Gail Ford Lives a Life Steeped in Resilience.

By Shelby Deering | Photographed By Hillary Schave

An obstacle. A roadblock. Then another one. And another one. There are times in our lives when it seems as if all we face are barriers and hurdles. It can be exhausting, especially if our eyes are on a goal. That’s where resilience comes in, a subject that Gail Ford knows all too well.

As the assistant director of UW-Madison’s Pre-college Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence, or PEOPLE, and the October speaker in BRAVA’s THRIVE Luncheon series, Ford has a knack for defying the odds. “We all have a story,” she says.

Born in Detroit, Ford was raised by three sets of caregivers—her biological parents, the foster care system and her grandmother. “My parents were victims of the crack epidemic hitting the inner cities in the ’80s,” she says. She had 11 siblings, her “besties” as she calls them. “My childhood was very unstable, but no matter where I laid my head at night, I also tried to find the silver lining.”

Ford says one silver lining was her grandmother, who raised her with tough love and high expectations.

“She would always ask me, ‘What’s your name?’ when I would find myself having a pity party and giving up. I didn’t understand what she meant by that until I was an adult. She was reminding me that I am my own person, not my mom, dad, friends or circumstances. I choose what I want my life to be and I have my own identity.”

Ford found her bootstraps and paved her own path to college, ultimately earning a master’s degree. Today she spends her days paving paths for other college hopefuls through her work at PEOPLE, a scholarship program that prepares first-generation and low-income students for college. It’s currently 1,000 strong, and Ford recently led its first-ever evaluation and restructuring, assessing strengths and challenges.

“I am a college graduate because of the exposure I had through a pre-college program. I know the power of what programs like PEOPLE do to disrupt generational poverty with education.”

She’s also impacting lives through her husband Michael’s passion project, Hip Hop Architecture Camps. She spent her summer volunteering at the camps.

Ford says, “My husband, also known as ‘The Hip Hop Architect,’ started doing these camps to expose girls and youth of color to the field of architecture. Less than 3 percent of architects are people of color, and women make up less than 1 percent of the profession.”

Her husband’s nonprofit, The Urban Arts Collective, and his partners at Autodesk, a software company, hosted camps across the country in Detroit, Austin, Texas, Boston and Los Angeles, which was filmed by the TODAY show. Ford and her husband are grateful to spend time with the children. Their only son was stillborn at full-term, two days after her due date.

“We both find comfort in working with kids. We pour ourselves into providing opportunities for the youth in our communities, just as we would have sought these same opportunities for our own son.”

In addition to her work as an agent of change, Ford gives motivational speeches to a variety of audiences. Her THRIVE Luncheon topic this month focuses on developing resilience in our lives. Her own life is a moving example.

“Resilience isn’t something you learn in a book,” she says. “You can read about it and admire it from afar, but to really practice resilience, you have to take risks and do lots of self-reflection. When faced with a challenge, you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘Why is this showing up in my life? What am I supposed to learn from this challenge? What opportunity lies within this chaos?’ When I started to shift my mindset to this type of thinking, I began to really tap into the power of resilience.”

Her colleague Patrick Sims, chief diversity officer and vice provost of UW-  Madison’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement, says Ford’s experiences and achievements are a testament to her ability to crest challenges.

Sims says, “Gail’s story is a story marked by acts of courageous resilience. Despite long odds and tough obstacles, she never gave up her dream of graduating from college. That experience fires Gail’s passion.”

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