Mickey Belaineh, #peercnnekt winner

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We are so excited to present our #PeerCnnekt winner, Mikelina Belaineh. Mickey spends all hours helping others get physically and mentally strong, all while experiencing a form of self care.  This champion weight lifter created a foundation of life around "focus, trust and strength" and uses these aspects to advocate the reduction of mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Read along to see how this Harvard Law grad kicks ass on a daily. 

Mikey, how do you identify and when did you discover this?

So, I identify as a Black, Ethiopian/Eritrean First Generation-American, Queer, Gender-Queer and Gender non-conforming female bodied individual. I know it’s quite a mouthful, but it’s incredibly important to me that all aspects of my intersectional identity are recognized together-- given that they all play a role in shaping my life experiences and perspectives, and I am never living life as one of these things without also being the other.

However, I think the question is aimed specifically at my gender identity and sexual orientation. While in retrospect, I think on some level I always knew that my identity didn’t align with the “standard” gender and heteronormative categories. However, it was a long and in some ways continual journey to discover and embrace the identities that were true and authentic to me. I accepted my queer identity (I call it “coming out to myself”) at around 16, and came out to my family and community at 19. My gender-identity, for me, was more challenging to navigate and embrace. While it can still be hard at times (given the level of discomfort a lot of people still have with the fact that gender and the gender dichotomy is a social construct), in the past couple of years, with the love and support of my fiancee, my family, and my community I’ve come to really appreciate my non-normative identity/identities, and the challenges that I’ve faced because of it. I have a unique perspective, that I believe allows me to see and think in ways that others may not be able to-- I’ve come to view my marginalized identities as a sort of “superpower”. This shift in my outlook and framing has been a liberating experience,  and really demonstrated (to me at least) that while we can’t control the world or people around us-- our minds, how we perceive our experiences, and how we choose to respond are our choices alone, and that’s powerful.

You spoke about attending a school where you were marginalized, but wouldn't change it if you could. Can you share your thought process with our community?

So, the school I attended for undergrad was considered (at the time) THE most conservative public institution in the nation. It had also been ranked in a number of categories by various lists as a particularly hostile campus climate for minority students of all identities. With that said, my years in that environment were incredibly formative and also some of the best years of my life. A lot of people have a hard time understanding how both of these things could be true. There were a number of reasons why to this day I tell people that I wouldn’t have changed my decision, even knowing everything I know now about the environment I found myself in. One of the main reasons is that, by being in such a place-- I found my voice as an advocate for social justice, and I found an activist community. Given the campus climate, despite being so conservative, it made it such that almost every student on campus with a marginalized identity was mobilized as an activist. We were in a place where few, if any, people in power were going to fight or focus on our needs, for our voices to be heard, or for our experiences to be recognized. So we took charge. As a result, I got to experience at a fairly young age (a freshman in college) what it meant to realize what’s important to you, and how to bring about and be the change you wish to see in your environment. I found my voice, I fought for and got to see my efforts and the efforts of my community result in actual change-- not only for our benefit, but for the benefit of students like and unlike me for years to come. This ultimately led me to decide on attending law school, and to dedicating my life to fighting on behalf of those who have been marginalized, silenced, and overlooked. I don’t know that I would’ve learned all I did if I had been in an “easier” or more comfortable environment-- so I’m eternally grateful for the challenges the experience presented me, and for all the different people I was able to connect with and learn from along the way.

You are a champion lifter with Elite FTS. This stands for “Focus.Trust.Strength”. How did you apply this physical activity to your mental ability?

So I’m actually no longer in a sponsorship contract with Elite FTS, as of about a year ago. No reason other than I had some other priorities in my career (professional and lifting/training) that made it such that the formal relationship no longer made sense. That being said, I am currently sponsored by Reactive Training systems and have my powerlifting training/programming done/coaches by Michael Turscherer and my nutrition coach is Dr.Trevor Kashey.

I consistently tell people that Powerlifting is and was the key variable that facilitated a majority of what I consider to be my biggest “successes” or “accomplishments” in life. Powerlifting taught me and continues to teach me more than I’ll ever be able to express in words. If forced, however, I would say Powerlifting the sport and the associated training created certain structures in my life that really laid a foundation for living a meaningful and productive life-- which ultimately supported and complemented my efforts in getting into Harvard Law, surviving Law School, and my current and past professional endeavors that followed.

See, when you compete in powerlifting, you’re thinking about your food/nutrition (good, nutritious food for good performance), you want to get enough quality sleep in order to be recovered from and for training, if you’re competing at a high level-- you’re not spending your weekend or evenings going out and partying as much, because: 1) you don’t have the time due to long training sessions; 2) you know that a night out drinking will affect training not just the next day, but potentially up to a week after.

Now, as I’ve been in this sport for a while now-- I’ve learned how to balance social life, activities, etc. with my training/competition goals. However, when I was younger-- Powerlifting facilitated a certain kind of discipline that I think was unique/not typical for my age-group and peers. I think this gave me an advantage in a big way, I learned time management really early on-- balancing school, powerlifting, competitions, travel for competitions, a social life, and extracurriculars/whatever else I was doing. It’s also one of the few things in life where, the effort you put in is directly tied to what you get out of it-- which I think does wonders for encouraging and strengthening work ethic.

Additionally, Powerlifting became an additional meditative practice for me (in addition to standard meditation)-- because of the mind body connection that I believe is necessary for optimal performance and advancement. To be a great athlete, not just in powerlifting but in any sport-- body awareness is key. The more in tune you are with your body, the better. You want to be able to activate certain muscles at certain times, you want to be able to tell if your more fatigued on one day compared to others-- knowing when to push and when to pull back in re efforts/intensity. You want to know how and when to turn the focus up to the max, and how to quickly switch back to “rest” mode to conserve energy for the next set or bout of physical effort. In my view it’s an incredibly cerebral sport (at the top levels at least).

Lastly (and I’m sure a lot of this WON’T make it in haha, but just in case)-- I have to mention the fact that, beyond these tangible skills and lessons I’ve learned through and from Powerlifting, the sport and training in general has also been incredibly important in teaching me balance in life. I felt like Powerlifting kept me grounded in Law School, in a place where it was very easy to get all consumed by a very competitive environment. While I think drive, hard-work, etc. is incredibly important, I do think anything done to the extreme (especially when driven by external forces rather than by internal values/goals/mission) is detrimental and will quickly lead to diminishing returns. At Harvard-- the fact that I had a life outside of and beyond Law School, gave me a perspective that I think really served me well. I had something other than law school that gave meaning to my “identity”/who I was. I think when all your eggs are in one basket (so to speak)-- if that one thing isn’t going so well, I could see how it’d be hard to find perspective and realize that the world ISN’T falling apart. No matter what kind of day I was having with classes, workload (and fast forwarding to today-- regular work/initiatives/etc.)-- at the end of the day, I could always show up to train and put work in. Even if the training session didn’t go exactly as I wanted to (not everyday is going to be a great day)-- I could still show up and DO something, and that something was getting me closer to being a better version of myself-- and that was a win. When you can find or facilitate a win each day-- I think that does wonders for a sense of fulfillment, self-esteem, confidence, and a bunch of other things that I think complement life fulfillment.

Let’s not forget that you spend your days “dedicated to reducing incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system”, according to Lauren Blodgett. Did all of the above have an influence on this career journey?

I would say so-- in some shape or form, all the experiences I mentioned above have built on one another leading me to where I am today. I found “activism” initially just because I was experiencing unfair treatment, discrimination/stigma, etc. simply because of who I was-- and I didn’t think that was right. That eventually grew into a passion and a sense of mission-- to always be fighting to raise up the voices, experiences, and address the injustices against all people and communities who have been marginalized for their identity/identities. A&M taught me to how speak up and fight, while also learning how to communicate, have a dialogue, and even build relationships and understanding with people coming from fundamentally opposite ideologies and backgrounds than myself. Powerlifting taught me discipline and work ethic that I was able to apply to my advocacy and education/career.

I came to Criminal Justice system advocacy because in my view, it’s the crux of most institutional oppression. The Criminal justice system affects all aspects of people’s lives-- housing, employment, emotional and physical health, economic and social mobility. It also has been a tool of oppression against marginalized communities since our country’s inception.

It’s where I felt I (specific to me-- since I do believe we all have our own unique journey’s and life paths) could be a part of creating some real impact for most if not all marginalized communities, specifically those that are disproportionately impacted by the CJ system (people living in poverty, Black people, people of color, people with serious mental illness, people with history of drug use disorders, LGBTQ+ people).

With the upcoming elections, what do you think is important to keep in mind according to what you hear and witness on a daily basis?

I think it’s important to look at people’s actions, not just listen to their words. One thing that drives me crazy about election season/politics in general is that candidates tend to say a lot without saying anything at all.

Everything is sound bites, tweetable quotes, and essentially just whatever the politicians think their constituents want to hear. It’s really easy to say things that sound progressive, and to talk in the abstract-- but I hope people take the time to look at people’s track record. Not to say that people can’t change in re outlook, values, etc.-- but there’s a difference between saying “I used to think X, or in the past I’ve supported/opposed X… but now….” as opposed to hopping on the progressive bandwagon to get votes.

One other thing I’d want for people to keep in mind, or at least consider, is the concept of assuming a “veil of ignorance” when picking what candidates and policies they choose to support. Not to get overly philosophical, but the veil of ignorance (John Rawls thought experiment in A Theory of Justice) is essentially a thought experiment that asks a/the decision-maker to make policy choices/choices about societal systems in the same way they would if the individual did not know what their place in society would be. Clearly it’s not possible to do in real life, but imagine if we all made decisions in the same way we would if we were ignorant as to what our socioeconomic status, education level, race, gender, physical ability, sex, citizenship status, etc. would be-- I have a feeling we’d find ourselves in a much more equitable society. Although this is just a philosophical thought experiment, I think the principle is a good one for people to consider as we head into election season/discussing policy.

What’s next for YOU, Mickey?

That is a great question! I’d say my biggest thing is making sure I’m continuing to learn and grow, not only professionally but also as a human and as an advocate. My long term career goal (as of right now) is to further develop my knowledge, research, and experience with the hopes of making the move into academia in the future. I love research, writing, and teaching-- especially when it’s all in an effort to inspire and empower others to work towards building a more inclusive and equitable society. Right now, some of my more concrete goals for this year are to find more opportunities to teach, present, and/or speak at conferences, academic institutions, and other appropriate venues to practice some of those skills necessary for the professional goals I mentioned.

Beyond work keeping me busy (which I love of course) and some of my personal endeavors/side projects-- I’m spending my time thinking about ideas and initiatives to support the other organizations I’m involved with. I’m currently only the Board of Directors for the new non-profit organization one of my best friends (Lauren Blodgett) just launched called the BraveHouse, and I also work as an advisor to InnerCity Weightlifting-- where I used to work as the Chief Program officer.

Lastly—totally unrelated to “work” and things tangential to work—my main Powerlifting goal this year is to finally deadlift over 500lbs at sub 158lbs bodyweight (my competition weight class). It’s been a long term goal of mine, and I’ve come really close a few times-- but this year will be the year!

Follow Mickelina in-real-time viai instagram @mickey.belaineh.

Interviewed by Emily

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