Lifeway Kefir CEO on Surviving Trauma Changing the Culture Around Abuse

Each month, RAINN highlights a member of its National Leadership Council. The NLC is a group of dedicated individuals who have shown their commitment to RAINN’s mission of supporting survivors and ending sexual violence.

Julie Smolyansky is the president and CEO of Lifeway Foods, focused on strengthening gut health with natural, organic, and GMO-free ingredients. She is a mom, co-founder of Test400k, author of The Kefir Cookbook, Chicagoan, traveler, and athlete on a mission to inspire and empower. Julie can be found on social media @juliesmolyansky and her company handle is @lifewaykefir.

What inspired you to become part of RAINN’s National Leadership Council?

I vividly remember the first time I called RAINN after reading an article and seeing the toll-free number in a teen magazine when I was 14. I was terrified but I was able to string together and whisper a few words. I am so grateful. A hotline is a step; one of many that survivors can take over the course of their lives to restore wholeness. One of many resources that are available.

Over the last 30 plus years, I have worked on all different pillars of eradicating the global epidemic of sexual assault, rape, and abuse. I helped develop the first teen dating violence curriculum in Chicago over 30 years ago. I became a certified rape crisis advocate and supported survivors at the hospital when their rape kits were being collected and during their police testimonies. I counseled children who were traumatized and in protective services. I staffed a number of crisis hotlines over my life, produced a number of documentary films on the issue, and helped lead the effort for rape kit reform laws across the country. I traveled around the world to advocate and give voice to survivors of rape as a weapon of war and I personally experienced significant and extreme trauma and violence.

I know something about trauma and living with it, “healing” from it, and now more than ever I feel the urgency to share that message with others. The pandemic and lockdown impacted everyone. No matter who you are, where you live, the pandemic touched every single person on earth. But for survivors, it was especially challenging.

For some, home is not a safe place. As the world took a pause, the economy tumbled and we went through unprecedented uncertainty, victims were forced to shelter in place with abusers. As lockdown orders took shape around the world, a surge in abuse also unfolded and calls to sexual assault and domestic violence hotlines skyrocketed. Many first-time callers were under the age of 18. Access to teachers, mentors, coaches, and friends, often the first points of disclosure and the first to see red flags in victims were cut off. And some survivors have been living with trauma for years and decades; even if you are a pro at navigating the landmines of trauma, the pandemic may have brought up old wounds. Feeling unsafe, the uncertainty we all felt, wearing a mask and having your face covered, your breathing restricted, being isolated all may have triggered anxiety and panic attacks — I know it did for me.

As we survey the impact of the last two years, the trauma from what some witnessed and experienced in their homes will have a long-term impact, which is why TODAY I am compelled now more than ever, to make sure survivors know they are not alone, that they are worthy and loved and that there are people and resources available to them right now to help them restore wholeness and recover from their trauma. It is possible. And it is possible to continue and to thrive. You are not broken. You are worthy and you can reach your highest ambitions and have all the love in the world. Just look at me.

What do we need to do as a country to prevent sexual violence?

Culture. We must change the culture. We need the media to stop glamorizing violence, especially against women. Media creates consciousness. We need to stop glamorizing toxic masculinity and offer new male role models to children and young adults and teach them about what it means to be an up-stander. When we objectify and dehumanize women and girls, it’s easier to perpetrate violence against their bodies. We need to educate kids about boundaries and consent early on from toddlerhood in age-appropriate ways through adulthood and beyond. We MUST believe survivors when they share their truth. We need to hold perpetrators accountable. We need to hold our schools, institutions, and workplaces accountable when they fail to protect, investigate or respond to violence, abuse and harassment. We need justice and a medical system that dedicates resources to survivors. We need gender parity in every industry, in the boardroom, in the hallways of D.C. and every capital in our country, in newsrooms, in front of the camera, behind the camera, in police departments, courtrooms, and beyond.

Your company has a special dedication to using all-natural, hormone- and GMO-free ingredients, focusing on global philanthropy, environmental responsibility, and local farming sustainability. Why did you pursue this area?

A few reasons. First, I believe the way we treat mother earth is a direct reflection and mirror to how we treat each other, model boundaries, and vulnerability. This movement asks culture and society to consider how far we will go in violating Mother Earth and her daughters, how much can be extracted, raped, and pillaged from the feminine before we, as a society, decide to truly see the pain we’ve inflicted and say enough.

Research shows that the effects of climate change are leading to an increase in violence against girls and women in many corners of the world forcing families off their land and destroying their ability to feed themselves. As a result, there are increases in child marriage, and in places where girls are expected to walk miles for water, they are at increased risk for rape.

There is no doubt that scaling the ability to feed 300 million people in our country and 7 billion people in our world is not without consequence, but we can do so with significantly more compassion and with less harm to our earth.

I am proud that we have been leading this effort in the food industry for decades and, hopefully, inspiring other companies to join us. For example, since 2006, we’ve replaced all our electricity use to manufacture our products with renewable green energy which is the equivalent of planting thousands of acres of trees or removing thousands of cars off the road.

Second, I believe offering and making choices around food with ingredients that nourish your body inside out is a critical part of self-care. Many customers find Lifeway Kefir when they are hit with a medical crisis, usually, some sort of gastro/autoimmune issue and they are looking for relief. I firmly believe that many of our customers are coming to us with conditions that are connected to unhealed trauma. What is very exciting to me is all the new research that shows how kefir can help reduce stress, depression, and anxiety and that the gut and mind are connected through the vagus nerve. The fact that we can manipulate our mental health through food, specifically through our kefir and that anyone can do this, that it’s accessible to you at the grocery store, and that I personally have the great honor of leading this effort and sharing this information with the world gives me great purpose in my life and a reason to stay here. Part of self-love is gut love and giving your gut a diversity of foods that strengthens the microbiome. Our kefir cultures thrive in natural and organic ingredients that are both good for the gut, mind, body, and earth. The more consumers that are demanding natural, organic, GMO-free ingredients, the more likely grocers will stock these items and the more likely even the large multinational food companies will make scalable changes in manufacturing.

How can we all be better supporters and advocates for survivors in our lives?

Believe survivors and children. Let them know it was not their fault. Show up with empathy and compassion. Learn about the challenges of living with trauma. Check-in with the survivors in your life especially when sexual assault is at the top of the news cycle. Be mindful of shocking statistics: An American is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual violence. 94% of victims experience PTSD. 33% contemplate suicide and 13% attempt suicide. I will never grow numb to these statistics. None of us should.

What is your message to survivors?

You are not alone. We see you. I see you. You are sacred, divine, and unbreakable. Embody the knowing that you are loved and you belong here. You deserve to stay. There is a light and it never goes out. It is infinite and eternal and can’t be taken away.

What you thought was broken are the places where divine light shines and courage lives. Happiness will grow again, like wildflowers. And when you get tired again, when trauma revisits your mind and body, at unexpected moments like trauma finds me over and over again, when your heart is racing, when you feel like you are jumping out of your body, or walking through fire, I am with you, I am holding your hand and know you are not alone. You are never alone. Here you can heal. You did not deserve the hurt you experienced. Your pain and anger and all your feelings are valid. You deserve medical care, legal care, mental care, soul care, self-care, and self-love. You deserve an investigation and a justice system that respects you and a community that rises up to meet you with compassion and empathy. You deserve a society that is brave enough to say we have spent our days determined to eradicate rape, abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence. You deserve it all.

It takes guts to exist as a survivor, to keep showing up for yourself, to treat yourself with compassion and empathy. It is the most courageous and brave thing you will ever do. The human spirit is resilient. We can’t always control what happens in the world and to our bodies, but we have choices today, now. Healing from trauma is non-linear or a check-the-box sort of thing; it has no timeline and is a lifelong process, but restoring wholeness is possible. I have done it many times and I know you can too. I’m rooting for you and for me.