’s so steady. He’s so good, and kind, and loyal. He surprises me at every turn. After 10 years, he’s consistently interesting to me.”
“(We) lived in Minneapolis away from both of our families and (transitioning) out of college to a cubicle job was hard af. What am I supposed to do with this?? How am I making an impact? Why am I trying to convince the customer to buy her third pair of curtains in a year? My husband was doing TFA (Teach for America) and working long nights. It was a lonely time. We both are really close to our families and we were so far away. We both had new jobs, 10-12 hour workdays. College to a cubicle. I thought, if I’m going to be spending this much of my time here, is this what I really want to be doing? We knew we didn’t want to stay there. It taught me about the value of quality of life, (that) needs to be considered in ALL areas. That big house, what does that equal? More money, but will you see your spouse? It taught me about the trade-off.”
Post-college, Jen transitioned from that job to ABLE. “It was like I didn’t have the power to make that not happen. God made it SO clear. Even the year previous, I didn’t understand why I was learning what I was learning… it literally informs everything I do now. It has helped me to understand, ‘I don’t get the purpose of this yet, but I know there is one.’” This perspective helps Jen in other areas, too. “When I feel like I am creating impact, I feel joyful- even if I’m not happy. Even if we’re not having a good marriage day, if I feel like I’m making an impact and laying a foundation for something later, I feel joy. If we’re having a conversation that’s hard but it has the potential to positively affect something 3 months from now, I know I’m having an impact and I feel joy. At work, we’re making an impact and we always say, “If it was easy everyone would be doing it.’”
Most recently Jen and her husband, Jay, went through another tough season together: adoption. “We take a couple’s trip each New Year’s and we talk about goal setting.” She talked to Jay about adoption on December 29, feeling like a woman possessed, hoping he would consider beginning the adoption process When they were matched with their son 8 months later, they realized he had been brought to his orphanage the same weekend they had those conversations. “Going through the adoption, we feel like: we’re normal people, kind of anonymous, but then we had people come up to us saying, “We’ve prayed for him for a year and here you are at the grocery store.” It blew us away. (It’s a) tough referral process, you get the child’s case and you have to say yes or no. I will never stop praying for those other two kids whose files we saw. It felt like a hard part of the process that no one talks about. How you do talk about that?”
I asked Jen if there has ever been a correlation between a dark season in your life that you have seen God use for good to help or impact others? “Yes, I saw that with work and Minneapolis and the last 5 years. I mean I really feel like we’ve (ABLE) made a difference in a lot of people’s lives. I don’t feel like that’s me or one person, there’s a team of people who can make a change and they are.” She shared that one of ABLE’s in-country representatives has grown from employing 5 seamstresses to 40! “We’ve changed their lives for a year, we put food on their table for a year. That’s something! It taught me about appreciating milestones. Dark seasons have been seasons in preparation for someone else.”
“The power of the human spirit is so huge in my life. I’ve seen people change their lives 180 degrees, showing such resilience in hard situations. Allow people to change and work hard to give people opportunities to help people change. There are things close to your heart and that you’re passionate about. If you are passionate about it, how are you laying foundations for that to improve? Don’t get compassion fatigue. At ABLE, we’re publishing wages. This is one opportunity to improve. Also, remember that everyone has behind the scenes that are not ideal, and for everything I’ve said about my job there are crap days at work. For every wonderful thing that has come from the adoption, there were a lot of nights with tears. We tend to focus on the end which can rob us of the realness of the middle.”
Jen has dreams she’s already accomplished some she’s still in. “I have adopted! I’m married to my best friend and I’m making a difference with my work. I’d like to make a difference in the adoption space in a bigger way. I want to continue to make an impact at ABLE, for fashion wages to be a bigger conversation than they currently are. I am in progress, dynamic, compassionate and determined.”
Jen Milam as a Catalyst Woman:
-She is not afraid to ask tough questions. Even with God, she asks and trusts His answers.
-She acknowledges the goodness in her work and life is attributed to the help of people around her, hard work, and perspective.
-She is a team player, whether that be with her family, work, marriage, or life in general. Empowerment is a common theme, which she recognizes is accomplished through people, not a person.
Sister, did you know that you were created for the community? Did you know that when Jesus left He said it was so an advocate could come? That Advocate is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guides us to the community, friendship, relationships, people who need us and who we need. Don’t shy away from relationships or changes for fear of brokenness, trust, or failure. God is in all of it. He has something incredible just around the corner. Take his hand and trust that He’s got you. He will equip and empower you for the Kingdom. He wants to use you for all kinds of goodness. Yes, you.
You are a Catalyst Woman.