Monique Gilliam: ‘I am a beautiful mess.’
Monique Gilliam – mom of four, change-maker, mentor, advocate, and more – requested that we meet her at Findlay Market for our conversation. It was a peaceful Tuesday evening, and the weather was more than agreeable. She arrived with open arms, flashing her bright smile. She was rocking a gray O.T.R. T-shirt that listed the street names that she knows all too well.
“This shirt is of great significance because I grew up down here,” she explained. “I went to school at the corner of Vine and Liberty, we lived on Sycamore, and my grandmother lived on Vine. It’s one of my favorite tees because I am O.T.R. These streets are my humble beginning, which is why I wanted to meet at Findlay. My mother always told me it’s not about where you live, it’s about how you live.”
Standing in the presence of her magnetic energy, you’d never guess the pain and loss Monique carries in her heart. From a young age she faced significant loss: Her father was murdered in 1993 when she was 13 years old; her brother and mother committed suicide in 1999 and 2000, respectively; and she lost her great grandmother and grandmother two years apart in 1997 and 1999.
But loss is just the beginning of her story – a long journey full of hard lessons that have led her to strength time and time again. Although it hasn’t been an easy road, those experiences have been stepping stones that have lifted her into the inspiring position that she’s in today.
What is your best quality? And what is one quality that you had to learn to love?
My best quality, I would think, is that I’m a connector. I’m very much a people person. I think I’m great at connecting people and helping them align with opportunities and their purpose, so to speak.
One thing about me that I have really grown to appreciate and love is my strength; my ability to persevere, no matter what. I used to feel as though I was a weak person, and over the years, my resilience has taken me to another level. I’m just really grateful and confident within my skin. So, it’s a beautiful thing.
Tell us about your work with F.I.I. What is the most rewarding part of the job for you?
F.I.I. stands for Family Independent Initiative. It’s a nonprofit organization with the goal of changing the narrative for low-income families. We invest in and trust families, and so that’s the model that we’re trying to lead by. We provide financial incentives for families as they work towards their goals, and the dollars are unrestrictive in terms of what the family sees fit to do with their money.
The best part of my job is interacting with people and really watching them take initiative with their families’ lives and follow through on their goals, regardless of how significant or minute they may be to some. Some people’s goals are to spend more time as a family, there are people who have started businesses, and [others who] put [money] down on homes. And for me to be able to witness it from afar has been pretty amazing.
Tell us a little bit about your up-and-coming organization, LifeLinks.
LifeLinks is a nonprofit organization. It was inspired by my personal experience of living in the shelter years ago. This was probably in 2005, somewhere around there. I was in the shelter for about 30 days. In 2016, I went back with a group of my friends: We volunteered, prepared a spaghetti dinner, sat down with the families, and I was really inspired by the women that were there and their desire to manifest change for themselves. I wanted to know how I could help, how I could be a voice for them and help them make that possible. A lot of them voiced to me that they needed help with finding employment and finding job resources. So, that kind of sparked the fire, if you will, to create something that I found a need for.
My goal is to work with single low-income women that are transitioning from shelters, minimal correction facilities like River City, and halfway houses, like Talbert House. My goal is to help them empower themselves and expand their network, help them with resumes, help them with job building. I want to share with them the things that I found that have worked for me and pass that torch on in hopes that it can be impactful for these women and their families. I talk [to them] about the importance of networking and pouring into yourself; the importance of a handshake, eye contact, some of the things that we may not really think about in terms of really solidifying opportunities for ourselves. And most importantly, their network. I don’t think people really understand that when you tap into your network, you are essentially tapping into your net worth. It’s important to have a substantial network around yourself.
I’m trying to get funding, so that’s what I’m doing right now: soliciting grant dollars, and I’ve applied for some funding and I’m waiting for those things to come through. I am planning to do a fundraiser in the fall. I’ve also been talking to other great organizations in the community like Cincinnati Works because I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I don’t want to provide services that are already out there and working, so I kind of want to be able to bridge this gap.
As you’ve openly discussed, there have been many losses in your life. What do you lean on to help you keep moving forward, even in times of adversity?
My faith in God. I’m not a very religious person; I’m more so spiritual. I just have a strong faith in God. Sometimes my kids watch me talking aloud and that’s just me keeping myself focused. I talk to God all the time. I mean, I may look like a crazy lady to some, walking down the street, but that is how I come up with my greatest ideas. I give myself many encouraging speeches. I look at myself in the mirror (it sounds cheesy, but it works) and I feel if I’m not looking at myself, telling myself how great I am, how beautiful I am, and how I am this positive beam of light and everything is reachable, I mean, no one’s going to tell me that. It starts within me. Everything that I’ve spoken for myself, I’ve been able to manifest, and it’s an awesome thing.
Q: What in your life are you most grateful for?
A: Peace of mind.
When I was volunteering at Bethany House in 2016, I wrote down that I wanted to be a keynote speaker, I wanted to be a bestselling author, and what happened? In 2017 United Way asked me to be the face of their Living United Campaign and I spoke in front of 600 people at Duke Energy Convention Center. That opportunity allowed me to speak at Children’s Hospital, and I was featured in a book [(Extra)Ordinary Women: Ten Inspirational Stories]. Granted, I’m not a bestselling author yet, but you have to walk those steps to get there. Things don’t always align the way we see it, but it aligns in due time. When you breathe easy and just let things be, it works out. You make a situation so much muddier than it has to be when you cloud it and dilute it with your negative energy. It’s unnecessary. It doesn’t do you or those around you service. So, as hard as it is, at the end of the day, I go home at night and I meditate. I try to truly be aligned and know that everything is going to be great and tomorrow’s another opportunity to make it better.
Do you have a favorite quote that you tell yourself?
So, I have things I say to others that I love:
“Never allow what you’ve been through be the reason for your downfall.”
“I’m the shit.” [Laughs.] I don’t know if I can say that, but I am; it’s true. All the things that I’ve accomplished and conquered, and I wake up each and every day with a smile on my face knowing that, “Damn it, I’m doing it; I’m killing it. I am truly walking in purpose.” I tell myself that.
How do you balance being a mom of four, establishing a successful career, and practicing self-care? Do you have a routine that helps?
I definitely have a routine. As anything in life, routines can get thrown off track, and with having four kids, a lot of times it’s chaotic. It’s never a dull moment. I have two boys and two girls. My oldest, Darnell, is 15; and then I have a daughter, Jasmine, who’s 10; a daughter, Amiyah: 8; and Yosiyah is 7. The routine is easier when school is in session or like right now, they go to summer camp. You have to be very creative. They keep me on the go, they keep me on my toes, and keep me energetic, to say the least. [Laughs.] But they are awesome kids. You know, it’s not easy. People say that I make it look easy, but I mean, I’m fortunate; I am blessed. They keep me sane; they really do.
For many years, my mother’s birthday was a day of complete sadness for me; her birthday is March 15. And it just so happened that my youngest child was born on my mother’s birthday, and I really believe that was my mother’s way of gifting me to say, “Hey, be happy. I am still with you.” You know, a lot of things truly happen for a reason, and I believe that those very things have happened for a reason. Like, my daughter Jasmine: She’s 10; she’s never met my mother, but she is a walking replica of her. She always talks about my mother, and you would think that she met her. Of all my children, she has the closest connection with my mom. So, they definitely have given me back so much of what I’ve lost and I mean, I can’t help but be grateful.
What are your kids teaching you at this stage?
Oh, my goodness, the latest dance moves, for sure. Keeping me hip. My oldest, he’s 15, and he is really awesome. I’m just always amazed at how cool he is. He’s always been that way. He actually was the only child that I had when I was staying in the shelter. He was 3 going on 4 [holding back tears]. He just gets it. He is so intuitive, he’s so kind, he is everything I aspire to be, and he’s probably the way he is because I’ve molded him that way. But I wasn’t that way at 15.
He’s just always being innovative and taking on these opportunities, but he’s really quiet. I’m always on his case about “do more” and “think big,” and then he just comes out of nowhere like, “I want to go to Ecuador.” It’s like, he’s quietly on the come-up, unbeknownst to me. I’m really loud and boisterous, and we’re different in that way, but he slowly just makes things happen, and I’m just really pleased with him. He’s actually written me a couple of letters. They make me cry, but he talks about how he finds me to be the most inspirational person that he knows, and just hearing that keeps me encouraged. I know why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m setting an example for my kids, and he’s definitely following accordingly. All of my kids are that way. They’re great little people. I’m just happy to be their mom, man. I really am.
How do you take time for you to keep yourself energized to keep up with your kids and keep up with your mission?
My word for 2019 is “intentional.” Coming into this year, I’ve been very intentional with things that I’ve been doing. I’m in a writing circle, so I meet with a group of phenomenal ladies, right down here on Race Street at someone’s house. Yvette Simpson is someone in my writing circle, so I get to connect with some pretty phenomenal people once a month and share our thoughts and ideas. I’ve been writing since I was a young girl. My first poem was copywritten when I was 16 years old, so being a part of this writing circle kind of helps me get back on track and stay in tune with that.
I’m also a mentor. I was a part of this organization called MomsHope, which I graduated out of in 2016. It’s a faith-based organization that partners single mothers with mentors. I was there from 2011 to 2016, and now I’m a mentor, so I give back in that way.
After 9 p.m., every single day, that is me time. My kids are in bed by that time and it’s all about me, whether I’m going out to meet some friends for drinks, or sitting back reading.
What in your life are you most grateful for?
Peace of mind. I mean, the world that we live in, it’s tough. And I am just grateful. I’m a crab, I’m a Cancer, so we’re emotional; like I’m about to get teary-eyed. But just sitting here with you, just the fact that someone thought so highly of me to nominate me… Seriously, it’s such an honor. I’m grateful for all of the adversity, all of the blessings, and I’m just getting started. I’ll be 40 and I just feel like I am just getting started. And you know, it’s so funny, a lot of times, I feel like I’m in a standstill. I feel like I have to have things constantly going so that I can feel like I’m truly running in my purpose. But it’s okay to stride. I forget that it’s okay to stride.
When shit happens, I’m like the cookie monster: Give me all this. You think I’m not going to take this and make this into some beautiful Picasso?
My mother and brother weren’t fortunate to have that [peace of mind]… [Begins to cry.] So, being able to wake up with a sound mind and having an idea of what it is that I want to go after and the joy of being able to kind of navigate through that process, right? ’Cause I don’t have a map as to what I’m trying to do, but I know in my heart what I’m trying to do. And I’m really fortunate that every day God brings people before me that kind of help me align closer to that purpose and closer to this goal that I’m trying to set for myself.
What is your greatest life lesson learned? And based on that life lesson, what advice would you give your younger self?
A couple of things, actually. They’re really simple, but they’re so true: to not give up, and go for it. There have been many times when I doubted myself and wanted to give up. [...] When I was in the shelter, I felt so defeated because I was not where I thought society expected me to be. All of my friends were married; they had careers, homes. I was homeless; I had a son. I was like, what the hell? I was so lost; it was ridiculous. And I was angry. “Why me?” Now, it’s, “Why not me?” When shit happens, I’m like the cookie monster: Give me all this. You think I’m not going to take this and make this into some beautiful Picasso? Even if it is a mess, it’s Picasso. Because I say so. I am a beautiful mess, yet and still. I’m a great beautiful piece of work, and each and every day I swear I’m getting better. I’m grateful and I’m walking with intentions to tap into my purpose even more.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
There have been quite a few. But the most important person would be my mother. I’m going to get emotional again! [Begins to cry.] I am who I am because of her. My mother had gone through so much. When I was a young girl she was a housekeeper at Garfield Suites, right across the street from the downtown public library. And I watched her with this true entrepreneurial drive. She purchased a popcorn machine and cotton candy maker and as a side hustle, she started to make cotton candy and popcorn in our home, and she would sell it at stores in the Over-the-Rhine community.
And from her having this entrepreneur drive, she created a business for herself, a maid service called Maid to Order. She used to clean homes along Milton and Boal Street, and those clients came from relationships she built for herself working at Garfield. People really took to her personality and wanted to say, “Hey, you did such a good job cleaning my room; perhaps you can come and clean our home and clean our businesses.” So I learned at a young age the importance of tapping into your network to enable you to tap into your net worth.
And through those relationships that she built for herself cleaning their homes, someone saw something in her and wanted to teach her the mortgage business. So she ended up working for a few mortgage companies before she opened her own company as a loan officer and she was able to generate home loans for individuals. That was the job that she had prior to her passing on. I really watched her go from receiving subsidiary assistance and things like that to getting herself off those things.
All the things that she overcame: being a product of rape, dealing with being raped herself, and just so many obstacles that she faced as a young black woman and raising me to love myself first and foremost and always seeing the greatest in me… Even when I was 16 years old, her having my poem copywritten in the Library of Congress, that was very significant for me. That let me know then that she knew I could do big things and wanted me to do big things. She planted those seeds, and it’s for me to continue the journey. I got off track because life happens, but I’d like to think that I’m well on my way. Because I’m the shit, so I’m well on my way. We all fall down but the thing is, I get up, and I keep it going. I’m well on my way.