“I’m proud to be a woman in a leadership role, paving the way for the next generations of fierce, badass young ladies to know they can be and do whatever they set their minds to” - Tonya Sandis
What makes a good Leader?
Picture a leader. Go on, do it now! What are they wearing? What are they doing? What qualities do they have?
Pop Quiz time! Finish the sentence: “A good leader is …
A) focused and driven.
B) open and honest.
C) creative and innovative.
D) inspiring to others.
“What?! No ‘All of the above’ option?!”
If you struggled to choose, then you are going to love this!
We are delighted to bring to you the deepest and most interesting insights from the mind of a woman who embodies every essence of a great leader.
“I knew at a young age that I wanted to be an advocate for young people”
We are honored to bring you our conversation with Tonya Sandis, co-founder of the award-winning nonprofit, Free2Luv®.
She shares her empowering perspective on:
-Why it is so important to have women in leadership roles.
-What inspired her and her family to launch Free2Luv.
-How Free2Luv is changing young people’s lives through mentorship, community spirit and the performing arts.
Born and raised in LA, Tonya fell into the entertainment world and discovered the power of the arts. There, she found she was one of very few female executives in her industry.
And this isn’t a problem that she faces alone.
Americanprogress.org states that: “They (women) are only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.”
It’s no wonder so many young women are craving more female leaders to look up to.
Nevertheless, Tonya was one of the lucky ones. She tells me: “I was fortunate to have a few women role models and mentors in the business that helped guide me through a very male-driven business.”
She is now thrilled to be giving back in the same way.
“Because of their fearless spirits, I was encouraged to be fierce, bold, and unstoppable. Throughout my career, I took this spirit with me and value mentorship. This is now a key component of Free2Luv.”
Women in Leadership
Having strong, female role models was invaluable for Tonya. Now she is paving the way for the next generation of badass young women to take on any field they choose!
And, ladies, Tonya has an invitation for us:
“I challenge all women in every industry to be a mentor and guide our girls in finding their passions and tapping into their authentic selves.”
I, for one, am excited to accept her challenge!
But where to start?
Tonya has put her leader skills into practice in one of the best possible ways; with her own family.
“My wife and I consciously raised our girls to know their strength and power as women. We let them know from a young age that ANYTHING they desired was possible.”
Read on to discover what else Tonya has done with this passion.
“We had to take a stand for all of the innocent lives being lost.”
Tonya asked me a frank question:
“Can you imagine losing your children, your classmates, your friends, neighbors, nieces and nephews, all to an epidemic that has become one of the leading causes of death among ten – twenty four years old?”
The simple answer is: No. No, I honestly cannot imagine anything so horrifying.
But the sad truth is that many people do not have to imagine; they know the feeling firsthand. Tonya’s question highlights the importance of what Free2Luv are trying to achieve.
“I was done losing our future,” she tells me. “The next inventor, doctor, poet, artist, peacekeeper is being lost to youth suicide.”
In response to this epidemic, Tonya and her family started Free2Luv.
What’s in a name?
To answer this, Tonya takes me back to the beginning:
“Before Free2Luv was born, we wanted to make sure our organization name reflected our ethos,” she says. “We believe behind every issue, whether it’s bullying, self-harm or self-loathing, is low self-esteem and a lack of self-love.”
“The name Free2Luv is about loving yourself first, loving others and being free to love whoever you desire.”
Free2Luv has grown from a name into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, dedicated to empowering, uplifting, and saving the lives of youth through the performing arts.
Why the performing arts?
Have you ever:
-Felt moved by a piece of music?
-Forgot yourself a movie theatre?
-Laughed until you cried during a stand-up routine?
Then you are already familiar with the transformative power of the performing arts!
Free2Luv harnesses this power and uses it in one of the beautiful ways I have ever seen.
“The arts are powerful and effective in changing lives as they speak to each of us on a universal level,” Tonya says.
“We may not be able to articulate the emotions we’re feeling, but a song lyric or a powerful piece of slam poetry or a dance performance, not only brings validity to your emotions, but gives you a sense of belonging and a knowing that you’re not alone. And that’s quite powerful.”
“Through conversation in a safe, judgment free space, we can change things.”
One thing I have personally always admired about the arts, is their ability to ignite conversation.
You have only to look at people nattering excitedly as they leave a theatre, raving about a rock concert or passionately debating the ‘true’ meaning of a song lyric.
Free2Luv provides youth with the opportunity to reflect on what they see and speak about it openly, without fear of judgement.
“All of our outreach through the arts is created to inspire thought-provoking conversations.” Tonya tells me.
And while there is an uncountable number of people who have benefited, Tonya shared with me one moving story about an individual whose experience was truly lifechanging.
“A moment that jumps out at me was a conversation I had with a fifteen-year-old girl, who realized she has the power to say no and that her body was her own,” she tells me.
“It was the first time she felt safe to share what was going on in her life. Being surrounded by her peers and myself meant she was able to face the situation and begin healing.” Tonya remembers. “It’s in moments like this that you realize the power of art and conversation.”
Successfully providing safe spaces and tools to thrive with allows youth to:
-express themselves creatively,
-become more confident and compassionate
-turn their pain into power and purpose.
“I am proud of the safe haven we have created for youth to thrive and express themselves creatively in a judgment-free environment,” beams Tonya.
Feel like you are struggling? Tonya has some beautiful wisdom for you.
There are times when life just feels hard, for many different reasons. I asked Tonya what guidance she can offer us when we are going through difficult times.
“No one is immune to struggle,” she tells me. “A lot of people connote struggle as a bad thing. I like to see every struggle or challenge as contrast, leading me to a feeling of what it is that I’m wanting. A lot of growth can come from periods of self-doubt.”
What a perspective shift!
Here is Tonya’s practical and powerful advice for when life gets tough:
-First, be kind to yourself.
-Second, give yourself permission to ‘feel’ – whatever that is – sadness, anger, fear.
-And then know that you are not defined by the situation - not by someone else’s opinion of you, not by any bullying and/or abuse you’ve suffered, not by any label someone else has assigned you. Byron Katie says it best when she says “What somebody else thinks of you is none of your business.”
-Find your tribe. Find people who lift you and support you whether you’re up or down. Know that you’re never alone.
-And lastly, stand in your truth because you are here for a purpose.
Need support? Free2Luv is an incredible resource for empowerment and advice. Have a look at their game changing blog, where they address issues from bullying, to mental health to suicide prevention and more.
The effect of Free2Luv on Tonya
It is hard to imagine this type of work could ever leave a person unchanged. Tonya revealed to me her biggest learning curve:
“The hardest part for me is asking for help,” she admits. “Running a nonprofit has forced me to move out of my comfort zone and seek support in community. I needed to change my conditioning. I thought that asking for help was a weakness – in fact, I have learned it can be our greatest strength!”
And would she recommend this journey to someone else? Absolutely!
If you have:
-a passion to create change
-life experiences that would help solve a societal issue
-the desire for a challenge
Then Tonya has some words of encouragement for you:
“It is highly rewarding work to give back and help others. It benefits you in ways words can’t describe.”
But be warned!
“It takes grit, determination, passion, emotional fortitude, self-love, and a whole lotta support from others,” she cautions! “It is definitely a labor of love and, quite frankly, the most challenging job I’ve ever had. And at the same time, the most rewarding!”
It’s a Collaboration Sensation!
The JUST Drop It Company is thrilled to be supporting Free2Luv in their amazing work.
Until the end of May 2019, 25% of all JUST Drop It’s profits will go to Free2Luv.
Not only that, but with the help of fourteen-year-old singer and bullying survivor,
Maisie Mae, we created the JUST Pop Star Collection.
We wanted to remind everyone that they have a voice to express themselves and to stand up for what is right.
25% of profits will always go to Free2Luv.
Read Maisie’s incredible true story here.
Together, we can be the change.
We are all welcome to join Free2Luv on their awesome journey.
“I invite everyone to join us to create a braver, kinder, more loving world for all youth,” says Tonya “Our youth deserve a bright future and it’s up to each of us to provide it.”
Ready to make a change? Tonya has some fun ways you can get involved, and find out more!
- In 2019, Free2Luv updated their website. They are proud to provide some great resources, such as their THIS IS MY STORY video series. Here, youth and young adults share their adversity and their words of wisdom on how they overcame it.
Got a story of your own? Submit your own video to take part!
- Free2Luv are excited to continue their UNSTOPPABLE: Tour De Force tour. You can catch their musical cirque spectacle in Vegas this October for Bullying Prevention Month.
- Join their mailing list to stay up-to-date on the good that they are spreading.
Keep in touch!You can find Free2Luv on:
Our group: FREE2LUV
Remember, you are never alone.
Got a question? A comment? A thought? Please send them our way and we shall pass them on to Free2Luv!