We’re living in an era when optimism, inspiration and hope are as rare – and as luminescent – as multi-carat emeralds. The “sledgehammer effect” wrought by a historic number of overlapping crises –from the pandemic to recession, partisan toxicity to climate change – has helped spawn a mental health epidemic marked by surging incidence of depression, suicide and addiction.
In a show designed to provide an antidote to that omnipresent anxiety and to celebrate the indomitable human spirit, Common Ground with Jane Whitney profiles those who have overcome adversity and trauma through grit, resilience and determination.
June 11, 2016 was the “last normal day” of Brandon Wolf’s life.
In the early hours of June 12, Wolf hid in the bathroom at the gay nightclub, Pulse, in Orlando, FL as a gunman killed 49 people, including his two best friends, Juan and Drew. Days after the attack, Wolf carried Drew’s casket at his funeral, stopping at the front end of the church to make his friend a parting promise:
“I will never stop fighting for a world that you would be proud of,” he said.
Now the National Press Secretary for the LGBTQ rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, Wolf has spent the last six years fulfilling that promise.
A Starbucks barista at the time of the shooting, Wolf channeled his grief by volunteering on a Florida Senate campaign and working with gun prevention groups like the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety. In March of 2019, he became media relations manager at Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, and in September of that year became the first survivor of the shooting to testify in Congress.
“Rather than use every tool in our toolbox to combat hatred, we have chosen to subsidize it, embolden it, and hand it an assault weapon,” he said before the House Ways and Means Committee. “Inaction in the face of hatred makes you complicit.”
While at Equality Florida, Wolf built political campaigns against LGBTQ hate. In national media appearances and op-eds, he lambasted the use of homophobia as a political tool among the far right to score political points and specifically named Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as a perpetrator of peddling such rhetoric.
Throughout his activism, Wolf has not shied away from describing the emotional toll of the shooting. He has instead articulated his pain as a tool to get people to listen and honor victims of gun violence. In a 2022 Guardian op-ed, he wrote, “When you’ve been touched by hate violence, you become part of this unfortunate club. There’s a look in someone’s eyes when they’ve seen the same things I’ve seen. There’s a dim to their shine.”
After rising to Press Secretary at Equality Florida, Wolf joined the Human Rights Campaign in September of 2023, where he is crafting national strategic messaging. His 2023 memoir, A Place for Us, details the trauma he has battled since the shooting and recounts other struggles to belong, such as being one of the only Black children in his hometown in Oregon.
Wolf has been named one of Out Magazine’s 100 most influential people and won the Live United Impact Award for Advocacy.
Arthur C. Brooks
Reinventing himself with clockwork regularity, Arthur C. Brooks proves that cats aren’t the only ones who can live nine lives. He has been a professional French horn player, a conservative think tank leader, a professor, author, columnist, and, now, a self-help guru and happiness expert.
“About every 10 years, I strip my life back to the bolts,” he told Harvard Magazine in 2023 on his propensity for self-renewal.
His books, which routinely become best-sellers, and columns in The Atlantic and The New York Times, have made him one of the country’s most sought-after advice-givers, with legions of fans turning to him on how to improve their lives and heeding his directive to look inward to become a happier, less lonely, and more successful version of themself.
Like his columns, which are based on his study of neurology, philosophy and social science, Brooks’ most recent book, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, provides readers with concrete instructions and imperatives on how to lead a more fulfilling life. In the book, a joint venture with Oprah Winfrey, he outlines the “four pillars'' of happiness: family, faith, friends, and work, which, he says, will change your life for the better.
Before his current iteration as a self-help czar, from 2008-2019 Brooks ran one of the country’s most influential conservative think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The role established his prominence in Washington D.C. circles and led The Washington Post in 2015 to anoint him “arguably the most important conservative voice of his time.” Under Brooks’ helm, the AEI was a prolific generator of conservative policy research, advocating for free-market orthodoxy and against medicaid expansion and other government spending.
After leaving the AEI and shedding his political persona, Brooks became a professor at Harvard, where he currently holds dual appointments at the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School and teaches an exceedingly popular course on happiness. He also heads The Leadership and Happiness Laboratory, which seeks to apply science to the study of the pursuit of happiness. Brooks uses his own professional transformation as proof of his concept — that constant reinvention is possible and that happiness is within reach if, as he says in Build the Life You Want, you only“remember: You are your own CEO.”
Last year, Child Protective Services raided Amber and Adam Briggle’s home in Denton, Texas, to investigate what state officials claimed was the ongoing abuse of their 15-year-old son, a soft-spoken honors student, gifted musician and star athlete who is one of an estimated 29,800 transgender children in Texas.
The probe, one in a series by the state agency against parents of transgender kids, came in the wake of mounting waves of anti-trans legislation in Texas and across the country, including efforts to criminally prosecute parents who are suspected of providing their children with gender affirming health care.
The Briggle family appears to have been targeted in part because Amber, the owner of a massage studio, and her husband, Adam, a University of North Texas philosophy professor, have been outspoken transgender activists, fighting anti-trans legislation since their son came out as a young child.
“Do you think NASA can fix me and make me a boy,” Amber recalls him saying in first grade.
Amber, along with the ACLU and Lambda Legal, sued Texas last June, challenging the state’s attempt to ban essential healthcare for transgender youth. She also is the founding member and former national co-chair of the Human Rights Campaign’s “Parents for Transgender Equality Council” and has testified repeatedly before the legislature while responding to vitriolic personal attacks by sharing the family’s story on social media.
Speaking through tears while receiving an award for her activism in 2022, Amber called attention to the importance of families like hers remaining visible: “It’s hard to hate up close,” she insisted.
“I think the reality is that nothing is going to change until more people pay attention,” Amber told The Washington Post earlier this year. “Trans kids are a small minority, and supportive parents of trans kids are an even smaller minority. If they can come after me — a White, cisgender, upper middle class, college-educated business owner in a straight-presenting relationship, and threaten my parental rights? Next they’ll come for you, and you, and you.”
Few apples fall as far from the tree as reproductive rights activist Ellen Gaddy did from her grandfather, the ultra-conservative five-term North Carolina Senator, Jesse Helms.
Nicknamed “Senator No” for his knee-jerk rejection of government spending and programs, Helms was also infamous for espousing bigotry – calling LGBTQ+ people “morally sick,” describing himself as a misogynist, and advocating for racial segregation. Helms’ views were so regressive that in a 2001 PBS Newshour interview, political scientist Earl Black called him “the last unreconstructed southern conservative.”
As a child, Gaddy regularly appeared with her grandfather onstage and at campaign events. But after college and living on the West Coast split her from her family’s conservative orthodoxy, her defining mission has been to right the wrongs of his political career.
Specifically, she has focused on expanding reproductive freedoms and repealing the Helms Amendment, which bars foreign aid from being used for abortions, even in the cases of rape, incest, or for the life of the mother. Since its adoption in 1973 as Helms’ response to Roe vs. Wade, tens of thousands of women internationally are estimated to have died from unsafe abortions, and an estimated 35 million a year risk their lives to get the procedure.
Gaddy has worked for the last ten years to counteract the Helms Amendment by fundraising for and lobbying alongside IPAS, a group that seeks to increase access to safe abortions and contraception around the world. She has also partnered with Planned Parenthood and campaigned for the Amendment’s repeal in news programs and op-eds.
In addition to denouncing her grandfather’s prejudices and politics, Gaddy has served as an empathetic voice for all people who struggle with complicated family dynamics. “We are all carrying legacies,” she told ABC13 news in 2023. “Every single family’s got something they need to heal.”
Her healing has come in the form of practicing “liberation psychology,” an activist-oriented approach to psychology Gaddy advocates for that sees personal healing and collective healing as intertwined. In her case, restoring access to abortion at home and abroad is the same path that will free her from the pain of her grandfather’s legacy.
“You can’t truly heal yourself unless you’re also in a process of healing society,” she said in a 2023 interview with her alma mater, Saybrook University.