Advancing Philanthropy

AFP ICON 2022: The Power of One Voice—Interview with Allyson Felix

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Allyson Felix and her daughter

Allyson Felix, the opening keynote speaker for AFP ICON 2022, has had a remarkable track and field career. She’s the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete, a seven-time Olympic champion and a world record holder. Once driven by her performance on the track, as a mom who has experienced her own battles as a pregnant athlete, Allyson now serves as an advocate for other women and mom athletes. She uses her platform to discuss the topics that have become most important to her over the last few years, such as maternal mortality, child care and equality for women in sports and in general.

afp icon 2022Allyson’s advocacy efforts landed her on Time’s 2020 and 2021 Most Influential People list. Last year, continuing her efforts to support women athletes, Allyson launched two new projects: The Power of She Fund, which provides grants to women athletes who need child care assistance while competing on the road; and Saysh, a lifestyle sneaker for women. Saysh, she noted during its launch, is a step toward greater equity for women. The brand’s goal is to “help women feel seen and known.” She’s helping to fill a void that has long been ignored and creating much-needed change in the sports industry.

Although she had no way of knowing that her track and field career would head in this direction, she is fully embracing the role of activist. In this interview with Advancing Philanthropy magazine, Allyson shares how her career has changed over the years and why she will continue to serve as a fierce and outspoken advocate for women, girls and moms.

At AFP, we focus a lot on the mental health and wellness of fundraisers because burnout happens all too frequently. Recently in sports, we’ve seen athletes putting their mental health first. How do you advocate for your mental health, and how do you suggest others do the same for themselves?

For me, a big thing is understanding when I need to step away from something and knowing the signs—whether I’m feeling overwhelmed, there’s too much on my plate or I’m drowning with something. Those are the signs for me, and now I’m able to understand when I need an extra day of rest and ask for that and have communication with my coach and my team. That’s a priority for me—making sure I’m taking care of myself first so I can do all the things that I need to do.

In 2021, with support from Athleta and The Women’s Sports Foundation, you launched The Power of She Fund, which provides child care grants to mom athletes. How and why did you decide to start this groundbreaking initiative?

It came about through my own experiences. When I had my daughter, I came back and started competing about eight months after she was born. I realized it is really hard to be a mom competing at the highest level and thinking about logistics like child care.

The Power of She Fund came about because I was thinking of a way to support mom athletes. It’s something we don’t really think about, and we’re not doing a great job of offering support in this area. Both Athleta and The Women’s Sports Foundation understood the need, and it was great to see them come on board and support women in this way.

The pandemic and social justice protests in summer 2020 shed light on the disparities and inequities in industries like health care and education. How have you used your platform to call attention to these injustices?

I’ve tried to share my own stories and amplify the stories of others. Everyone has been through a lot, and it’s been a really heavy period. And more than ever over the last several years, I’ve understood my platform more. It feels like a privilege to be able to use it in this way, where I can shine a light on things, raise awareness and continue telling stories.

Time named you one of the most influential people in 2020 and 2021. What has been the most influential aspect of your career thus far?

That was extremely humbling. If you would have asked me that years ago, I would’ve said something about running or records. Now, it has shifted for me. The most influential part of my career, without a doubt, has been fighting for maternal protections for women. That’s something I’m most proud of—being able to have an influence, push for that true equality and support women holistically.

When I was of going through my situation, it changed me. [Before I had my daughter] I was somewhat aware of the statistics, but I think once you have a personal story, it opens your eyes to what others are going through and have been going through. And, if I can do anything in this area, I am all for that, and I want to keep pushing that.

When you started your track and field journey, did you set out to become an activist?

Absolutely not. I was the furthest thing from it. By nature, I’m very much an introvert, and I have always wanted to stay in my lane—hyper-focused on performance. It was never comfortable for me to have bold opinions on anything. This was a natural progression, and through my own experiences and maturing, it brought me to a place of understanding that if you have the ability to push for change, then you should take advantage of that opportunity.

In a previous interview, you mentioned that you’re not running for medals, you are running for change. What does that change look like specifically?

I think it’s true equality, and there are a number of different issues that we’re far behind on, such as equal pay, visibility, and all the maternal issues. Continuing to run after I became a mother and the different things I went through helped expose these issues. And speaking more freely about them continues to be necessary.

As you’ve mentioned throughout this interview, you’re passionate about supporting other women. What are some ways that women can support other women, and how can allies show up and show support?

A big way that women can support other women is by lifting each other up. For a long time in my industry, there has always been a level of competition. But I think there’s this understanding now that we can all win and there is a place for everyone. When my sister wins, that’s huge for me as well. I feel that shifting, and I think that’s huge.

quick takes with allyson felix

 

And allies can listen and help tell others’ stories. Men with large platforms can raise awareness. Whether it’s sharing a story or just bringing attention to issues as a father or a partner, a lot of people are affected by these issues (such as equal pay), and having discussions and conversations about it does a lot.

How have you dealt with rejection and hearing “no,” and how do you bounce back from that disappointment?

It’s commonplace to have those hurdles or setbacks as an athlete. For me, I like to stay focused on the goal and being able to pivot and readjust. I think about what’s the next course of action or where do we go from here and how do we move forward? I allow myself to feel the disappointment, but I also know I’m going to pick up the pieces and move forward—that’s key for me whenever I’ve dealt with any major setback. I take the time to feel all the things, and then I’m going to regroup and keep pushing toward the goal.

With any big goal, whether it’s fundraising or something else, you put so much energy and time into that, so it’s important to honor your feelings when you face disappointment. But also know that it is not the end because you still have to reach your goal, and you still have to move forward.

What do you want your daughter and other young girls to take from your legacy?

The biggest thing is knowing that you can chart your own path. You don’t have to follow the traditional route. You can do things differently, and that’s perfectly fine. Also, always speak your truth, stand up for others who may not have a voice and, more than anything, if you deeply believe in something, then you should speak out on it.

You’re the most decorated woman in track and field history, an activist, and you started a sneaker line—you’ve done it all. What’s next for you?

I’m going to dive more into some of my passions. I’m very proud of my lifestyle brand [Saysh], so that will continue, and there are so many exciting things happening there. Also, being a mom, being present at home has been amazing. I value the time with my family and it’s precious to me, so that’s always a priority. I want to dive deeper into the maternal mortality crisis and advocating for women in general. So, a little bit of everything is next for me.

Khesia Taylor is the director of content strategy at AFP Global and editor of Advancing Philanthropy magazine.

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