Checking in to give you an update on W/S progress and my recovery.
The morning of September 6, was a normal Thursday morning for me. I had just settled into my day at work when I got a phone call from my brother-in-law. It was 9:32 a.m. He doesn’t call me often, and I looked at the incoming call thinking it odd that he was calling me at this time. So I picked up.
Right when I answered, he said to me very calmly, “Sit down. I have some terrible news.” In the nanosecond before he told me what the terrible news was, I immediately thought something happened to my parents – stroke, heart attack, maybe someone was in a car wreck? But never did I expect, “Whitney is in Cincinnati and has been shot multiple times in her chest.”
I can’t remember exactly what was said in the next few seconds. He mentioned he talked to her for a minute, that she was being taken to UC Medical, he didn’t know what happened, and he didn’t know the extent of her injuries. He had already talked to my parents and everyone was on their way to Cincinnati. He didn’t know much. My mind starting racing…to the worst case scenario of course.
What happened? I thought maybe she was mugged. I called my husband and told him what I knew and he immediately left work to come get me to make the drive to Cincinnati. My co-workers who heard me in hysterics, came into my office to try and console me. We tried to figure out what happened. I went to Cincinnati local news websites, and it was the top story. An active shooter at Fifth Third headquarters.
It was like an out of body experience watching the news. They talked of multiple fatalities. Was one of them Whitney? It had been 20 minutes since I talked to Waller. Could she have died since they talked? For whatever reason, I kept thinking of Princess Diana. I remember that she had spoken after her car wreck, and then still died. So knowing that Whitney had talked to Waller wasn’t very reassuring to me.
The next two hours were hell on earth. I went from extreme optimism about her being okay, to imagining her in emergency surgery and dying on the operating table. I thought how ironic it was that this was happening to her. She was passionate about gun safety for our children prior to this, and now she was a victim of a mass shooting.
Waller called as soon as he arrived…he was the first one there. She was going to be ok! The range of emotions I went through in those two hours, were the most extreme I’m sure I’ll ever experience. From utter despair to the purest joy on earth.
I am so happy that she is the one that is here and leading the charge for WhitneyStrong. And that we’re not doing it in her honor like the parents of Sandy Hook. We are the lucky ones who get to fight alongside Whitney. She is tenacious, smart, relentless, and the drive behind her is unparalleled to anything I have experienced. She is surrounding herself with people who share her passion and who will not stop until something changes. Her last three months have been spent pouring over data on guns, on conference calls with experts, meeting with legislatures that can help her platform, building her team, and occasionally taking care of herself while nursing her way back to health. She knows the road to change is long, and she’s in it for the long haul. She won’t lose steam, or rest until there is true change. The team at WhitneyStrong won’t either. And those of you who have joined us, I hope you won’t either.
I’ll start out with honesty. Yes, I am discouraged like so many of you, but maybe not for the same reasons. (And I promise this post won’t leave you depressed, so keep reading.)
My guess is that you are discouraged we continue to see mass shootings in our news feed on a weekly basis. Discouraged that politicians’ inflexibility has led to a stalemate. Discouraged with the lack of control you have over keeping your loved ones safe.
I feel all those things, but after 2.5 months of pouring over articles and research on gun violence, I am discouraged at a much deeper level.
The goal of WhitneyStrong is to reduce gun violence through responsible gun ownership. We will consider many solutions and champion those that are both, impactful and supported by the majority. However, as I dig deeper, it is proving to be very difficult to find the evidence necessary to conclude which solutions would be materially impactful. And as a result, discouragement starts to set in.
Quick history lesson....
While we shouldn’t blame the lack of evidence and data solely on the Dickey Amendment, it has certainly played a major role in the lack of federal research on gun violence. In case you are unfamiliar, here is a Cliff Notes version from Wikipedia:
In United States politics, the Dickey Amendment is a provision first inserted as a rider into the 1996 federal government omnibus spending bill which mandated that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control." In the same spending bill, Congress earmarked $2.6 million from the CDC's budget, the exact amount that had previously been allocated to the agency for firearms research the previous year, for traumatic brain injury-related research.
Many commentators have described this amendment as a "ban" on gun violence research by the CDC.
Lack of research is a massive problem. Here’s a hypothetical example to make it more digestible. Suppose the majority support a ban on the sale of assault rifles. These weapons are often tied to the deadliest mass shootings in our country’s history. But then imagine for a moment that a thorough research project was conducted by an unbiased research organization, and the study concluded that banning the sale of assault rifles would not reduce gun deaths. And why? Because the data confirms very few assault rifles used criminally are purchased legally. So while this is a hypothetical study, it helps articulate the need for robust and unbiased research so that we are not fighting blind.
All hope is not lost. First, and pulled directly from this article (https://www.rand.org/news/press/2018/05/31.html), the RAND Corporation has been selected to help oversee a philanthropic fund that will support high-quality research on issues related to gun violence. The National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research is a creation of the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), which has pledged $20 million to the effort and will seek an additional $30 million from other philanthropic groups. Over the next five years, research sponsored by the collaborative will seek data-driven answers on the causes and patterns of gun-related violence in the United States. Based on scientific evidence, the work will help policymakers craft evidence-based policies to reduce gun violence.
Second, and this is where I start to diverge from my product management roots. In business, I didn’t design products that only one person would use - it wasn’t efficient or profitable. With WhitneyStrong, any life that is saved because of the actions we take would be considered a success. Incremental change, aka baby steps, are what is needed in this hyper-partisan environment and I’m OK closing the gap slowly but surely.
So as we await the good stuff from our brilliant researcher friends over the next five years, let’s make a difference now! Let’s bootstrap whatever research and data we do have and start closing the gap.
So do not be discouraged. The quote below gave me motivation after an otherwise discouraging day. I hope it does the same for you.
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
In the spirit of mindfulness and gratitude, I wanted to share what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving. Believe it or not, even someone like me with thousands of things to be grateful for, needs to slow down and remember them a bit more.
So here’s my list! I hope it inspires you to move a tad more slowly this Thanksgiving, to engage more deeply with those you love, and concentrate on what’s “right” in your life.
I am grateful for the revolving door. I’m sure it sounds funny to be thankful for an inanimate object, but I am! That door served as a physical barrier between me and the many bullets, as well as inhibited the shooter’s precision.
I am grateful the shooter used a 9mm handgun and not an assault weapon. Even after being shot twelve times I lived. Swap out the 9mm for an assault weapon and I would not have, along with many more.
I am thankful for Police Officer Al Staples! As soon as Al entered my vantage point I started to fight again. I believed I had a solution for getting out of this mess and home to my family. He gave me hope when I thought there was none.
I am thankful for Police Officers Jennifer Chilton, Eric Kaminsky, Greg Toyeas, and Tony Etter. Do you realize this team of four had never partnered together before? On that day their muscle memory kicked in and they worked bravely to eliminate the danger. I am alive because of this team.
I am thankful the police department had recently completed active shooting and “Stop the Bleed” training. Trainings like these can save lives and I benefitted because of them. Instead of waiting for paramedics to take action, I was lucky to have first responders on the scene apply tourniquets immediately.
I am grateful I was shot twelve times and no bullet hit a major artery or organ. How did I get so lucky?
I am grateful for Mark Erhardt and Ben Hoffman, my previous boss and current boss, respectively. They, along with a few other peers, like Jeff Schroeder and Kimberly Brown, came to the hospital to offer positive energy and prayers until my family could arrive from Louisville.
I am grateful for the amazing team of doctors, nurses, and medical staff at UC Medical Center that collectively saved my life! From nurses like Robbie Thomas to surgeons like Drs. Michael Goodman and John Wyrick, I ended up at a Trauma 1 Center with, sadly, plenty of experience in gun violence injuries.
I am grateful for everyone who supported my family through meals, play dates, care packages, and visits. It is extremely humbling to see your village and extended village, and by extended I mean friends I haven’t talked to in over 10+ years, come out of the woodwork to lend a helping hand. And even acts of kindness from strangers. It brings me to tears to think about how kind the world can be. Thank you.
I am grateful for family! From my aunts and uncles who brought me meals, to cousins who helped get our home in working condition after just moving in, to my mother-in-law who chauffeured me endlessly on little sleep, to my brother and sister-in-laws who sent care packages, to my aunt in North Carolina who flew in to support Waller’s show, to my cousin who waited on me hand and foot for three straight weeks. I am so thankful for your love and support.
I am grateful for my friends. I can’t begin to name names but you know who you are. You flew or drove in at a moment’s notice. You built my website. You cared for my children. You unpacked my home. You made me laugh. I could go on forever. I will be paying it forward for a lifetime.
I am grateful I get to be a sister and that Megan is my sister. Our bond is unbreakable and I wish for everyone to have a best friend like her. And that village I mentioned earlier, she led that village.
I am grateful I get to be a daughter. My mother and father’s love is unrelenting. My father spent hours recreating photographs of the scene as a thank you gift to the police officers that saved my life. My mother worked herself so hard taking care of me and my children that she fell off my porch and broke her hip one night when watching them. Now it is time for me to take care of her! I am a lucky girl to have their love.
I am grateful I get to be a mother. That I get to cuddle my son and daughter. That I get to dance with them. That I get to shape their minds and hearts. This is why I fought to live and to get my reward... I need nothing else in life.
I am grateful I get to be a wife. To hold each other up when the other is too weak to move forward. To provide unconditional support as we learn to put one foot in front of another. I love you so much, Waller Austin.
I am grateful for my faith. I will never completely understand it, but the peace it brings is healing.
Lastly, I am grateful for my scars. Scars that will remind me daily that I can never forget what happened to me and that propel me to take action. WhitneyStrong has been the biggest blessing to me and I vow to make a difference for all of us.
I, like many of you, awoke to the news of another mass shooting last Thursday morning. This time in Thousand Oaks, CA. The victims were largely college students, likely trying to blow off steam at the weekly country western night. Some were students at Pepperdine, the school my brother and sister-in-law attended.
My heart breaks for the victim’s families and friends. For the survivors who will be forced into the same ridiculous club I’ve joined. My prayer list just keeps growing.
Before it happened to me, my emotions after a shooting cycled pretty consistently from despair to anger to complacency. I found myself in that cycle two weeks ago as I returned to Louisville from my second surgery in Cincinnati, only to hear the news of a shooting at a Kroger where I used to work, in which two innocent people died. My customers shopped there. I ruminated on the shooting. Had nightmares. Couldn’t get it off my mind. Mourned for the victims. And finally, I decided much of it wasn’t productive. I told myself, “You have a chance to be productive. You can make a difference. Get back to work.” If your emotions follow that same cycle, try transitioning to action instead of complacency.
Many of you feel the same way and I know you have put your faith in me to make a difference with gun violence. While establishing a non-profit can take time, especially when the executive director is recovering from multiple bullet wounds and surgeries, we are certainly making progress. Let me share some of it with you.
First and foremost, we are in the midst of building the team. I will share bios over the coming weeks but we’ve filled the director roles for internet security, firearm education, marketing, mental health, market research, operations, and political partnerships.
I’m also working on the strategic plan and while it is not yet ready for circulation, I can share we are focused on placing a spotlight on the deficiencies riddled throughout our mental health infrastructure, as well as gun laws across the United States. A spotlight that will drive change and ultimately lead to a reduction in gun violence.
I understand the feeling of helplessness and the desire to do something. Much of what we are looking to accomplish will take time, which is why I’m also focused on giving you opportunities to plug into activities that can make an impact quickly. I hope to share those opportunities with you very soon!
As we’ve all witnessed, due to political discourse, there’s a small window for success in this space. I will continue to work on thoughtful solutions that give us the best chance for success and will share when ready. Thank you for being patient and I look forward to engaging you soon!
Alphonso Staples, otherwise known as Al, was the single most influential person I encountered on September 6, 2018. I’ve spoken very publicly about this man and I want you to know what he means to me. In a world filled with gun violence and times of despair, it is equally important to look for the good. And that’s Al, as good as it gets.
While I spent only a few minutes in that revolving door, my time there was divided into BA (Before Al) and AA (After Al). During the BA period my mind was consumed with despair. I had played through all the scenarios for survival and none seemed realistic. I had transitioned to defeat and started my final prayer with God. Then I saw Al.
From the moment I saw his frightened yet kind face, I knew I was back in business. I can only speak to my trauma, but finding a solution when you believe none exists, is exhilarating. My adrenaline started pumping and I shifted into survival mode.
I could see the fear in Al’s eyes as he took in the full picture of that morning. But I didn’t draw fear from him, I drew strength. Immediately I started to call for him, “I’ve got a 5 and a 7 year old that need their mother. Come save me!”
Al couldn’t save me immediately, which seemed confusing and frustrating at the time, but I’ve since learned about active shooter protocol and the importance of stopping the immediate danger first. And while it felt like eternity to me, only minutes passed before Al was on his feet and running to my rescue as he pulled me out of that revolving door.
I want to thank Al for being my source of strength and hope at the exact right time. I want to thank Al for the kindness and love he conveyed to me through his eyes and actions in that terrible moment. I want to thank him for thinking so quickly to get my husband on the phone and for conveying the awful news and next steps. I want to thank him and all of the other wonderful police officers for their service to me and other Cincinnatians on that day and every day.
There are a lot of humbling nouns and adjectives being used in conjunction with my name, hero being one of them. I can understand the thought process, but I reserve that word for all of the officers that saved my life on that day, particularly Al. These officers knowingly step into danger on a far more regular basis than any of us - me included! To knowingly face danger to save the lives of others is heroic. To fight to save your own life seems to pale in comparison, but maybe that is just me.
I’ve just finished up another surgery to place a bone graft in my right humerus. Luckily, Al was able to visit me in the hospital. We’ve talked nearly every week, but this was our first face-to-face since the shooting. I was also blessed to meet and listen to his sextet that he has participated in through his church for over 20 years!
Al is the kind of man that makes you feel safe instantly. His warm presence makes for easy conversation and the joy he is exudes is radiating. He is at peace with himself and his place in this world, and every bit of that has rubbed off on me. I pinch myself that my hero, the man I will be connected to for life, is such an exemplary human being!
The pictures and videos below are from our visit in the hospital. His wife and the members of the sextet were just as warm and welcoming. We are all blessed. Thank you, Al.
Why is it that the topic of gun reform is so controversial? You know the arguments and inflammatory statements...
"Only the police and military should have guns."
“This is a mental health issue only.”
“Guns are evil.”
“Everyone has a constitutional right to bear arms.”
It’s the classic example of why you shouldn’t discuss politics at a dinner party.
Now, the contentiousness of this debate is not lost on me. I’ve pulled further and further away from party lines after becoming a mother but at one point in my life, I wholeheartedly supported one of our major parties. Just like the dialogue I paraphrased above, I too was a loyal soldier, often unwilling to hear the other perspective.
After having my first child, I felt overwhelmed with responsibility. Responsibility to teach my child to be a compassionate person - one that works hard and gives back for the betterment of society. Such a big task! But with this goal I became more disenchanted with parties and more intrigued with dissecting the issues and the representatives who championed them.
There is no rule that says you must always side with one party! And that’s where I landed - vote for the individuals who are going to make a difference with the issues that matter to you.
Speaking of issues, I hope you’re here because gun reform is one of your top issues. It is certainly my top priority until we’ve closed major gaps and deaths from gun violence are reduced.
If I’ve got your support, I need you to buy into the mindset that we aren’t here to side with a political party. We are here for impactful solutions that the majority of the country can support. If we can finally erase those party lines and concentrate on what we have in common, we can make a difference and prevent more loss of life.
There is so much room for improvement and I look forward to tackling this issue head on with you. The team is working hard on what solutions to champion first and we look forward to sharing more soon!
My husband, Waller, has been an artist his entire life, but made the decision to pursue it professionally in 2008. Our family wholeheartedly supported this decision and sold our home in Louisville and left town in pursuit of advanced art degrees in Chicago and St. Louis. A year ago, we moved back home to Louisville for him to begin his career and to be closer to our immediate family.
I give you this background as I think it’s helpful to understand the timeline and context that led to Waller’s performance this past Friday at the Tim Faulkner Gallery. As all the articles describe, Waller was forced to postpone a solo show originally scheduled a few weeks ago as a result of my injuries. But even more importantly, he was forced to re-evaluate the work he does.
When I arrived home from the hospital on Tuesday, September 11, I was immediately surrounded by new caregivers who could give Waller a bit of a reprieve and allow him to transition back to his therapy - art.
His work to date is largely subversive and humorous. His original show was to be both those things. Humor. There is very little room for humor when you are personally pulled into the nightmare that is a mass shooting. Humor is not an emotion Waller currently possesses, and he needed to change his show to reflect his current state of mind.
While I expect you visit this website for a myriad of reasons, I believe the number one reason to be: you feel compelled to end the senseless gun violence occurring in our great country. And while I will primarily stick to the WhitneyStrong Foundation and my progress through these blogs, I have to recognize the power of Friday’s show and its contribution to our mission.
Through the news clip from WAVE3 in Louisville, KY, you can get a sense for the show and the performance. In summary, the previous show was completely changed, and the new concept resulted in paintings and boxes scattered across the gallery floor. To address our new normal, Waller recreated colorful replicas (made of Crayola crayon, his preferred medium) of the 9 mm Taurus handgun and bullets that were used on me and others on September 6.
The performance. While I cannot do the performance justice with my words, I can tell you that participants felt (likely for the first time) a sense of what it must be like to be involved in a mass shooting. And it was a raw and powerful display of emotion from my husband.
Waller and I will continue to take unconventional steps to compel others to take action. We have to disrupt the inertia that keeps you from actively participating in this fight.
I couldn’t be more proud of this show and his performance. And if you’re uncomfortable with what you saw, please support the WhitneyStrong Foundation in whatever way seems natural for you.
Thursday was three weeks post-shooting. Many of you have commented on how impressive I am - both with my rapid recovery and with the speedy launch of The WhitneyStrong Foundation. I appreciate the compliment but I am a woman with a mission and I am lucky enough to be surrounded by many talented friends and family members willing to assist.
Before I give a little behind-the-scenes information I must stop to thank a few individuals who shall remain nameless. First, a family member who has been my right and left arm for two weeks - playing every role from Mommy to Social Media Coordinator. Next, thank you to the lawyers who established the non-profit for me in record time. And finally, thank you to one of my dearest friends from business school who pulled in a buddy and accepted the challenge of creating a website for national exposure in less than one week. I will never be able to thank these individuals enough.
Tuesday and Wednesday were exhausting. Doing three interviews (two national and one local) in two days means allowing multiple camera crews to re-arrange and arrange your home for the right angles, multiple interviewers (some on the phone) asking similar questions causing confusion as I tried to remember what I’ve covered and not covered, photographers trying their best to get me to look “natural” (which is not my forte), and my favorite, B-roll, where Waller and I did silly things like walk hand-in-hand in our back yard and hugged for prolonged periods of time. It was a tremendous opportunity and experience but I’m zonked.
I spent the rest of the week napping and doing only the essential tasks like therapy and eating. I’m very driven but when you wake up with a body that aches from head-to-toe and a very stiff right-arm, you listen to your body.
I share these details because I believe they are pertinent to the Foundation. While I have many intelligent and capable friends, no one is working at this full-time. Roles and responsibilities are just being defined and the Director (that’s me) is still trying to let her body heal. Please be patient with our progress. I wish I could move faster but soon enough I will.
In the meantime, I will attempt to pull you into the education process I’ve started for myself and Waller. We are both reading a lot to help build a foundation of knowledge and that can benefit everyone. Stay tuned for more.
And finally as I mentioned in my video blog, thank you. The words of encouragement, the care packages for my family, the donations to WhitneyStrong Foundation. I couldn’t feel more loved or supported. I take this mission seriously and I will fight hard for all of us.