Ashley C. Ford is a New York Times-best selling author, podcaster, and educator. Her debut memoir, “Somebody’s Daughter,” chronicles her life growing up as a young Black girl in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Ashley’s book was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for publication under her imprint, “An Oprah Book.” In addition to being on a first-name basis with the former queen of daytime talk TV, Ashley has written national magazine features about other celebrities, politicians, and athletes, including actress Anne Hathaway, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Serena Williams.
In this episode, Ashley talks about the challenges in her childhood, and why writing about them made her feel less alone and better equipped to process the emotional impact of those memories.
Ashley also shares about her undergraduate experience at Ball State and how the positive opportunities she experienced at our University have made her want to give back to her community today.
You can learn more about Ashley at https://www.ashleycford.net. You can follow Ashley on Twitter at @iSmashFizzle and President Mearns at @PresidentMearns. If you enjoy this episode, please leave a review to support the show.
Today I’m back with another episode of Our Call to Beneficence and my guest today is Ashley Ford.
Ashley is a graduate of our University who, earlier this Summer, released her New York Times bestselling memoir, “Somebody’s Daughter.” This debut memoir takes readers on an emotional journey of her life growing up as a young Black girl in Fort Wayne, Ind., with a single mother and an incarcerated father.
Ashley spent 10 years working on her book. In that time, she left our University and embarked on her writing career in Brooklyn, New York. She has written profiles for major national magazines and web publications, and she’s hosted podcasts, which makes me a little nervous here, and a popular video interview series called PROFILE for Buzzfeed News.
Ashley and her husband, Kelly, recently moved back to Indiana—welcome home—and they now reside with their dog, Astro, in a new home in Indianapolis.
Now we are very fortunate this Fall that Ashley accepted my invitation to return to campus as our University’s 2021 Writer-in-Residence. Later today, after we record this interview, Ashley will read excerpts from her book in Pruis Hall. Then, she will return on October 7 for a public conversation with me in Sursa Hall. And then, on November 11, Ashley will join our campus community for a book club conversation about her memoir, “Somebody’s Daughter.”
Today, I’m going to talk to Ashley about her experiences as a Ball State student and some of the highlights of her writing career. I had an opportunity to read “Somebody’s Daughter” and I’m also going to ask her about what it was like to write her memoir and the reactions she’s received to her insightful and emotional portrayal of her family and her childhood.
So, Ashley, welcome back. Thank you for joining me in the studio today.
[ASHLEY FORD] 2:16
Thank you so much for having me President Mearns.
[GEOFF MEARNS] 2:20
It’s a pleasure to be with you. So, this summer, as I said, you published a memoir, as a young woman, you published a memoir called “Somebody’s Daughter.” And in this book, you share some very personal details about growing up in Fort Wayne. What prompted you, why did you decide to share that personal story with a public audience?
[ASHLEY FORD] 2:40
You know, I grew up thinking that a lot of things I went through and wrote about in this book were extremely individual experiences. I thought they were really rare. I felt alone; I felt like I couldn’t find representations of my childhood or my reality in the world around me. And I didn’t know, because kids typically don’t know, that people are just not saying those things, or they are just hiding those things about themselves. And I was never actually alone. And I think I started to suspect that was true when I was here. And I was writing in the English department, and I was writing in the nonfiction area, and I was hearing the other things people were writing about their lives and realizing how emotionally connected our experiences were, even if they weren’t exactly the same.
And then I had this amazing professor, Jill Christman, who read something I had written, that had taken me a really long time and was really hard for me to write, that I was very quietly proud of. And at the end of this essay, she wrote that it could become a book, and that she wanted me to think about that. And she planted that seed and I couldn’t put it out. I couldn’t kill that plant. It just kept growing, so I decided to respond.
[GEOFF MEARNS] 4:20
In the book, you share many challenges. And as you say, they aren’t unique, but they were personal challenges and some profound and sad disappointments. As I was reading the book, there were times when I had to put it down to process, but I continued reading because also you described many loving relationships. You experienced real joy in the midst of those challenges. Explain that paradox …you do it in your book so well, but explain that paradox
[ASHLEY FORD] 4:55
I don’t actually think it is a paradox. I think it’s a more honest version of reality. I think very rarely are we in situations where everything is bad. We are in a lot of situations where something is bad, something is going on, something’s not right—whether it is happening directly or happening in the world around us in a way that affects us. Something’s happening, and that’s okay. There’s also the fact there is room for joy and excitement and love in between the spaces where the bad is happening, and sometimes overwhelming those spaces where the bad is happening. And those things existing in the same place does not negate either experience because we are human beings, and we are the holders of complex emotions, which means we often feel things that are exciting and sad at the same time. I think any parent who has dropped their kid off at school knows that feeling. They know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by the excitement and potential for the life of your child, watching them step into this educational space to learn and become an adult who is learned and educated. It’s wonderful and yet your baby is walking away from you, into a world you can’t control. That’s a complex emotion. And I don’t think we write enough or talk enough about the fact those complex emotions exist for everyone in almost every space. So yes, I grew up in a home with a mother whose rage could fill the room and silence everyone in it. I grew up with that woman. But I also grew up with a mother who could walk into a room and smile and turn on a song and everybody would dance because her joy was that infectious. And that was the truth of my home. So, if I was going to write a book about my life and I wanted it to be true, it needed to have both elements.
[GEOFF MEARNS] 7:15
So, in one of the interviews I saw, you shared that you underestimated your own emotional reaction when you were writing the book and after the book was published and when people responded to it. Tell us what you mean by that … you underestimated your emotional reaction?
[ASHLEY FORD] 7:39
I’d spent so long, I think, trying to keep my emotions really small and controllable, that it never really occurred to me that things will happen outside of my control where I will not be able to contain my emotional reaction to that. And I was truly confronted with that while writing the book and realizing there were things I wanted to write, stories that were so vivid and clear in my head, and when I went to type them out on the screen, my hands didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do it. Suddenly it would become much more important that I wash my hair, or it would become much more important that I took my dog for a walk, or that I created a meal from scratch that would make me feel good before I started writing. There were all these things I had to do before I started, even though I knew, I knew in my brain, that the beginning was the most important part—it was what I needed to do. But I would just sit there and convince myself that that wasn’t true, clearly something is wrong, because I can’t do it. And it wasn’t until I started consistently going to therapy again, and paying really good attention to my body and my mind, that I realized, oh, the reason you can’t write this out is because you’re not done thinking this out. You’re not doing feeling this out. As a matter of fact, maybe you spent a really long time thinking this out, but you spent almost no time feeling the emotions attached to this experience. And now they’re here. You keep thinking about it, and they’ve shown up. They’re here. So, what are you going to do about that? And I had to go on a little bit of a journey, figuring out that (a) my emotions were real, they weren’t tangible, but they were real, and also that my emotions weren’t bad. That it was never my job to control my emotions; it was my job to control my reactions to my emotions. And once I figured that out, I was able to make space for myself to feel these things, to remember these things, and feel it in my body, in my mind. Feel it everywhere. And just let it process. Let it find a way out. And once it found a way out, I didn’t judge it. I just knew that it had been there. I knew it had taught me something about what I believed. It had taught me something about the way I see myself and the way I see the world, and I could just be grateful to that moment for the gift of that knowledge that I was able to take on with me.
[GEOFF MEARNS] 10:24
So, the writing process made you much more conscious and aware of the emotions that had been living within you for so long.
[ASHLEY FORD] 10:31
Yes, that’s probably a much more concise and awesome way to say it. [laughter]
[GEOFF MEARNS] 10:38
So, Oprah Winfrey [Ashley interjects – “Yes”], who I’ve heard of [Ashley laughs] … I think some of our audience has probably heard of her, too. She’s a champion for your book. Your book was one of the first titles that she released under her new imprint. She described your book as, this was her word, as “authentic.” What does it mean to you, a young woman form Fort Wayne, Indiana, Ball State graduate, that Oprah Winfrey is impressed with you—with your talent, with your character, with your message. What does that mean?
[ASHLEY FORD] 11:16
This is the best place probably to talk about it because you gotta understand that Oprah’s show, when Orpah’s show ended at 25 years, I was 25. And I was here. She had been on TV my entire life. I used to think that if you didn’t want to have the same jobs as your parents, the only other jobs that were available to you, as a Black woman, were Angela Bassett and Oprah Winfrey. I thought, that’s what you can be. And I thought that for a really, really long time. And you know, when I was 25 and I was here, and I was at one of the toughest points in my life, I was almost in a situation where I was very nearly homeless, and um, Mitch and Becky Issacs stepped up and, um, decided to become my family and gave me a place to be, a place to stay, and I moved into their house the same day that Oprah launched the OWN network.
And I had my own space, and I sat on this couch, and I turned on the TV and I just watched OWN all day when I was 25 years old. I just watched it, watched it, watched it. I was so in love with the message of it. I was so in love with the intention of it. So, you’re going from that, to 10 years later, not even, being able to say that Oprah liked my book, from the proposal stage. She picked it. She picks every book that’s on her imprint. They send her a proposal, the publisher sends her a proposal, and says, “Are you interested in this?” and most of them, she says “Absolutely not.” But she said yes to mine. And I’m never going to get over the fact that that, to me, was an impossibility, and now it’s a reality. I’m never going to get over that. Because being able to speak with that woman, being in that woman’s brain, in any capacity, because she knows my story and enjoys it, is such a privilege. And it is such, such an honor. I feel honored that she likes what I do. And I feel really, really proud of myself for not disappointing Oprah when my book came out and she had to have her name on it, no matter what. [laughter
[GEOFF MEARNS] 13: 50
Yeah, pretty good feeling all around.
[GEOFF MEARNS] 13:53
So, I want to share something with you. You talked about a time when you thought that was impossible. And then, now, today, it’s a reality. And I want to share with you, and with the folks who are listening, some of the words that I shared at the annual Fall Convocation with our faculty and staff that derive from a passage from your book.
And here’s in essence what I said: I described to them there was a scene about midway through your book that resonated with me. It reminded me, as I shared with them, that every year we welcome to our university hundreds of prospective students just like you, Ashley Ford, students for whom our campus isn’t just the buildings, isn’t just the brick-and-mortar institution that we work in and walk by every day. What I shared is that for many of these students, our campus is more like a distant dream—a dream that just might come true. And you wrote, and the words I shared were prompted by a passage in your book, where you wrote what it was like as a high school student to sneak out without your mother’s permission and to join some of your classmates for a trip to our university. And these were the words, you described how when you arrived on campus, quote, “You arrived just as the sun was setting on the bell tower.” And you wrote that the whole scene was, quote, “It felt enchanted, like the opening scene of a teen rom-com.”
You then said, “Our stay wasn’t more than a few hours, but the whole place was like out of a storybook: quaint and magnificent.” Those were your words. Quaint and magnificent. And what I shared with my colleagues when I shared that passage, what I wanted them to understand, is how I felt and how they should feel … that, how fortunate we are, every day, every day we get to come to this beautiful place. Come to a campus, it’s a university, of course, it’s a building, but it’s an institution, it’s a community that, to folks like you, to students like you, to so many of our aspiring students, what I shared was, our campus, our university, it’s a beacon. It’s a beacon drawing them to a bright future. This is what I shared, inspired by your words, “It’s a place that tugs on their heartstrings, whispering to them, that this is where they were meant to be.” So, to many other college students, or high school students, college is a distant dream. So what would you say to them, probably not many of them are going to be listening, but let’s assume we had a chance to speak to them, what would you say to one of those college students like Ashley Ford, to whom going to college, and particularly going to Ball State, seems like an unattainable dream. What would you say to encourage them and inspire them to pursue it?
[ASHLEY FORD] 17:07
The first thing I would say is that, um, it’s not your job to say no to yourself before someone else says no to you. I think a lot of times, I was definitely guilty of this, of wanting to count myself out before I even asked the question of whether or not I could be in a place like this, whether or not I could be welcome, accepted, all of those things. I wanted to say no to me, so that I didn’t have to deal with the disappointment of rejection. But the thing is, is that the pain of disappointment, and that kind of rejection, and the pain of self-rejection are the same. If you reject yourself before you try, you’re not saving yourself from anything. You are only disallowing yourself to find out what could be. You are shutting down your curiosity, which is the worst thing you can do.
And the second thing I would say is to remain curious. Remain curious about your major, your professors, about what you can get and what you can give. One of the things that I loved about being here was that if you paid attention it almost felt like Easter eggs of really cool things you could do around here: service trips you could go on, studying abroad, being part of organizations that you didn’t even know could be an organization but you’re so interested in that thing and oh my god these people are interested in it, too, and now you’re all together, doing something together, making something together, even if it’s just connections, even if it’s just relationships. If you can stay curious about yourself, about your experience, about this place, and about the people you might meet here, you are going to walk away with exactly what you want, because you let yourself pull you toward what you wanted. You didn’t shut yourself out, you didn’t abandon yourself, you stayed open. And that will help. That will absolutely help you end up in all the places you hoped you would. Everybody comes to college trying to figure out not just what they want to do, but who they want to be in the world. And you can find that out if you keep your eyes open, you keep your ears open, and you keep the mission of learning and hearing in your heart.
[GEOFF MEARNS] 19:36
So, two things … that, what you just said, resonated with me, that last part. When my children went to college there were times when they felt uncertain would they fit in and I reminded them, don’t assume that all of those other students who seem happy are as happy as they may appear on the surface. Everyone, as you say, going through that experience, is finding out who they are, where they fit in, where they feel comfortable. Also, your point about exploring other opportunities, when Jennifer is on campus and she loves, we love, meeting with students. She’s always talking to them, and they say, what should I do and the first thing she says is explore—go to the art museum, go to a concert, talk to a professor that you’ve never spoken to, go to the orchid greenhouse, right? There’s so many things on this campus, and so many of us, I know I did when I was in college, I was pretty much tunnel vision. It was my classes, and my sports, and a little bit of my social life. And I squandered that time, or I didn’t take full advantage of that time.
So, I want to talk a little bit more about your experience. And I know, you had alluded to it a moment ago, there was a time when you struggled on campus. Two questions, one is, if you want to, tell us a little bit more about that experience. But also, I’d like to learn from you: what more can we do as an institution, as facult and staff, to support students. “Because one of the concerns I have is, those challenges that are student are facing—financial, emotional, mental health challenges—those are becoming more acute, on our campus and in our country. So, we need to step up and do more. So any advice that you can give us would be great.
[ASHLEY FORD] 21:27
You know, when I was here, um, my troubles were certainly financial in nature, but they were, yes, also mental and emotional. I took, really, I mean I took advantage of the counseling center. I went there whenever I had something going on that felt insurmountable to me, or if I didn’t feel particularly emotionally safe with myself, I would just go there, and I would fill out the little intake form, and someone would be there in 15 minutes. If I had to wait in the lobby longer than 15 minutes, that was outside of my experience. So that really, really helped me while I was here to become comfortable, even with the idea of talking to people about what was going on inside of me.
[GEOFF MEARNS] 22:21
And I assume you’d be encouraging students who are facing some of those same challenges to go to a resource, don’t hide it, you know, share those concerns.
[ASHLEY FORD] 22:30
Absolutely. That self-isolating behavior that we learn, that, um, I think a lot of people, especially the people who need it most, learn that they are an inconvenience. Not that something they’ve done is an inconvenience, or something that they’ve said is an inconvenience … a lot of people come here, you know, with not the best backgrounds, and they feel as if their life, their very presence, is an inconvenience; it’s a burden. And asking for help is something, it’s a skill that they have to learn. And we think of that, as something that, you know, people either do or don’t do, they make a choice. I’m here to tell you, it’s not a choice. Sometimes you have never learned to ask for help, you’ve never even seen it modeled. You’ve never watched your parents ask anybody for help or say, “You know what, I’m having a really tough day, and I think I need to go do this, could you do this for me?” So many of us, we don’t know what that looks like. We never saw our parents do that. But it’s necessary in a place like this, because you’re not going to know everything. And you’re not going to know how to do absolutely everything, and for some of us that’s going to be crushing. And when you feel crushed, you need people to help lift you up. And there are people here who have designed their lives around offering that to you. So please take advantage, because it’s already there for you.
One of the other things that, um, helped me out when I was here was there was an emergency cash relief fund. And there was a particular month when I was struggling … I was, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get my rent together. I didn’t know how that was going to work out for me. I didn’t have anybody I could call. I didn’t have anybody I could ask. I felt like such a failure, I’m like, “I’m this 21 year old person, I’ve got two jobs and how is it possible that I’d somehow didn’t have enough to do this this month.” And somebody said, you know, they have help for students who are in your position. You have to go to the Student Center and you have to talk with someone … because at the time, I don’t know if it’s still in the Student Center, but it was….um, but it’s fine, you’ll be okay. And I had the most compassionate, least judgmental conversation I had ever had at that point while asking for any sort of assistance or help from that person who helped me get that financial assistance to pay my rent and my gas bill. And I think, sometimes, we think, when we want to help people, it’s like, well, money’s different. You don’t want to give people money, because you don’t know what they’ll do with money. People who need money, students who need money, sometimes just need money. That’s what they need, just to get to the next thing, just to have the next opportunity. And I think we have to get out of our judgment brain on that sometimes, where we tend to think that people don’t have it, don’t have it because they didn’t want it or because they didn’t work hard enough for it. We know that’s not true. Statistically we know that’s not the case. There are gaps in what people need and what people have, and if we can help them fill those gaps, it’s not our job to judge them, it’s our job to judge ourselves and ask ourselves, “What does it mean if I can help and I won’t because I don’t think it’s the right way?”
[GEOFF MEARNS] 26:10
Well, I’ve been so gratified, and I think you’ll be pleased to hear this, as we continue to approach our very generous alumni and benefactors, we’ve shared with them that the needs of our students today are a little different than they were years ago. Typically, scholarships have been, let’s use those to attract a student to Ball State. And we still use scholarships that way. But private philanthropy is even increasingly important now to help with short-term financial needs, and our donors and benefactors, our graduates, have responded so generously [Ashley interjects – “I love that”], to help us build up those resources. And it’s relatively small amounts of money that get, as you say, get the student to the next semester, and then to the next semester, and ultimately to graduation—which you did. Little bit of a delay, but it was my privilege to invite you back to campus in December 2018, when that semester, that fall semester, you completed your last credits, earned your degree, and I asked you to speak as the commencement speaker. So, what was it like, given the somewhat unusual and protracted journey to get to that stage, what was it like to then be able to be the commencement speaker? Not just to get your degree, but to speak at commencement?
[ASHLEY FORD] 27:36
Well, I was having a phone conversation with Mitch Issacs this morning, because I was having some nerves about today. Not because I expected anything to go wrong or bad, um, but ultimately because part of me just kept thinking, um, “Clearly, they’re not just doing all this for me.” Like, who am I? Why would they care? Like, me? I’m no one. And I realize that that was a familiar story that I tell myself when, um, I’m in an emotional place where I’m unable to really deal with how proud of myself I am. And I realize that I’d done the same thing to myself around the commencement speech. Like, “Why would he ask me to do this? Doesn’t he know I’m nobody? Nobody’s going to care. They’re going to hate it.” And that wasn’t the case. It ended up being a beautiful, a beautiful honoring situation. I had the most amazing time, and I walked off that stage feeling so good about myself, and even better about myself when I got to get back in line and walk across and get my degree.
I don’t know if you know this, but my dad was there that day.
I didn’t know that.
[ASHLEY FORD] 28:59
He came and he found a place to sit. And he sat. And he was, you know, he didn’t really want to try to find me or bother me afterward…but he texted me and told me how wonderful it was, and how amazing it had been to see me up there. And he never would have gotten to see me up there if I had graduated “quote on quote” on time. He wouldn’t have been here to see it. So that moment was a gift from so many different perspectives. That even now, it’s kind of overwhelming me to talk about it. I just … I’ll never ever, ever forget it. I struggle to feel proud of myself, but I feel really proud of that day.
[GEOFF MEARNS] 29:52
Right. And I’m sure your parents are proud, too. One of the things I’ve learned is, from my wonderful parents was, of course, it’s always important to tell your children at every opportunity how much you love them, but also to tell them that you’re proud of them. Whatever choice they make, whatever path they’re on, you’re proud of them. that reinforcement that encouragement is important.
[GEOFF MEARNS] 30:14
SO I want to ask you one last question.
It’s a question that I ask everyone who participates in the podcast. You know, I came to Ball State because I was attracted by the mission, it really resonated with me. Our mission, as you know, is to empower our students to have fulfilling careers and to lead meaningful lives. And the symbol of our mission, the symbol of the values that inform our mission, of course, is the iconic statue of Beneficence. I’m sure you’ve seen her many, many times.
That’s my girl.
Yeah. And it means, as you know, the quality of doing good. Doing good for others through service and philanthropy. So, let me ask you, what does Beneficence, what does doing good for others, look like to you, as you continue to pursue your own fulfilling career and as you continue to explore, and each day, discover what it means to have a meaningful live?
[ASHLEY FORD] 31:22
When I was here, I was part of an organization called Student Voluntary Services. I actually ended up eventually being the president of Student Voluntary Services. And there were so many opportunities to go out into the community and work with kids, and work with the elderly, and work with people who were in need chronically or temporarily, and one of the best things I did here was go on a service trip to West Virginia. To Caretta and War, West Virginia. And we worked with these rural communities in Appalachia who didn’t have siding on their homes, in communities where kids didn’t have birthdays, where we went and threw them a big birthday party for the whole community, like at the year for all the kids.
And I walked away from that place realizing that, as much as I’d been through, in spite of all the challenges that I had, I had so much that I could give other people. And I didn’t know that. I found that out, but I’d never known that before. I remember trying to get cans of food and take them to school for a food drive and my mom taking them out of my backpack and being like, “We need these, are you out of your mind?! [Laughter] “We are the poor! Give me those!”
Um, and, I had it in my head there just wasn’t a whole lot that I was capable of doing, and then I came back from that trip, and I knew that there was. And I stayed involved with SVS and Beneficence was something that we talked about all the time in SVS because we realized that our organization was so tightly wound up in the mission of the school. And that has never left me. The people I met in SVS are the people who are still my friends from college, many of them. And we all know, in our hearts, and in our minds, that what we have to give in our communities is ourselves: our skills, our education and we understand how important it is to actually do it. A lot of people want to do good … people think about doing good, but not a lot of people show up. And we need more and more people who actually show up. So, as I move forward in my life, and currently the thing I hope to integrate most in my life, and, to be perfectly honest, a big part of the reason I moved back here, is because I have so much to give at this point in my life, and I know exactly where I want to give it. And that’s here.
[GEOFF MEARNS] 34:12
Well, thank you, and you know, one of our values that are represented by Beneficence is gratitude, which you touched on a moment ago. We define gratitude as expressing appreciation. But it also requires us to demonstrate our appreciation, through our actions and service to other people.
Thank you very much for joining me today. This was a wonderful conversation. I’m sure our friends will enjoy it. And thank you for all that you do…you’re a source of good advice, you’re a role model for us, and an inspiration for all of us here at Ball State University.
Thank you so much for having me, President Mearns.